At the edge of the horizon

At the edge of the horizon
At the edge of Japan

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Deep North: 東北:陸前高田と気仙沼 (Part II)

When we arrived in Kawasaki, Miyagi, it was nearly 8AM, and we had another hour to travel before we reached the coast. We were told to prepare for the day, which meant changing in the public restrooms at the rest stop and waking up, regardless of how groggy we felt. Y. and I had been awake most of the trip starting around 5AM, so we felt worn. After Kawasaki, we headed east towards the coast. I have to admit, I don't remember much of this stretch, so I suspect I must have dozed for another hour. I do remember thinking about whether I'd recognize these towns from the footage on television of the tsunami. We live in a hyper-mediated age, and even though I don't own a television, I'm plugged in enough via the Internet to get a sense of simulacra, which is a horrible way to feel when you know what you're witnessing left everyone in the region with a gaping hole in the hearts. Thankfully, I didn't get that “more authentic than the real thing” feeling when we entered Rikuzentakata.

Driving along the coast towards Rikuzentakata

Tsunami Inundation signs

Rikuzentakata, located in southern Iwate prefecture, is one of several coastal cities in the Tohoku region that were almost completely wiped out. Along with Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture, this small city lost almost everything in the 6 minutes it took for the waves to roll into its harbor. I had thought that Y. and I were going to Minamisanriku originally, as he and I had looked at several volunteer organizations when we planned for the trip. I don’t know if the original itinerary mentioned Minamisanriku or Rikuzentakata because both of us were surprised that we were heading there. We both noted that our destination was the same city that I had written about in “Kenji and Ai,” the short that I wrote and that Y. acted in last year for the TCG: Shinsai fundraiser. I had chosen that city after seeing a post on JETAA’s page from the sister of the ALT who had died. Not to elevate the significance of foreigners, in particular JETs, over the thousands of Japanese who died in that disaster, but her reaction to her brother’s death and the last few moments of his life (as well as everyone on the video she had posted) affected me in such a way that I ended up writing about it, filtered through the voices of two Japanese schoolchildren dealing with the trauma and subsequent survivor’s guilt.

Upon entering Rikuzentakata

I never imagined that I would end up visiting Iwate, or Rikuzentakata, so I tried to prepare myself for what I might see. And what we did see was a void where something should be; the remnants of a city that once existed. Upon entering Takata, the first thing you notice is how much of it is missing. It’s been a little over two years since the tsunami occurred and the cleanup of the areas that were hit hard has left the area flattened, sparse, with small reminders here and there of what once existed. There were only a few buildings still standing in the center of town, all of them damaged. I suspect they’ve left some of these buildings to remind people how high the waves reached and what used to be there. If not, there would be very little to guide you around what once existed.

Takata's Flood Gates, from afar

Flood Gates

The first structures I recognized were the flood gates; the town’s failed sentinels looking warily out towards the sea. Their design makes them appear like something out of a Star Wars movie. I recognized them immediately from a photo in the book "Strong in the Rain," which I had read last year when I was trying to gain a better sense of how Tohoku was recovering. As we drove into what was left of the town, our volunteer guide started to talk about the history of the town, the areas of the town that had been absolutely devastated (which was basically almost all of the town proper), and what the people were now doing to rebuild it.

Damaged buildings

A Junior High School was the first building, after the flood gates, that I noticed. It sits on a small river that opens up onto the sea and I was surprised it had survived. It had been completely covered by the tsunami. You could see where the windows on the third floor had blown out, the white curtains from the classrooms still billowing eerily in the wind. I wondered about the school children and teachers, who undoubtedly had gone to one of the town’s evacuation centers, many of which were overrun by the waves.

