Tokyo: With the passage of time, Chernobyl has become well-explored territory. Guides take you through the nearest town, Pripyat, and they know exactly where to go — and more importantly — where not to.
Photograph Orange Forest from a distance, they warn. If you see a parking lot full of helicopters and emergency vehicles used to quell the reactor, don`t go in. But it`s fine to walk right up to the fence of The Sarcophagus, the reactor tomb with its concrete walls and roof, and its towering exhaust stack.
In Futaba, where Japan`s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is located, you are on your own.
Each step takes you onto uncharted ground. There are no guides. It is a deserted ghost town. Unlike Pripyat, an urban wilderness with trees growing through cracked asphalt, Fukushima is a fresh wound. The plant is still unstable. It`s crisis still unfolding. Its only inhabitants are emergency police, in radiation gear, working under the constant threat of radioactivity and another explosion — two buildings have already been destroyed by hydrogen blasts.
Homeless dogs, and some cats, in both cities remind you that people — regular people — used to live here.
Pripyat has become a magnet for thrill-seekers and artists. Graffiti, elaborate and creative, covers the town. Artists have left behind works to capture the irony of the setting. In the kindergarten sits a doll with a gas mask covering her face. Painted shadows elicit the memories of babies, dancing, tears.
Some people still live in Chernobyl`s shadow. Old farmers, mostly, who refuse to leave the land that they have tilled all their lives, the only homes that they know. They eat the potatoes, drink the milk, cook the chicken. They don`t want to think about the radioactivity that has poisoned their environment.
Japan — more than virtually any other country in the world — is a nation of old people. Here, too, the farmers have been reluctant to leave. Against the warnings of the authorities, many came back from their evacuation shelters to feed their cattle, rescue their pets and spend a few precious hours in their homes before rushing out again at night. They can do so no longer — after more than a month, the evacuation zone has been sealed.
The world will remember Chernobyl and Fukushima as words — symbols — synonymous with nuclear disaster. Pripyat and Futaba are their faces — the faces that are no longer there.