KABUL, Afghanistan –

Many years ago in Bangladesh I was in a hot pepper eating frenzy. Then I stuck my finger in my eye. Blinded and flailing, I vowed never to do that again. It only took 17 years to break my promise (which is surprising since I normally break my promises much more quickly). Less surprising since I’ve been eating almost exclusively with my hands, and when I’m home tomorrow the first thing to go is the utensil drawer. I need that drawer for all the Afghan candy I’m bringing back anyway.

It’s good to be back – and interesting to see how Kabul has changed since October 2013. Expats once considered Kabul “Kabubble,” and it’s safe to say that bubble has burst. It’s no joke that the Taliban and other groups are following through on their promises to target westerners. A German woman was kidnapped two days ago in broad daylight – snatched right out of her car. The abduction happened 15 minutes after a security warning went out from INSO (International NGO Safety Organization) about increased risk of abduction in that exact neighborhood. (Insert wtf emoticon.)

The key – or at least we convince ourselves that the key – is to keep the lowest possible profile which means no visiting friends, no restaurants, and no shopping for my daughter’s upcoming birthday. I probably wouldn’t have been able to decide between the “Team Infidel” and “Somebody in Afghanistan Loves Me” T-shirts anyway.

Plus there’s no time to shop – I’m busy celebrating the groundbreaking of the Razia Jan Community College! – and finishing up filming of our documentary What Tomorrow Brings that features the first school Jan started – a K-12 school for girls in this same small village.

Razia Jan surrounded by village elders as they listen to students singing.

The groundbreaking was spectacular, and the girls were even more poised and beautiful than I could have imagined – singing, reciting poetry, giving speeches in Dari and English. To imagine that some of them arrived in 2008 unable to write their own names…
Jan only wanted the girls in the spotlight during the ceremony – and did they shine! To see all their fathers and the village elders cheering them on (as much as Afghan men cheer – they weren’t all pom-pommy or anything) made it all that much more of a celebration – not only because of what the college will make possible in the future, but also for what has been achieved so far.

When Jan opened the K-12 school 8 years ago, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for her project. But during this weekend’s ceremony, the men were all smiles and full of praise as one-by-one they laid the first bricks for the foundation.

To give you a sense of how much young women in this area want this college – the day after the groundbreaking, three teens arrived to talk to Razia. They’d walked eight miles to tell her their story: They are in 11th grade, but are worried that when they graduate, the college will be full. So they want to register now to attend in two years.

Senior Shakira recites an original poem. Behind her is classmate Mursal who is Master of Ceremonies for the college groundbreaking, and the youngest Zabuli graduate. Mursal is 14-years-old and has skipped two grades during her time at the Zabuli Education Center.

I’d tell you everything, but don’t want to have to announce a spoiler alert for the film. What I can tell you is that hidden in the college foundation is a candy treasure. Mounds of candy were dumped into wet cement at the close of the ceremony (save a handful pocketed by the mason). If you go after it, don’t be surprised by the sticky red stuff – that’s goat blood from the celebratory sacrifice. Don’t be sad. They feed the goat candy before slitting its throat. Seriously.

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 11.58.13 PM A spoonful of sugar…

Today is Independence Day in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the fireworks they’re expecting aren’t the kind you want to leave your house to see. The General in charge of security in the city has assured everyone that “there is no security vacuum.” But maybe that’s exactly what’s needed. Dyson boasts the ability to pick up bowling balls, and according to its website, the vacuum giant “uses patented cyclone technology to spin dirt out of the air.” Trap the bad guys in a man-made cyclone? That sounds like a good plan to me.

The head of security for Deh’Subz District tells the crowd he is honored to lay one of the first stones of the foundation for The Razia Jan Community College.

Digging to Argentina

A few things I’ve enjoyed learning on this trip – outside of our filming:

1. Argentina is where Japanese kids dig to in the sandbox. Yuki (our pet for the past two weeks) is anxious to get to South America, too.

