Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Half-life equation for radioactive decay

Up at 6:20am. Check the latest news on the reactors and there's nothing new. I've read enough to know things should be fine in Chiba. Shower, shave and out the door at 7am to catch my 10am flight to Narita Airport. Pick up some breakfast at the 7/11 - hot soy milk and a rice ball, and make for the Airport Express.

Arrive at Seoul Incheon Int'l Airport at 8:20am and it's the busiest I've seen it. There are large numbers of Japanese passengers at the Asiana Airlines check-in counter for flights to Osaka, Tokyo and Nagoya, and the atmosphere is tense. People don't seem so pleased to be returning. I go through security and pick up some omiyage for my supervisors - two boxes of Korean ginseng chocolates, and wait to board my flight.

The 335 passenger Airbus A330-300 is relatively empty. I sit next to a young Korean man and try to make conversation but he seems nervous. I move to an empty row before take off and fall asleep.

We're the only flight in the baggage claim area. The customs agent looks at my backpack and asks if I've been hiking. "No. This is my suitcase." Where are you coming from? South Korea. He takes a quick look and let's me go. There are four people waiting for family and friends outside customs. I've never seen Narita arrivals so calm.

I'm approaching the train terminal when a conductor rushes over and asks where I'm going - "The train is about to leave!" It's 2:58pm and the train leaves at 3pm. I check the schedule and the next train departs at 4pm. That's unusual. They normally leave every 30 minutes. I pull out my Suica card and run through the gate and down the escalator. I'm on the train 20 seconds before the doors close. There are five people in my car.

More people board as we head towards Chiba. The spirit is subdued and the people sitting across from me are fast asleep. Nothing unusual there.

I arrive at Chiba Station and things seem more alive. The lights in the main building are still off or dimmed, but people are going about their business as usual and most of the trains are running. An older woman greets me with a smile as I near my apartment. Things seem to be getting back to normal. And the weather is beautiful!

My apartment is just as I'd left it. I put my bags down and start unpacking, prepare the small gifts for my supervisors and head to the Board of Education (BOE). They should be expecting me. I bicycle past the Top Mart grocery store and find it's closed - permanently. That's unsettling.

I ride the elevator to the 11th floor and find them at their desks. At first they seem a little hesitant - my assistant supervisor barely pauses to acknowledge my return and carries on with his work. Something's up. The first questions after "how was your trip?" is "what is your plan for the future?" I tell them things seem to be getting back to normal and it is my plan to stay and finish my contract. The weight is lifted - they seem overjoyed. My assistant supervisor stands up from his desk with a big smile and tells me he's relieved to hear I'm staying. He'd be out of work if I left! After greeting the new president of the BOE, we return to their desks to catch up. I've got half a dozen important questions to ask.

"Will the new semester start on Monday as scheduled?" Yes. Classes will resume as scheduled along with a full school lunch.

"What is the situation with the electricity and rolling blackouts?" At the moment there are no rolling blackouts. The power company has asked us to use electricity conservatively as it carefully measures demand. It is possible rolling blackouts will commence in the coming weeks. There will be restrictions on A/C use this summer. It will be hot!

"Can we drink the tap water?" Yes. There is no problem with the tap water.

"Are the trains running at full capacity?" Most lines are running at full capacity during the week. Some are still running at 70-90% capacity. The weekend schedules have been reduced.

"What is being done to monitor the food supply for contamination?" All food items entering local supermarkets are being carefully monitored for contamination. Specific food are no longer being imported from Fukushima, Ibaraki, and some parts of Chiba. Contaminated food is being removed from the supply chain.

"I noticed Top Mart closed." Growing competition from nearby supermarkets was exacerbated by problems in the supply chain following the earthquake. It was only a matter of time.

Near the end of our conversation my supervisor tells me they've got good news. The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), the government agency which overseas the JET Programme, sent a letter to municipal and prefectural BOEs concerning JETs who took leave as a result of the events surrounding the March 11th earthquake, stating that they are authorized to give us paid leave for the duration of our terms of absence. Since I left Japan the government raised the nuclear crisis level on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) from Level 4 to Level 5 on a seven-level scale - "Accident with Wider Consequences." Apparently, this was enough to justify paid leave. That is good news! Albeit a little disconcerting.

I present their omiyage and bid farewell. As I round the corner, my assistant supervisor calls me back and offers me a small sweet with a big smile. I'm glad I decided to stay.

I follow their directions to a nearby supermarket to pick up some food. It's busy and most of the shelves are fully stocked, though they're clear out of yogurt and bottled water. Lots of milk, though. I pick up some apples and bananas, onions, garlic and tomatoes. I'm making dal!

Drop off the groceries and remember it's Tuesday, the quiet night at the barber shop, and I'm in bad need of a haircut. I hop on my bike and ride to the barber's. He's the first one I've frequented with which I'm on a first name basis and we catch up in broken English and Japanese. I saw him last on the Tuesday before the earthquake.

Make dal and rice for dinner and Skype with my siblings and old friends. I drink some filtered tap water but it tastes funny. I clean out my Brita filter and try again. Still tastes strange. Must be in my head. Everything else seems fine.

It's good to be home.