Katsuichi Chiba, managing director of the Tsuchiyu hot spring cooperative, stands in front of a machine creating geothermal energy for the town. Tsuchiyu, known in Japan for its hot springs, was struck by the March 11th earthquake, and has lost the tourism it once had. However, people such as Kato are trying to revive the town. August 14, 2014. Photo by Gavin McIntyre

Katsuichi Chiba, managing director of the Tsuchiyu hot spring cooperative, stands in front of a machine creating geothermal energy for the town. Tsuchiyu, known in Japan for its hot springs, was struck by the March 11th earthquake, and has lost the tourism it once had. However, people such as Kato are trying to revive the town. August 14, 2014.
Photo by Gavin McIntyre

By Jon Funabiki

When northeastern Japan was hit by a monster earthquake on Friday, March 11, 2011, Chiba Katsuichi was taking a day off from work to be with his family in Fukushima.

It was his birthday. He was 58 years old. It was the day that changed his life.

Chiba-san had been working for a medical equipment division of HP Japan in Tokyo for 27 years. The job meant that he kept a small apartment in Tokyo while his family stayed behind in Fukushima, 150 miles away. So, birthdays were precious.

At first, Chiba-san tried to go back to his job in Tokyo, but he was overcome by anxieties and troublesome thoughts.

“I couldn’t … I resigned almost immediately.”

Today, he’s found a new mission for his life. He’s part of the wave of individuals who are trying to help rebuild Fukushima.

The project he has chosen is high up in the mountains southwest of Fukushima, where the Tsuchiyu Hot Springs provide endless supplies of scalding hot water for the famed onsen, or traditional hot springs baths. For centuries, Tsuchiyu Hot Springs, which is about a half-hour’s drive from Fukushima, has been a favored resort area. The hotels and traditional inns, known as ryokan, offer an elegant way to relax and enjoy Japan’s timeless culture.

But tourism and business generally has been on the decline ever since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster. People are afraid that Fukushima is dangerous and that food and water might still be contaminated with radioactivity. Six of the region’s 16 onsen have had to close.

Chiba-san’s idea is to tap the hot springs for new resources. You can see what he and his partners are up to along the banks of a gurgling river where big pipes are sunk into the earth to capture hot water and vents of steam spout into the air. It looks a bit like an inventor’s back yard.

Joining forces with the owners of the onsen and other partners, they are building a geothermal-powered turbine that they hope will produce cheap electricity for the mountain resorts. It’s a hulking set of tanks, pipes and gauges. Already, the onsen owners have signed on. Nearby, there’s a small plastic-covered nursery warmed by hot water. It’s a pilot for larger structures that could be used to grow crops. On the drawing boards is an idea for a fish farm.

Chiba-san said that while the disaster created a crisis, it also forced the owners of the onsen and other local businesses to take action. It usually takes a lot of time to get people to buy into a big project like this one.

“The whole district quickly reached a consensus to do something,” he explained. “It was a big trigger.”

Therefore, Chiba-san is optimistic for the future. However, one thing hasn’t changed. He’s still not reunited with all his family. Fearful of Fukushima, his daughter and grandchildren have relocated to Yokohama.

“Birthdays used to be a time to celebrate with my grandchildren,” he laments. “Now it’s a day that we pray and pay respects for those who died.”

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