Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Equinox

I look out the window as I wash the dishes. The rain has washed the snow away, though the majestic peaks of the Mikuni Alps rise white amid the drifting clouds. Ten days have past since the earthquake stuck, a week since the explosions in the third and fourth nuclear reactors which led us to evacuate here.
Over the past few days the struggle to control the reactors seems to be winning, and the radiation level seems to be falling day by day. Each day, however, there is new news of contamination, ever more widely spread. First the drinking water in Fukushima, then the surrounding prefectures, Tochigi and Tokyo. Milk from Fukushima is contaminated, and Spinach from Ibaraki. The next day vegetables from Mibu in Tochigi, further from the reactors than Mashiko. The ocean around fukushima, the rain across the Kanto plain. Beans from Kagoshima that were contaminated while going through Narita airport on their way to Taiwan...

     The government spokesman and the experts tell us it is many times greater than the accepted limits, but still safe for human consumption. It does not inspire confidence, and I am glad we are here. I have checked the sites that some of you have recommended, the radiation levels in the air, the water, the rain. The Internet was made for times like this.

The relief work for those suffering in the earthquake and tsunami hit areas continues, and though supplies of heating oil and fresh water are still lacking in some areas, the roads are clearer. Supplies are getting through. People are being evacuated to safer areas in other prefectures to the west and south. Petrol is back to normal in Tokyo, I hear, but there is still none here. Milk and bread are hard to get here now. Maybe tomorrow. It will be a long road to recovery.

The rain has stopped and the sky is clear. I take Sora for a walk before dark. We talk as we walk up the steep hill behind the village hall, forest to right and left. We have had long family discussions over the last few days, trying to find a way forward. The house in Ichikai is unlivable as it is, to repair it would cost a great deal in time and money, and in the end it will still not be ours. The kiln needs to be rebuilt. There are still aftershocks and the risk of more earthquakes. There is still radioactivity, though less than before, and the reactors are still not completely under control. We cannot go back, we must find a way forward.

Sora and I crest the hill, walking past Mika's father's blue berry field. Last Summer we all came and helped him harvest them, though there were probably as many eaten as went into the baskets! I found some in his freezer yesterday and made blueberry jam last night. This morning we had it with yoghurt on drop scones for breakfast. The branches are bare now, but there is a hint of spring in the air.

Many of my family and friends in Australia want us to move there. Admittedly, there are no nuclear power plants in Australia, and I know that everyone would rally around us. I miss the sound of Magpies in the morning, the fragrance of the gum trees. I could start from scratch, Mika would be fine, but it is not just us. My children are in the midst of their schooling, and though it would not be impossible for them, it would be very difficult. Particularly after the trauma of the earthquake. I also remember how hard it is to make a living as a potter there, and I hear that things have not changed. Could I support a family of six?

We cross a bridge over a deep gully. From here we can see over the village and the valley below. The mountains march off into the distance. Across the bridge there is an orchard with an electric fence around it to keep the monkeys out. It has been good to watch the children with their grand parents, playing "Shogi" (Japanese Chess) with grandad ("Jichan") or listening to "Bachan's" (Grandma's) stories. My father passed away many years ago, well before I came to Japan, and my mother the year before Sean was born. It would have been nice for the children to have spent more time with her.....

We walk across the fields of Sukawa Daira, beside the Temple of Daikoku. We stop at a field, perhaps a quarter acre, which has a large plastic hot house. This field belongs to Mika's parents, and until recently was used for growing "Konyaku" potatoes. The hot house is full of the timber from the old shed where Mika's brother built his house, the house in which we now take refuge. They have offered us this land to build a new studio, a new home. We have accepted.

I will not return to Mashiko or Ichikai, though they have been my home for 21 years. I will not return to Australia, though I miss it sometimes. I will stay here. Where the earth is solid and the air is clear. Where there is pure spring water to drink and hot springs to relax in after a long, hard day. Where the children can spend time with their grandparents, and pick blue berries and grow vegetables. Here, where it is safe.

