Photographing the radioactive zones in Fukushima, I have already gotten used to the sight of human tragedy and destruction caused by earthquakes, tsunami waves, and, above all, the explosion of nuclear reactors. Houses overgrown with dense bushes, ruined stores and factories testify to a horror story. In schools there remain many tiny shoes and backpacks left abandoned by fleeing children. In hospitals, crumpled bedsheets and personal items of evacuated patients who hurriedly left their beds can be found strewn about. Inside the supermarkets, there is a suffocating smell of rotten food or animal excrement mixed with the smell of detergents, perfumes and various cosmetics. Nine years have passed since the catastrophe, and a once thriving city — proof of the development of atomic ideas — still haunts with its emptiness, silence and hopelessness.
Thanks to the efforts of local authorities and continuous, though selective, decontamination, this sight is slowly changing. More areas, stores and hotels are being cleaned and reopened. Despite this, it is still difficult to convince residents to return because they have no jobs, no neighbors and no healthcare. I have already visited hundreds of similar places and thought that nothing could surprise me anymore. Until today.
I devised a plan to visit some of the more remote areas that were once inhabited and affected by the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster. These areas are too vast for me to get around in one day. Because of the especially high radiation, you can stay there no more than five hours a day. With the necessary permits in hand, I head to the first closed zone. A guard awaits me at a prearranged time. After checking the permits, he quickly moves the metal gate and lets me into the contaminated area. We make an appointment about what time I’ll return and when I’ll appear at the next gates. This is how I’ll see all the places planned for the next two days.
At the beginning, I visit areas located several kilometers from the epicenter of the tragedy. It would seem that due to the long distance they would be less contaminated than the areas directly adjacent to the damaged power plant. This confusion is proven by the ever-beeping dosimeter, which in some places shows radiation levels up to several hundred times higher than normal. It shouldn’t come as a surprise as I’m in places over which the most radioactive cloud passed. These mountainous and forested areas are also too extensive and difficult to access to be easily and quickly cleaned.
The villages along the way are almost identical. Rice fields that have not been cultivated for years overgrown with wild vegetation or covered with bags of contaminated soil brought here from the cleanup areas. Every now and then, behind the trees and dense bushes, the roofs of abandoned houses and old silos several meters high emerge. As I drive closer, I see abandoned cars, rusting tractors and other small agricultural equipment. Sights like this are well known to me from Chernobyl, although, due to the 25 years between the two catastrophes, they are at a completely different stage of decomposition.
Late in the afternoon, depressed by the ubiquitous emptiness and silence and the monotony of the landscapes I pass, I arrive at another closed village. I immediately notice that it differs from all of the ones I’ve visited thus far. Instead of abandoned farms, there are small buildings with glass windows that remind me of stores. The condition of many of them is catastrophic. Delicate wooden structures bear signs of damage caused by the earthquake or the long-term lack of care from the closure of the village and the evacuation of its inhabitants. Curious, I get out of the car and approach one of them. Its doors have been kicked in and the windows smashed. Unmistakable evidence that animals or thieves have paid it a visit.
Inside, the radiation is much lower. The buildings were usually closed, preventing the radioactive contamination from getting inside and contaminating their contents during the disaster. However, they couldn’t resist the shockwaves, as can be seen by the incredible mess all around. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of pottery scattered around wooden cabinets and tables. Ceramic mugs, cups and jugs, and dozens of fancy Japanese vessels whose use I find difficult to guess. Many of them fell off the cabinet shelves and formed a layer of broken pottery shards on the floor several centimeters thick, so that even the smallest step causes a loud crunch of delicate shells.
In the yard behind the store, I notice a two-story building containing two rather large kilns. Next to them are wooden shelves filled with items at various stages of production. Most are brown with an unfinished look to them, as if they are just waiting to be fired. The ones next to those, colorful and patterned, most likely still require their final glazing. In the next room, I find a lot of beautiful handmade wooden boxes. Like the ceramics they hold, they look like small works of art. Some are decorated with magnificent calligraphy, perhaps even applied by the potter’s own hand. They are tied with a thick fabric ribbon, which, in addition to keeping the lid in place, is also intended to make the packaging classier and more decorative. In the West, not much attention is paid to packaging and after receiving a gift, the box is most often thrown away. In Japan, they are often as important as the items they contain.
There are many similar family-run workshops nearby. Walking about the area, I count at least a dozen. On virtually every corner stands a house connected to a store and a small production area in the yard. It seems that the entire village made a living by either producing or selling pottery. Many dishes have some common features: they are a subtle celadon color, characteristic blue cracks in the glazing and a painting of a galloping horse. I wonder why all of the potters used similar design and production techniques.