The destroyed Junior High School

The wind in Rikuzentataka is incredibly strong. It's almost otherworldly now with a lack of infrastructure and without buildings to block the winds that come racing across the valley from the sea towards the mountains. When the gusts of wind blew across the town, it felt as if we were in a desert or what I assume a warmer Antarctica might feel like. I can't imagine how bitter cold it is in the winter. This says quite a bit about the town itself. It basically lies in a valley surrounded by smaller foothills that lead up into high mountains. Because they are prone to landslides, these mountains aren't stable enough for the people to rebuild their town on. The town itself is rather flat, and looking at photos taken prior to March 11, 2011, it was a picturesque seaside town flanked by majestic mountains on all sides, with 70,000 pines on a small stretch of coastal land separating the sea from the town. Now, the only pine that stands is Rikuzentakata’s “miracle pine,” a pine that stands just behind the flood gates; the sole survivor of the tsunami. Except this pine has now become a statue, as it ended up dying due to salination of the soil. The government spent massive amounts of money to rebuild the pine to stand as an immortal reminder to the people to not give up hope. Some scoff at the use of money in such ways, stating that it would be better to have distributed the money to rebuild the town or other parts of the region, but others state that this tree has become a significant symbol to the people of this city, and that it was a necessary thing to maintain hope in the face of dwindling prospects of a quick recovery.

Where the town once existed

Our bus pulled up into the Save Takata Volunteer Center, a hub of numerous tour buses filled with mostly Japanese people coming from all over Japan to help in whatever way they can. Despite the fact that there are contractors and construction companies doing most of the heavy duty work, the center maintains an active base of volunteers, with duties changing to fit the needs of the city and its residents. Those who survived the tsunami, if they haven’t left, now live on the outskirts of town, in the foothills that lie up against the mountains. Perhaps, seeing volunteers coming into town everyday helps these survivors feel that people still care about their town and about the region. For those who didn’t experience the tsunami, it’s easy to forget about what happened, or to think that everything has returned to normal. When this happens, the voices of those who survived aren't heard and it's possible to forget about all of those who suffered and died. For those volunteering, it’s as much about cleaning up the region as it is in bearing witness to what happened and telling others about it.  To listen to the survivors talk about what they experienced, about the loved ones they lost, the guilt, shock and other affects of the trauma, is as important as shoveling debris or rebuilding infrastructure. We didn’t get to work directly with the locals in Rikuzentakata, which is something I had wanted to do, but did speak to a few people in Kesennuma who survived the tsunami.

The volunteer center

After being briefed at the volunteer center on our daily assignment, we departed for a part of the city where the city hall had been located. While the city hall survived the tsunami, it was eventually demolished due to extensive damage. The city hall was inundated with water all the way up to the third floor. Most of the civil servants and city hall employees had left the building during the evacuation. Tragically, those who left the building likely perished. Those who remained and fled to the rooftop survived. One of the people who survived was Futoshi Toba, the mayor of Rikuzentakata, whose wife died during the tsunami while he remained at his office fulfilling his emergency service role. His children survived, but are now without a mother. This is a story that is common in this region now. Many of the children have been orphaned and many husbands and wives are without their partners, having lost their loved ones suddenly.

The missing city

There are two buildings that remain in the area where we worked – the NTT building (Japan’s telecommunications system) and a rice-related production factory. Our job was to open up the semi-exposed sewer system and clear it. Japan’s waste water flows from the buildings and roads down into a space between the two. This system is covered by cinderblocks that can be removed, but they’re quite heavy. It wasn’t easy prying them open. Y. and I were already exhausted from the lack of continuous, restful sleep, so lifting these blocks proved nearly impossible. We had tools that the center had provided, but found that shovels were not really that practical. Still we worked together to loosen these so that others could use better tools to lift the blocks and allow us to shovel the dirt, mud and lost belongings out.

We worked in between those two buildings

We were warned by the center managers that if we found anything that might identify a potential missing person, we should bring it to our guide’s attention. We were also warned that there was a possibility of finding bones. Because it’s possible that people were washed into the sewers under the wave, we had to take precautions. Fortunately, Y. and I did not find anything like this, but Y. said he overheard that another person had (possibly either in our group or another volunteer group working alongside ours).    Many of the cinder blocks had been moved or washed away by the force of the wave, so we ended up just digging into dirt, pulling up all kinds of items. Most of these items were broken bowls, cups and other household items. Some of them were parts of machines, automobiles, or boats. We dug up all kinds of pieces of glass from either cars or buildings. Y. and I found keys, coins, a police identification sticker (possibly for a vehicle), and a Pinky and Dianne discount membership card. Others around us dug up dolls and toys. All of these things had once belonged to people within the town. Y. expressed incredible sadness for everything we were witnessing. Even after 2 years, Rikuzentakata looks like a war hit it. Granted, the debris and chaos has been neatly pushed into piles and organized for demolition, but what was once a small city is now a vast void, a place occupied by the traces of the past. I told Y. that I couldn’t really understand what I was looking at. I knew what had happened and I felt the same sadness that he was articulating, but the enormity of the destruction was difficult to process immediately. I could only take it in slowly, filtering it through the task we were working on and the walks that I took around the area.