The studio and kiln shed will need to be built first. Then I can start working again. A house will have to wait, but we can stay with Mika's family till then. I have spoken to a local builder, and we are waiting for some quotes. I will do as much of the work as I can myself, to keep the cost down, and help the builders do the bits I can't do myself. Once the shell of the studio is built I can move my wheel and tools here, dismantle the old kiln and rebuild it here.

People from all around the world are raising money to help rebuild Mashiko, and it is heart warming to see the ceramic community pull together like this. The Leach Pottery in the UK and the Ceramics Council in the USA are accepting donations to be sent to the Mashiko Potters Fund, an NPO created to help the potters in Mashiko rebuild after the earthquake. Mashiko will be rebuilt, but, alas, I will not be a part of it.

Sora and I walk home, back down the hill by a different path. The full moon rises huge and orange over the jagged horizon and dusk begins to fall. We stop at the general store on the way past and buy a litre of milk. It has been rationed here to one per family, which for us at the moment is nine.

Light is spilling from the kitchen window as we arrive home. Canaan hugs me in the hall way.

He turns his face up to mine and says, "We're all really happy, Dad."

I smile and kiss him on the forehead. "Yes, son, I believe we are."

I will make my own path forward, with my family. I thank you all for your kindness and encouragement, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you.

You can always contact me by email at ; euan.craig@gmail.com

And if you wish to find me, or visit me, I will be here;

Euan Craig,

C/O Shimazaki,

362-4 Fuse,

Minakami-machi,

Tone-gun,

Gunma-ken 379-1414

JAPAN

God bless and keep you all.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

One step at a time

Snow blankets the world as I rise this morning. It has been snowing since yesterday, and I am so glad that we made it through the mountains before the blizzard began. I have been trying to catch my breath, watching the battle with the nuclear reactors on the television, getting my feet back on the ground. There seems to be no improvement in the situation in Fukushima, I do not know what we are going to do, I am in limbo. I gave the children a new note book each yesterday, and a new pen.

"This is for you to write down or draw about the things that have happened over the last few days, so you don't forget." I tell them.

The bigger children write, just the nuts and bolts at first, what happened and when. Little by little they fill in the gaps with how they felt, a few illustrations.

Sean draws pictures.

"This is me coming out of the pre-school door, and the verandah moving and me falling over." he explains.
"Did it hurt when you fell?" I ask.
"No, but it was really scary, and the lights were all swinging and we had to rush outside in case they fell down. And this is the window of the old peoples day care next door, all broken in little bits. These are the cracks going zig zag through the playground, and this is the water in the pool going KERSPLASH! over the edges."

His pictures start in black and white, hard lines and jagged edges. He draws a building, with rolling black scribble inside, then hunts for a red crayon from his bag and adds sharp angled lines. "This is that house blowing up!"

"The one on the tele?" I ask.

"Yes, that one." The reactor....

He draws a big picture of Mummy with her arms out wide. He draws the computer keyboard in brown. He draws all our faces framed on the computer screen in blue. He draws a light green dog...then another green dog.

I watch the children play hide and seek upstairs and downstairs in their uncles house, giggling, jumping out and surprising each other, squabbling over cards. This house that is our temporary home. It was built just a couple of years ago, simple, sturdy and with sound foundations. Beside it is the old family house, where Mikas parents live. The family have been here for four generations. The bedrock is very stable here, they tell me, and since we came I have not felt a single tremor, though the TV shows them all the time. Another level 3 in Mashiko, a level four in Ichikai, 5.6 off the coast of Ibaraki....but Minakami is still and quiet in the snow.

Down the path behind the house, beside the bamboo grove, along the edge of the rice feilds. I just need some fresh air. It was a low of -6C overnight, and a top of -1C today. The rice paddies spread white between the hill and the river. Icicles hang from the leaves of the bamboo. Below the house is a natural spring, "Benten no mizu" they call it, "Benten's Water". Benten is the goddess of wisdom and art, and this spring feeds pure water into the rice fields when summer comes. The water is so pure a small bottling company has set up next door and markets the water through local ski resorts under the brand name "Sekkasui".

