The heart in darkness
A story of radiation, karaoke and destiny as a group
of strangers struggles with the future of a forgotten village
Written by Bowen West
Looking for all the world like he just wandered off the set of “Miami Vice,” Show Takahashi strolled the aisles of a Tomioka grocery store, shopping for food for the first foreign visitors to his Airbnb. Wearing a white jacket, white cargo pants and a pink button-up shirt with the collar up, he had a shopping basket of assorted meats in a basket over his arm.
Airbnb host Show Takahashi holds up his iPad to Bowen West. The iPad and Google Translate were key to conversations between residents and foreign visitors. Photo by Sydney MacDonald
He had just picked up his guests, two women and a man, and brought them to the supermarket. He turned to them and let his iPad and Google Translate do the talking. There is a pause while the device translates:
“Let’s eat dinner women.”
Takahashi paused. He started speaking into the device. Pause:
“Let’s eat dinner together.”
This is a story about forming community -- or, rather, the optimism that it takes to rebuild a society; the optimism it takes to use technology in a place that was nearly destroyed by it; the optimism of living in a dangerous environment. It is about opening up, and the nerve it takes to sing The Beatles in front of strangers. It is about outcasts finding comfort in each other. This is a story about the people who love Katsurao village.
Katsurao is a small village on the brink of extinction. It once housed roughly 1,000 residents, but today, fewer than 100 people call it home. After the 3.11 triple disaster, 90 percent of the city was evacuated due to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant meltdown. In 2016 the Japanese government said that the radiation levels were safe and lifted the evacuation order.
The Japanese government divided Katsurao village into three parts -- one with just a radiation warning, another that blocked residents from visiting after daylight hours, the third is in the “red zone.”
The “red zone” is barricaded, a section that no one is allowed to enter. A cracked road, blocked by a metal gate, leads to abandoned houses swallowed by weeds. A radiation monitoring station stands guard at the gate: 1.017 microsieverts.
Katsurao was never a paradise, even before the looming threat of radiation. The nearest hospital is 30 minutes away. There are no book stores here. The schools are empty. What it lacks in average conveniences it makes up for with the nature that cradles it.
The village is surrounded by a thick forest, punctuated by flattened patches of land empty fields with mounds of massive garbage bags of contaminated waste piled on top - formerly fields where vegetables used to grow.
Matsumoto Takeaki still plows these empty fields; he has to or the soil will get rough. He wants to grow flowers but he said that nobody will buy them if they are from this countryside.
The host Takahashi is an outsider to this countryside. He lived in Tokyo during the triple disaster and moved to Fukushima prefecture shortly after. He moved to Koriyama in Fukushima because of its charm. He is an outlander here, but he sees a future in this prefecture.
He sees a place that will attract young people with a spirit for adventure. He envisions Katsurao as the next Silicon Valley. His Airbnb is a way to attract people to this area. If people experience this place they, too, will see its charm.
He advertises his Airbnb as a destination for dark tourism -- sightseeing that explores concepts of death and disaster. The Katsurao Adventure Resort promises to let guests experience Fukushima. He promises to show visitors a damaged Fukushima Prefecture on its way to reconstruction.
In Takahashi’s vision of the future, young people don’t fear the risks of radiation if they can rebuild a lost village. Takahashi spoke into the iPad. Pause:
“If there are places that fail it’s attractive for young people to rebuild them.”
Katsurao occupies the space where never, today and someday meet.
'Katsurao occupies the space where never, today and someday meet.'
Members of the Katsurao Village live next to huge piles of radioactive soil that are bagged, and placed in empty fields around their small farming town. The population of the Katsurao Village was 1,000 before the nuclear disaster of 3.11, abut now is home to about 100 residents. According to villagers, many families and young adults are afraid to move back to Katsuaro due to their fear of high radiation levels in the area. Photo by Sydney MacDonald
At 6 p.m., under a grayish sky, Makoto Takada drove into the gravelly driveway of the Katsurao Adventure Resort. Takahashi was putting out the campfire while his friend, Hiroshi Aoyama, sat and finished his fourth cigarette of the evening, in contemplative silence.
Takada, a journalist, wrote a story about Takahashi leaving Tokyo for Fukushima. They’ve been friends ever since; their friendship borders on brotherhood. This time Takada was writing a story about the first foreigners staying at his friend’s Airbnb. The Adventure Resort has housed 30 people from Tokyo, but never foreigners.
Aoyama finished his cigarette.
Everyone went inside and prepared themselves dinner on an irori, a traditional Japanese hearth. The meal was a simple one -- chicken, beef, pork, with rice that was proudly grown in Koriyama city. Asahi Super Dry beer flowed readily. Everyone sat around the irori, reaching into the pit in the middle to grab the meat of their choice. Takahashi typed. Pause:
“Do you like meat?”
