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Sakura Showers and Toride Tornadoes (Ibaraki Prefecture)

茨城県:取手市岡堰乃神社公園、つくばみらい市福岡堰さくら公園、小貝川

sunny 20 °C

BGM: Sakura by Naotarou Moriyama

We finally made it back to Toride from our brief hiatus in Kansai. As we walked up the stairs to our apartment, we noticed a very strange acidic smell in the air- metallic and tangy (you could taste it), as if we were near a metal processing plant. No matter where we were- be it a park, a highway or a parking lot- the odor lingered and we couldn't shake it. Perhaps it was the smell of the wounded earth beneath our feet. Since radioactivity has no detectable odor, we had no choice but to rule that one out. But it remained a mystery neither of us wanted to ponder too much. (Did the nearby Canon, Nissin Cup Noodle or Kirin Beer factories sustain damage from the quake?)

All of our lifeline systems (gas, water, electricity) were finally back on line, again. But glass still covered the floor so we had to step carefully. We cleared little paths to the most important places (bathroom, bedroom and kitchen) and left the rest of the apartment the way it was so we could tackle it a little at a time.

I opened the back curtains and saw our neighbor finally fixing the broken shingles on his roof. It looked like a lot of hard work. At least the weather was nice for him.

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Our other neighbor had a bunch of new fractures in her already-cracking wall plaster. It made me wonder what kind of damage our own building had sustained.

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We set to work dismantling the life that we had built together in Toride. As my husband cleaned and closed down his office downtown, I tackled the job of straightening out the apartment. We had to reduce all of our things to just the bare essentials -meaning that over 90 percent of my things and 95 percent of his things would either be sold, donated or pitched. But how do you go about throwing away ten years of your life and memories? Simple: you start at the beginning, with a huge pile of boxes and a heart of steel.

I was surprised to find that the exquisite stained glass jewelry box my Mom had shipped from California had survived the quake intact. Though it lay on the floor open and contents spilled, it was still in perfect shape. Indeed. This treasure would accompany me on my next journey.

Meow! Meow! Gen, our communally-adopted cat was still around! He looked fat, relaxed and brushed out. Everyone was taking great care of him. He came right up to me from his home under our stairs, rubbing his furry black back against my ankles, savoring my scratches under his ears and chin. I knew I was gonna miss this little guy more than anything. He was the reason I chose this apartment -him and the sakura trees all around.

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Living in Toride wasn't as easy as it used to be. The apartment creaked and shook every other hour with aftershocks -some hard, some gentle, but all of them keeping us on edge, in a constant state of alert. We kept our cell and iPhones beside us since they were equipped with seismographs, earthquake detection apps and early warning alarm systems (Japanese earthquake technology is incredible!). Seconds before an earthquake hit, the cell phone would ring and we'd have a moment or two to brace ourselves before the waves finally shook us. Then we could instantly check out the magnitude and epicenter on our Yurekuru iPhone app. If it was a particularly strong one, our cell phones had built-in TV so we could check out the damage on the news. Life-saving technology right at our fingertips!

Food and gas were available again in Toride by the time we got back from Osaka (we heard other cities like Koga still had a shortage). But fresh water was in very short supply. Even though the government and news media kept insisting that Kanto's water was safe again, a whole month after the quake, all my Japanese friends were still using only bottled water for everything from brushing their teeth to cooking. Supermarkets imposed a two-bottle limit per customer. Vending machines in the entire region were completely sold out of water. Local officials had to tell residents to stop hoarding water to allow for families with small children to have easier access. But the request went unheeded, as people continued to hoard the precious commodity all the way from Yamanashi and Kanagawa to Toyama Prefecture and beyond. (The power of panic!) We used our tap water for bathing and cooking, but my husband insisted on us drinking bottled barley tea whenever we were thirsty. That was good enough for us. It still counted as hydration.

To keep ourselves sane, we kept up with our daily walking routine. Spring had come with the promise of hope and recovery. We had all made it through the rough winter, together. It was time to celebrate with the cherry trees in the beautiful, fleeting dance of life. Spring events might have been canceled in honor of the disaster, but the trees couldn't be held back. They burst forth their delicately-scented blossoms for all of us to enjoy.

つくばみらい市福岡堰さくら公園 (Fukuokaseki Sakura Kouen Park, Tsukubamirai City)

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We'd walked this park many times over the past several years. But this was the first time we'd ever seen it in bloom with sakura. Fukuokaseki Park stretches 1.8 km between the Kokai River and a small tributary, completely lined with grand, old cherry trees extending their branches gracefully over the water below. This park can easily compete with some of the best sakura-viewing spots in Tokyo, but even better with only a fraction of the crowds.

As families with children enjoyed playing badminton and catch-ball in the sun, couples in love glided down the river in canoes, enjoying the flurries of glittering petals as they fell into the water like snow. It was a vision straight out of a dream.

