A lonely drive north along the highway to desolation

By Michael Dickison

A collapsed building in the Sukagawa region. Photo / Michael Dickison
A collapsed building in the Sukagawa region. Photo / Michael Dickison

Weekend Herald reporter Michael Dickison grew up in Japan and speaks the language fluently. After last week's earthquake he returned and filed this account of his odyssey through the ravaged countryside of his other homeland.

It's dire for Fukushima - Ground Zero. "Taihen desune." That's what they say in a line of cars snaking around three bends, past shut shops and service stations, queuing almost 2km at dawn for petrol.

Amid widespread scenes of physical destruction in northeast Japan caused by a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami, a new, invisible reality has taken over.

Boundaries of radioactive danger are marked by bull's eye diagrams on the news and a region's name.

Fukushima, which even for many Japanese used to be not particularly notable, now looms large while a set of six nuclear reactors overheats.

Fukushima is wide east-west, and with the reactors on its east coast you could be closer to harm in a neighbouring region than in its remote areas. But the name makes all the difference.

It does for my mother, for a start. I'll say I've reached Ibaraki, just beyond Fukushima's southern border, and there's no panic. But Fukushima? Well, I couldn't even mention it. She's in Tokyo, the metropolis of 35 million people, 200km away. She's holed up in our apartment building, where the residents debate whether to leave the doors ajar so they don't jam shut in an aftershock. There's been much discussion about what would be the right thing to do. This is typical.

Diligently saving electricity and wearing cotton masks by Government request are unsurprising.

The masks, which would be a common sight anyway with winter colds and the allergies of spring approaching, are selling out at stores ever since authorities announced that covering up shields against radioactive particles. (Of course, my mother tries to push it on to me too, but it seems to me a remedy only effective as long as the radiation is harmless.)

There is, however, a strange, subdued mood.

Childhood friends are distant. A man who sells me a cellphone says his acquaintances are leaving the city.

The commercial district of Shibuya, its bustling streets and neon lights often featured in films, is eerily quiet. Supermarkets have been emptied of stock, and firms as big as Sony have reportedly sent people home to wait this one out. Such a defeatist attitude is uncharacteristic.

A relative says this isn't shock - it just isn't over yet. Aftershocks have circled Tokyo from the northeast around to the other side, as if they are coiled to strike the capital. And now there's the radiation.

Getting out isn't easy. Tokyo's transport normally runs with perfect efficiency but it has been thrown off kilter. Trains heading north have shut down, and there are no rental cars because companies can't buy petrol.

I've borrowed a Honda Beat, a tiny car which is probably not an ideal all-terrain vehicle and seems to hold only about 20 litres of petrol, but you make do. At least it doesn't take much fuel to move it.

The worst-hit areas are 500km away in a direct line. Two expressways head north, and a last-minute phone call on the road to a friend to ask, "Which is the road?" ends up pointing me not toward the quake-damaged areas but the nuclear reactors.

It doesn't go far anyway, only about 100km before it is closed off to all but emergency services vehicles.

Structural damage starts to be apparent even there, still hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre, showing just how widespread the effects of the disaster are.

A grand, shrine-like Japanese home built by a man's grandfather is devastated. Roof tiles have crumbled and walls of great stones have been bowled over, and he's not insured. But, strangely, the news reports have become more real.

He runs out from his rubble-strewn home to show me, "Look, this is how bad it is!" - pointing to a newspaper headline.

After chatting awhile, even our roles of concern reverse. "Please take care," he says. I'm only passing through, but he's the worried one.

Every time I ask for directions, I hear it again - "Please take care." I don't say where I'm going - I don't really know myself - but I say which road I'm looking for and it's enough.

The road northward is lonely - Route 118 has a steady stream of vehicles going southbound, but I'm the only one heading north. By night, near the border to Fukushima, everything is closed and dark.

I'm lucky to find a room and I'm shaken by five aftershocks in a night.

The whole area is deserted, even in the morning. But then there they are, queues of cars parked from the rare service station with a stock of petrol. For each station selling $20 of petrol per car, up to 100 cars, there are easily 20 which have sold out.

Two hours later, when the sun has heated up the air to 4C, the motorists are still waiting.

It's dire, one man says. He needs fuel for everything - not just to get around but to heat the house.

The way he says it is telling. He doesn't even come close to say it's hard for him, just that it's a difficult situation.

It's not stoic. Stoic is what Western men do to express emotions by being strong. He smiles as he says it. In Japan, you sacrifice emotions considered selfish, like discomfort, to the cause of not troubling anyone else.

So I get endless reassurance from everyone, who all try to help me.

Further on, in inland Fukushima, the damage grows but the phantom of Fukushima loses its hysteria.

A young woman at a shop asks how I'm getting on, and she tells me she's lucky with only a broken water supply. "Well, there's no escaping anyway," she says. This far in, there is no fuel at all.

A restaurateur says it's impossible to refuel. There are rumours there might be a shipment next week.

When asked what he expects of Fukushima's future, he is silent. But Japan will be all right, he says.

"Nihon wa daijyobu desu yo."

A man selling baked kumara from his truck stays put on a street corner because he doesn't have the petrol to drive around. He wants to sell off his stock before it goes bad. His house has totally collapsed, he says.

But - like everyone else - he's full of smiles and wishes me well.

- NZ Herald

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