Thursday, 31 March 2011

Tokyo Supermarket Sweep


(Still circling the local supermarkets on my bike. Until I return, here`s a copy of an article I wrote for a magazine last week.)


We start the morning with a cluster of magnitude 4`s at 5.30am and a couple of lower 5`s around 9am, all of them originating just north of Tokyo. I am under starter`s orders and outside my local Co-op supermarket at 9.50am. This puts me about 30th in line. When the doors open at 10am we all press into the semi-darkness and proceed at high speed up and down the aisles in a giant snake. At the first stop, the bottled waters, a sign reads that water is limited to one bottle per family. But the shelves are empty. People begin grabbing bottled teas and Calpis and Mitsuya Cider, any clear liquid.


Last week we were told that no radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear reactors could possibly reach Tokyo in any quantity that could be dangerous. Then yesterday the Tokyo Metropolitan government announced that radioactive iodine in sufficient quantities to harm infants has been found in the city tap water and we all learned the word `becquerels`. The level allegedly poses “no immediate danger” to adults, by which most Tokyoites take to mean that they will announce that it IS a danger to adults this time next week. This is the drip-drip method of informing the Japanese public of any major disaster or balls-up, releasing gradually worsening news slowly so that we get used to it and don`t riot in the streets. So the announcement surprises nobody. We simply redouble our efforts to obtain anything edible or drinkable that is not radioactive.


Round the corner to the milks and there are several dozen but it is unclear where they are from and it takes time to read the backs of the cartons so we keep moving. The yoghurts are very confusing. There are about 10 large pots but none specify their prefecture of origin. Some people grab one anyway. I pick up two pots of tapioca pudding in coconut milk, and we move on. There is no rice, Pot Noodles or tofu. In the fruit and vegetables section I pick up bananas from the Philippines. A notice on the spinach shelf reads, “This is not from the affected area” but no-one is going for it. There are some breads and rolls but now people are wary. What kind of milk and water was used to make them? Into the final furlong, and I pull ahead and get the last packet of toilet rolls. I`m checked out at 10.10am. As I hurry home, dozens of women are arriving on bicycles. The city tannoy comes on to announce the day`s blackout schedule.


I dump my haul in the porch and am on my bicycle by 10.12am. This time I cycle to a supermarket that is closer to the train station. Mama`s Plate is used mainly by commuters so I figure fewer housewives will put this shop on their hit list. I go first to the water section. There is none so I buy three bottles of club soda and a carton of tropical pineapple juice. Fukushima is not known for its balmy climate. Or at least it wasn`t before the nuclear reactor caught fire. At the milks, an old man is conferring loudly on his mobile phone with his wife who seems to be in another supermarket up the road. “It says `Oishii` (Delicious) brand milk on the packet. Is that OK?” He is given instructions. He calls over to a woman stacking shelves and asks where the `Furusato` (Hometown) brand milk is from. I am examining a carton of Nagano milk but am hesitant. Nagano is south west of Fukushima. In what direction was the wind blowing yesterday? And would the cows have been indoors or outdoors in the rain? The stacker shouts back that the `Hometown` milk is from Hokkaido and several of us make a grab for it. I add a papaya from Chile and check out. I make my regular stop at the electronics store but there are still no torches, no batteries and no portable radios of any kind, just `sold out` signs hanging from gaps on the shelves. All the gadgets are switched off to save electricity and there are more sales clerks milling around than customers. As I leave the shop empty-handed two Chinook helicopters fly over, heading for Fukushima.Cycling home, a road is temporarily blocked. There are now so many people cycling in all directions that there has been an accident at the crossroads. A young man is sitting on the tarmac looking at the grazes on his hands. When I pass the Co-op again, the bicycles stacked up outside look like a giant pile of scrap metal. Just as I turn into my road, a delivery truck goes by with a group of middle-aged women cycling furiously behind it. I am back home by 10.40am, ready to begin the day`s work but with no inclination to do so. It will be the same drill again tomorrow. This constant struggle to get safe food and clean water is making us all realize how good we had it, and how well-ordered our lives were before the Tohoku earthquake on Friday 11 March.

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