There are many hot springs and ski resorts in Minakami, and most of the hotels and hostels are fairly empty at the moment. Mika's brother is on the local council, and they decided yesterday to allocate 100,000,000 yen to provide food and accomodation for a thousand evacuees from Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima in the empty hostels. Many of them will have lost their homes, their families, and many of them will feel lost themselves. It will take a very long time to recover.

I walk to the path beside the river, and each step I take, my left boot creaks. It is not an unpleasant sound, rather like a small frog. I have checked; there is no frog. I walk to the highway, across the bridge, the snow flakes streaming past on the icy wind from the north west, a wind that will blow the Fukushima fallout out to sea. For the moment at least. There is little traffic on the road, there is no petrol.

I reach the local Supermarket, business as usual. In Mashiko the supermarkets were closed, and the convenience store shelves were bare of bread or rice or noodles or canned foods or milk or...Perhaps it is better now?

The television tells us that people in Tokyo are hoarding. The minister for internal affairs begs them not to. In Minakami, the supermarket is well stocked, there is no crowded queue, all is calm. Last decades Pop songs play quietly in the background. My heart is in turmoil, I do not know what to do. I was interviewed by phone from Australia today, radio and television. They want to know what I think I will do. Will I return to Australia? Will I rebuild in Mashiko? What do I think of the nuclear disaster...? I do not know, I have lived in Tochigi prefecture for 21 years, longer than I lived in Melbourne, or Bendigo, or Swan Hill...Japan is my home. But what can I do to rebuild a life that is safe for my family when the reactors burn unchecked? The brave souls battling the reactors are sacrificing so much to try to save other lives, three hundred thousand people are evacuated in the freezing snow, many without proper food or fresh water or heating. I walk around the supermarket, Aubergines are cheap. There is a red capsicum at half price. Some pasta, a few cans of tomatoes. There is no queue at the register, the lady gives me my change. I go to the table to pack my groceries in the bag. There is a box for donations for earthquake relief... I look at the change in my hand... I think of my children... I put the change away in my pocket and walk out of the supermarket with my groceries.

As I walk home to cook dinner for my family, snow flurries around me. Each step I take, my boot creaks. It is the sond of me going home to my family, for wherever they are, that is home. It is the sound of moving forward, one step at a time.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Nothing to fear


The night seems long, the earthquakes and aftershocks continue. Outside in the dark a pheasant shrieks, and I rise in my bed, alert and waiting. A low rumble begins, the windows begin to rattle. I jump out of bed, ready to get the children outside if the need arises. The shuddering peaks and subsides in visceral waves and the night returns to silence. I return to my bed for the, I don't know how many times, and close my eyes in pursuit of sleep. I rise with the sun this morning, there is much to do.

The primary school will resume today, so I get Rohan and Canaan up, get them breakfast cereal and cook a large pot of rice. The last few days have been spent cleaning up. First on the agenda is patching the roof before it rains. I spent all of yesterday patching the roof, first removing the broken sections, then re-laying them with recycled clay in place of the original adobe. We tied tar paper over one section as a stop gap measure (literally!) and I managed to get one and a third maybe of the remaining patched before dark. We have been leasing this house for the last 11 years, the land lord lives south of Tokyo and is unaffected by the quake. We managed to contact her on Sunday. She was not insured. "You should have bought the place," she says blithely, "then you could have insured it yourself. Do you want to buy it now?" Sometimes, even I despair. There will be no help from there. What needs to be done, I will do myself, for my family's sake. We cleaned up the bathroom as much as we could, but it will need to be completely rebuilt. We put boards on the floor so the kids won't cut their feet on the broken tiles, and squat them in the bottom of the bath, avoiding the shattered walls, bathe them with buckets of warm water from the wood stove and get them out and dry before the cold wind through the broken walls can chill them. Around us the community rallies, helping each other as best they can, striving to return to normalcy. So today I walk the children to school at 7:15. I wave them a cheerful farewell at the school gate, turn my back and walk away, my heart in my throat, tears in my eyes. They need to return to school, I tell myself, they need to be with their friends. They need me to be strong. I breathe deeply as I cross the rail line, walk past houses with tarpaulins on the roof, greet neighbours walking their dogs.





