By Kris Gravender (Fukushima-ken, 2002-06) for JQ magazine. Kris was one of eight American JET alums selected for the Tohoku Invitational Program sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japan Tourism Agency. This article was originally printed in the Oct. 21, 2011 issue of Chicago’s bilingual newspaper Chicago Shimpo.
What could I do? What could I really do? I was fighting the urge to return to Aizu simply because I knew the possibility for contracting some kind of cancer, but I felt I just had to do something. When the earthquake hit we knew it was bad, but the tsunami made everything worse. Then, to top it all off, Fukushima was becoming a “nuclear wasteland,” according to the news reports we were getting, and there was nothing we could do for the place we love.
My wife, being from Aizu, was distraught for weeks. She called her family, friends she hadn’t talked to in years, and even the local International Association, to get as much news as possible. Her aunt and uncle live in Sendai, and there was no communication from them, not to mention that her brother is a police officer and was being sent into the radiation zone to assist with evacuations. Eventually we were told everyone was safe and healthy, and yet this didn’t do much to make us feel better. We donated money, clothes, and food to the Red Cross, but it just didn’t seem to be enough to make us feel like we were helping.
Then I heard from a friend about a program the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was sponsoring for JET alums to return to their hometowns and tour, as long as they communicated with the outside world about what they saw, felt, and experienced. It was almost as if God was trying to tell me, “Here’s your chance.” My wife and I talked about it for days: If I go, what kinds of problems would I face; what would I do while I was there; could I go into the zone for just a couple of hours to see for myself what was happening; and a whole list of questions and ideas. No matter what the answers became, I knew I had to go.
The good news was that the Ministry was very open to whatever needed to be accomplished. Their objective for this program was to allow JET alums (who were there for longer than a year) to return to the areas they lived, tour around their “hometowns,” talk to friends and/or family to make sure everyone was all right, and generally see for themselves how the country was handling the devastation. Their only request, other than to stay in a hotel and keep track of what money we spent, was to document our time by social media, YouTube, Twitter, or any other internet-based form. I believe their hope was to show the international community that what we had been seeing on the news is not exactly the whole story.
I was selected as one of only 18 participants from the thousands of JETs who have participated over the years and was sent back to my second hometown of Aizu, in the western third of Fukushima Prefecture. After spending a night in Tokyo and meeting with a Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative the next day, I boarded the Tohoku Shinkansen and headed for Koriyama, which is in the central section of Fukushima; only 40 miles or so from the nuclear reactor. Along the way, I noticed how much greenery there was in the area on the way into Fukushima. It was the first week of August, so the rice fields were a healthy dark green, and as the buildings started to become less prevalent and the nature started to take over, I knew I was heading home.
Upon arrival in Koriyama I quickly changed trains and headed for Aizu. The symbol of Aizu, the red bull called Akabeko, stared at me from the walls of Koriyama Station, and followed me in the train all the way to the city of Aizuwakamatsu. The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Aizu was the general lack of change. For an area that was supposedly in decline due to the lack of economy, Aizu seemed to have been unaffected by it. Leaving Wakamatsu Station was still difficult thanks to the number of cars and buses trying to exit at the same place, and the traffic from the station to my hotel, which was about a 10 minute drive, was full of cars, bicycles, and people walking. In other words, it was a typical Monday in Aizu, showing no ill effects of the troubles on the coast.
And yet, there was something wrong. It took me a little bit, but I finally noticed there were no tourists during the busiest tourism season of the year. No groups of school kids on their field trips to study the past; no busloads of the elderly coming to use the spacious onsens; and no families spending their children’s summer vacation time checking out the gorgeous Aizu nature. In that manner, for the first time I had ever seen, Aizu was empty.
I had found my calling: I understood why I was chosen. Aizu’s main industry is tourism: over 40 percent of the area’s income stems from the travelers that visit throughout the year. However, due to the media’s characterization of Fukushima as a slow death by nuclear radiation (even though the mayor himself had used a meter and taken negative readings at multiple places in the city), no one was coming.
In order to do what I could for my second hometown, I spent the next few days walking around an area of Japan where I lived for six years, seeing places I had not seen before, and revisiting those I had. My goal was to document my trip by Flip video camera; a simple way to upload video to websites like YouTube and Facebook. As of this moment, my group on Facebook called The Aizu Experience has over 200 members, all of whom have seen most of the videos I created.
My earnest wish, at this moment, is for more people to see the videos and know that I was there, saw one of the most beautiful areas of the world, and lived through it. I ate the food, drank the water, had some sake, and have had no health problems since. No matter what we hear from government, media, or other opinionated “experts,” Aizu is alive and thriving, and still one of the best places to visit in the world. If you don’t believe me, look at my Facebook group, my videos on YouTube, or, better yet, go to Aizu and see for yourself. You will be welcomed in my hometown.