On March the 11th of this year, in the middle of the afternoon, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale struck off the east coast of Japan. It was one of the five most powerful earthquakes ever to occur globally since record-keeping began at the beginning of the last century. Such was its force, it is estimated to have shifted the Earth by up to ten inches on its axis. The resulting tsunamis pulverised the coastline, sweeping away entire towns and killing nearly 16,000 people; almost 5,000 are still missing. Further down the coast, in Fukushima, a tsunami knocked out the generators of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and the reactors overheated, releasing radioactive material into the surrounding air and water.
Like many, I watched with horror as the tsunamis ate their way across the coastal plains, and then with disbelief as TEPCO tried to prevent nuclear meltdown with hoses and buckets of water dropped from helicopters. I saw the pictures of lines of people queueing for food in Tokyo, the empty supermarket shelves and blackouts. I read about the radiation found in vegetables, in Tokyo's drinking water. Friends of mine living in central areas of Honshu travelled southeast to escape any potential nuclear fallout, and some were even evacuated from Japan and returned to Europe by the military.

I had bought a ticket to travel to Japan six months earlier but despite the risk, or lack of risk depending on who you believed, there was no way, barring a full-scale nuclear disaster, that I wasn't going to use it. So at the beginning of April, in a virtually empty plane, I landed in Tokyo for the first time.

Having never been there before I can't say that the city had changed, but there was a pretty subdued atmosphere. Many foreigners had left and no-one was sure if they would return. There were still regular aftershocks, some of which hit during the day, some of which shook you awake at night. In fact, it wasn't even certain that these were aftershocks. There was talk of a new faultline, of a massive earthquake soon to come, closer to or even directly under Tokyo. The radiation leaking from the nuclear power plant 230 kilometres from the capital hadn't yet been brought under control and total meltdown was still a possibility. But for every person who would tell you that the government was concealing the truth and that worse was to come, another would say that the news coverage was hysterical and that nothing was as bad as it seemed. In these strange and uncertain circumstances it seemed that the city and its population were tensed, crouched and waiting. That the buildings and the ground they're built upon were insubstantial, ephemeral. Yet also at this time, blanketing and gradually weaving its threads into the pervading tension was a hushed sense of peace, of a slowly restored calm. Spring had arrived. And the flowers of that Japanese symbol of hope and renewal, the sakura, were blooming on the trees - unfolding their petals and opening themselves once more to Tokyo's quiet, trembling air.


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