The water is ridiculously radiant in Fukushima. It's so invitingly fresh that one feels compelled to stop among the endless rows of rice fields in this northern Japanese prefecture to sample it. Bend over to cup a drink and your reflection stares back at you so starkly that every wrinkle and furrow in your brow is depressingly accentuated. But the taste of the spring water is so sublime and rejuvenating that it lifts even the most forlorn spirits. Small wonder that the best sake in Japan comes from Fukushima. They drink it cold and natural around here; heating it up is pure sacrilege.
The area is rich in therapeutic hot springs as well, with over 150 of them dotting the landscape. Move inland a bit by the mountains near Kitakata and Lake Hibara and fresh air becomes even fresher; so aromatic and enticing that you want to eat it. Mother nature has truly blessed Fukushima, a domestic treasure that has managed to largely stay off the international radar.
But not any more. Fukushima has been in basically every living room in the world with electricity this past week. The apocalyptic ravages of an earthquake and subsequent tsunami have been endlessly beamed in high-def horror, over and over and over. The rows and rows of rice fields are now strewn with incomprehensible mountains of debris and rotting carcasses as far as the eye can see. The most notorious building in the world has become the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which is holding Japan hostage as it threatens to spew radioactive material all over the countryside. The images are beyond disturbing; they are numbing and almost comical in their horror as the number of casualties climbs into the tens of thousands.
Mother nature is clearly no longer infatuated with Fukushima. But I am. I can't get it out of my mind. I remember watching a spirited and regimented high school baseball game a few years back in Fukushima and I most certainly will never forget drinking all that succulent sake. One has to indulge in the indigenous pleasures, after all. Like most of you, I have been moved to tears and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
I want to and will contribute to relief efforts. Still it's not enough and that's why I can't get baseball and sake out of my mind. Maybe it sounds perverse that in a time of unprecedented crisis this is where my thoughts drift. But it is what it is. Baseball can't heal, it can only soothe and pretty soon this country is going to need more soothing than a newborn child. Japan has to dig out and rebuild on a scale that most of us have not seen in our lifetime. It won't be easy; they're teetering on a nuclear meltdown. But it will happen, make no mistake about that. These are some of the most remarkably resilient people on the face of the earth.
The Tohuko Ratuken Eagles have never finished higher than second during their six years in the Nippon Professional Baseball's Pacific League. Granted an expansion franchise in 2004, the Eagles brought professional baseball to the northern city of Sendai and have been largely inconsequential ever since. Professional baseball in Japan has digressed over the past 10 years as marquee players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui left to play in the United States. But while the professional game has been dinged up pretty good, baseball still thrives at the high school and college level.
Still, if you want to follow how Japan is progressing post-apocalypse then look no further than the Eagles. No major city in Japan has been as devastated as Sendai. With a population of one million people, this coastal city is the closest metropolis to the epicentre of the quake. Power has been out for days and people were scavenging for food. The streets are clogged with debris as local and international rescue teams still search for bodies. People are evacuating from Sendai in droves. For the Eagles, it's just the opposite. They were playing an exhibition game south of Tokyo when the quake and tsunami hit. The game was stopped in the eighth inning so players could check on families. 'Everyone would like to go back to Sendai, but there's really no way to manage that,' Eagles official Ryo Iwakoshi told The Daily Yomiuri. 'We all have jobs to do.'
Jobs to do? Like play baseball or something? It's a crazy thought but in an absolutely insane situation it might even make sense. This sense of duty, while honorable, seems absurd. But what else is left for them to cling to going forward? The rice farmers a little farther south in Fukushima have jobs to do as well. Planting starts in April and May and the harvest follows in October. Want to venture a guess how desirable the 2011 vintage of Fukushima sake will be? A tsunami-soaked landscape and a possible nuclear meltdown would have to seriously poison some of the most crystalline spring water in the world. But these people will bury their loved ones and count the heartbreaking costs. Their lives will never be the same and neither will their country. But at some point they will get back to work because, like the man said, they all have jobs to do.
I don't know when, but I am going back to visit Japan soon. I am going to drink sake from Fukushima and watch as many baseball games as my eyes can take because I don't know how else to honour my spiritual affinity for this country. I've been gawking and I've been sobbing. But at some point you have to turn off the TV and get off your backside because pity is not a currency. It's a hindrance.