He’s not going to China…

2. In Japan – where being the eldest is such a point of honor – the ranking in twin births is interesting. The first baby born is considered the youngest. The baby born second is the oldest. While filming SON OF SAICHI, we met Saichi’s great-grandaughters – twins Miu and Reika. Their mom tells us that even though Reika was born a few minutes after Miu, she is considered the eldest.

Reika (left) & Miu (right)

3. Sushi-go-rounds are about as much fun as you can have at a restaurant. An eating frenzy akin to tossing chum to sharks. And cheap. Every plate is 100 yen (108 with tax) – that’s one dollar. Not into raw fish? Don’t despair. The conveyor belt offers up sushi-sized mini hamburgers on rice. Looking for something made fresh? Just order off the computer menu and a high speed “train” shoots out your selection from the kitchen.

Waiting for the bullet train carrying dessert.

Beth Balaban with our wonderful translator Marion and Hidekazu, Saichi’s son. We’re all proud of our plate collection!

For updates on our production of SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Giant Hornet Juice

Just when I thought there was nothing left to say about the terrifying Japanese Giant Hornet, Hidekazu pulls out his Giant Hornet Juice.

“Just one drop, and I feel like stinging someone,” he says. “It’s power.”

It turns out being deadly isn’t the giant hornet’s only gift. Its strength, speed, and endurance are to be envied: The giant hornet can lift as much as six pounds, fly up to 25mph, and travel 60 miles in one day. Want that kind of power yourself? Find some inspiration from the worm-in-tequila trick, and just add the 3 inch monster – or its larvae – to your favorite hard alcohol (here, that’s shōchū). It’s giant hornet season right now, and I definitely like them much better drowning in booze than buzzing around above our heads.

Killer hornets doin’ the Shochu Soak.

Giant Hornet Larvae Juice. Couple swigs for power.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Crew Survival Stories

Enough about the radiation. The crew has survived:

1. Teens firing a pellet gun in the house.

It was no fun when the rain started. So why not just bring the game inside?

2. An attempted boob grab. Pulsing fingers and all.

3. Hoya. Our host spent two days giggling about serving it to us. You can try to dress hoya up with a sweet name like Sea Pineapple or a cute one like Sea Squirt, but one look tells you all you need to know. Even Wieden + Kennedy couldn’t sell this thing.

It’s rare. And should stay that way.

4. The Japanese Giant Hornet. We’d heard the lore, and took the claims to Wikipedia, quickly confirming that this hornet is the biggest in the world. It’s also poisonous. Today, we had our first – and second – F2F with one. Hidekazu Ouchi, who we’re filming for SON OF SAICHI, grew up on a farm and has been attacked numerous times. He told us everything we need to know: 1. You go unconscious quickly. 2. Treatment has to happen within 15 minutes (But wait!! The “city” is 20 minutes away?!). 3. No treatment = Death. calls it “one of the five most horrifying bugs in the world” and writes this: Why you must fear it: It’s the size of your thumb and it can spray flesh-melting poison. We really wish we were making that up for, you know, dramatic effect because goddamn, what a terrible thing a three-inch acid-shooting hornet would be, you know? Oh, hey, did we mention it shoots it into your eyes? Or that the poison also has a pheromone cocktail in it that’ll call every hornet in the hive to come over and sting you until you are no longer alive?

Natural Born Killer. Spotted at the home where we’re filming.

We use this opportunity to announce that we will be doing the remainder of our filming from an air conditioned hotel room.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The 49th Day

Tsugiko prepares for her husband’s 49th day memorial

“This is a very important day for sending his spirit on… for sending him on to the next world,” says Tsugiko Ouchi as she prepares what she will wear to today’s memorial service. Her husband, Hiroshima survivor Saichi, died forty-nine days ago, and in the Buddhist tradition, this is the day his spirit will transition to its new life.

Like everything in her life now – her post-evacuation life – events big and small become reminders of what she’s lost. After spending 20 minutes rifling through everything in her bedroom drawers and painstakingly separating her dry cleaning, Tsugiko realizes she’s missing her best black kimono – the very thing she wants to wear to today’s service. The kimono, her son tells her, is back home in Yamakiya hanging in a closet that seems frozen in time since they were forced to leave after the nuclear disaster in 2011.

