Unbridled Cynicism

less bullshit, more often?

Into the Wasteland

Today is one of the big focal points for my trip - I’m venturing into the areas surrounding Fukushima and want to see how close I can get to the exclusion zone surrounding the site of the March 2011 nuclear disaster.

Clear facts about the aftermath aren’t easy to come by, and a lot of what you hear or read is speculation and hyperbole, instead of rational thought and facts. I’ve done my internet-armchair-expert research, this is clearly a low-risk activity. Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope risk analysis. Here’s some radiation dosage charts, presume that they’re sufficiently accurate:

Depending on the source, they’re either instantaneous dosages or averaged over a year. Let’s say that we’re willing to receive a free cranial CT scan and will cop a 10 millisievert dose for the sake of adventure. Ten times that (100 mSv) would be “pretty scary”, and fourty times that (400 mSv) as an acute dose might make you noticeably ill. Whether you accept this assessment is a personal decision, but it’s an objective baseline to work with.

Given this, what exposure can be expected? The XKCD chart suggests 1 milisievert over two weeks in the exclusion zone, with the caveat that some areas are “much higher”. The latter link suggests about as much in 1 hour at Fukushima, one day after the disaster. In other words, not very much. Pragmatically speaking, the government is making the calls on where is and isn’t safe to go anyway - that’ll be my real guideline for this adventure, and it’s likely to be very conservative and risk-averse. Besides, I’m too much of a pussy to go fence-jumping into areas I clearly shouldn’t be, much as I might fancy myself to be one.

So with all that said, the actual exclusion zone boundaries aren’t clear, based on various bits that I can find. This list, at least when it was written, highlights several towns that are in or around the zone. Minami-Soma is a useful landmark because it’s on the go/no-go border. I’m pretty much flying blind apart from this, and I’ll see how far I can go. What I can discern:

  • Hirono: should be accessible
  • Kawauchi: should be accessible, expected to be abandoned
  • Iitate: not enough details, may be accessible, considered a risk area
  • Naraha: abandoned, unclear if checkpoint still in place
  • Minami-Soma: frontier on the perimeter, should have green/amber/red zones?
  • Tomioka: abandoned and expected to be off-limits without government authorisation, possibly revised to partial-access

I’m gonna start driving and play it by ear. No grand plan, I’ll just follow whatever road seems to be leading towards Minami-Soma and then see about these no-go boundaries.

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Caption: Apple pie

Pick up the Aqua (Prius c). Drive around a bit. How do I start this thing lol?

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Caption: Sendai tollway ticket at 11:36

On the Jouban expressway, get off and get onto the Rikuzenhama Highway

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Caption: Tsunami inundation section, passing through Sakamoto. Gives you an idea of the low-lying areas that got swamped

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Caption: 20km/L after 51km, passing through Shinchi

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Caption: Huge coal station in the background at Komagamine, this is right next to Soma port

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Caption: 21km/L after 60km, taking the Soma bypass

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Caption: 22km/L after 70km, entering Kashima

I get off the highway at Haramachi, which appears to be the CBD for “Minami-Soma city”. Well, I’ve kinda reached my original destination, now what?

I’m not sure what I was inspecting, but it’s not like there’s any checkpoints staffed by tough-as-nails security forces. Guess I’ll keep going after I get some refreshment.

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Caption: Parked outside 7/11, hot outside, lush greenery, just south of Haramachi

I thought I pulled off the Rikuzenhama highway, but you’d be forgiven for being mistaken. The highway is one lane in each direction in places, with no shoulder or buffer to speak of. Happy to have more of a chance to think and take in the surroundings, I continue on south.

It’s not long until I hit Odaka, and at once I know it. This is it, the place is abandoned. I’ve been passing through small towns and roadside attractions the whole way down so far, but now I’ve found somewhere that’s just… barren. The “highway” road is noticeably of higher grade than everything else in town, but it’s all the same, all quiet. I pull over into the carpark of a small medical clinic or what used to be one. I need to get some bearings, and I need to start exploring.