The foreigners started speaking into the iPad. Pause:
“Yes, I like me.”
Munakata Tadao entered late wearing an all-white jinbei, the traditional shorts and jacket men wear in the summer. An engineer by trade, he walked over to the irori and started in on the meat with his chopsticks, grabbing each piece from the grill with vigor. This was Japanese hospitality in a nutshell.
Tadao is a spry 63 year old. He chalked his good health up to his investigation into food that could be contaminated by radiation. In addition to learning about radiation, he discovered preservatives and started aiming for a healthier diet, he said.
Takahashi and Tadao dominated the conversation. Topics ranged from the condition of agricultural health in Fukushima, to distrust of both the government and the media.
Still, Aoyama stayed silent.
Beneath his silent and contemplative presence, Aoyama is a man who loves to sing. He has a karaoke studio set up in the small, wooden house he built near Katsurao.
He seems like a loner. That was how he bonded with Takahashi. Neither was born and raised in the area, so they found kinship in their shared outsider status. For a small house on a hill in a mostly-evacuated radioactive village, Aoyama has an auspicious number of guest slippers.
He records duets online with a woman residing in Hiroshima; he shares them on Youtube.
He sang The Beatle’s “Yesterday” to the foreigners. He never looked at anything but the screen; this was the first time he opened up to the strangers. He hit each note impeccably.
“Yesterday, love was such an easy game to play. Now I need a place to hide away. Oh, I believe in yesterday,” Hiroshi sang. His voice shook on the final hums of the song.
The strangers sang “Hey Jude” for Aoyama. He clapped along, a smile on his face.
(Left) Katsurao local and Takahasi’s driver, Hiroshi Aoyama, records himself singing Beatles songs for his YouTube channel. Aoyama explains that he loves karaoke, and often sings in local bars. (Top right) Takahasi points to Google Translate on his ipad, to ask if visitors want to sing ‘Hey Jude’ on karaoke. (Bottom right) Takahasi prepares a barbecue dinner for all his guests on an irori, a traditional Japanese hearth. The dinner included chicken, beef, pork and rice. Photos by Sydney MacDonald
Tadao typed. The laptop spoke. Pause:
“3.11 is something that God is aware of.”
Tadao didn’t blame God for 3.11. Tadao knew God was watching Fukushima on that day. He doesn’t know if God is watching now, watching to see if this prefecture will be okay.
Takahashi looked at the foreigners and held up a finger, asking for a moment. He and Tadao talked about the radiation. He started typing. Pause:
“The monitoring post seen earlier in the day was not true. Actually, it’s three times that.”
There is a personal radiation tracker that lies on the edge of the porch. It revealed the real radiation in the area. Nuclear fear was in the air. These men may be optimists. But they aren’t foolish.
Even Takahashi, the one who sees the brightest future in this village, is afraid of it. Long into the evening, he revealed that most of the time he lives with his wife and three children in Koriyama, about an hour drive from Katsurao village.
Takahashi grabbed his laptop and started typing. He wrote something but quickly tapped the ‘delete’ key. He had to word what he was going to say next perfectly. He finished. Pause:
“It is impossible to dispel the bad reputation of Fukushima.”
'This is a place that keeps the dreamers who lost nothing in the disaster warm for a night.'
Japanese journalist Makoto Takada interviews Rene Sanchez and Bowen West about their time reporting on the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Photo by Sydney MacDonald
Makoto Takada is a reserved man, a journalist accustomed to being a fly on the wall. His voice is not just soft, it is the essence of softness; it is not just shy, it is the essence of shyness; he is not just bashful, he is the essence of bashfulness. He rarely starts a conversation, unless he’s reporting. He is content with his own silence.
That silence disappeared with enough Asahi Super Dry beer.
“I’m glad I met you,” Takada said to the foreigners.
Takada has covered the disaster for the past six years, now he tries to write stories that show the progress Fukushima is making. His favorite story was about the first baby cow born after the disaster. It was a story about hope, he said.
This cabin was built before the earthquake. It isn’t the most cozy cabin. There are cobwebs in just about every corner, doors fight to slide open and the water has a strange taste to it. But for one night it was the most beautiful cabin in the world. This cabin that sits at the edge of a contaminated forest and is eternally destined to be home to strangers. It houses people who care about a forgotten town. This is a place that keeps the dreamers who lost nothing in the disaster warm for a night.
“Although it is unfortunate, the disaster is what brought us here tonight,” Takada said. “I think it’s destiny that we met.” No iPad needed.