Picture this scene.
There is a deserted town, full of overgrown gardens and unused petrol stations. No one has lived here for years. Wild plants have begun to claim back the footpaths and car parks. There are many roads but not a single car.
However, there is one woman, crouched over in the shadow of a traditional Japanese hotel that she used to run. She is vigorously attempting to tame her garden, pruning and uprooting and watering, while trying to push the hot Japanese summer sun out of her mind. She looks at the flowers that she’s been tending for the past couple of weeks, sighs deeply and says out loud: “Why did such a thing have to happen here?”. The flowers look back at her, but they don’t say very much in reply.
This is Kobayashi san, who reentered Odaka town in Fukushima Prefecture as soon as she was able to in August 2013 to start repairing the town’s buildings. She began work on clearing up her hometown almost immediately, even though she was all alone in doing so for the first few weeks. Starting with her garden, and the gardens of her neighbours, and moving onto creating a communal space in her hotel for passersby, she has now successfully reopened Futaba-ya hotel for the public, after Odaka town’s status as a “Difficult to return to” area was removed earlier this year.
I had the pleasure of visiting Kobayashi san at Futaba-ya recently, and was delighted when she presented me with lunch, a wonderful spread of delicious, local dishes, including sashimi and rice so delicious that I had to fight the other tour-participants for seconds.
Kobayashi san spoke about her experience of returning home whilst we were eating lunch.
“Before the disaster, I worked in one little area of my town, and I didn’t really go anywhere else. But since coming back, and trying to put it back in order, little by little, I’ve discovered all of these places that I had never made time to go and explore before. Of course my hometown is my hometown, and I am proud of it, but being kept away and coming back has allowed me to really feel that I love Odaka town, and that I couldn’t let it just end like this.”
Realising from firsthand experience how much of a worry elevated radiation levels would be for returning citizens and for visitors in the future, she took it upon herself to learn about the present situation in Odaka, tracking the radiation levels with other volunteers to collect data that they could compare to that on display at the measuring posts dotted around the prefecture, in order to say with confidence to visitors that traveling to Odaka is safe.
Recalling her two trips to Chernobyl, Kobayashi san described how she counts herself lucky that, after 3.11, residents were evacuated relatively quickly and came to know about the seriousness of the situation a lot faster than residents near the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
Despite the loss of her hometown as she remembers it, Kobayashi san refuses to accept that Odaka’s future is out of her control. She’s looking forward to meeting many new people through the reopening of Futaba-ya, which she hopes will support Odaka’s recovery. Although she has faced many hardships as a result of the nuclear accident five years ago, she has also been able to make discoveries about her hometown and her own resilience, as well as having the opportunity to meet many people who she has been able to become very close with.
Odaka town is also home to Hirohata san, who works tirelessly to share the town’s story and to support the opening of businesses in the town. When we visited her office, she delivered a presentation to us about the situation in Odaka since 3.11, her voice full of strength, but also a little bitterness.
“I have a feeling that this was caused by fate.” She said, explaining that the shrines that surround Odaka town are all dedicated to the natural elements, but there are no shrines with links to personal safety or to human interests. However, even if she does feel that 3.11 was destined to happen, she’s not prepared to be passive from now on.
“I want people to know why people aren’t returning to Odaka.” She explained. Before 3.11, Odaka was a town with residents that typically were split into a 5 person family: parents, children and usually one older grandparent. Upon being evacuated, families typically relocated outside of the prefecture, after the wife left her job. If children were high school age in 2011, they will now be entering university in higher education establishments close to their new homes. They may have even found full-time jobs there.”
The older generations often do want to return, Hirohata san explained, but unfortunately this has led to a phenomenon of older people and perhaps their daughters or daughters-in-law returning without the rest of their families, causing feelings of isolation and loneliness within the community.
The lack of local businesses also makes creating an incentive to move back to Odaka difficult. If there are no jobs, why would young people move back? Those who worked as farmers pre-3.11 are also likely to face issues regarding selling produce for a profitable living, if getting their farms back into a usable state and extensively screening the radiation levels of any produce wasn’t challenging enough.
Hirohata san expressed how she was concerned that Japanese people outside of the prefecture, as well as people all around the world, might be thinking that people are choosing not to return to previously evacuated towns because it is dangerous to do so. On the contrary, there are no longer many incentives to live in Odaka. At one point she laughed and said she’s really surprised when residents do want to come back, despite their lifestyles having been changed for half a decade.
Tokyo University supports the Town Reconstruction Design Centre in the middle of the town, where workshops are held about the problems the town is facing, to try and bring together the best brains in the town. Slowly but surely, businesses are popping up in Odaka, whether they are ones that have their origins in the town, or whether they are new to Odaka.
I was surprised that the shops in Odaka, despite being very few in number, are all extremely fashionable. There’s a salon filled with young and attractive stylists, a very cute cake and sweet shop, clothing shops, and a glass jewelry store.
The glass jewelry store, HARIO Lampwork Factory, is a famous brand in Japan which has a long history. In the last few months, a store was opened in Odaka to supply local women with a job and a source of income. Although training as a jewelry-maker at HARIO Lampwork Factory usually takes ten years, those workers who are skilled can have the chance to have their jewelry sold. The number of visitors to Odaka every day does make selling products a little difficult, but jewelry made in the store is sold in Tokyo as well as in other stores owned by the company.
I spoke to the manager of the store, who explained that she had a vision of Odaka reopening into a flourishing town with many opportunities available to women, to allow women to work in positions previously unavailable to them.
Before we left the town, I asked Hirohata san about something that had been confusing me.
“So there aren’t many businesses yet, because there aren’t many residents who could become customers, and there aren’t many locals to work for them. But on the other hand, if there are no businesses, then ex-residents won’t be motivated to move back, because they won’t have anywhere to work. Isn’t it a vicious cycle?”
Hirohata san laughed and smiled at me, answering “Yeah, it is a bit of a vicious cycle, but while we’re going round in circles, we may as well have fun while we’re at it.”
Reach Odaka Town by bus from Fukushima Station （福島駅前）to Haranomachieki-mae （原町駅前バス停）. Then, take the JR Joban Line（ＪＲ常磐線） from Haranomachi Station（原町駅） to Odaka Station（小高駅）. The places mentioned in this blog are a short walk from the station.