Bathing In Fukushima


Copy of Japan Post Disaster 112


Part 2 of my series on traveling in post-disaster Japan was the most difficult to write. I went to a hot springs resort in Fukushima, called Noji Onsen, and unexpectedly ran into some of the most unlucky survivors: the fishermen of Namie-machi.

Namie-machi (machi means village in Japanese) is four miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. The village got hit by the earthquake, and then by the tsunami. It rolled in so fast and high that it took boats, houses, and people away. Here’s a part of an interview with one of the fishermen that I couldn’t fit into my article:
“I looked up and saw the big wave coming. And I just gave up. I thought I was going to die. But then I didn’t. The wave caught me and dragged me in through the window of someone else’s house. I held on. The house was swept up like a boat. I don’t remember what happened next, but when the water receded, I was alive in someone else’s house.”
What an incredible story! I tell him, and start to smile. But no one else in the room is smiling. And then another fisherman says, in a low voice: “He lost his wife. The wave saved him but swept her away.”


As if this weren’t enough sadness, the villagers also got exposed to the radiation. They can’t go back to their homes, probably never. Yet when I met them at Noji Onsen, they were still holding out hope.Every human disaster has heartbreak stories like the fishermen of Fukushima. We step back from these stories, not to be callous, but in order to be able to keep going forward. The challenge of writing about horrible events is to hold your readers there with you, in the center of the sadness, so they feel it too, even if just for a moment. It’s tricky–fall into cliches, and readers will roll their eyes. Ditto for sappy, overblown writing.


I ended up cutting a lot from my first drafts to keep the finished story tight and hold the mood. But my visit to Noji Onsen wasn’t all gloom. Here’s a vignette from Fukushima–a more cheerful one– that didn’t make it into the final mix:


Three naked grey-haired women sink into the sizzling hot, milky-white waters of the Demon Face Outdoor Bath at Noji Onsen, chattering merrily among themselves. They smile across the rising steam at the foreigner (also naked, save for the requisite wet towel draped on top of her head), and I smile back. An onsen, or hot springs, is one of the happiest places you can be in Japan. Even when the onsen is in Fukushima.


To my surprise, one of the women immediately shoots me a question. My translator Keiko, soaking in the bath beside me, chuckles. “They’re speaking Tohoku dialect,” she says. “It’s different from standard Japanese–more raw and direct. She wants to know how old you think they are.”

I hesitate for a minute; it’s really hard to tell. In the unforgiving sunlight of the outdoor bath, the women’s skin looks droopy and wizened. But the three ladies descended the slippery stone steps into the open air bath far more gracefully than me. I make a guess, and shave off the requisite five years just in case: Sixty eight? Maybe 70?

Keiko translates, and the Tohoko-speaking women hoot with laughter. “No! Wrong! We are 85. See how healthy we are? We Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world.”