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Pink wasn't the only color of the day, however. Not to be outdone, bright, playful fields of lemon yellow accented the spring landscape. Whereas the sakura blossoms bring a tinge of bittersweet melancholy, thenanohana (aka rapeseed or canola flower), fills the Japanese heart with pure joy. The first blossom of spring, this sweet smelling flower is enjoyed for its beauty in early spring and harvested later for oil and food. (The blossoms and stems taste wonderful steamed and mixed with rice, or eaten as a salted vegetable like spinach).

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Ever since radioactive iodine and cesium were detected in Ibaraki, people continued wearing white surgical paper masks past hay fever season to prevent any airborne particles from entering their lungs. But for some reason, out here in the warm sunshine, everyone (including us) took them off to simply breathe under the trees in a moment of unified rebellion. It was brilliant.

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The Japanese are profuse pet lovers. One young man decided to take his pet owl out for a stroll.

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取手市岡堰乃神社公園 (Okasekinojinjakouen, Toride City)

This particular bend in the Kokai River has a very special place in my heart. Over the years, I would ride out here on my bicycle, plop down on a bench and just enjoy watching the river flow gently past. The little shrine on this islet, dedicated to the local water god, sits quietly surrounded by elegant sakura trees and hydrangea bushes. This was always a great place to think in any season. But in springtime, when the sky is alive with the peeps and squeaks of bulbul and white-eye birds nibbling off the cherry petals, it is especially breathtaking. I always had difficulty tearing myself away from this spot to start the long ride back home.

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April 24, 2011
取手市藤代グリーンスポーツパーク (Fujishiro Green Sports Park, Toride City)

The warm air of late April stimulates practically every plant in Japan to wake up and open their petals to the sunshine. My husband and I were overjoyed to find that the hanamizuki (flowering dogwood) trees had finally bloomed at Fujishiro Green Sports Park in Toride.

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As the witching hour grew near, however, the sky turned orange and we could hear thunder in the distance over neighboring Moriya City. One of the park groundskeepers made sure to warn us about the tornado alert that had just broadcast on his portable radio. We didn't take the news too seriously, but thanked him nonetheless as we continued walking alongside the gently-flowing Kokai River.

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April 25, 2011

While my husband was away at the office, I stayed at home sifting through my stuff. Within the span of an hour, the sky suddenly turned from clear blue to a thick, greenish gray and the clouds began to boil upside-down with menacing downdrafts. The thunder clap app on my iPhone told me that the lightning was striking from 10 km away -too close for me to wanna hang outside and play big-shot photographer. So like the chicken that I was, I sprinted to the patio, took in the laundry hanging outside and pulled the heavy corrugated metal storm-doors into position. All but one small window was protected from any oncoming hail. As the storm grew closer, I took a few snapshots through the glass and moved to the center of the room to pray for deliverance. (I really hate lightning).

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Fierce winds picked up and started spray-painting everything with a thick coating of cherry petals and twigs. A tiny bit of hail fell and with a few more token lightning strikes, just as soon as it had begun, the skies cleared up and it was all over.

Thinking it was no big deal, I spent a few more hours cleaning up before leaving the house to buy food for the evening meal.

"Did you hear about the tatsumaki (tornado)?" Mrs. Kobayashi asked me, her aging Shiba dog tethered on one hand and a bag of green onions in the other.

"A what?!"

"At the end of our street! Go check it out!" Mrs. Kobayashi would never kid me. She was a woman of her word and an important, long-time respected source of community gossip in the neighborhood. If anyone knew anything about everything, it was her and I trusted her implicitly. But this news was just too off-the-wall.

(AT THE END OF OUR STREET??!)

Sure enough, just an 8-minute walk from my apartment, an F2 had touched down and torn up the roof of a house behind my favorite Indian/Nepali restaurant Kumari, on the corner of Routes 6 and 294. Hoards of people gathered and gawked as a worker in a cherry-picker crane pulled and stripped the twisted metal roofing away from the remaining structure. That could've been our place, I murmured to myself, completely shocked. Holy Toledo!

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Later I learned on TV that over 60 buildings from Kashiwa City in Chiba to Toride had been damaged in the storm that sprung upon us with no warning. Fortunately, however, not a single person was injured or killed. But it made me think: no sirens sounded at all, anywhere in the area -not even after the twisters were already spotted on the ground! In Japan, if you're not listening to the radio or watching TV at any given moment, you are completely left to the hands of Fate (this includes all students, teachers, factory workers and commuters in transit). I can't help but imagine how many people it would employ if every local government manned its local alarm systems 24/7.

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Earthquakes, tsunami, nuclear radiation, tornadoes... hadn't Ibaraki been through enough, already? Should I stick around to find out?

Posted by GenkiLee 09:05 Archived in Japan Tagged japan earthquake tornado kumari ibaraki toride tsukubamirai kokusekinojinkakouen fukuokasekisakurakouen sakura hanami cherry_blossoms rapeseed canola_flower nanohana hanamizuki dogwood bottled_water_shortage earthquake_detection fujishiro fujishiro_green_sports_park kokai_river kokaigawa downdrafts

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