A dear old friend

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Asia » Japan » Ibaraki » Mito
April 16th 2011
Published: April 16th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

‘It’s been very quiet with the aftershocks these last two days,’ I say to Neil, ‘maybe they’re dying down’. ‘Either that,’ says Neil, ‘or the pressure’s building up for another one’. That’s the problem – you can’t even relax fully when there aren’t any aftershocks. I remember only too well the article in the Japan Times from Thursday this week, which said that the Meteorological Agency warned that the likelihood of an aftershock of magnitude 7.0 or higher is 10 % within three days of 3 pm Tuesday this week, and also the same percentage within three days of 3 pm Friday this week. 10% seems too high a percentage to feel comfortable. Is the beast quiet now, or merely getting enough strength for the next pounce?

Neil slows down to go over the bump before the bridge over the Nakagawa River. We’re just leaving Mito and are on our way to look at Nakasugaya where we used to live. There’s another bump down from the bridge. It seems that all the bridges have stayed at their original height, whereas all the approaches have dropped and are now patched up with tarmac. We turn off down old 349 towards Nakasugaya. The number of blue tarpaulins covering the roofs increases, and many of the boundary walls to houses have collapsed. Most of the damaged roofs are older style roofs, but here there are also damaged new roofs. There are fresh patches of tarmac at frequent intervals where the road must have been torn apart by the earthquake.

We park on the green opposite our old house. It feels very strange coming back here, like visiting an old dear friend in hospital after an accident. We look at our house but it’s undamaged as is Keiko’s house opposite. You can’t see what the houses are like inside as the shutters are closed. We look at all the other houses which were built for the ITER staff. They are mostly all intact although on one or two of them some roof tiles are damaged. It’s strange considering they were all built at the same time and with the same materials that some are damaged whereas others aren’t. Was it a difference in the ground on which they are sited? It can’t be the orientation as they are facing the same way.

We’re walking round the rice fields nearby. We come to a collection of houses. One of them has a traditional roof and it has collapsed substantially. It must have been so noisy at the time, with the rumbling from the earthquake, the tiles crashing down, cupboards falling over and dishes and glasses smashing on the floor. Several of my friends have told me that about 70% of their china was broken – always the good stuff, they said, never the cheap items. One friend told me that the present I’d given her of a china cup and saucer from Britain had broken.

We come to a small farm. An elderly lady is working in the field. She’s wearing a large straw sunhat – all women whether working in fields or as gardeners in public areas always seem to wear hats. ‘Konnichi wa’ – good day – we say to one another in a singing voice. It’s very hot and humid today by British standards but there’s a strong wind whipping up the earth and dust. The sakura is past its best and petals are blowing in the wind.

We’ve just finished our lunch at Groovy, in Tokai – restaurants and shops often have English names. There’s a video rental chain where we used to hire videos for the children – I’m not sure what it has now – which goes by the memorable name of ‘WonderGOO’. We’re heading eastwards to the coast. The fresh patches of tarmac become much more frequent, particularly where there is any kind of bridge, or around manholes. This used to be a very smooth road, but now everyone is driving slowly, picking out the best route. They must have been incredibly busy since the earthquake, patching and mending all these roads.

Just before the coast we come to a junction and turn left on Route 245. You can see waves and ripples in the road. I remember Ueda-san at the MESA meeting explaining how much difference it made depending on the ground under buildings. In Mito there was less damage as the ground is hard and compacted whereas nearer the coast it’s sandier and therefore there was a lot more subsidence. Tanaka-san had shown me photos of her house in Hitachinaka where the land is less compact. I recall one photo, where they had a ruler showing a drop of 18 cm in their driveway caused by the earthquake. I guess that’s why it took about 8 days before they could restore the water in Tokai and Hitachinaka. If the earthquake caused this much damage to the roads here with the softer sandier ground, it must have been a nightmare with all the broken water pipes.

