I am sure this is not difficult…once you figure it out. 

When I awoke before dawn on April 21, there still were neither rooms nor cars to be rented in Sendai, Japan. But I had an appointment in that city at the end of the day and I was going anyway.  

Then, I got a response from a query thrown out on the Internet the night before. It offered a room in a small town nearby, so I went for it, catching a train from the Narita Airport on the northeast side of Tokyo into the central station, there changing for a bullet train to Fukushima, and then a local train for the last leg to Sendai.

A curious observation though: I saw no other Westerners after leaving the airport. Not one the entire day while traversing a city and land of many millions.

The bullet train to Fukushima slices across the radiation hot zone ringing the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants. The Japanese government is evacuating residents from a 30-km-dia zone. It had been telling those living beyond 18 km away to stay inside, but now it is just telling them to get away.  Weeks ago the U.S. State Dept. told Americans to clear out for 80 km around. Keeping people from living in the area and accumulating radiation exposure day after day is the reason for the broad zones.

As the bullet train heads north from Tokyo the streets outside are teeming with buses, trucks and cars. The streets are tightly lined by houses jumbled on top of each other and high rise apartment buildings standing tall, with miles of terraces festooned by laundry flapping in the wind. Everywhere, the clothes are hung out to dry.

Most houses have tile roofs of red, blue or grey. They don’t look much different from the two-story homes on the edges of many American cities, unless the owner has decided here to crown the ridge lines oversized terracotta tiles that make the lines grow bold and with a suggestive “Pagoda” style.

As we leave the city we cross rivers with wide flood plains edged by big levees. Soccer fields and golf courses are the only things built there. Elsewhere, rice paddies are common and many have people working in them: Rectangular pools of shining water laid out side-by-side, right up to the houses and highways.

About one person in 10 on the trains, on the platforms or in the fields, is wearing a white particle facemask.


blog post photo

At 3 p.m. we stop at Sukagawa, where the penciled ring on my map suggests we enter the edge of the 80-km ring exclusion zone. The terrain changes. We pop through of a short tunnel and now the ground is hilly and plowed fields are brown and dry.  Suddenly, there are very few farmers to be seen, and I conclude that it is either because the crops are on a different calendar from the rice paddies, or the farmers are not planting.

The groomed, brown fields go on and on, waiting, like a stood-up bride.

There is some traffic on the roads, but not much.  We pass many lovely homes, but nobody is outside. The windows are closed. Some have cars parked out front, other homes look empty. It is like a beach town in the offseason. You see a few individuals here and there but not often. And on nearly all the high-rise balconies and in the farmyards and backyards of the villages, the clotheslines hang empty.

There is a slow trickle of activity in the towns; It doesn’t quite feel abandoned, but in some places it’s close.  I keep thinking of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, “On the Beach.”

As we pull into Koriyama about half the people wear masks. In Tokyo people wear face masks the way kids in Brooklyn wear baseball caps. It doesn’t signify. But maybe here, in this case, it does.

There were 18 people left in the car that seats almost 100 by the time we got to Fukushima. But then we switched to a 50-seat local car for the last leg to Sendai and it filled up with a full range of characters, from retirees, to business folk to uniformed school kids.  Almost all the children wore masks.

This train moves more slowly and rides closer to the earth than the big, fast train. Its springs talk to themselves like barnyard animals when we crawl into the stations, crewwwing like roosters worrying bugs or clucking like hens laying eggs. And now I see something else odd about the fields.  They aren’t sprouting neat rows of new crops along the furrows.  They are sprouting burgeoning throw-rugs of weeds.

 As we near Sendai I am surprised not to see evident earthquake damage from the 9.0 magnitude monster that struck offshore on March 11. The houses seem fine and rather ordinary, although there does seem to be a big season in terracotta roof repair going on. It’s just along the top, usually. Along the ridgeline.

Then, after the station of Natori I see my first unmistakable sign of the tsunami: a long line of crushed, mangled, mud-caked vending machines laid out in a parking lot like corpses after a battle. But as we roll on into Sendai Station I see nothing more painful than that.

I stop for a map and guidance in the station and the building starts to wobble and sway. “Earthquake,” says the young woman assisting me. “Small one.” No one seems to take notice.

When I finally land for the night my host explains a few things. I saw no foreigners, he says, because they all have fled. The clotheslines and fields are empty because yes, those people are gone, too. And he said people are more likely to be wearing masks today near this part of Japan because of their fear of radiation, but even more, he said, it is because the closer you get to the belt of devastation along the coast, the more the air is befouled by the dust and pestilence of destruction. 

And the roofing work? The clay tiles are unforgiving and interlock. When the earthquakes flail the buildings the load concentrates along the ridgelines and peaks, shattering the tiles there.

I suppose you could put heavier tiles along those rooflines if it was a reoccurring problem. Kind of Pagoda style.

We had another earthquake about an hour ago as I was writing this. It lasted about a minute as it tapered off. It boomed like thunder, rattled the doors, made the lampshade dance and caused my chair to bob around like a little boat.

My landlord and his family are asleep. But he told me before he went to bed that it happens several times a day and suggested I just ignore them. If it is a big one, he said he would come get me.

Tomorrow I will link up with the ASCE team here in Natori and we will walk through tsunami hell. My landlord says the water came within two kilometers of this house. It stopped just down the street. Beyond that point, the city is gone.