Thursday, March 31, 2011

Last day in Hirosaki - and life in Utsunomiya

I started this draft about three weeks ago on our last day in Hirosaki and I decided to keep it. I've asterisked the paragraphs that are old and added new annotative ones, along with some photos. We've been without the internet for a while you see, but we're now back online.

*Well, it's been two months, but they've flown by almost as if we arrived yesterday. The snow has held out longer than I thought, and there are still piles of it, melting away. The seasons now seem to have changed though, and I am confident that Hirosaki will no longer see any accumulating snowfalls.

Me and Okaasan enjoying our last beer together in Hirosaki, the day before we left for the south. If you look carefully, you will notice that the hand on her shoulder isn't actually mine! Pretty freaky, since I have no idea whose hand it is!

Here in Utsunomiya, the weather has been much warmer, but this past week saw a sudden drop for some reason. Forecasts suggest a climb (in temperature) next week though, and we even heard the cicadas making their din for the first time last night! Summer's on its way!

The school where I work. Classrooms to the right, playground to the left. I'll take some shots of my classroom and the funky displays we've been making next week.

*The time we have spent here has been heavily overshadowed by the recent earthquake and subsequent misery. Although our day to day lives have been comparatively unaffected by what happened further south (apart from the fuel shortage), we are still concerned about its continuing affect on the whole of the country, and in particular Fukushima and surrounding kens. Tochigi borders Fukushima to the south, and we will be living in the south of that prefecture, which puts us at about 150km distance from the nuclear power plant crisis. However, it is still a concern, and we will have to get used to power saving measures such as planned blackouts every day, early shop closures, and dark shop/public building interiors. The latter of which is already a common feature in Hirosaki anyway.

There is actually no apparent affect to the area where we are living now. The only thing that we see on a regular basis is a large number of Jieitai (SDF) vehicles and helicopters coming and going from the base in Utsunomiya to the disaster zone up north. People don't seem to be concerned about the possibility of radiation leaks anymore, at least not this far south anyway, and the local food and water is not considered to be dodgy.

Famous Tochigi strawberries. They are good sweet fruits and less than a quid per punnet from the farm where I buy mine. At that price, I won't need to grow my own!

*The map above shows the distance between the Fukushima nuclear power plant which is in crisis (blue dot to the north), and Utsunomiya (blue dot to the south). As you can see, it's much closer to the problem than Aomori, which is shown on the map at the top of the main island. There have been no reports of problematic levels of radiation there, yet!

As mentioned above, people here are not altering their lifestyles due to what has happened in Fukushima. All shortages of goods have been recovered and life here is no different to how it is in the rest of the country. That aside, I am bracing for the subsequent recession that people are predicting for the next couple of years. At the minute though, if you head to Interpark on a Sunday afternoon you would not believe for a minute that Japan's economy was stalling. Folks are consuming like maniacs around here.

Three weeks have passed, and I can now confidently say that the job, apartment, and locality in general are really nice. One downer is that onsens (hot spring spas) are not quite as abundant here as they are in Aomori, which makes our bi-weekly bathing trips something to think about. I'm sure we'll find somewhere that we like eventually and stick with it. Until then though, we're checking out the few onsens around Utsunomiya, and at the weekend we are heading a bit further north to the mountainous areas where there are more to choose from. At some point I might write a paragraph describing the onsen we went to last Saturday in the foothills of Nikko national park. A serene spot, with a 100m electricity pylon right in the middle of the hotel grounds. Only in Japan!!

Our new Mitsubishi EK Wagon. It is supposed to do 50 miles to the gallon on the open road, but so far we've mainly been stuck in traffic. We have to wear the yellow and green badges for some reason, since we've been out of the country for a few years and we both have speeding records on our licenses.

Aki is busy looking for jobs. She's been focused on those which involve speaking English until now, but I think she's going to broaden her search soon if she doesn't get any leads. She has kept herself busy preparing our new vegetable garden though, which we have kindly been lent by the estate agent who manages our apartment. He's given us a really big piece of land right next to where we live, which we are going to make the most of this summer. Sweet potatoes are my challenge this year, but I've been told that they do very well in this climate, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Aki, in our bedroom, trying to touch her toes.