We draw level with the Akogi Club, a social club owned by JAEA, which Neil had heard was badly damaged and would need to be knocked down and rebuilt. We can’t see the Club but we catch sight of the tennis courts with their artificial surface. There are huge folds and gashes in the surface, and the courts look like some giant serviette, crunched up and torn. We continue up the road, heading northwards and the waves and the ripples become more pronounced, with more and more fresh patches of tarmac.

We reach Hitachi Port. On one side there’s a large area of land with huge piles of jagged planks, windows and debris. We think it must be tsunami debris. The tsunami had reached Hitachi, though it wasn’t anywhere near as high as further north. Shall we turn round, we say.

It’s a very strange feeling. It’s as if there’s a wild torrent of a river. In Kyoto I was just aware of the river in the distance, in Tokyo I dabbled my toes in it, in Mito particularly with Monday’s aftershock and hearing all the stories from my friends, I feel I’ve gone a little deeper into it, getting splashed at times. But further north, they’re in the midst of the wild torrent, many of them with no hope at the moment of escaping and some, I’m sure, wondering if they’re being sucked under. More than 13,000 are dead, and over 15,000 are still missing. Nearly 190,000 people have fled their homes, the vast majority of whom are living in shelters. About 85,000 are from the cleared zone around the nuclear plant; their homes may be intact, but it’s not known when they’ll be able to return to them. About 210,000 people have no running water and following Monday’s aftershock, more than 240,000 people are without electricity. Those are just the figures. But how can you measure things like the lack of privacy for people living in shelters, the constant uncertainty about the future, their jobs, their livelihood, the aftershocks, and most of all, the grief of all those who have lost family and friends?

Keisei, Mito’s glossiest department store, is open. I go inside. The escalators which rise through the centre of the building are totally blocked off. We all have to use the lifts. I go up to the top floor under the restaurants where there is a stationery department. It’s very busy – whether it’s people enjoying going out, or whether the Keisei building seems like a safe bet as it’s very new and would withstand any earthquake. I choose a card for our son for Children’s Day on 5th May. Despite the name, Children’s Day is just for boys, girls have their own day, Hina Matsuri, on 3rd March. You can get special cards and models with samurai figures. Like almost everywhere in Japan there is a central queuing system for paying, just like there is in most shops in Britain. I ask the cashier when Keisei opened after the earthquake. On Thursday, 14th April she tells me. This will be the first Saturday it’s been open after the earthquake.

I go down about two floors to the china department. It seems slightly short of china with all the top shelves empty. In the European china section, two heavy European vases have been placed on their sides – presumably as a precaution against the next earthquake. There’s a section with traditional soft goods and I choose a model with cloth streamers of carp - koinobori – for Children’s Day. Koinobori are carp shaped wind socks which you see on poles, flying in the wind, at this time of year for Children’s Day. As I watch the two assistants wrap up the koinobori, I ask them if much was broken after the earthquake. Not here, one says, but a lot was in the china department. They ask me if I was here for the earthquake. No, I was in England, I answer, but I was here on Monday. ‘Kowakatta desu ka?’ - were you scared - one of them asks. ‘Sukoshi’, a little, I reply with British understatement. We all laugh together and I say, ‘Gambarou’. We laugh even more. Normally Japanese people are quite reserved and there is a definite separation between the assistant and the honoured customer, but I feel that after the earthquake at this time, there’s a feeling of a shared situation, predicament really.

We’re walking out of the restaurant. It’s 9.45 pm and there’s a team of workman working on the road surface of the bus station in front of the station. The stairs up to the plaza level with the station entrance, which were closed before, have been opened while we were in the restaurant. We climb up them, go towards the station, but that section of the walkway is still blocked off because of damage. The three girls behind us do the same and as we realise we’ll have to take the longer route round to the station, we all laugh together.

I’m reading an article in the Japan Times entitled, ‘One month on, debris fields barely dented’. The Fukushima governor, Yuhei Sato, said, ‘I am speechless over the uncertainty that our people must face each day. Once we get over one mountain, we just see another rise up in front of us. We must find the end of the tunnel, but we haven’t, and that is terribly difficult to bear.’


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