In modern history, there have been two nuclear disasters worthy of reaching a rate of 7, the maximum severity on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Most of you are familiar with the horrible accident that occurred in Chernobyl in 1986 where a nuclear power plant had a massive explosion, causing radioactive contamination across Europe and to this day, there is still an exclusion zone ominously known as the “zone of alienation” surrounding the power plant in a 30 km radius.
The second is known as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred following what is known as The Great East Japan Earthquake–a magnitude 9.0 seismic event that occurred on 11 March 2011. But it wasn’t the earthquake that caused severe damage to the nuclear power plant: it was the tsunami reaching a massive height of 40.5 meters (130 feet) following the earthquake. The Nuclear & Industrial Safety Agency estimated that the radioactivity released in the meltdown was about 15% of Chernobyl’s.
Despite the severity of this nuclear accident, the fallout on the local communities and environment was not harmful, nor did it ever escalate to harmful levels.
In fact, the local residents received a substantial compensation from the Japanese government for the emotional trauma caused by the earthquake, tsunami, and the following accident at Fukushima Daiichi. With Chernobyl acting as their substantial precedent for damage control, authorities were well prepared and proactive regarding the aftermath, evacuating locals and containing the brunt of the radioactivity. By 2014, most had been able to return to their homes as radiation reached the end of its short life cycle.
But the stigma lingered…
As the years passed and the locals in Fukushima prefecture attempted to resume their normal lives, there is one part of the community that still struggled to get back on their feet: the farming and agricultural community. With the triple meltdown from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant still fresh in people’s memories, as well as familiarity of the horrors of Chernobyl, residents and tourists alike began distrusting the locally farmed produce and livestock in fear that it was contaminated with radiation despite reassurance from authorities that they were safe to consume. As a result, local farmers and agriculturalists were no longer making enough money to make ends meet.
It was time for change!
Located about 60 km away from the power plant stands the sleepy town of Hirata, with a notable road stop along Hirata-Nishi Expressway and National Route 49.
Road stops in Japan are very similar to stops along highways in North America: they have facilities such as toilets, restaurants, market places, and in some higher end stops, there are even mini-hotels and spas! They have become crucial in rural areas with dwindling populations where people driving through can buy local fruits, vegetables, and meats, as well as other commodities. The restaurants use locally sourced ingredients and tourists can even find locally made goods and gifts.
As a result, these stops have become a cultural hub to experience local Japanese culture in its rawest form.
Residents of Hirata, known for their habanero peppers, started thinking of new ways of processing their produce when locals stopped buying their peppers, and the result has become the talk of the town!
Michi no Eki Hirata’s Famous Hell Curry
The rest stop in Hirata, known as Michi no Eki Hirata, began to produce their now famous living hell curry! It boasts a spiciness level that is 300 times higher than regular curry, the equivalent of seven whole habanero peppers in a small whopping punch. This curry is so spicy that the shop owners make you sign a waiver when you order. I suspect this is more of a publicity stunt than a necessity, for those crazy daredevils out there, but it’s apparently working!
They also sell soft-served ice cream, a local favourite, that is sprinkled with habanero powder from the locally sourced habaneros. There are varying degrees of spicy you can order in, and if you order the spiciest and eat the entire cone, the ice cream is free! Reportedly, about 500 customers have had their ice cream free since the product began being offered.
The habanero products are popular enough that you can buy some of the various products through the Mini no Eki Hirata website here. It’s all in Japanese and you can only order through phone or email, but if you’re curious enough, it’s worth a shot, right? Their line of products include curry pouches, curry paste, hot pepper powder, and more.
What the future holds next
Locals are expecting an influx of tourists during the 2020 Olympics held in Tokyo. Foreigners traveling across the country by bus will have the opportunity to visit these various road stops along their travel and taste each local specialty! For Hirata, it just so happens that the local flavour is the incarnation of the living hell they endured and survived in March 2011 following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Daiichi. I admire these men and women for taking this traumatic event and turning it into something they can thrive on.
When life gives you a nuclear disaster, make nuclear-flavoured curry!
Sources & Further Reading