The following shots are from our apartment.

Our apartment is in need of more furniture, which we will start to buy once I get paid. Apart from that it's really nice, and spacious compared to other apartments where I've lived in Japan. We have about 50 square metres of growing land right next door. It's so close, Aki can literally pass me a full watering can out of the kitchen window.

A house on the way to school. I get a good hour's worth of cycling everyday, apart from Wednesdays, when Aki takes me in and I run back. It's a good five mile run, and I have been keeping up my regular 10k at the weekend as well.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A lack of certainty

I have uploaded some shots here which give some idea of what Hirosaki has been like over the last few days. There has been a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the availability of goods and transport, following the tsunami last Friday. Fuel has been particularly scarce, and for a while it was being rationed out at 10ltrs per car at each gas station. I'm not sure what the real problem is behind the fuel shortage, and I can only think that it's due to major roads being closed off to private use.

People cueing to get into Max Valu. They were cueing because the only way you could buy things was by having your own personal human calculator follow you around and list the items you put in your trolley. The electricity outage had put the tills out of service.

An even longer cue waiting at Home Centre Sunday. I guess folks were keen to stock up on batteries and other survival gear.

This sign at the petrol station says that they are finished for business, at noon. Most gasoline stands are now.

No price given for regular fuel.

The last price they gave was 151 yen per litre. This is much higher than the average price when we arrived here six weeks ago, which was around 135 yen.

The outage caused ice creams to melt and now they are being sold at half price. Just about the only good thing to come from all this though.

Empty shelves at Lawsons.

More empty shelves.

More empty shelves.

Just about the only thing around here that is certain.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Big Earthquake

It's been a few days since the biggest earthquake on Japanese records took place, and even here in safe-old-Hirosaki things still seem quite weird. There's a lot of uncertainty in the air, particularly with regard to our power supply. I've just been forwarded a circular e-mail from the Tokyo Electric Company saying that we should be frugal with our use of electricity, and to expect further cuts in the near future. In addition, the mail, which is being spread as a viral message, has a note from the Jieitai (Special Defense Forces) advising people in Chiba and surrounding areas to make sure they wear raincoats and use umbrellas in the rain due to chemicals being dispersed into the atmosphere during the fire at two industrial plants down South.

I first noticed that the power had gone when crossing the road from the study centre where I was when the tremors started. The centre had closed due to the power cut, but I wasn't then aware it was city-wide. I had a strange feeling it was a serious earthquake though, since not only were the walls of the centre shaking and rattling, but the floor seemed to be moving around quite abruptly and it was hard to keep my balance. When we were stood outside waiting for it to die down I heard two very loud bangs coming from the direction of Hirosaki Gas, though no major problems have been reported since. Actually, I'm glad I no longer live in an apartment that backs onto the gas company premises because there's always the potential for disaster there.

When I got back to Aki's family home there was nobody else about and all the electric was off. I knew that Aki and everyone was safe though because I'd managed to get through to Aki previously after several attempts on a network that was clearly having trouble. There was nothing for me to do but wait, and when they came home eventually Aki's mum cracked straight on with the cooking before it got dark (luckily the gas doesn't depend on electricity to work in this house).

That night, there were about nine or ten of us sat around a few candles eating curry, occasionally watching the 1seg broadcast on our mobile phones. I couldn't watch too much though because my battery was running out and we weren't sure for how long the power was due to be down. At the dinner table Aki's mum and dad, who hadn't actually watched any footage on the phone broadcasts, played down the impact of the quake and didn't think much of it. The last thing I saw before I sat down for dinner was a boat tipping into the street in Hachinohe, onto a convenience store, and then cars being swept away. I thought that was the worst of it.

It was a lovely evening all in all, with the romantic aspect of having to eat by candlelight. Everybody got an early night and expected the power back by morning. I woke up again at two o'clock though, and quickly switched on the 1seg news. The footage had got a lot worse, showing pictures of masses of cars floating in the streets. I went back to sleep feeling a bit freaked out by it all, and then woke up once more at 4am to the bang and clatter of the second quake in Nagano. It shook the room really hard, so we leapt out of bed in an attempt to run downstairs quickly, Aki falling on her knees briefly in the dark. Typically, Aki's mum and dad were still in bed and they seemed a bit put out that we had made such a big deal of it all. I guess at this point I had seen a lot more images and video footage than they had and I was apparently a lot more edgy.