When I arrive home, Mika and Sora are on the front porch. A family of pheasants is in the front yard, the male dancing a mating ritual, spreading his tail feathers, strutting his stuff. We watch for a while, the lustrous blue of the male, the tawny brown of the hen, the green of the bamboo. Life goes on. We go inside and leave them in peace.
I decide to check the email before I start on the roof, while I have a cup of coffee. Mika turns on the TV. The stock market report is on, Japanese stocks have fallen. I wonder that the world is still full of people whose prime concern is profit margins. It is 8:30. My friend from Nagano emailed me last night. He studied nuclear physics at Oxford. "Evacuate!" he says, "If the third reactor explodes there'll be massive fallout. Come to Nagano and stay with us. If you hurry, you can get here while the roads are still clear!" I turn to the television news, the third reactor explodes before my eyes. I meet Mika's terrified face. The explosion happened 2 hours ago! The news has just come up! The Nuclear Power Plant is 110 km from us, there is still time. I run outside and get in the car, rush to the school and park in the playground. The children are gathering in the gym. Rohans teacher is there. I explain the situation, Canaans teacher joins us, I tell them that I am taking my boys and staying indoors for the moment, but that we may evacuate. They call the boys, who then rush to gather their things. While I wait for them, I see the principal and explain to him also. The boys are ready, I drive them home.


The TV says "Within 20 km of the nuclear site, stay indoors, seal all windows, do not use air conditioners or exhaust fans....." The weather man says " A strong wind is blowing to the south, south west...it will rain this afternoon....it will snow tomorrow..." I look at our broken windows, the damaged roof, the gaping holes in the bathroom and studio....what if the fallout reaches here? How can I protect my family? It is not our house, home though it may be, and the land lord doesn't care.... Mika's brother has phoned, "Come home to Gunma, it's safe from the fallout here!" he says. We check the maps. Mika's family live in Minakami, my friends are in Komoro. Which is better? Minakami is 200km from the power plant, Komoro is 255km, both are on the other side of the mountains, but family.....they have food and spring water, plenty of space, and it is familiar ground. We choose home. We phone our neighbours who have children with ours at school, tell them we are evacuating, ask if they will come...but their family is all here, they choose to stay. I pray that they are right. I hope that we are wrong. At 11:00 the prime minister and minister for internal affairs give a press conference. They are evacuating everyone with 20km of the reactors, everyone between 20 and 30km should stay indoors. Packing bare essentials into the car we grab some lunch, make rice balls for the journey and leave. I drive away from Mashiko, from Ichikai, with fear and sorrow. I cannot save them, I can only save my family. I hope it not too late. On the way through Utsunomiya we see factories devastated by the earthquake, home centres and shopping centres, facades collapsed and debris still scattered in the car park. The road has cracks and fissures that shock the car as we drive over them, unaware until we feel the jolt. There are people on house rooves trying to effect repairs. Debris still lines many streets. We stop at a bank and withdraw some cash. The left hand lane is traffic jammed for 2km, but the right hand lane is clear. I realise that it is a queue for a petrol station. There is no petrol. Luckily I filled the tank the day before the earthquake!

We take the highway towards Nikko, the traffic is sparse, and gaps and fissures in the road have been freshly patch with asphalt. The children scream with excitement as we see a wild boar foraging on the side of the road. Life goes on. We leave the highway at Kiyotaki, stopping at a convenience store for some supplies and, well, convenience. "How was the earthquake here?" we ask.


"About 5, things fell off some shelves, but we were OK." they say.


"Mashiko was 6.6. Take care." We bid them farewell.


The Road to Gunma takes us through Ashio. The Mountains are steep on each side, barren for the most part. There were copper mines here for centuries, and the mountains have been raped. In recent years there has been a national effort to reforest these mountains. Last spring I came here with Sora and her class mates to plant 124 trees. Slowly the forest is returning.