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Caption: Clinic in town

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Caption: Salon de Carrier

There’s an uncomfortable tension between my immediate surroundings in the car and The Outside. I’ve got food, water, and reception on my smartphone, yet I feel profoundly alone and vulnerable the moment I step out of the car. A hot wind buffets my face and I duck back inside to consider my options.

I don’t really know how big this place is and I can’t put down the disquiet in my gut. I decide to grab most of my stuff from the car in case… God knows what happens to the car while I’m away, and I might need something. It’s about 8 kilos of camera gear and assorted provisions in my pack. The primitive part of my brain tells me I should stick low and try to stay out of sight.

I shouldn’t be here, noone is. Car’s locked? Locked. Check again and swallow hard. Put the feelings down, clench every muscle in my torso and swing my legs over the low fence adjoining the next carpark.

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Caption: Carpark barriers at supermarket

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Caption: Power box is on, drawing power

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Caption: Passport photo machine

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Caption: Stock still inside the supermarket, untouched

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Caption: Parked refrigerated truck, left exactly as is

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Caption: Someone’s been living here, I get a chill that I’m not alone

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Caption: Map of the shrine

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Caption: Another car!

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Caption: View of temple, front

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Caption: Ema board, so empty, not even one full layer

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Caption: Impressive structure

Cicadas, and there was another guy here

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Caption: Omikuji box is left there, donation in the side. Trust system is good.

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Caption: Charms, randosel

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Caption: Safe driving charm

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Caption: Car left parked down the front, seen better days

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Caption: Creeper growing out under the bonnet, not actually that dirty

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Caption: Uhh stop ahead? Left ahead?

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Caption: Not sure if I’m meant to stop here, though there’s a flashing light over the intersection

Looks like a lumber processing yard here?

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Caption: Park the car outside, half on the road, yolo

I walk around a little bit to try and get a feel for the area, but I’m wary of leaving the safety of the car, even though I’ve calmed down a bit since arriving in town. It’s quiet so I could swear that I can hear someone moving in a big long shed-like structure next door, but I can’t tell for sure. I think I can make out the shape of an old woman’s head, but maybe I’m imagining it. It’s too dark inside the shed building, and any movement is very slow and infrequent.

I’m at Odaka Commercial School now, I guess it’s a high school with specialisation.

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Caption: Streetlamps full of water

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Caption: Bubbler tap

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Caption: Low cinderblock building is clubroom storage

As featured in R;N and other things.

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Caption: Volleyball team photo, I wonder when this was taken. If that’s a meaningful date at the bottom, I guess it’s Heisei 20 (2008). It’s a weird experience just being here. This used to be a real Japanese school, something I only know as a stereotype. Real people attended here, they stood where I stand now, and used this storeroom. It’s just… eerie.

What’s also eerie is looking at the school’s website. Clearly everyone shipped out but to God knows where, maybe they moved as a single unit to another school, or maybe they all got spread out. But to have your entire world flipped like that, is unimaginable, literally every little detail of your perhaps-seemingly-mundane life, changes. And yet they keep going still learning, the principal’s office still issuing regular announcements.

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Caption: Stairs and hallway

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Caption: Old hurdle in the overgrown athletics field

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Caption: More cinderblock buildings at the corner of the field, used for equipment storage?

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Caption: Big weeds down the little road to the adjacent road outside the school

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Caption: Back onto the athletics field, pokemon in long grass, this reminds me of the science building at SBHS

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Caption: Entrance hallway and shoe lockers, another thing learnt only from stereotypes

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Caption: Umbrellas in a rack outside

The bugs are giving me the willies. I really want to walk down the little road to the adjacent road, but I feel like I’m being watched and just can’t shake the anxiety. Besides, the weeds are fucking huge and I don’t feel like dealing with that either, and whatever bug keeps flying noisily around my head.

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Caption: Piles and piles of books and papers in a classroom; why?

It’s time to bail. Stress is getting the better of me, and I spot a small vehicle (a mini patrol car) going along the road in the far distance. Did someone spot me and call it in? Shit, what if they did… I can’t lose here, it’s time to keep moving. This isn’t even the most exciting thing around. I get back in the car and get out of Dodge. There’s a patrol car driving down one of the side streets, into which I throw an aggressive reverse two-point turn and roll out.