After today’s memorial service Hidekazu, Saishi’s son, will put his father’s picture next to the other ancestors who have passed.

The priest who is leading today’s memorial service is a friend of Hidekazu’s from childhood, and he’s been generous enough to give us permission to film. He’s also the one who gave Saichi his holy name after he died. The holy name is important after death because Buddhist tradition says if spirits hear their own name on earth, they might want to stay, but this new name helps set them free.

“This is really good name, very meaningful,” Hidekazu says as he shows us the ten characters (longer holy names are “better” – and by comparison, when his brother died last year, his holy name was only six characters). The long name includes characters for “pure” and “special,” and is an indication of how much Saichi contributed to the temple and community during his lifetime, and how much his ancestors contributed during theirs.

Hidekazu with the “ihais” – spirit tablets – of his brother and father. Written on the tablets are their holy names. These tablets are kept at the family altar inside the home.

Follow the filming of our documentary SON OF SAICHI on Facebook and Twitter #sonofsaichi #bethsinjapan


Kawamata Town in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

It’s so much fun running in new places! I like getting up and out early and discovering how this new-to-me community wakes up and says Good Morning! to the world. It’s especially great here in Kawamata where four breathtaking mountain ranges hug the valley. Even before 5am, elderly men and women are walking their dogs and tending their gardens along the Hirose and Isazawa Rivers.

Around every bend, I find an invitation – and so much beauty in nature’s surprises.

Clearly an invitation to a trail run!

I brake for tadpoles on lily pads.

Another invitation! This one to climb…

Waiting at the top of the stairs…

Kawamata is not an evacuation zone, but public Geiger counters keep track of radiation levels round-the-clock, and there is radiological clean-up happening here – especially on the mountainsides where contamination is highest. The problem is the poison doesn’t stay high in the mountains. Soil erosion – especially after heavy rains – can bring the Cesium into backyards, rice paddies, vegetable gardens and water sources.

One of the official government geiger counters in Kawamata.

Kawamata is right next to Yamakiya, an evacuated village where we are filming SON OF SAICHI. The reading of 0.150 microsieverts of radiation per hour translates into 13.9 millisieverts of radiation per year. The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends a dosage limit of one millisievert per year from all sources of radiation, which puts this measure at nearly 14 times higher. Many believe that if the government were being honest and doing the right thing, this area would be evacuated, too.

But besides the Geiger counters, there is really no sign that anything is out of the ordinary here. Life seems normal. Sulky, uniformed teens walk to school; the favorite lunch place is too packed by noon to get a seat; and a huge grocery store called Happy Foods recently came to town. Despite the risk, despite the fear, they carry on.

[The carry on theme is big in the song that’s on every one of my playlists this trip: “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance]

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Beware of the Giant Hornet

Yamakiya, Japan – Forced Evacuation Zone

More than 2,300 decontamination workers are in Yamakiya tackling a portion of the largest radiological clean-up the world has ever seen. If you expect them to be armed with much more than rakes, think again.

It’s a shockingly unsophisticated effort.

“If you look at it from afar, it doesn’t make any sense what they’re doing. But when you get up close, then you can really understand,” says Hidekazu Ouchi, the son of Hiroshima survivor Saichi Ouchi, and the star of our film SON OF SAICHI.

Well-intentioned workers who are weary of being beat up by the press are raking leaves, weed-whacking overgrown rice paddies, hand-feeding small trees through wood chippers, hand-carrying branches from the woods, and climbing the mountainside to clear topsoil and brush.

We climbed up there with them today, too – and I can tell you it is risky, back-breaking, mind-numbingly slow work that involves being tethered to a tree while worrying about whether the Japanese giant hornet will strike. And there’s good reason to fear – it’s the largest hornet in the world and kills dozens of people in Japan every year, giving it the distinction of killing more people than any other animal here.

