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 are claiming back footpaths and car parks. There are many roads but not a single car.
However, there is a woman, crouched over in the shadow of a 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, she worked towards 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 in 2016.
I had the pleasure of visiting Kobayashi san at Futaba-ya. She presented me with a wonderful spread of delicious, local dishes, including sashimi and rice for lunch.
Kobayashi san spoke about her experience of returning home.
“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.
She monitored the town’s radiation levels with other volunteers. They did this so they could compare their own data with that produced by measuring posts dotted around the prefecture.
Recalling her trips to Chernobyl, Kobayashi san described how she counts herself lucky that, after 3.11, residents were evacuated relatively 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 over the past 5 years, Kobayashi san has also made discoveries about her hometown and her own resilience.
Odaka is also home to Hirohata san, who works tirelessly to share the town’s story and support businesses opening in Odaka.
She told us about life in Odaka since 3.11, her voice full of strength, and a little bitterness.
“I have a feeling that this was caused by fate.” She said, explaining that Odaka’s shrines are dedicated to the natural elements, but none to personal safety. 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.
Families Have Moved On
Before 3.11, Odaka was home primarily to 5 person families: parents, children and usually one older grandparent. Upon evacuation, 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.”
Older generations often want to return, and this has led to older people and daughters or daughters-in-law returning without the rest of their families. This phenomenon has caused feelings loneliness within the community.
Lack of Local Businesses
Lack of local businesses also makes bringing people back to Odaka difficult.
Those who worked as farmers are also likely to face issues getting their farms back into a usable state and extensively screening the radiation levels of their produce.
Hirohata san expressed concern that people outside of the prefecture might be thinking that people are choosing not to return to Odaka 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 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 Odaka’s challenges.
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.
Although few in number, Odaka’s shops seem to be tailored to young people. There’s a salon filled with young and attractive stylists, a cute cake shop, clothing shops, and a glass jewelry store.
HARIO Lampwork Factory
The glass jewelry store, HARIO Lampwork Factory, is a famous brand in Japan. In the last few months, a store was opened in Odaka to supply local women with work.
Training to make jewelry at HARIO Lampwork Factory usually takes ten years, but talented workers can have the chance to have their jewelry sold regardless of experience.
The number of visitors to Odaka every day are low, but jewelry made here is sold in Tokyo as well as in other stores owned by the company.
The store manager explained her vision of Odaka becoming a flourishing town with many previously unavailable opportunities accessible to women.
Before we left the town, I asked Hirohata san about something that had been confusing me.
“So there aren’t many businesses, 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.