Once this road was thronged with traffic: an expressway, one of the arteries of a nation's economic life, as familiar and modern a sight as you would find anywhere in Japan. The only barriers on the route to Fukushima Daiichi were the other people heading in the same direction.
Today the journey is different. It is a journey to the heart of a catastrophe. About 10 kilometres beyond the half-deserted city of Iwaki, the coastal road is blocked not by commuters but by landslides; the satellite navigation system that might once have flashed up traffic jams shows clusters of red circles that denote barred roads. And when we reach the inland expressway itself, the only vehicles disturbing the silence are the rumbling military trucks of Japan's Self Defence Force. Twenty kilometres out from the nuclear plant, abandoned road blocks mutely signal our entry into the nuclear exclusion zone.
It is a scene of devastation. Underneath us the road cuts across rice fields strewn with cars, their wreckages seemingly tossed by the hand of an angry child: in one paddy an upturned Nissan Micra; in another a Toyota people carrier filled to its sunroof with mud. The second storey of a nearby house perches on a single pillar, like a boxy flamingo. The ground floor has been erased, splinters of wood pointing the way the wall of water had gone.
And yet after two weeks of minutely documented destruction, these scenes seem more familiar than eerie. The empty streets on the hillside of nearby Kumamachi, which escaped the tsunami, attest to a different kind of fear. Outside its abandoned houses a gentler tremor has shaken roof tiles to the floor and knocked over bicycles. But it feels as though the residents could return at any moment. Their doors are open.
The people here must have been able to hear the hydrogen explosions that rocked the power plant only three kilometres away. They can't have waited much longer to leave. No one will see the cherry blossom that's opening on the boughs of a tree in the school playground, or observe the custom to share a drink underneath it with friends. The children's umbrellas will stay in the rack outside their empty classroom.
Stray cats provide a flicker of movement as they wander in the newly emptied landscape. A few dogs have been left behind, one trailing its lead. In a village beneath one of the flyovers on Route 6, an elderly couple emerge from their car and run into a house. By the time we backtrack and climb down to find them they have gone.
Despite the hundreds of homes still standing they will be the only non-emergency workers we see. Their fleeting presence is a reminder of our own vulnerability, even inside a sealed car on a deliberately brief journey through the zone. We only venture outside the vehicle to remove heavy debris in our way. As we edge closer to our destination, we make our way over buckled tarmac where sand has been shovelled into yawning cracks and logs have been rolled into the broken steps carved by the earthquake.
The brooding presence of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is telegraphed by the crowds of transmission-tower pylons converging on their source. A stream of white vehicles manned by ghostly figures in protective overalls, all breathing through respirators, suggests no let-up in the fight against a meltdown.
Finally we are seeing people on our journey. When we wave one of the vehicles down, the driver removes his respirator long enough to say that yes, he is working on the emergency at the plant. But his speech is flecked with panic. He insists he cannot speak to journalists and hurries away.
But nobody stops us. And so we move closer. Tell-tale wisps of grey smoke rise above the tree cover to point the way. Japan's newest heroes, the "Samurai 50", flash past, almost invisible in their white body-suits and hoods aboard a white bus, going towards the reactors. Before long we, too, are at the main entrance of Fukushima No 1.
In the midst of an all-consuming havoc, it appears to be the only place that has escaped intact. Only a spotless white sign in the stone wall tells us we are at the centre of the crisis. Next to the Japanese characters that give the plant's name is the playful red logo of Tepco, the now notorious Tokyo power giant that finds itself in the eye of a nuclear storm.
We would learn later that Tepco has belatedly admitted that the pressure containment vessel at reactor No 3 "may" have been breached – the last step before molten fuel pours onto the concrete base of the reactor triggering a massive release of radioactive material. Three workers inside the plant have been taken to hospital with burns after wading into water contaminated by 10,000 times the expected dose of radiation.
The half-dozen reactors where small teams of engineers have been battling in shifts to prevent a meltdown are only a few hundred metres away. But even if the risks are manageable on a brief visit, there is no mistaking that we are close to disaster.
A Tepco vehicle comes in the other direction but stops abruptly on seeing a car from the outside world inside the stricken power plant. It reverses noisily towards us, and the driver's door opens to show two men inside wearing heavy-duty protective overalls. Unable to make themselves heard over respirators, they make the Japanese gesture meaning "forbidden", crossing and uncrossing their arms and then pointing back the way they had come. It was the closest thing to a security barrier that we encountered.
Our route away is just as unimpeded. But if the approach has been a powerful introduction to the destructive force of the tsunami, our journey towards Minamisoma, the nearest town to the ruined plant, does not offer a corresponding escape.
The town is trapped in what the government has called the "stay inside zone": a 10km-wide band not yet evacuated but too contaminated to go outside. As we escape the perimeter of the plant, the final stretch of Route 6 into Minamisoma breaks through the numbness. Remnants of boats and cars are scattered in unlikely poses for miles in all directions, while the pylons that flank the road have been twisted like the Spanish bearded trees of the bayou. Crows pick through the wreckage of a destroyed garden centre on the roadside.
The ghastly spell is broken by loudspeakers in the distance that are somehow still working. One of Japan's beloved town announcements echoes across the grey devastation, repeating the promise that petrol and kerosene rations will arrive that afternoon.
Picking our way through we find Haranomachi Tokusawa. An old man, he seems less terrified than others of the radiation and has taken his pickup down to the coastal stretch of Minamisoma to look for people lost in the maze of smashed junctions. "It's not safe for you here, you're still inside the exclusion zone," he warns, before leading us out to where everyone else is sheltering.
Only 20,000 of Minamisoma's population of 70,000 have stayed on here. In his office plastered with photographs of the aftermath, Sakurai Katsunobe, the town's lean and furious mayor, says residents have been left to fend for themselves. "Everyone here is angry with Tepco," he seethes. "They give us no information and no help."
Joking that he's a samurai, he vows to save his town with its crippled power plant, its poisoned rice paddies and terrified survivors. He is unlikely to get the chance. Late yesterday the government expanded the evacuation zone in response to the deepening emergency at Fukushima. Even the brave hangers-on will have to pack what they can and leave.
But until that order came, the few that remained were inhabitants of a kind of ghost world, removed entirely from the ordinary life they had once lived. Weighing that new reality in his office, Katsunobe stared at the images of devastation tacked to his wall. They were placed over the pictures that had decorated the room in more normal times. "We can't get supplies as drivers don't want to come here," he said. "We're like an island cut off from outside world."
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