MINAMISOMA, Japan - You might find it unsettling to move to a place where some residents routinely scan their groceries with a Geiger counter. Also in this place, automated radiation monitors stand guard outside parks and schools. The place we're talking about is Minamisoma , Japan -- just down the road from the nuclear reactors that melted down last year.
But a 23-year-old art instructor from Pendleton says volunteering in this shaken city is like living a dream. She's helping out in her hometown's sister city.
Horses are the original connection that drew Minamisoma and Pendleton together as sister cities. Samurai horsemanship in the coastal Japanese town and the Pendleton Round-Up in northeast Oregon. So when a desperate plea from the mayor of Minamisoma went viral on YouTube after last year's nuclear meltdown, the people of Pendleton heard the message loud and clear.
"All the stores and supermarkets are shut down, banks are closed," said Katsunobo Sakurai in the video. "The people are literally drying up as if they are under starvation tactics."
Financial support followed, but it took awhile for many volunteers to hazard a trip to this region on the border of the nuclear no-go zone.
Twenty-three-year-old art instructor Kate O'Berg of Pendleton had been to Minamisoma years before as a high school exchange student. She went back again briefly last year to help with disaster cleanup.
Then right after Christmas came a job offer. It was from the city and school system of Minamisoma. O'Berg had one day to decide if she wanted to leave her post with the Pendleton Center for the Arts and move to the Japanese disaster zone to teach English. She would also be the city's part-time cultural ambassador.
"I just lit up," O'Berg says. "I said, 'I'll come back. I'll teach here, I'll teach here! I don't have a degree, but I'll do it!'"
O'Berg says growing up downriver from the Hanford nuclear site taught her about living with radiation risk and uncertainty. She did bring a hand-held Geiger counter to Japan. She uses it to scan her groceries before putting them away in her apartment's tiny kitchen.
"I bought spinach ... and bananas to make banana bread ... and eggs and some boxed items such as baking powder. And cabbage. All of this is 0.016 microsieverts per hour, which is very safe. That's normal background here."
"I was told I should have a Geiger counter," O'Berg explains. "A lot of families here have Geiger counters."
"There definitely were considerations of my own health," she adds. "My viewpoint on it is that a lot of people get cancer and just can't help it. But I'm doing what I want to do and I'm helping other people. People risk their lives all the time to help others."
Plus, she assesses the personal risk as minimal at this point. O'Berg suggests a bike ride to see why she is so drawn to rural Japan.
We're probably a sight to see. Two tall Westerners, one trying to steer while holding a microphone. There's traffic out and about. That's one sign that Minamisoma's population is gradually rebounding.
More than 600 people drowned here in last year's tsunami. Afterwards, the majority of town residents temporarily evacuated to get farther away from the nuclear meltdown at the nearby Fukushima reactors.
We pass by the junior high where O'Berg says empty seats in the classroom are filling back up. The topsoil on the playfield was scraped off and replaced with clean dirt. Meanwhile, thousands of local people are still crammed into emergency housing blocs.
Kate O'Berg comes to a stop at a complex that resembles self-storage units. On weekends, she regularly joins volunteers who deliver food and good cheer to the prefab shelters.
"It's normally an elderly citizen who can't get to the store," she says. "We share our smiling faces and wheelbarrow the food to their home for them and bring it inside their house. It's definitely a really amazing feeling to help someone like that."
At a different temporary housing complex up the coast, a 59-year-old resident, Seiko
Saijo tells me she doesn't know when she'll get to move out to a new house of her own. The fish seller says part of the holdup is limited availability of property for rebuilding out of the tsunami inundation zone.
Conditions here are cramped, but Saijo displays a positive attitude.
"We didn't have anything left," Saijo says through a translator. "And when we came here, everything was prepared and ready for us to live in. So it was really helpful."
O'Berg is the only Oregonian living full-time in Minamisoma. A handful of other volunteers from Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, BC make periodic visits to lend a hand with food distribution and tsunami cleanup.
"I'm told that I'm such a brave person for coming here," O'Berg says. "But it's something I wanted to do so I don't feel that I any braver than someone living here."
Soon, the sister city link will go in the other direction. A half dozen middle and high school students from Minamisoma will fly to Pendleton. Their two-week friendship visit is timed to coincide with the Pendleton Round-Up.
Correspondent Tom Banse traveled to Japan on a disaster preparedness fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center, an institute in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Pendleton - Minamisoma sister cities Facebook page:
Kate O'Berg’s picture blog: