Iwaki is a large city on the coast of Fukushima prefecture. I remember it for dancing hula girls, and as the place where I first ate uni (sea urchin). Many Japanese know it for the abandoned coal mines and proximity to the notorious nuclear plant – 40km.
In recent times, the Hawaiians hot spring resort and Aquamarine Fukushima – a huge aquarium brought in millions of tourists every year. Now, tourists are staying well away and the locals are leaving; the only people arriving in numbers are nuclear plant workers.
I visited Iwaki ten days ago to see what life was left, if any.
“I am afraid all the hotels might be fully booked”, a girl at the JR Iwaki station tourist information office told me.
“All of them?”, I asked incredulously. On the map I could see at least ten major hotels. The girl told me these hotels were full with workers trying to contain the crisis. The onsen resort of Yumoto to the south was also full, workers were staying on long-term contracts.
Fortunately, the cheap and cheery Pacifico Hotel had spare rooms, as well as a hot bath on the top floor. After checking in, I set out to see some of Iwaki`s nightlife.
My tour started at a small friendly izakaya called Nanakorobi Yaoki. The name is a well-known proverb, nanakorobi means fall over seven times, yaoki means get up eight – a fitting name for a bar, especially in a troubled a place as Fukushima.
Nanakorobi is near the train station – in the middle of a garish nightlife district – home to Thai and Phillipine pubs and counter-seating bars with odd names like Jealous Guy, Bar Bondage and Stewardess Snack.
A couple of groups were at tables in either corner. Sitting at the counter, an old man in a beige baseball cap was eating sashimi and drinking beer. I sat next to him.
In front of me was a glass case for displaying fresh fish – it was empty. Above the case, pink bottles of hangover cure Ukon No Chikara (The Power of Turmeric) stood alongside cards advertising a daiko taxi service. Popular in the countryside, daiko taxis use one taxicab and two drivers – one takes you home, the other drives your car home.
A twenty-minute bus ride from the train station is Iwaki`s fishing fleet. Most of it survived the tsunami, but the boat captains are keeping their boats in harbour. The nearby leaking nuclear plant is polluting the sea with tonnes of radiation. Whatever they catch will probably be unsellable.
Just in case, I stayed away from fish, my genes are already mutated enough. Instead I ate flowers – a 100 yen bowl of yellow chrysanthemum petals in vinegar – a nice blend of beauty and barbarism.
Second stop, I moved on to WaWaWa, a tachinomiya (standing bar). In Tokyo, tachinomis are generally small with basic decor, an informal place for chitchat, a cheap drink and questionable bar-snacks – pubs without pretension. Who needs chairs and plates when you can stand and chew your grub off a stick?
Sadly, WaWaWa did not meet my expectations. Dreadful pop music, expensive western beers and alcopops, and the unforgivable sin of a tachinomi – seats. The bar felt like a disco, and I was standing in the middle of the dance floor – alone.
Foreign English teachers living in Iwaki often come here, the barman told me. He passed across an extensive English menu – no sashimi or fried flowers, but pasta, pizza and garlic flavoured french fries.
The loud music did not stop it feeling quiet. Looking out through WaWaWa`s glass doors, I could see the big department store by the station. A high school girl, wrapped up against the cold, was standing outside, next to a brightly lit Christmas tree fiddling with her mobile phone.
Eventually, three customers joined me inside. Company at last, I thought. They walked towards my place at the bar, went straight past, then sat down – yes, sat down, around a table behind me. I left shortly after, furious.
I finished the night at Yajirobee, a small red lantern yakitori restaurant. The grinning owner, with receding slicked-back grey hair, worked the grill in front of me all night, steadily rotating skewers of chopped-up chicken parts. Scattered groups of customers talked quietly.
Radiation was not mentioned all night. It is a difficult subject to talk about because a) nobody understands it – not even nuclear scientists can explain the dangers and b) it is not a cheerful subject. For example, I imagine if I had asked a complete stranger how many microsieverts they inhaled today, I would probably have got a fully deserved fist in the face.
I come to the last paragraph of this long post and I am trying to remember why I wanted to write it in the first place. You must have begun wondering a long time before. My Thursday night in Iwaki was quiet and unexceptional. Nothing greatly distinguished it from other provincial towns – except the invisibly floating 0.28 microsieverts of radiation each hour.