Intrigued, I decide to find more information about this amazing place and the products manufactured here. Thanks to posters and billboards (and Google Translate), I find out that I am in the village of Obori, famous for the production of ceramics, and that the area boasts over 300 years of tradition in its manufacture! A moment later, I find the answer to one of my questions on the web. It seems that the color, cracks and other characteristic features are all hallmarks of and specific to the products manufactured here. In 1978, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Industry, wanting to honor this centuries-old pottery tradition, even gave Obori ceramics the official title of a national craft.
Curious about this extraordinary discovery, I decide to take a closer look at the abandoned village. A store with large decorative vases catches my attention. Some of them are so big and heavy that they cannot be lifted with one hand. Many are dominated by a dragon curling itself around the vase, and, in the case of the larger ones, there are two or even three of them. Some hold a golden pearl in their mouths, others in their claws. But they are always presented with three claws, meaning that we are dealing with traditional Japanese dragons.
Judging by the intricate work and rich decorations, I must be in an artistic ceramics workshop. This information is confirmed by the prices stuck onto some of the vases: 30,000, 48,000 and even 80,000 yen ($700). Unfortunately, most of the largest and most magnificent vases were irreversibly damaged during the earthquake. Fragile dragon heads and other ceramic decorations were broken off. I rarely find beautiful, intact vases. Did they only survive because they were overlooked by thieves or did their creators, fearing the radiation, abandon them?
I still have more questions than answers and it’s nearly time to leave the restricted zone. With regret and reluctance, I depart from this extremely interesting place. On the way back, I wonder about the fate of the residents forcibly evacuated from the village, as well as of the entire pottery industry. I don’t doubt that the Japanese, accustomed to natural disasters, did not succumb to the earthquake, but what about the radioactive contamination that came shortly after? Did these centuries-old traditions survive the nuclear disaster? I will find the answer to these and other puzzling questions only after I return home.
The story of Obori Soma ceramics began in 1690, when a samurai discovered a specific type of clay in this area and ordered his subjects to make everyday crockery from it. Over the following centuries, this tradition strengthened, brought continuous growth and the development of new firing techniques. At its peak, over 100 kilns operated in the area. The situation began to change in the 20th century, when wars, economic crises, the rise of plastic, and the practice of having one child to continue family traditions led to a decrease in sales and the number of potters. Further slowdowns occurred in 2011, when the village was closed and all residents were forcibly evacuated due to the radioactive contamination. As a result, out of the 25 companies that had been producing ceramics at the time, only 10 have survived. They moved production to other regions of the Fukushima prefecture and even further afield.
According to some potters from Obori, original Obori Soma ceramics have already ceased to exist because the product should be produced in the place where its name comes from, only using local raw materials because that’s the source of its economic success. However, due to high radiation and the closure of the surrounding areas, this is no longer possible. Meanwhile, some craftsmen did not give up. Soon after the disaster, they formed a local potters’ union, which recently moved its headquarters to the nearby town of Namie, located near Obori. Thanks to the association, a new kiln for potters who lost theirs was built and cooperation was established with scientific institutions to create alternative raw materials for ceramics. Is this enough to keep over 300 years of tradition alive? A lot certainly depends on whether there will be any new buyers.
P.S. To all readers who would like to help the potters or who simply like Obori Soma ceramics, I encourage you to buy through the website one of the surviving artists: https://www.soma-yaki.shop/.
If you want to join one of the coming trips please look HERE.
Previous reports from Chernobyl and Fukushima:
2020 – REMNANTS OF THE CHERNOBYL DISASTER
2019 – OVER THE HORIZON
2019 – SARCOPHAGUS AND OTHER MOST RADIOACTIVE PLACES IN CHERNOBYL
2019 – FUKUSHIMA 8 YEARS ON
2017 – ZAPOVEDNIK – BELARUSIAN EXCLUSION ZONE
2016 – FUKUSHIMA: A SECOND CHERNOBYL?
2015 – FUKUSHIMA
2015 – THE ZONE IN 4K II
2015 – WINTER IN THE ZONE
2014 – THE ZONE IN 4K
2014 – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK 2
2013 – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK 1
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – BEHIND THE SCENES
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – PREMIERE
2013 – LONG WEEKEND IN THE ZONE
2012 – HEROES OF A NON-EXISTANT COUNTRY
2011 – REACTOR 4
2011 – LITTLE REACTORS
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 BEHIND THE SCENES
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 – FILM
2010 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1
2010 – VICTORY DAY
2010 – CHERNOBYL 3RD EXPEDITION
2009 – CHERNOBYL 2ND EXPEDITION
2008 – CHERNOBYL 1ST EXPEDITION
My photo album HALF LIFE: From Chernobyl to Fukushima available HERE