Where the city hall once stood

Removing the blocks (we used the shovels to loosen the area around them)

My friend Y. working hard.

Taking a short break

An area we had cleared

Wood from buildings ready for recycling

During our breaks, we were able to eat or get a drink, and walk around if we chose to do so. The nearest toilet was at least a 20 minutes walk across the town, so that put the distance between things into perspective. It’s hard to comprehend how far away things are when you’re walking through an area that is now just flat, expansive land peppered with the remains of sidewalks and building foundations. The wave must have reached at least several miles inland, destroying almost everything in its path. To understand just how far that is, imagine taking a 60 minute walk in a city without much traffic. From your start point to the end point, would be just how far that wave traveled at a speed that enabled it to reach that destination somewhere between 5-30 minutes. The force of that wave could move buildings, cars, trees, without any resistance. Those caught in the wave had little chance of survival, though some of them managed to survive it. But most people had no clue how strong the wave was and they didn’t know how far inland it was going to reach or how high it would be. Many who died believed they were safe in the tsunami inundation evacuation centers, which were not on high enough ground.

The NTT building

NTT building up close

When I walked around the NTT building, I noticed that the lights on the underside of the eaves were missing. All of the light fixtures that had once lit up the NTT bunker’s exterior had been violently torn away. A gate that once led to a parking lot was completely warped and bent in an impossible shape. There was a back of a car, a PT cruiser, complete with bumper, license plate, and the hood of the trunk, lying haphazardly near the side of the building. A child’s toy bunny rabbit also lay there moldering. The front doors to the building had been blown away as well. I wondered whether a temporary NTT building had replaced this one, or if the antenna had been replaced and was still in use. It wasn’t clear. What was clear to me was that these items were here as reminders to those passing by or volunteering in the area, as a memorial to the devastation. Memorials lay everywhere we walked. Most of these were marked with flowers, bottles of water and makeshift shrines. Y. said that these areas were probably where bodies had been found.

 Nearby, there was another memorial in an area without any buildings. I saw many Japanese people praying at a place where a building had once stood; where flowers now lay. Y. and I walked over there and he read the inscription that explained what had once existed in that space: the volunteer firefighter’s station. On the inscription it stated how many firemen had gone missing that day or had died while trying to help people. Up to this point, I’ve acknowledged the tsunami as only one wave, but tsunamis are actually multiple waves that pull and push, dragging things out to sea and hurtling things inland. Our volunteer guide told us that many people died because they went to find their loved ones when they thought the tsunami was over, only to be caught up in the next inundation. A large percentage of the firefighters were at the flood gates, hopelessly trying to close gates that were not high enough to withstand the waves.

One of the many small memorial shrines

After we finished our day’s work, we drove around and saw an apartment complex that was located far inland. The tsunami had destroyed every apartment in it up to the 4th floor, leaving only the 5th floor untouched. The height of the wave can’t be fathomed until you see these buildings. On the second day of work, after returning from our overnight stay in a hotel in Kesennuma, another city that also had sections of it completely destroyed, I walked around the rice production factory. All of its windows in the three story building had been blown out, as had the front doors. The back door, which had a gate on it, was warped and a large tree lay on the other side of it. Two shrines were located inside the building on the first floor.

The apartment building.  Only the 5th floor is as it originally looked.

Rice production factory building

Inside the building

Exterior of building

We returned to the volunteer center around 4:00pm to drop off the tools and wash them for the next day. Then we loaded back onto the bus, stinking and delirious from exhaustion, to head to Kesennuma, a beautiful coastal city in Northern Miyagi prefecture.

