TOKYO — Tomioka, just miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, was once a town famous for its cherry blossom trees.
They were a pink glitter spread across the grid of streets, forming clusters near schoolyards and parks, dotting the boundary of a golf course, lining main roads. A few even popped up near the northern edge of town, along the coastal road that workers took when driving to begin their shifts at the nuclear plant.
Japanese call their beloved cherry tree the “sakura,” and in its yearly cycle they see a poignant sign of beauty’s impermanence.
The sakura blooms in early spring, starting in the southern parts of the country, and as weeks go by, a wand of pink moves northward, taking with it millions of people who want to eat, drink and picnic under the shade. A week or two after the flowers bloom, they fall away. The outdoor celebrations end, and Japanese talk about the fleeting nature of their national icon.
But this year, in a country one year removed from twinned natural disasters and a resulting nuclear crisis, the sakura celebration carries a more sorrowful sentiment. In now-vacant towns such as Tomioka, the cherry blossoms will still bloom. Nobody is likely to see them.
In the wake of the triple meltdown at the Fukushima plant, radioactive isotopes spread across the region, prompting the government to declare a 12-mile circle around the facility off limits to residents. Tomioka fell well within that circle, and these days, its main streets are windblown and abandoned, with windows broken, front doors unhinged, animals roaming loose. Some buildings were toppled by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and were never repaired. It will take at least five years, the government says, until people have a chance to return.
For many former Tomioka residents, cherry blossom season, once their favorite part of the year, is now the toughest. The town of 16,000 formed its identity around the trees. Municipal workers had pictures of them on their business cards. The town would draw more than 100,000 visitors for its annual festival, with musical performers and food vendors lining the street. About 10 years ago, the town put together a book with more than 300 personal essays about individuals’ memories of the cherry blossoms.
“The town itself was really just all sakura,” said Minako Ooshima. Before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Ooshima had worked at Tomioka’s tourism agency. The job worked perfectly for her, because it just so happened that her town’s top selling point (sakura) was also her primary passion. Sometimes, she even wore scarves made from dye of the sakura tree.
She also knew the town’s history. Around 1900, a major landowner, Seiju Hangai, had planted several hundred cherry trees around town. A son later planted a thousand more, and on one stretch of road, he created a “tunnel” of trees, with rows on both sides. Their branches arched over the road, as if trying to hold hands. This tunnel became Tomioka’s most famous road — the Sakura dori, as residents called it — and the town later redirected highway traffic so big trucks wouldn’t belch fumes at the trees.
During Tomioka’s sakura festival weeks, Ooshima would work until 5:30. But she’d return to her house, make dinner for her kids and husband, and then they’d go on a walk through the tunnel. Lights positioned under the trees gave the scene an unforgettable pink glow. When the lights were turned off at 9 p.m., the Ooshima family went home.
“The blossoms at night are very beautiful and elegant,” one of Ooshima’s daughters wrote in her essay, published in the town’s book.
Ooshima has no idea whether she or her family will be able to, or have reason to, return to Tomioka. She lives now in a small second-floor apartment in Ibaraki prefecture, about a one-hour train ride outside Tokyo. In Christmas cards she sent last December to friends, she mentioned her “dream” — that one day her children could return to their home town and see the cherry trees.
But she also thinks about the return in more pragmatic terms. She is 50 years old. So is her husband, an architect who has already found work in Tokyo. Five years from now — if the town has managed to be decontaminated — would it really make sense to uproot the family once more? Could her husband run a sustainable business?
“I think it’s hard to make any guess,” she said. “And also, how do you restore infrastructure? Waterlines? Electricity? There are no supermarkets in town, no hospitals, no convenience stores. It will take years to even restore the minimum lifelines.”
During a recent afternoon at her new apartment in Ibaraki, Ooshima pulled out a map, created by Tomioka in 2008 to highlight viewing spots for the cherry trees. But this time, she talked about radiation levels. Japan’s government recommended evacuation for any area — even those beyond the 12-mile no-go zone — that would receive more than 20 microsieverts a year. In Tomioka, several areas have received four or five times that much. Many areas are right around the 20 microsievert level. A few are well below.
“The town is basically divided into three parts,” Ooshima said, noting the way the radiation levels change. Her home, she said, is in the area with the highest levels.
After evacuating, several thousand Tomioka residents ended up at an arena-like convention hall in Koriyama, a city in Fukushima farther from the nuclear plant. City workers set up temporary offices in the lower levels, and families created little private spaces, separated by cardboard, on the upper levels. Evacuees were awakened in the morning by public address announcements and given food boxes at fixed hours.
Then, one day last April, the municipal workers received a package. It was filled with T-shirts, 50 of them, and each one had a pink logo across the chest: a cherry blossom. The message across the flower read, “Don’t Forget. Return to Tomioka.” The workers loved them and passed them around.
They had been shipped there by a graphic designer from Tokyo who grew up in Tomioka. Shigeki Sekine created the logo himself and paid for the screen printing; he didn’t have enough money to create another batch, as the city requested. But he did have enough money to print some stickers. In fact, he printed thousands of them, and he created a Web site to go with them. The stickers were plastered on the walls of cafes and music venues. A few ended up in London and New York and Taiwan.
As the months went by, Sekine worried that it might not be realistic to return soon to Tomioka. On some stickers, he actually changed the message. “We will support Tomioka,” the new one read.
But he didn’t totally abandon the first message: Even if returning to Tomioka is impossible, residents should at least use that as their mind-set. At minimum, they should strive to return to the normalcy they felt in Tomioka.
That means having conversations about kids and exam scores and boyfriends, not dosimeters and compensation payments.
A year later, has that normalcy happened?
“Far from it,” Sekine said. “One way to look at normalcy: I hope a day will come when people can look at cherry blossoms and not feel sad about it. Appreciating cherry blossoms is a sign of normalcy.”
Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.