Friday, June 8, 2012

Minamisoma Trip,: the Second Day, Part Two

We left Minamisoma around three in the afternoon (Sunday, 27 May) intending to return the truck by 20:00 if at all possible. Rather than retrace our route from the previous day, we set out to take a shorter and hopefully faster way back, entering Tokyo via the Joban Expressway rather than the Tohoku Expressway we'd used coming to Fukushima. This required us to use another set of mountain roads more to the southwest, in order to skirt "no go" areas and avoid being turned back at roadblocks. The idea was to use local roads until we could enter the expressway beyond the exclusion areas that still blocked part of it.

I was concentrating on driving, again leaving the navigation to Andrew, and things were going so smoothly that I cannot remember exactly what sequence of roads we took. The route was somewhat trickier than the previous day's, but it didn't present any real problem. The weather was holding up well, too, and it should have been a very pleasant drive. And it would have been, except for some of the scenery.

 In the morning, we'd traveled through farmland with some scattered pastures, from the northwest and north. We'd seen some signs of abandoned fields and farm buildings, and some earthquake-damaged buildings in and around the town, but nothing that could really be called devastation; that would have been very different had we been closer to the beach, of course. The saddest thing that I had witnessed so far was the conditions under which so many people--especially children--were forced to live in the temporary housing: adequate (just) but cramped and, while new and neat, hardly cheery and comfortable. Now, however, we were going mostly southwest and were passing through an area that had been in the path of wind-born radioactive particles in dust and rain that had blown toward the northwest from the Fukushima reactors. Here the scenery--though in a beautiful natural setting of valleys among forested hills--showed a very tragic sort of devastation if you knew what you were looking at, and how it should have looked.

Even though the area was now outside the exclusion zone--indeed, I believe parts of it had always been, despite "hot spots" that had been discovered here and there--it had incurred sufficient contamination that nobody could grow crops or raise animals in the area. I've lived in both very urban and in pretty rural areas of Japan, so I'm familiar with the way that a fishing village or a farming community usually looks at various times of the year. In particular, having spent many years surrounded by them, I know what rice paddies should look like at the very end of May (if you don't, this may be instructive).  While going through what I believe to have been the southern part of Iitate Village, north of western Namie Town, we were seeing something very different. These fields had been abandoned completely, utterly, kept company only by silent buildings beginning to show the evidence of neglect, and the occasional metal roadside sign, gently rusting, advertising Iitate beef that is very unlikely to be seen in markets anytime soon. We did pass one cattle farm that, judging by the aroma, was still functioning, but whether out of the owner's hope, or sheer stubbornness, or desire to save the animals, or lack of alternatives, I have no idea. Passing all those abandoned fields and pastures, thinking of the lost livelihoods that they represented, was very, very grim.

Eventually, we left the rural roads, and most of the mountains, behind us and came eventually to the expressway. Once again we encountered brief rain in one of the passes, and then it was a straight, uncomplicated run beneath mostly fair skies, and twilight fell a few hours later as we entered Tokyo.

As often happens at the end of a weekend with good weather, the returning traffic slowed dramatically to near-gridlock speeds once we got into town, and by the time we reached Roppongi the limited legroom and frequent braking was beginning to give my knee grief. I was pleased we were in the neighborhood, and only needed to fill the tank and return the truck.

I was less pleased when the first gas station we tried was closed (early closing, I guess, on Sunday evening), and much less pleased when an open one told us we couldn't get gas because the station was too full...of expensive cars that had been left for washing and later pickup, obviously to avoid paying parking fees during their owners' night out. You'd think that people who can afford to buy a Mercedes Benz could afford parking fees. We eventually found an open station that hadn't been turned into an impromptu parking lot, filled up, returned the truck, and went to the Black Lion, where we met with most of the others who'd gone along on the trip, had a few drinks, and finally finally went our various ways home.

It's good to know that we did something useful, and it was good to meet so many people looking out for one another in  whatever ways they can. It was saddening, and it was educational; it was disheartening, and it was encouraging.  I left the weekend behind me wishing I'd been able to do more, and looking forward to the next opportunity.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Minamisoma Trip: the Second Day, Part One

I had been a little dubious about getting up in time to depart by 06:30, especially because it was around 02:30 when I went to sleep. I needn't have worried, though, since I woke up at 04:30 feeling surprisingly refreshed, with plenty of time to take a shower and saunter down to the lobby to meet the rest of the crew. We left on time, cheered by beautiful weather, and headed for the first major waypoint for the day, Soma, to the east.

Andrew continued to navigate, using the GPS "navi" function of his smartphone in combination with his previous experience of the area and its roads. We made a smooth transition from the relatively flat area around downtown Fukushima City into the mountains, and soon I was driving on winding, up-and-down roads though beautiful vistas of wooded slopes and gorges, with here and there a glimpse of fields, mostly rice paddies with the occasional stretch f what looked like pasture. It would have been a great road for motorcycling, and I made a mental note to come back someday on a bike.

The truck handled reasonably well, though I wasn't able to devote as much attention to the scenery as it deserved: the road required much of my concentration. This was the first truck I'd driven with an automatic transmission, and it wasn't long before I was missing the ability easily to use lower gears for engine braking. The legroom was adequate but not generous, and since the brake pedal was three or four centimeters higher than the gas pedal, my right knee got a lot of exercise being drawn up and back to brake. I was driving very conservatively; the traffic both ways was very light, but some of the slopes were fairly steep, and there were enough  curves to keep things interesting. If you want to get an idea of the terrain, try Google Maps and look at Route 115 from Fukushima Station east toward Soma.

