The stars still shine brightly at 3am. I hugged the children goodbye when they went to bed last night and I have kissed Mika goodbye. The memory still lingers on my lips as I walk through the cold air to the car. I am returning to Ichikai and I do not know exactly when I will be back.
They have opened the new freeway between Gunma and Tochigi, so what was a five hour journey across the mountains is now only two and half, much of it in tunnels through the mountains. The "Tsukiyohno" interchange is only 10 minutes away. Petrol is now available without queueing. I drive into the night.
Today is the "Himachi" festival and Annual General Meeting of the local self government group. Himachi celebrates the coming of spring, and begins with the cleaning of the small Buddhist shrine in the woods atop our neighbourhood hill. We are scheduled to gather there at 6am.
I am heading east, driving into the rising sun, and the clouds waft in diaphanous curtains of apricot and peach against the ever lightening sky. I leave the freeway at Mohka just after 5am, and drive past the Yanagita clinic where all four of our children were born. It is exactly 23 minutes to the house in Ichikai from here. Trust me, I know.
As I drive I have to dodge the occasional manhole. The liquefaction of the soil below the road during the earthquake made the surface drop by about ten centimetres, so the manholes now thrust proud above the road surface, so some sections of the road are quite a challenge.
The closer I get to Ichikai, the more marked the damage from the earthquake is. I stop at a temporary traffic light where one lane of the road has subsided completely. A sign beside the road tells me this is the town line, from this point I leave Haga and enter Ichikai. All of the houses within sight have blue sheet covering the displaced tiles and broken windows. I have heard there is a three year waiting list for repairs. The lights change and I drive on, past neatly stacked rows of Ohya stone from the shattered walls and warehouses. People are putting their lives in order.
I pull into the drive way of the house and park in the yard, away from the house in case an after shock should loosen more tiles on the roof. Grabbing my bamboo rake I walk back down the drive way and take a short cut across the rice paddies, treading carefully along the raised ridge that separates one field from another.
Up the hill beside the fire station, past Takagi sans house, ridge tiles gone and the family crest askew. His twin grandchildren are...were.. in Canaans class.
The pillars at Ozeki sans gate are twisted into strange angles, it's amazing they are still standing.
I enter the dirt road into the bamboo grove and start to climb the winding path up the hill to the shrine. Others walk the same path, greeting each other with steaming breath, and their conversations turn always to the earthquake, the damage, the nuclear reactors, the shortages, the uncertainty and insecurity of the situation, the weather, the direction of the wind.
Close to the shrine the evidence of serious raking and sweeping shows that the early birds are hard at work already. Ever since I first participated in this festival eleven years ago it has been a source of wonder, that if you gather at 6am as the notice tells you, you are too late, the work is already done. Luckily today I am fifteen minutes early and there is still work to be done.
Representatives of every household in the community rake and sweep, prune and weed, wipe and polish in a frenzy of activity. There are 125 households in our community, and everybody knows everybody, and they are all here.
As I rake I am reminded of my days as a deshi at Shimaoka sensei's studio, raking the garden before the workers came. It was a meditation, preparing for the day ahead. Here at the shrine, cleaning is a form of worship, and by showing humility and care in the tending of the shrine we hope for blessings. Today more than ever.
Neighbours and friends ask me how I am, about the damage to our house. Some of them already know we have decided to move, others are unaware. The Kaichou, community leader, calls for our attention and thanks every one for their efforts. He announces the schedule for the meeting this evening and the celebration after, and declares the cleaning finished. It is exactly 6am. It pays to be early.
As I walk down the hill surrounded by the community, Takagi san (a different Takagi, there's lots of them around here, this one is a builder) matches pace beside me. He has heard we are moving. I explain the situation.
"If it's just the house and land, I can lend you land for free," he says, " We'd really like you to stay."
I choke up. Tears come unbidden, and with a quivering voice I thank him, from the bottom of my heart. But I explain to him that it is more than that; it is the uncertainty and fear of the nuclear accident, still unresolved, that has compounded the situation for us. I must think of my children's health first, and this path is the best I can find.
He nods slowly, sadly. He understands, his own children are grown up and moved away, but if he were in my shoes...
"We will miss you." he says.
I bid him farewell as we emerge from the bamboo grove and tell him that I will see him at this evenings meeting. Back across the rice paddies, I return to the house. I take the twenty litres of water I have brought from Minakami out of the car and into the kitchen. The rest of the day is spent boxing up our possessions.
The things we immediately need have already gone. What remains are the personal things, the years of accumulated stuff that fills in the empty corners and makes a home.
I concentrate on the kitchen first. We lost many pots in the earthquake, yunomi by Warren Mackenzie and Peter Rushforth, Masumi Narita's sake cups....lots of pots, some of mine, some by friends.