We went back to bed after the tremors had disappeared and we both watched a little bit more footage of what was obviously by this point a major disaster. I wasn't sure what I was looking at, but there was fire and houses floating down streets and all sorts of stuff that hadn't even entered my mind on the afternoon of the day before.

Two days prior to this 9.0 earthquake there was a small one, just off the coast of Aomori, that had reminded me about the occurrence of quakes in Japan and that they were very often nothing to worry about. I was in the same study centre when it happened, and the very second (literally) I felt the tremor, I walked downstairs and there was already a special news broadcast with a tsunami warning on the big widescreen TV for everyone to see. Absolutely no messing about there, it was up and broadcast within seconds. Nobody seemed all that interested though, and I can understand why since the vast majority of times you sit watching a webcam of a little fishing port where there is absolutely nothing going on, apart from some old Japanese fisherman fixing a pedal on his pushbike, absolutely oblivious to the fact that he's appearing on a national news-flash. These mundane tsunami warnings usually hog the TV schedule and become a real bore on the eyes.

The warning on Friday afternoon demonstrated why they take priority. Only a few hours after the earthquake a wall of sea water up to 10 metres high, and traveling at several hundred miles per hour, had battered the whole Northern stretch of the Honshuu Pacific Coastline, from Kanagawa to Hokkaido. When the power came back on midday Saturday I literally felt sick and deeply upset as I watched the world broadcasts from the previous twenty hours. I hadn't yet seen the images of whole towns, similar in size to places like Ajigasawa and Fukaura, being smashed to pieces by the water. I went through all of the footage I could stomach, and then went downstairs to find that there was a nuclear crisis in full swing in Fukushima (which is still getting worse by the looks of things).

Aki's brother is planning to go to Hachinohe to help with the recovery. He runs a transport company and wants to support another company that regularly supplies them with work. I would really love to go, but it's a week-long commitment and there are no places to stay in Hach either. What's more, gasoline is now in very short supply and to drive all that way would be a bit excessive. However, it seems wrong that we have all we need, and plenty more, up here while there is clearly desperation and poverty just down the road.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

It seemed to blend into the sky. The snow reflecting blue light into my eyes was a really dreamy sight.

The top station at Hakkoda. Things have changed - there are now numerous screens with more information and photos than there were before. No shop selling cheap souvenirs anymore. Outside is still the same though!

The entrance to Fukuzawa Onsen. Rustic to say the least.

I just had to have my photo taken with the old boy who runs the place. Neither Chris nor I had ever been here before, and we were both impressed by how stuck in time it was. There were stuffed animals all over the place, and when asked by Chris if they were the rewards of a hard days hunting back in the old man's more vibrant days, he replied that they were simply road kill.

Aki clearing the snow.

The jikka (family home) where we are staying now.

The following shots are of the Hinasama display that Aki and I put together the other week. They are dolls, which probably have far more significance than I'm aware of, and they are brought out each year as part of a festival for girls.

Man with fan.

Men with instruments.

Bearded man with bow and arrow.

Just some old oyaji.

Now we've got to pack the whole lot away tomorrow!

Apart from what there is in the pictures, I can tell you that it's still snowing, and that the forecast shows snow for the next week or so. It hasn't been heavy in Hirosaki, though Hakkoda had a metre of fresh the other day and we had a great day on the mountain with cracking weather. The snow quality was a little heavier than what I remember though, and it left me wishing that I had managed to get a bit of the real cold stuff that fell in January. Still, I'm just happy to be skiing into March!

We had a party at Aki's home on Saturday night which left Chris and I in a less than motivated state for Sunday's session at the climbing wall. It really sucks to go back there after four years of not climbing and find that you are not able to do the really easy routes that were once a walk in the park. I am resolved to start climbing on a fairly regular basis in Utsunomiya though, and there looks to be some good wall centres there too!!