If you happened to have been on any of the crowded bullet trains that left Tokyo for Kyoto, Osaka and Hakata last night, you might have thought that Japan was in the midst of a population boom. Instead of the usual rows of snoozing salarymen, the seats were filled with small children and their parents. My one-year-old daughter and I were among them, she blissfully unaware of the situation, me feeling the tension dissipate the further west we got. Never have I been so grateful for the speed of the Shinkansen.
All day the news had teetered between bad and disastrous. The day didn’t start well with a couple of thumping aftershocks in the early hours. The press conference later in the day by the prime minister Naoto Kan – hardly a Churchillian figure at the best of times – did little to allay fears. As he announced the latest news on the radiation emerging from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, shares plummeted and an already jittery population started to take stock and study wind forecasts to see where toxic fumes might head. The French Embassy didn’t help matters by posting a statement that a radioactive cloud could reach the capital within 10 hours.
As we grimly attempted to continue as normal, trying not to be unnerved by the stripped supermarket shelves and the blackened neon, it was hard to find a good reason not to head out of the city until things settled. The days since Friday have been an emotional rollercoaster. As ordinary citizens struggle to make sense of the information emerging from Fukushima, we have experienced anxiety and relief along with news of explosions, inexplicable rises in temperature, meltdowns and temporary cooling. A week ago we had never heard of millisieverts – units of radiation – let alone known what levels would be considered acceptable.
The mood in Kyoto is entirely different. No panic buying, no power shortages and none of the gloom that has been hanging around the capital like an unwelcome guest. Kyoto is a powerful city on even the most ordinary of days, but its sense of continuity in the face of historical upheaval was more welcome than ever.
Early this morning we went to Sanjusangendo, a spectacular 800 year-old temple, where a solitary monk chanted an incantation for the wellbeing of the living. The survivors of the tsunami – many struggling with insufficient heat and water in wretchedly cold and now snowy conditions – have become a secondary story to the nuclear fiasco. It’s worth remembering that their plight continues. As I write, a tired looking but stalwart Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, has appeared on television yet again to announce that the brave workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant have had to abandon their work owing to high radiation levels. Hardly good news, given the flames we witnessed earlier and the plumes of white smoke rising from the reactor. One of the charms of living in Japan has always been its reassuring sense of safety – all that has changed now.