In Kesennuma

Kesennuma was hit hard, but it is a larger city than Rikuzentakata and parts of the city are located on hills, so it continues to function as a city and more than likely will recover completely. The areas we passed through still had the remains of foundations of homes in areas.  A large trans-ocean ship that had washed inland was still sitting in what was once a neighborhood. It had crushed a car, which was completely flattened and mangled underneath its hull. Because it wasn’t clear whether someone had been in the car at the time, and because it’s impossible to move the remains of the car, the city has erected a shrine with the assumption that someone died there. The city is also debating whether to remove the ship or to keep it as a memorial signifying how strong the tsunamis in that region are, so that future generations will never forget.

This ship was from Fukushima

The vehicle under the ship

Many of the shops near the hotel had reopened and remodeled, with before and after photos to see the extent of damage. The hotel we stayed at was on a hill and had not been affected. It was a very nice place, a little dated, but it had a wonderful onsen . Kesennuma is a beautiful city and I hope it recovers quickly. I really enjoyed the brief time we stayed there. It gave me a sense of hope after spending time in Takata. While at the hotel, I got to meet fellow volunteers. We were placed 6 to a room, which allowed us to introduce ourselves and explain why we volunteered in Tohoku. I was surprised that I was able to carry on a conversation in Japanese for over an hour, despite feeling extremely tired, famished, and feeling neurotic about cleanliness (since we had not showered after our long bus trip and hard labor in Rikuzentakata).

Kesennuma, early morning

The following day, I woke up around 5:30am and at 6:00am the city's loud speaker system played this, which made me feel a surreal sense of nostalgia for something I had no access to.  After a group breakfast at the hotel, we left at 7am to return to do more work before heading back to Tokyo. After another long day, we headed to an onsen to clean and soak and then boarded the bus for the long 9 hour ride. Y. and I had so much to think about after our trip. We were both overwhelmed by what we’d seen and how we’d felt.   I think it didn’t really hit us until after we came back to Okinawa the next day. The evening we arrived in Okinawa, I went to see a friend’s acoustic guitar concert and something about her music and the mood that I was in put me into a trance.  I was grateful to be alive, to be experiencing things, to have a future that wasn't already cordoned off and marked by a particular date.  I ended up meeting J. for a drink afterwards and while sitting across from him and feeling tipsy, I imagined someone else reaching out across the threshold between life and death, reaching out for something they’d longed for, searched for and had forgotten in the upheaval of March 11, 2011.

For anyone living in Japan or those who want to come to Japan to volunteer:

We took a JTB volunteer trip, which allows people to participate on a short-term basis, but doesn’t allow for grassroots community involvement (at least, we didn’t get that chance).  It's likely that they prefer those who speak or understand Japanese, or who are traveling with someone who is Japanese.  Here is a link to various organizations that operate in Tohoku.  Some of them require Japanese (or that you be accompanied by someone fluent in Japanese) and some of them do not.  Most of these we contacted, but during Golden Week they were either already overstaffed with volunteers or required volunteers to stay longer than six days. Along with JTB’s Tohoku volunteer trip, there are short term volunteer tours to the region as well, but they are only listed in Japanese.

Additionally, the region is welcoming tourists. It’s never a good thing to tour a disaster area, but at this point the cities are now prepared for visitors and encourage people to come to their towns so that they can help the economy and tell others about how Tohoku is doing and how the people in the region can be helped.
Anything you can do to show Tohoku love is appreciated.

Sunset over the mountains of Tohoku


  1. Really hope the reconstruction and clean up process continues to grow in Japan to help rebuild all across the Country !

  2. I can see why yo9u needed some time to process before writing this. I had no idea things were still so bad, I assumed volunteers were doing reconstruction these days not still going through rubble. I can't believe there are still human remains unrecovered. Thank you so much for this post, there's a lot here to think about. お疲れ様でした。

  3. Hi! I don't know whether there are human remains or not. We didn't find any, but we were warned by the volunteer center that it was still possible to find these things, or items that could belong to a missing person that a family might want. I think it was more a precaution rather than an expectation. My friend Y. said that he overheard that someone either in our group or another volunteer group found a bone (though it could belong to an animal). I don't think anyone is looking for the missing anymore though. But I think there is a hope that they might find the bodies of those missing so they can be put to rest.