When we got closer to the coast and into the outskirts of Soma, we turned south and proceeded to our first rendezvous point of the day, in Minamsoma. Here, shortly before 08:30 and still on schedule, we met with a group of local volunteers, with another truck that had come from Yamagata with Daniel Kahl driving a full load of fresh Yamagata spring water, and with a busload of other volunteers who had come up from Osaka (!).  After introductions all around and a briefing on the days' planned activities, we got back in our various vehicles and followed a local volunteer's car to the first of five temporary housing areas.

After a short drive, we arrived and started the process that we'd repeat at each of the spots on our route. First find a place to park the trucks, not so close as to be in the way but not so far as to make unloading/reloading inefficient. Next, pull a couple of folding tables and some wheelbarrows out of a truck. Then, unload approximately enough of the supplies to fit the distribution plan for this area's residents/households, open crates,   set the stuff out on the tables arranged by item type, ensure someone is at each spot to count and hand out the predetermined amount, and start the distribution.

Most of the residents, with help from the local volunteers, were lining up as the setting up was done. When all was ready, each person came up, they gave the number of people for whom they were receiving food and water, handed in their pre-arranged slip, and walked along the the tables collecting the appropriate, pre-determined  number of oranges, potatoes, carrots, onions, soup mix, small and large bottles of water, etc., with the help of those handing them out and of other volunteers assisting with wheelbarrows, empty boxes, or sacks, and carrying the supplies to the homes of those unable to manage the weight or bulk.

As boxes emptied, they were put into service for carrying by the residents, or broken down and flattened to get them out of the way if not usable. As the stock by the tables depleted, more cases were unloaded from the trucks and opened. Meanwhile, everyone made an effort to engage the residents in conversation as much as possible, especially the children. Once everyone had received their allotment, everything was loaded back onto the trucks and  the little caravan of vehicles drove off to the next area.

This process was repeated four times, for little temporary settlements containing groups of people varied in numbers and demographics: some had more kids and a younger average age, some seemed composed mostly of senior citizens. The total for this run was a little over 800 people in a little over 300 households, and they all  impressed me with their cheerfulness and positive attitude. I didn't see a single glum face, young or old, among any of the residents of the adequate but cramped housing, nor among any of the local or "imported" volunteers.

We all gathered in the early afternoon for a quick lunch prepared by local volunteers, chatted a bit, and then departed for the return journey, a little before three.

Stay tuned for the final installment, covering the return journey and the aftermath, in the next post.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Minamisoma Trip: the First Day

Last weekend, I had an opportunity to do something I had been hoping to do for some time. Some friends of mine, patrons of the Black Lion pub in Meguro, have been doing volunteer work in Tohoku, most recently in Minamisoma, Fukushima, and this time I was able to go along. Previously, I'd contributed some time and money to help fund the project, but I'd been told that they sometimes need truck drivers, and had offered my services to do something more direct. I finally got my chance.

Early Saturday afternoon I met Andrew Coad, the expedition leader, at the Nippon Car Rental facility in Roppongi, where we got a two-ton truck, and then quickly set out to get it loaded and on the road.  The first stop was Metro Cash and Carry in Tatsumi, where we got about half a truck full of vegetables and fruit and several cases of snacks for kids. This part was relatively easy, since most of the stuff was on pallets and the warehouse workers got them quickly into the truck using hand-operated wheeled jacks (think man-powered forklifts).  The very energetic Andrew alternated between filling in gaps with loose cases and checking counts: in order to ensure fair distribution, it's necessary to have a good count, so getting numbers on, for example,  oranges (1680 of 'em) and the average number of carrots or potatoes per case was as important as confirming the number of cases. New to the game, I helped as much as I could, but I wasn't terribly useful in comparison with the warehouse pros and the indefatigable (he had spent the previous day/night moving, and had returned what was probably the same truck just a few hours before!), efficient Andrew.

Then it was off to Second Harvest in Asakusabashi, where we met Philip Duncan, who is in charge of distribution logistics for the Save Minamisoma Project, which in this case meant that he had arranged for the truck and he helped Andrew and me to transfer enough cases of assorted food and beverages from a truck parked nearby to fill up ours. It was a warm day, and he must have been less comfortable picking up and passing heavy boxes in a shirt and tie than we were in casual clothes. He was still smiling, though,  when we finally locked the truck up and set off for Fukushima.

Meanwhile, the rest of our group had left in two private vehicles from  Meguro, to go up separately and rendezvous with the truck at our destination for the day, close to Fukushima Station.

The first leg of the journey was easier than expected. The weather was good for most of the trip, and the roads were less crowded than I'd anticipated. We took the Tohoku Expressway once we'd cleared the Shuto (Tokyo Metropolitan) Expressway and its environs, and made good time for the next 250-odd kilometers, with relatively little traffic all the way, and just a flurry of rain in one of the passes close to our destination. We reached Fukushima Station and the nearby Grand Park Hotel  at just about the planned time, virtually simultaneously with the other two vehicles. Here, in trying to park the truck in a lot designed for rather smaller vehicles, I had an unfortunate altercation with the awning of the lot's payment machine, bending it pretty thoroughly and creasing the top of the truck's cargo compartment.

The rest of the evening was spent in checking in, going out for dinner and a few beers, parceling loose kids' snacks into individual plastic pouches, and, eventually, talking to the local police--one of whom turned out to have relatives in Minamisoma--and to the owner of the parking lot...who also owns the hotel, and who was an astoundingly nice fellow, very decent (almost apologetic) about the damage to his awning, and who even gave us a cash donation for the project! After a nightcap or two, most of us turned in relatively early; the plan called for a 06:30 departure.

Stay tuned for a description of the rest of the trip, in the next post.