Many others have survived, and as I pack them up I say the names of the friends who made them, remembering the stories that go with them. David and Margaret Frith, Phil Rogers, Lisa Hammond, Jennifer Hall...I wrap them in news paper, and as I wrap the occasional article or headline catches my eye... Sandy Simon, Ruthanne Tudball, George Dymesich...The first newspapers are the most recent, the ones on top of the stack, telling me about the radioactive water flowing into the ocean, that the tsunami meters failed and new measurements of the aftermath show that it peaked at 26.5metres, that the earths axis has moved and a day is shorter, that some beef is contaminated... John Dermer, Garry Bish, Libby Pickard, Maggie Prendergast... As I wrap, I work my way back through the days, through the contaminated vegetables and the contaminated water, the announcements of which came days after the actual contamination itself, THANK GOD we evacuated when we did!.. Shoji Hamada, Shinsaku Hamada, Shimaoka Tatsuzo, Hiroshi Seto....The hoseing and water bombing of the nuclear reactors, the explosions, the Tsunami, the earthquake...Ken Matsuzaki, Satoshi Yokoh...Time slips back to a time when there was no earthquake, where political upheavals in Egypt and before that Tunisia led the news.
There are several aftershocks during the day, and each time I dash from the house. The shelves gradually empty, and underneath the pots are other newspapers, mostly from 1999, just before we moved here. Articles about the millennium virus that never happened and the panic over nothing, over some arbitrary date. It seems that most of the time we are fussing over trivialities, fighting over nonsense and making news out of nothing. How I long for the simple and unparalleled beauty of the ordinary, the peace and happiness of everyday life.
There is a newspaper article from the 1st of January 2000, half a page in the Japanese daily mainichi, with a photograph of us, Mika, Sora and Canaan, me, sitting on the veranda of this house. We had just moved in, and had such great hope for this new century. The hope still burns. It will take more than an earthquake, a tsunami or a nuclear disaster to extinguish that flame.
I spend the day packing boxes, and dusk begins to creep through the windows. It is time for the meeting. I walk to the community hall, the meeting has already begun. There are more people here than other years, the house is packed. Everyone is uncertain of the future, and has come to find support among friends. I kneel in the entry hall.
Announcements are made, assessments of damage, plans for rebuilding, government support. Ichikai has been officially acknowledged as a disaster zone, though it is overshadowed by the tragedy of the north eastern prefectures. The damage in Ichikai alone is estimated at 2,000,000,000 yen.
Discussion ensues about the best course of action to repair the hall in which we now sit. During the proceedings a major after shock strikes. Everyone tenses, a few gasp, all of the faces are filled with fear. The quake subsides.
General business is called, new members of the community are introduced. There is a brief lull in the proceedings. The Kaicho nods to me. I stand and move to the open space at the front of the hall. One hundred and twenty five faces turn to me. I know them all.
"Good evening, " I say. "I am Euan Craig of MaeOhkuboh 3pan." They chorus a response of good evening.
"Like everyone here, my home was also damaged in the earthquake of the 11th of last month. The roof, the back wall of Ohya stone, the bathroom, the kiln, have all been badly damaged. For those of you who did not know, we did not own our home, but rented from a landlord who does not live in this area. When we were able to contact the landord after the power was restored, they indicated that they would not be paying to restore the house to livable conditions."
I take a deep breath, " Even so, I began repairs, but on the 15th, when the nuclear reactors exploded, I realised that I could not protect my children here. We evacuated to my wife's parents home in Minakami, but I could not return until the petrol was available. After discussions with my wife's parents, they have offered to give us some land to start fresh, and if we build there our investment will belong to us."
I look at the faces upturned to me, " For eleven years, you have embraced my family and included us as part of this community, and I am proud to have lived among you. This situation was not of my or anyone's choosing, but I am sad to say that, as of the end of last month, I must leave this community, and my family will be moving permanently to Minakami," my voice begins to quaver. "Thank you all for taking care of us for these 11 years, I have no words to express my sorrow." I bow, deeply, to hide my tears.
125 pair of hands begin to applaud. I leave the floor amid the sound of clapping.
The meeting comes to an end. As the elected officials start to serve plates of sushi and sashimi, trays of cutlets, beer and sake, I find an empty cushion among my friends. They gather around me, filling my glass, asking the details of our move, expressing sorrow that we are leaving, but understanding our decision and affirming its validity. They wish me luck and tell me that I must come back and visit. I promise I will. I will. We eat, we drink, we laugh. Time passes.
As I walk home from the hall, I follow the road rather than cut across the fields. I walk past the pond.
"Benten Ike", the pond of Benten. Curious, isn't it, that the water should bear the same name as the water in Minakami.
There is an Island in the middle of the pond, and a narrow bridge joins the island to the bank. On the Island is a temple to Benten. It has been there for generations, but three years ago, when I was Hancho, the old temple had decayed and was falling down, and so we rebuilt it.
The men of the community volunteered their labour and together we built a new temple. Working side by side, we built good strong concrete foundations, a frame and walls of wood, an iron roof.
I cross the bridge. The temple stands undamaged on it's island, unaffected by the earthquake.
I walk back to the house, cold and empty. The house is just a house. I will miss the people of this town, but I miss my family more. It will take a few more days to pack the rest of the house, but I long for home, and home is not here anymore.