Branches contaminated with radiation are carried out of the forest in Yamakiya, a mandatory evacuation area.

The decontamination work is happening on the mountain’s first sixty-five feet. What if there’s contamination in the sixty-sixth foot? No one I talked to wants to answer that. Nor do they really feel like they should have to.

Yamakiya – specifically Hidekazu’s property – was one of nineteen test sites, and the effectiveness and efficiency of this decontamination technology was proven when initial soil scraping and leaf removal yielded a drop in radiation levels here. This success became a model for the massive decontamination effort that is now underway in twenty Fukushima communities.

Will it work? Will Hidekazu and his family be able to return home? Those are questions no one really can answer today. But new, brightly colored signs lining the roads want people to believe the answer is Yes: “Everyone do your best to come back with smiling faces,” one neon pink flag waves.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Anti-Nuke Undies

Iizaka Village in Kawamata Town in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

Current top ranking for most ridiculous conversation goes to:
Me: “We need anti-radioactive underwear.”
Balaban: “Do they sell that at the hardware store?”

It costs $875 to add 7.5lbs of lead to your booty.

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Ring of Fire

10th Floor, Toyoko Inn, Fukushima City

There are lots of fun reasons for a bed to be rattling in the middle of the night. But an earthquake isn’t one of them. The first quake hits at 3:20am. It’s a 5.7 magnitude off the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture, and feels like a ride on a coin-operated horse at the grocery store. Within ten seconds it’s over.

The second quake two hours later is slightly weaker – 5.6 magnitude – but closer. About twenty miles away right off the coast of Fukushima Prefecture. Fear strikes in a waiting-for-the-ceiling-to-crash-down kind of way. I stand paralyzed in the middle of my tiny hotel room with one overarching thought, “I do not want to die in the Japanese equivalent of a Holiday Inn.”

Our earthquakes are the orange and yellow ones.

Beth Balaban and I have been here three times in two years for filming Son of Saichi, and every time, there’s been a quake. Is this really what daily life here is like? Here’s the tally from our little corner of this Pacific Ring of Fire:
2 earthquakes today
3 earthquakes in the past 7 days
5 earthquakes in the past month
118 earthquakes in the past year

Scientists say the abundant seismic activity here could give Japan all the clean energy it needs – as much as twenty nuclear reactors. I think it might be time to enjoy the seismically charged hot springs to evaluate further…

For more on our filming adventures for SON OF SAICHI, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Smell of Cabotage in the Morning

Logan Airport, 4:30am

“You may be alright,” Chris, the Air Canada ticket agent tells us. “But it’s risky. That’s flying too close to the sun for me.”

And so begins Friday the 13th, and our trip to Japan to film SON OF SAICHI. We’ve been accused – more accurately our travel agent has been accused – of cabotage. It’s illegal. And it means we’re grounded.

Google cabotage and you’ll find a Wikipedia entry that highlights our exact situation:
Cabotage situations can occur as a consequence of hub-and-spoke operations. Consider that Air Canada has a major hub at Toronto that offers flights to several U.S. cities. While a passenger is able to buy a ticket from Boston to Toronto, and a separate ticket from Toronto to Seattle [in our case Minneapolis] that same day, both flights cannot be offered on the same itinerary because this would effectively be a U.S. domestic service. Never mind that the Twin Cities are not our final destination.

The offending itinerary.

No big deal. We’ll skip Toronto. We just need to get to Minneapolis to grab that flight to Tokyo. And United can get us there for $250. Except missing the first Air Canada leg cancels the entire ticket, and Delta wants $5,600 apiece to reissue! A little bit of travel agent magic convinces Delta to get us on board for $350. Done.

Fukushima-bound once more!

Stay tuned for updates from the road. This weekend we reconnect with the Ouchi family – a family of nuclear refugees who’ve been waiting for two years for their farmland to be decontaminated so they can return home. But now that this moment has arrived, they are more uncertain than ever about whether moving forward means reclaiming their ancestral home.