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Fukushima, Minamisoma and Odaka

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Most people are familiar with the devastating earthquake which struck Japans eastern coast on 11 March 2011.  The 9.0 magnitude quake caused severe damage to 3 of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant subsequently releasing high levels of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere and into the ocean. This incident was to become one of the worst nuclear disasters since the Chernobyl tragedy in April 1986.  To eliminate any possible exposures to dangerously high levels of radiation, 300,000 people were immediately evacuated from the area's surrounding the plant, a majority of them being residents from the seaside town of Minamisoma.  A 25 kilometre radius exclusion zone was implemented around the now stricken reactor but 1 year later, was reduced to 10 kilometres, allowing for most of the towns former residents to return to their homes. 

Over the past 3.5 years there has been a substantial clean up, however a lot of the surrounding farming areas still remain flattened, muddy and dotted with debris.  A few ruined buildings and houses can be spotted in paddocks and fields which act as a heart breaking reminder of the powerful and destructive force of the Tsunami.  Contrary to what most people would think, the coastline itself is actually beautiful and the water is blue and sparkly, but you can sense something sinister in the ocean as you stare out over what is now the most poisonous coastline on earth.  

A quiet seaside road led me into Minamisoma’s town centre.   Although a majority of the shops and businesses were closed, life in the town was evident after I spotted a few elderly people on bikes.  Some houses along the residential streets were in a state of disarray (obviously the former homes of residents who'd decided not to return) however most homes had been restored to their original form with manicured gardens and new cars sitting in driveways.  I’d heard that most of the young people had deserted Minamisoma for fear of radiation poisoning, relocating to other parts of Japan, whilst a majority of the elderly citizens had decided to stay.  This became more and more evident as I drove further into town, spotting not one child or teenager or anyone that looked under 30.

I decided to head 10 Kilometres south towards the abandoned town of Odaka.  This small municipality sits approximately 15 kilometres from the stricken Daiichi plant.  It was initially placed within the zone of exclusion however, as of June 2013, it was announced by the Government that visitors could spend one day in the town whereas overnight stays would be forbidden (unless you were a resident).

I passed only one car on my way to Odaka's town centre – a feeble old man in an old Honda.  I also noted that the road sides became more and more overgrown and dishevelled the further in I drove.  I reached the perimeter of the township and observed the first row of boarded up shops and buildings, then spotted two dogs running around in a vacant parking lot - this was the only sign of life. I drove up a residential side street aligned with abandoned houses and front gardens that were now overgrown and covered in kudzu vine...still, not a car or person in site.  I decided to pull over and go for a stroll.  It was a warm day and I was dressed in only shorts and a t shirt.  Although the Government had outlined that radiation levels in this area were moderately safe, I still wondered whether my clothing was safe enough to protect me from any radioactive molecules or Caesium 137 particles that could perhaps be floating in the air.  I also put on my
sanitation face mask to reduce any chance of possibly inhaling anything.  

As there were no cars, I found myself walking down the middle of the main street.  The traffic lights would eerily change from red to green every couple of minutes for non-existent traffic and the pedestrian crossings made eerie clicking sounds for people that weren’t there.   I walked past a beauty salon and peered through its dirty windows and spotted chairs covered in dust with small tins of hair product scattered over the floor.  I noted a few boarded up restaurants with chairs stacked on top of dusty tables inside.  A kitchenware shop was closed however, still had its outside display of pots and pans now sitting weather beaten and rusted on the footpath.  I strolled further along the main street which seemed to stretch into nothingness and still, spotted not one person or car.  The knowledge that I was so close to Daiichi kept creeping over me, giving me eerie feelings of anxious uncertainty.  I'd been walking for about 20 minutes and suddenly heard the faint sound of a car driving up the road behind me.  I stepped onto the footpath and watched as a white van with a flashing orange light on top of its bonnet drew closer - inside were four men in white suits with facemasks and hard hats... obviously workers on their way to Daiichi.  They slowed down to take a closer look at me, then the driver nodded his head and continued on, turning a corner and disappearing out of sight.

I decided that my time here was over so I walked back to my car, started the engine and drove out of this surreal environment.  There was a heavy sadness that hung over the town for obvious reasons and I felt that being here was intrusive.

It wasn’t my intention to photograph this place, and my visit here was actually more out of empathy and curiosity as opposed to adventure and photography.  My passion for photographing abandoned Japanese spaces is fun and exciting, with all spaces being discarded or left behind usually due to financial reasons or lack of interest from the public.  None of the spaces I have photographed in Japan have been abandoned as a result of disaster or tragedy (albeit perhaps financial…) and I felt that Odaka was not the place to relish or indulge my passions (it felt shallow to exploit this terrible tragedy).  Although a lot of the empty buildings were accessible, I refrained from entering out of respect.  It wasn’t the right thing to do.  I fought with the contradiction of my choosing to photograph Chernobyl a few years earlier (a city deserted for the same reasons...) but reached the conclusion that much time has passed since April 1986... Chernobyl has had time to grieve and its occupants have moved forward. Chernobyl also has an old Soviet, frozen in time romanticism attached to it.  But Odaka is new and raw and sad so I decided to instead take a few snaps of the empty streets and then leave it all behind.

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