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Caption: This two lane road is now one-lane, the far side is fucked

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Caption: Uneven road ahead, no shit eh!

There’s a carpark down here and a clear entrance area to what I think is a park… or maybe it’s just for this shrine. But the aesthetic of the carpark doesn’t match the shrine at all. I’d jump the turnstiles but I can’t see any!

I really want to go pee right now, and there’s a toilet here but… I really don’t want to use this toilet. I figure I’m actually better off just using one of the bushes, which somehow is decently kept. Someone must be maintaining the gardens here…

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Caption: Found… it’s either gardens, or a shrine, or both. And some bigass trees.

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Caption: Huge tree from up on the level

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Caption: Gardens are well kept

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Caption: Very uneven stairs up to the shrine

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Caption: Inside is air condtioned and has automated lighting. Just what the hell have I stumbled onto? It’s like the sci-fi movies where they dig up an ancient alien spacecraft that’s thousands of years old, but somehow it hums to life when they step inside.

That’s a LOT of paper cranes

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Caption: Buddha sculptures, looks like they were carved straight into the rockface. Not really my thing, but cool

Time to keep moving, I get to… Momouchi. The train station is right off the road, so I park and walk up.

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Caption: Bikes in the nearby shed

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Caption: Waiting room, pretty much perfectly intact

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Caption: Toilet block is less nice, but also obviously older

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Caption: Down on the tracks, vegetation is growing in the sleepers

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Caption: Close up on the vegetation, view down the line, it only gets denser

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Caption: Far side of the tracks, overgrown sign

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Caption: Far line is completely gone and covered, looks like mulch and overgrowth

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Caption: House next to the line? Can’t tell what it is, maybe commercial

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Caption: Signal lights covered by town garbage bags

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Caption: Flag has seen better days, and pedestrian overpass bridge. My fear of going over it is utterly irrational, but I do so nonetheless

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Caption: Phonebooth is getting comfy with nature

Time to keep driving

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Caption: Sign says “stop ahead” I think?

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Caption: Something about when stuff will be open? Until the 31st of August

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Caption: Well, this is it. This is the end. I could move the barrier easily, but I don’t. I dither. A patrol car arrives. A tense standoff. Eventually I walk over and tell them I’m lost. Two old guys, cagey about me.

They escort me back to route 6. I’m shaky and it’s getting a bit dark. I’d be tempted to go around and try another way, but I don’t feel up to it. Today has been a good run, it’s time to head back to Sendai, which’ll take a couple of hours.

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Caption: Dydo vending machines all lined up

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Caption: Vending machine graveyard, what are they doing here?

Well at least there’s some working and stocked machines in a little pavillion on the roadside. I get a few and knock them back while appreciating the sinking son. Lord, I am at Peace.

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Caption: Traffic lights at the vending machines, bathing in the last glow of the sun before it sinks into the night.

Drive along a little more, stop on the roadside near the ruins of some entertainment parlour thing

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Caption: Sunset over the fields, beautiful warm breeze, perfection and peace and solace.

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Caption: Overturned truck, not sure if it fell here or somehow slipped that way off the roadside.

The road is in decent repair, and there’s a good amount of traffic, but it’s an interesting juxtaposition of the present, and when time stopped two and a half years ago. What are all these people doing, where are they driving to anyway?

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Caption: I can’t really tell what this place used to be. I’m guessing a pachinko parlour, but I can’t imagine why it’s been so thoroughly gutted. I’d guess it was the elements, but plenty of glass seems to be intact. It just doesn’t make much sense.

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Caption: Aqua parked on the roadside, looking fantastic

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Caption: Wasabi cracker things? I got them from the apple place

It’s late but I get my arse off my hotel bed and make it to the restaurant around 22:00, it’s thankfully not too late. They’re meant to be good, but ordering food is a bit of a test.

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Caption: Dumplings! And beer.

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Caption: OMG dat chewy chewy meat is SO GOOD right now

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Caption: The full dinner set.

I really can’t read the menu, and after spending at least 15min looking up what are probably very common kanji, I order something I can actually read and reasonably get the pronunciation of (and still made a mistake I was corrected on).