A heartrending drive on the rebuilt roads of Tohoku

by Christopher Johnson

Special To The Japan Times

Before the March 11 tsunami, the Miyako area of Iwate Prefecture was a beloved tourist destination, famous for the beaches of Jodogahama and a national park with majestic views of coves and shimmering Pacific waters.

On March 11, an indented coastline funneled a surge of water into a monster 15 meters high in many areas that killed at least 15,774 people in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures.

But that coastline still has much to offer travelers: fresh air, open spaces, and a chance to help the local economy recover, one visitor at a time.

Only six months since the catastrophe, a “disaster tour” of the Miyako area might not seem right for everyone. The obliterated towns of Yamada and Taro are indeed graveyards of mangled debris, ghosts and nothingness. Children wander among charred ruins, looking for missing belongings. Even hardened journalists can’t help but to cry at the shocking scenes of devastation.

But hardy locals are already hiring staff and rebuilding hotels and restaurants to welcome visitors, whether they are volunteers, aid workers or travelers aiming to raise their awareness of the plight of disaster victims and spend badly needed money in the local economy.

To get there, travelers can take the Shinkansen bullet train on repaired tracks and through refurbished train stations in forlorn cities such as Koriyama and Fukushima. In the hotel district near the South Exit of Morioka Station, some car rental agencies offer special weekend rates. One generous employee at a Mazda rental shop even went home to lend me CDs from his J-rock collection to enhance my journey.

The two-hour drive east from Morioka to Miyako is breathtaking, following rivers and rapids over high mountain passes studded with bamboo, cedar and the cooling aspect of waterfalls. Approaching Miyako City, population 60,000, one might think nothing had ever happened here, as mom-and-pop shops, chain stores and a vast supermarket complex are teeming with customers.

In the central hotel district a few kilometers from the devastated port, it’s hard to notice where the tsunami inundated many buildings. Proud locals and volunteers spent weeks digging out debris and scrubbing every corner of hundreds of premises. The Central Hotel Kumayasu appears brand new, with a sparkling lobby that bares no trace of being flooded with black water in March. The grateful young staff, who apologize for the lack of fax machines and breakfast, seem more flexible about rules than at many hotels in more rigid parts of Japan.

Only a few months after the disaster, more than a dozen family-run restaurants and pubs quickly reopened to serve relief workers as well as locals. Each place has its own inspiring story of rebirth. After the tsunami swept through his Daruma yakitori (grilled skewered chicken) shop, Tetsumi Yoshino, 68, figured he would finally retire. But his customers wouldn’t let him; they needed a place to eat and drink. Banding together, they shoveled out the goop so thoroughly that many diners still can’t believe the shop was ever flooded.

“I had no choice then. I had to come back to work,” says Mr. Yoshino. “We are strong people. We believe we can recover from anything, even this disaster.”

From Miyako, the drive 30 km south to Yamada can seem like a journey into a nightmare. It’s hard to accept how the Pacific, which looks so pacifying, could rip apart so many trees, roads, houses, schools, hospitals, pachinko parlors, hot-spring bathhouses and wedding halls.

Driving south down highway 45, you could meander for days — through Otsuchi, Kamaishi, Ofunato, Rikuzentakata, Kesennuma, Minamisanriku, Ishinomaki and Higashimatsushima — and still be only halfway through the path of the tsunami. The sheer scale of destruction is what overwhelms most observers. It’s a grandiose absurdity, more than 500 km long and up to 10 km inland, which can’t be captured on a video camera.

In Yamada, one of the hardest hit towns in the disaster zone, traffic moves in a slow, reverent procession, as if at a funeral. All the myriad materials of civilization, it seems, have been stripped down to a single, harrowing tower standing above the wreckage.

Yet signs of life emerge down by the sea. Amid the debris of upended ships and pulverized buildings, resilient seniors push little buggies toward a grocery store opened in the wreckage of a warehouse. There, they buy food and gather information from the shop’s determined owner, Katsunori Buto.

“People here are sick of staying in shelters, so many are coming back to live in their damaged houses,” says Buto. “They have no other way of getting food, so I have to help them.”

The tsunami surmounted a 7-meter-high wall and wiped out almost everything in the fishing village, including Mr. Buto’s home and grocery store, run by his ancestors since the 19th century. Like many others, he contemplated starting a new life elsewhere in Japan. But when he returned to search for photos and mementos, he found that his storage house, built after the 1960 tsunami, was surprisingly intact.

Amid the stench of fish and death, he spent weeks shoveling out mud and decontaminating the walls and floors. In order to provide a lifeline of supplies to seniors who couldn’t leave their neighborhood, he reconnected with his supply network in Miyako City and stocked the warehouse with basic foodstuffs.

He figured that he owed his neighbors a favor, since they had found an urn of his ancestor’s ashes. “I am lucky to be alive, but I have a regret,” he says. “I ran away from the tsunami so fast, I didn’t have time to close the warehouse door. I wish I had: It would have saved us weeks of work cleaning out the place.”

Thanks to restoration of electricity, he can store fish in small freezers, and offer fresh vegetables on trays to seniors, many with hunched backs from a lifetime of farm work. