Sunday 27 January 2013

Love the snow, hate the snow

Yesterday, Saturday, snow fell all day. There must be six inches even in the middle of Koriyama. Didn't take the car out. Walking treacherous; the pavements solid ice. But, hell, there must be some compensations and one of them is being near the ski slopes. When I grew up in Yorkshire, skiing was only for the rich and famous. Not the case now of course but when I first came to Japan I jumped at the chance to learn to ski and I still get a kick out of going skiing just for the day. 

Trains and buses to Aizu were cancelled because of the heavy snowfall or 'big snow' as they say in Japanese  ( 大雪 ooyuki) so I got a bus to Adatara. It's the mountain directly north of Koriyama, the one we see all the time, 1,700 m. high. And the place was full of happy people of all ages. I met several people from Tokyo. One of them said he has a friend who comes from Fukushima who'd told him to do all his skiing in Fukushima this year. Some people on a bus tour from Ibaragi (95 miles away) were taking advantage of the same package I was: bus, lift pass and ski hire all in for 7,000 yen (mine from Koriyama station was 6,000 yen). 

The papers were saying that the number of skiers at the new year was back up to 90% of pre-disaster levels. My straw poll today would suggest that thanks to promotions by the resorts and support from lots of people, things are pretty much back to normal. 

And to top it all, I found that the oldest of the eateries was serving my favourite ski food, o-shiruko, aduki beans cooked with sugar and topped with a rice cake. This traditional dish doesn't seem to feature on menus in the more upmarket resorts but to me it's the Japanese equivalent of an apres-ski hot chocolate.

Tomorrow morning I have to do the morning pep talk at the factory offices. I plan to leave a full hour earlier than usual as in these road conditions there are bound to be long jams on the main roads. But today at least I had a good time in the snow.
Kiddies' toboggan run complete with escalator for the upward haul!

View of the mountain, Mount Adatara

View east towards Nihonmatsu.
Fukushima city would be to the north (left) and  Koriyama to the south (right)


Friday 25 January 2013

New Safety Rules

Hello again
Hidden amongst the big news - the Algerian hostage crisis (10 Japanese have been killed) and the new government's economic policy (Abenomics), there have been some important announcements regarding strict new safety standards for Japan's nuclear power stations. The new Nuclear Regulation Authority is flexing its muscles and has made recommendations in three areas: upgrading facilities to withstand earthquake, tsunami or terrorist attack; re-evaluating the risk from seismic faults and tsunami; and new rules for evacuation.

Previously, safety had been left to the electric companies but the new measures are to be mandatory. The recommendations are to be reviewed by independent experts over the next few months (the authority is eager to be seen to be neutral) and are due to be implemented in July. Obviously this will determine whether the 48 closed plants can be brought back into operation. The two reactors operating at the moment have been told they can keep going until they shut down for routine maintenance in September.
Briefly the recommendations are:
  • facilities able to withstand earthquake and tsunami estimated at maximum values (not 'improbable' values), or the impact of a jet airliner
  • in the event of such an accident, mobile generators to provide power for 24 hours and enough fuel and supplies to keep cooling going for a week without outside help 
  • back up earthquake-proof control rooms (at Fukushima the offsite centre was only 7 kms away, inside the evacuation zone, and not radiation-proof so it was useless)
  • filtration equipment for pressure vents to prevent radioactive materials being emitted
  • fire-proof electric cables, measures to protect against cyber attack
The measures are said to be strict by international standards. I wonder if Hitachi will use them when it builds 4 to 6 new reactors in England and Wales over the next decades. In November last year Hitachi bought Horizon Nuclear Power, a company formed in 2009 when the UK's NDA (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) sold two sites to two German companies RWE npower and E.ON. They abandoned the project when Angela Merkel decided after Fukushima that Germany would not build any more new nuclear power stations. 

In fairness, the UK is the only country in the world to have legally binding carbon targets: 34% cut by 2020 (over 1990 levels) and 80% cut by 2050, so at the moment some new nuclear plants are required to replace the old ones being decommissioned. 

That first year I wouldn't listen to those who commented on this blog that nuclear was needed to cut CO2 emissions. I'm still not sure. When I think of the havoc caused here, my gut feeling is to get rid of every nuclear plant in the world. But that's simplistic. Climate change is a ticking time bomb and action needs to be taken now. Stricter standards for nuclear? And more research on renewables? Is that the way forward?
Sorry, it's late, and I'm rambling.
Good night

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Daruma Fair in Miharu

The snow that fell last week paralysed Tokyo and here in Koriyama the landscape remains bleak and white with piles of snow even in the centre of town, and the side roads and pavements treacherously icy.

News of Fukushima this week overshadowed by the snow, the Algerian hostage crisis, and the government's new policy to cure deflation. What news there was, was not good. Scandals about decontamination work in the exclusion zone with reports of workers being told to dump contaminated leaves in rivers, and of unscrupulous subcontractors pocketing the 10,000 yen a day 'danger money' which the government pays workers.

Took a trip to Miharu, ten miles away, where residents braved the cold to support the annual Daruma Festival. Here's a picture of the towns huge Daruma inscribed with the word for the year 地 (chi) which means 'land', 'earth' - chosen as it sums up recovery for Fukushima in this new year. Decontamination, getting farming back on its feet, a safe environment for children - these all depend on the earth.

Bitterly cold, but the main street busy all day - piping  hot food, daruma dolls and souvenirs for sale, people meeting people.

Here's Hashimoto Hiroshi's stall. He's 17th generation. His family's been making traditional dolls and daruma for hundreds of years.

Usually when you buy a daruma it has no eyes. You draw one in, make a wish and fill in the other when your wish comes true. 'Why do Miharu daruma have eyes?' I ask Hashimoto-san. He tells me they're just busting with good luck already and have two eyes looking in all directions to keep the evil spirits away. In that case, I'd better have one!

Here's me with my daruma and a new year decoration.

Half an hour later Hashimoto-san has donned a mask and backed by the local drumming group is dancing the Hyottoko dance. I've seen him do this many times. The moment he puts the mask on, he becomes a different person, losing his inhibitions, swirling with the music, impersonating a shy young girl or a brazen old man. He plays up to the crowd and they love it. It becomes impossible to take photos and once he starts chucking tangerines into the audience (a lot of tangerines), I'm forced to put my camera away in self defence.

More tranquil is the Zen temple, Fukuju-ji, a picture in the snow.

Monday 14 January 2013

One Year and Ten Months

Time for my monthly update. Sorry it's a bit late. Today, Monday, is a holiday and I've been taking it easy over the weekend.

So how are things over at Fukushima Daiichi? Reactors 1 to 3 continue to be stable in 'cold shutdown condition' though radiation is high inside the reactors. The plant continues to emit radioactive materials at a maximum rate of 10 million bq/hr. (at the time of the disaster it was 80 million times more than that). At damaged Reactor 4 work has begun on building a structure and cover prior to removing fuel assemblies, work which is due to start ahead of schedule in November this year. But it's not as if the fuel is to be taken anywhere. It will be stored more safely in a newly built facility on site. Tepco has sent 80 staff to nearby J-Village  to work in its new Fukushima Recovery HQ. Good news indeed.

Here's how the radiation is shown on TV these days, before the weather forecast.
Maximum and minimum values are shown for each district in the restricted area.
Highest is Okuma-machi (in the middle) at 0.48 to 31.3 μSv/hr

And here's the rest of Fukushima prefecture.
Koriyama in the middle (label under the lake) 0.05 to 0.84 μv/hr.

With remarkable alacrity, Abe, the new Prime Minister, has announced a raft of measures to boost the economy and Fukushima has been a welcome focus. Full government funding for the building of 'temporary towns' (仮の町 kari no machi) which had got bogged down over which local authority was to foot the bill. 130 million yen (1 million GBP), three times the amount spent last year, to promote the Fukushima brand, or as they say here 'sweep away harmful rumours' (風評の払拭 fuhyo no fusshoku). Over 10 billion yen (77 million GBP) on measures to encourage people to return to the evacuated districts once the bans are lifted. The list includes building new commercial districts (grants so far have been ineffective), new hospitals and old peoples' homes, maintaining land and homes (no measures so far, effectively a wasteland), even temporary toilets! There are also new powers for the Recovery Ministry which will coordinate the decontamination work of the various ministries. 