We stop at a small unmanned railway station for a bladder break, and in the car park the first daffodils are blooming. I pick one for Mika. We drive on.


It is moving towards dusk as we drive through Mizunuma, and the traffic light are all off due to the rolling blackouts. The plums trees in the school playground are in full bloom. Life goes on.


We turn onto route 62, patches of snow at the sides of the road. The misty rain blurs the windscreen. Barren trees stand like dark sentinels on the snowy ground. There are no cars, except for us. We have driven through many tunnels through the mountains, half fearful for earthquakes, half grateful for shelter from possible fallout. The clouded drizzling night is black now, save for the pools of light from our headlights.


As the road twists out of a ravine we see the lights of Numata below us. We are through the mountains, we are in Gunma, we are safe. Relief rises in my chest. Not far now, not far now. We turn onto route 17, one more turn and we'll be there. Almost there. It is 7:00pm as we pull into the drive way. Mikas mum is waiting for us with hot soup and noodles. There is a shower waiting for us, a warm bed, a safe roof, secure shutters to keep out the invisible fallout. The wind from Fukushima does not blow here. I do not know what will happen tomorrow, we seem to have survived today. I do not know if this was the right course of action, or if I am a fool. The next few days will tell. I only know that I must protect my family. Earthquakes, tidal waves, these are acts of nature. We can see them, we can build our homes on higher ground, build them sturdier, we can learn. But I cannot protect against an invisible poison that floats on the breeze from four burning nuclear reactors. Man has done this, for power, for profit. I cannot protect my loved ones from a deadly nothing that irresponsible humans have unleashed, bottled in concrete vessels on the beach in an earthquake zone. I cannot defend against this lethal nothing, and it is the nothing that I fear.


Saturday, 12 March 2011

WE ARE SAFE



We are safe. My heart goes out to the many who are not. Aftershocks still shake our home, but we have food and emergency water...as I write the house shudders once again...the power returned late this afternoon and I can contact you and let you know that we are safe.

Yesterday afternoon I was in the studio putting handles on some vessels, when the floor shifted under my feet as if I were riding a train. The house began to rattle and shake, pots began to fall from the shelves and the vibration became a roar. I opened the door and rushed outside, turning back to look at the house as I went. It was swaying, like bamboo in the wind. I turned to see the kiln chimney swing left and right, somehow not collapsing but widening cracks appearing up its length. When the roof tiles came sliding off the roof I began to run; the children were at school.

