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Village

“Since the earthquake, there haven’t been any foreigners” explains the owner of a small restaurant slash souvenir shop situated right outside a reconstructed traditional village on the shores of Lake Sai, in the shadows of Mt. Fuji. “It’s been really quiet, you’ve been good customers today”. All we did was spend 1,000 yen on some soba and a hot sake. The village itself, which I’d visited once 4 years ago, was also quiet with half its shops and educational/cultural houses closed as well as its two traditional soba shops – though that could just be bad timing on our part, it was 3pm when we got there.

I first visited Kawaguchiko, one of the five lakes that surround Mt. Fuji, nearly 4 years ago to the day. Today was my third time and I couldn’t help but feel that the area seemed oddly quiet. It’s definitely not the biggest tourist season for the area but taking into account the shop owner’s remarks it seems that the earthquake has been slowly taking its tolls on some of the country’s tourist destinations. Most of the hotels around the lake seemed empty, though most hadn’t opted to turn the lights they didn’t need off. Walking back to the station from the shore a lot of the small restaurants I remembered from my first two times there seemed empty. The term ghost town felt appropriate for the first time since March 11.

The Great Tohoku earthquake, and ensuing tsunami and nuclear meltdown, struck the country nearly 3 weeks ago. After five days spent south/west I’m starting to see the effects on Tokyo, and its surroundings, properly for the first time since I landed on March 10th. I think the first week or so I spent here was so intense – emotionally and work wise – that it hadn’t really sunk in. Now that I’m back and attempting to actually do some tourist-y things with a friend who’s visiting for a couple of weeks, it’s starting to hit me just how much Tokyo is changing in the aftermath of the earthquake and the loss of one of its main powering sources.

Yesterday we headed out to Yokohama, at which point I realised the Shonan Shinjuku line is fully suspended due to the blackouts. Most of the express trains my phone app was telling me should be running were locals and Yokohama’s Landmark Tower sky garden was closed – all of which seemed attributed to the blackout. Same again today as we originally planned to make the trip up to Nikko, only to realise it required either the Shonan Shinjuku, part of the Tohoku Shinkansen – which is running but greatly reduced – or the Tobu/JR express from Shinjuku, which was cancelled. Fuji seemed a safer bet with the Ltd. Express train to Kofu running seemingly as normal.

This Fujikyu local train is taking forever and rocking like mad. Same carriages I took four years ago. The line has definitely seen some better days. As I jokingly said to my friend, maybe they need their own Tama the cat as station master somewhere along the line to get some money to refurbish the trains. Seems like Fuji might not longer be enough.

For the first time Tokyo is starting to lose some of its convenience ‘shine’, something I – and I’m sure a lot of other people – never thought possible. Trains are no longer as regular and reliable as clockwork. Some basics are still missing from shops. The local 100 yen spot near the flat I’m staying in still has no cold tea, toilet paper or bottled water.

Ultimately it’s not a big problem. Far from it. Even at a time like this Tokyo is still far more convenient, and cheap, than London, Milan or most major European cities and capitals I’ve visited or lived in. And considering the hardship people up north face it’s really nothing to have to make do with such inconviences. It’s just weird though. As weird as reading today that for the first time in over 60 years they’ve cancelled the official hanami parties in Ueno park, or that officially a lot of the planned seasonal celebrations are either being cancelled or scaled down.

Hanami has always been a time of release when I lived here. It’s a rare occasion to see Japanese people truly let loose, in all manners. This year it might not happen, or more likely I think it will but in a more subdued way. I can’t see hundreds, even thousands, of Japanese in and around the capital decide not to at least let loose and remind themselves that there is a future or that life goes on. The mood is definitely sombre in the capital right now, but it can only stay so for so long.

Bought what looked like wasabi corn chips at the little souvenir spot. No idea why. I feel sick now.

Now that Tokyo’s trees have been officially declared in bloom, this weekend is likely to be the defining moment where we see whether or not hanami’s tradition and the need for release is stronger than the current wave of jishuku that has followed the terrible events up north. I’ve got more friends arriving this week for Sonar Tokyo too. It’s being held at Ageha, a huge venue in Shin Kiba, which is on reclaimed land. I wonder which one, or if both, will suffer.

I just came across this story while swapping trains on the way back to West Tokyo. The author makes some very good points and summaries about the divide amid foreigners following the earthquake. It’s funny to read his argument that some may have left, or are planning to leave, in order to move somewhere without inconveniences – namely the potential for earthquakes, the fallout of the nuclear meltdown on both health and power supplies and an untrustworthy government and corporate world. For me Tokyo has always been the most convenient place in the world. And as I’ve just said, it still is to a degree.

Aside from the nuclear element, and earthquakes, these other ‘inconveniences’ have always existed in Japan, I don’t think they’re new and I don’t think they’re essentially any different to the inconveniences we suffer at the hand of governments in Europe. Anyone who seems to think that Japan’s politicians, CEOs and PR people are somehow worse than those out west needs to take a long hard look around him/her. The only real inconvenience Japan has over most other countries is the potential for earthquakes. Again though it’s nothing new and as I’ve said to someone recently I really think that if there’s one country you should be in when a big one hits, it’s Japan.

Ultimately I’ve suffered little inconvenience compared to what I’ve heard others have had to endure in prefectures closer to the affected regions, or compared to those who lost everything because of the earthquake. I don’t live here anymore but I came back for an extended period, a temporary living stint if you will more than a holiday. And I chose to stay because I wanted to and because I soon realised that I could maybe help in my own way. It’s never an easy decision but if there’s one thing this situation needs is some degree of sanity to return to those commenting on it. And as someone just pointed out on twitter as I’m re-reading this post, the capital – and the rest of the country – also needs foreign artists and the like to not cancel appearances and instead do their part to encourage a return to normality.

I don’t buy that the media were unable to give accurate information because they weren’t given any by the government or the company who runs the plant. The media fed the fear and paranoia machine because that is the nature of the beast today. News no longer serves the purpose of informing, giving balanced view points or even arguing both sides of a situation. News needs news, it’s a self-serving, self-powering 24h machine that serves little purpose in the grand scheme of things. Especially considering the effort it takes to be able to sift through the amount of sand it throws up and find useful grains of information you can use to make your own decisions.

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