Life on the edge of Japan's nuclear contamination zone
- 5 July 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
Minamisoma used to be an unremarkable place, a sprawl of houses and 24-hour convenience stores loosely scattered between paddy fields. But these days it is cut in two.
The police have thrown barriers across the roads heading towards the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They have flashing lights, batons and face masks. By law, 20km around the reactors is now a no-go zone.
A hundred paces away a 7-Eleven shop is still open. But its car park is where emergency workers going to deal with the disaster get ready, pulling on white boiler suits, masks and goggles to protect themselves from radiation.
Theirs are the only vehicles allowed through the roadblock.
The people of Minamisoma have had a difficult decision to make.
Just outside the exclusion zone radiation levels are higher than normal, although not enough to prompt Japan's government to order an evacuation.
The overgrown gardens and light traffic on the streets show many have abandoned their homes. Others have chosen to stay.
Yoshiuki Nunokawa is still serving customers at his fruit shop where cherries grown in Fukushima prefecture are on prominent display.
It is peak harvest season. In normal years farmers can sell them by mail order at 3,000 yen ($37.50) a kilogram. They are a popular gift to send to family and colleagues. But this year that trade is down.
"I took over the shop from my father, so I feel that I must keep it going," says Mr Nunokawa. "And as long as there are still customers I think it is my duty to provide food to them."
Yukie Kawamura used to be a customer, but now she is living a six-hour drive away up in the mountains with her two children, 12-year-old Kururu and eight-year-old Ei.
They abandoned Minamisoma five days after the earthquake and tsunami and found themselves in Katashina by chance. Eager to help fellow Japanese in distress, the local authorities in the ski resort sent 24 coaches to Minamisoma and the Kawamuras got on.
They have been staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan inn ever since. There is not much room on the tatami mat floor, even when the futons are folded away into the cupboards in the morning.
The children are fitting into the local school well, but Yukie cannot forget their old lives in Minamisoma.
"I was born and grew up in that town," she says, dabbing the tears from her eyes with a flannel.
"But when I think about what's best for my children I can't go back. I didn't want to leave at first. But my father was worried about his grandchildren. He said: 'If you have the opportunity to go, you should.'"
In the first weeks after the disaster, Katashina, a town of 5,000 people, was hosting more than 1,000 evacuees. The number has now fallen to 285 as some have moved on elsewhere, or returned home.
The crisis at Fukushima is far from over. Japan's government and Tepco are sticking to their pledge to bring the reactors to a cold shutdown by January at the latest. The International Atomic Energy Agency has described the target as "ambitious".
After teething problems, workers have now set up machinery to clean contaminated water and then use it to cool the reactors.
Establishing a closed cooling system is a key step to bringing the crisis under control. Hosing down the reactors from outside has left the facility with well over 100,000 tons of irradiated water.
Even once the immediate disaster is over, cleaning up around Fukushima could take years. The Tanaka family, who also got on the bus to Katashina, have already decided they are never returning to Minamisoma.
They have opened up a new ramen noodle restaurant to replace the one they left behind. Kazuo Tanaka, the 70-year old family patriarch, takes the customers' orders. At an age when most men would have retired, he's been forced to start again after losing everything.
"What's happened has happened," says Mr Tanaka. "So as far as I'm concerned, how I'm going to rebuild my life is more important than anything else."