I ran the seven hundred yards to the primary school, the children were already in the middle of the...the house shakes again as I write...play ground, the teachers herding them to safety. The children are crying and... my god that is another earthquake...it's OK, we thought we might need to get the kids out of their beds...that wasn't an after shock, that was another earthquake...the teachers were trying to contact people on their mobiles but there was no service. I can see Canaan and Rohan, they are safe. The ground is still moving like a raft, the teachers tell me parts of the ceiling have fallen in the school but the children and staff are all evacuated accounted for and safe. Rohan's teacher has a son at the pre school with Sean, I tell her I am going there and tell the boys to stay with their teachers. I run.
The pre school is a kilometer and a half further away. As I run down the road I see other houses with rooves gone, stone walls strewn across the road, stone storage houses collapsing. I was crying...I am crying now... past the police station, past the aged home where the staff are wheeling invalids out into the car park, I jump the fence and there is Sean in the play ground with all his friends. The teachers comfort them, the children cry, I hug Sean as he bravely wipes the tears from his little face. I talk to his teacher, the preschool is new and there seems to be no damage, the cell phones don't work. I tell her the primary children are all safe. Sora is still at the junior High, three quarters of a kilometer up the hill. I tell Sean to stay with his friends, I tell him to look after his teacher while I go to check on Sora. I run.
Roofing tiles are scattered across the road, the metal railing on the curb is twisted, there are cracks appearing across the road, a tree falls. As I reach the back gate of the school I can see Sora's teacher crossing towards the music room. I call out his name, he sees me and raises his arms to form a circle above his head; Sora is safe. Beyond the gate, across the playing fields, the students are sitting on the ground, the teacher giving them instructions. Many of the children are crying. The teachers tell me the ceilings have come down in the high school too, but the students and staff are all accounted for and safe. They can't contact anyone, they ask me if the damage is worse at the high school because it is at the top of the hill, I tell them it's the same all over, but the pre school and primary school are all safe and unharmed. I hug Sora. The ground moves again, I can see the clock tower swinging back and forth...another aftershock, will they never stop?...again, bigger...has it stopped? I'm not sure... I tell Sora to stay with her teacher also, as I don't know whether it's safe to go home. I retrace my steps, back to the preschool, tell them the High school kids are safe, hug Sean again, borrow the teachers cell phone and try to phone Mika. There is no service. Mika is in Mashiko at the museum where she now works. I can only pray.
I leave Sean with his teacher once again and return to the primary school. I tell Rohans teacher that her son, all the pre school and high school kids are safe. I see the relief on her face. Parents are coming to the school now, taking their children home. Some houses are untouched. I take Canaan and Rohan...another aftershock... and we walk to the preschool. Rohan forgot to grab his safety helmet and Canaan has given him his own...yet another...I praise him for protecting his little brother. I hug them both. I leave the boys at the pre school with Sean, and go to get Sora. One of the mothers of the children's school mates picks us up in her van and we get the boys and return home.

The house and kiln are still standing. A cold wind is chilling the children. I set up a tin stove in the back yard and go inside the house alone to get the kids ski ware. The inside of the house is a mess of broken pottery and glass. Sora looks after the boys outside while I assess the damage. No power, no water, no phone. The roof is a shambles, the back wall of the studio and house is shattered but still standing, the bathroom is a disaster. I get the kids a warm drink and some snacks, then start to clean up inside before it gets too dark. As dusk approaches Mika arrives home. Mashiko was hit hard too, the museum and many houses. All the climbing kilns are damaged but there seem to be no casualties. There was a bus of American tourist at the museum when the earthquake hit and she couldn't leave until they were safe. We are all in tears as we hug. We are safe. We are home.

We get the house functional, I rejoin the stove chimneys and we get the house warm. We break out the emergency water supplies and I get a hot meal on the table by candle light. We send the kids to bed in their clothes, just in case we need to evacuate in the middle of the night. Aftershocks continue, sometimes minutes apart, sometimes half an hour. As we listen to the radio a picture of how wide the devastation is, and how lucky we have been, begins to form.

After a sleepless night, we face a new day. The town is providing emergency water and food at the town hall. Friends come to share what they have, we clean up as best we can and go to help others. We finally contact Mika's family, they are safe.

Houses can be repaired or rebuilt, kilns too. Pottery can be replaced, remade. Stuff doesn't really matter. We'll manage somehow. My family, my loved ones, are safe and sound. They sleep in the next room as I write this to you. I thank God. We are the lucky ones, and my heart and prayers go out to those who are not.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

HINA MATSURI


When Sora was born, Mika's parents gave us a set of dolls for her. Not the sort she would pretend to have morning tea with, but a set of "Hina Ningyou" (雛人形) to pray for her health and happiness throughout life. At the end of every february we set up the dolls, with a small tray of sweets as an offering. Today, March 3rd is the actual celebration, and it is traditional to have "Chirashi Zushi" for our meal this evening. Originally, this celebration coincided with the peach blossom season, which in the old Japanese calendar was the 3rd day of the 3rd month (弥生 yayoi) but is actually the 3rd of April in the modern calendar. However, when the modern calendar was introduced on January 1st, 1871 (Meiji 6), Hina Matsuri (the doll festival) was observed on the same numerical date, but actually a month earlier. It is therefore considered bad luck for the dolls to remain on display after April 4th. Many families in this area put the dolls away tonight, but it is Mika's family tradition for them to be on display till March 8th, though the reason is a mystery!