So all in all things are looking up. Though I have to say businesses are still struggling, with sales generally ten percent or so down on last year. 

After a week of very cold weather but bright sunshine and great views of the mountains, today it's snowing with a vengeance. This holiday is known here as 'little New Year' and there are traditional events but officially it's Coming of Age Day (成人の日 seijin no hi) when 20 year olds get dressed up and attend a civic ceremony and celebrate the fact that they are fully fledged members of society and can drink alcohol legally and vote in elections. Koriyama held its ceremony yesterday, thank goodness, and I spotted a few brightly coloured kimonos in town. That reminds me. On Friday night, on my way back from the gym, a big party was breaking up outside the hotel on the road from the station and I spotted a geisha. Unusual these days, especially since the restaurant they used to operate from was so badly damaged in the earthquake it closed down. I couldn't see her face in the dark, but she looked so dainty, her tiny body in its bright purple kimono, and the wig - such big hair. Exquisite. A rare sight these days.

Goodbye, from a very snowy Koriyama. It's midday. Three or four inches on the ground and lots more swirling down in the wind. Don't fancy driving to work tomorrow morning.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Happy New Year!

After two weeks in England happily inundated with family I arrived at Haneda at 5:00 am on Friday morning. It was dark but after a smooth transition on Japan's wonderful trains I was rewarded by this view of Mount Fuji, pink in the dawn, from the bullet train heading north.

Yesterday, Saturday 5th, was the first day back at work for Tohoku Kogyo. Started with the customary ceremony at the Shinto shrine in the grounds of the factory. Shinto priest specially called in to say prayers for safety, the staff lined up in the cold. Everyone bowing and wishing each other a happy new year. It's very formal. Caught offguard at the pool last night. The lifeguard came over and starting bowing. I'd just settled into the jacuzzi and had to feign a dignified bow in my swimsuit.  

Hungry for news about the new government. Admittedly I was confined to the kitchen for most of my stay in England and brain dead in the midst of the festivities but there was hardly any news about Japan on mainstream UK media. I had to wait until I got back to find out who is in Abe's Cabinet. Our local MP, Nemoto, has been appointed Minister of the Recovery. The new Recovery Ministry hasn't turned out to be the one-stop shop it was supposed to be, dogged by departmentalism between the various ministries who are unable to decide things without a precedent. Nemoto is an experienced politician and it's hoped he will have the clout to cut through the red tape. In his time out of office he worked with the city of Koriyama negotiating funding after the disaster so he has experience in this area. Another Fukushima MP, Mori Masako, has been appointed Minister in charge of Consumer Protection and the Declining Birthrate. She's already done a lot of work on certification of agricultural and industrial products from Fukushima and she's promised to speed up the thyroid tests for children. Ishihara, son of the former Tokyo Mayor, is Minister of the Environment and has said he will not set deadlines for the construction of the radioactive waste interim storage facility but will take time consulting with residents. So that's a welcome development. People here are not so happy though with Abe's veto of the previous government's policy to have no nuclear plants by 2030. He says he wants to spend more time considering the issue. I was also surprised to find that Kaieda is the new leader of the ousted Democratic Party of Japan. He was Minister of Trade and Industry at the time of the disaster and didn't get a very good press what with all the disclosures about the cozy 'nuclear village' set up. I guess the bright young things in the DJP are keeping their powder dry for next time. Kaieda did admit he was 'picking a hot chestnut from the fire'  ( 火中の栗を拾う kachu no kuri o hirou) Pick up a hot potato, in English?

By the way, Haneda airport was great. A beautiful and innovative building, and so close to Tokyo compared with Narita. And I can recommend the hot spring theme park (Oedo Onsen Monogatari). Great fun.

Already it's nearly two years since the disaster. 2011 seemed to pass in slow motion but this last year has flown by. Let's hope this new year brings real progress in sorting out the future of the evacuees.
Love to you all