On one of the last evenings of our time in Japan we drove along the highway that runs through the Exclusion Zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
We were staying in Minamisoma with our daughter Iris who is teaching English at a local school. Just 25km to the south lies the crippled nuclear plant that suffered major damage and nuclear meltdown on March 11 2011, following the 9.0 earthquake and 15-metre tsunami.
As many as 18,000 people died or were declared missing after the tsunami struck. And, according to the Red Cross, some 300,000 were evacuated from their homes. It was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
A 20km Exclusion Zone around the plant was declared, and the once busy towns within the zones fell silent.
Yet it is possible to drive through the Exclusion Zone on the road south to Tokyo.
We began our journey in the late afternoon and the first town we came to was Namie, which had been severely affected by the disasters. Now, as radiation levels drop, families are allowed to return. It still looks like a ghost town.
All closed up. This might have been a convenience store, and someone probably lived in the flat upstairs.
It was not easy to stop, every driveway and entrance was blocked by huge barriers and there was a steady stream of vehicles on the road. All photographs were taken from our moving car. This is an outlying suburb of Okuma, just a few kilometres from the power station and still abandoned.
Curtains were visible in the windows of houses and sometimes we caught a glimpse of decorations or furniture.
One writer has said the zone now resembles post-apocalyptic scenes from The Walking Dead, though vegetation on such shows is never so rampant, and the devastation so complete.
It was all so familiar, and yet so chillingly wrong.
Cars, trucks – and a hearse – left to rust. The paintwork on some seemed in surprisingly good condition, not so the tyres.
Life is resilient – lush, vigorous weeds are everywhere, as are crows, herons and sparrows. Abandoned pets also live in the silent spaces, we are told. Iris sometimes sees monkeys.
We drove under the sign pointing the way to the disabled power station.
And there it is, with cranes and towers visible in the distance.
Radiation counters are prominent along the drive and in fact, are commonplace around the Fukushima Prefecture. This one reads 2.518 microsieverts per hour. That’s too high for permanent habitation, but considered safe to visit with basic precautions. In the immediate aftermath of the meltdowns, levels around the nuclear plant were hundreds of times higher.
For comparison, this meter is a couple of hundred metres from Iris’s apartment. The reading of 0.135 microsieverts/hour is only slightly higher than the levels in the Waikato.
We passed a silent graveyard, where no-one now visits, and in the driveway of a once-welcoming house, turned around.
It was heartbreaking driving past abandoned homes and businesses that so resembled the Japan we had spent the previous two weeks happily exploring, meeting and talking with friendly individuals and families.
And it was hard to grasp the number of lives lost, and destroyed by the events of that day.
A common sight in this part of Japan are piles and piles of bagged-up topsoil, contaminated by radiation. Iris drives past some on her daily drive to work. These are near Iitate, 40km to the north-west of Fukushima Daiichi, but right in the path of the radioactive plume that the winds spread from the plant on that day in 2011.
This little house in Iitate really got to me. The entire town was evacuated.
But slowly, people are starting to return, and we saw a brand new fire department with men setting to various tasks in the morning…
And every month people come from all over Japan to join the group of gardening volunteers working south from Odaka, an outlying southern suburb of Minamisoma. As people return to their villages, many, often elderly, face a huge task restoring gardens and houses overrun with weeds. Step in the volunteers.
Iris, far right, with other English teachers who have volunteered and below, getting serious with a weed whacker. She says the group’s mission is to keep working until there’s no work left to do.
Japan has shown amazing resilience in the face of this triple disaster. And life goes on.
Number 8 Network’s Annette Taylor and David Riddell journeyed to Japan in August.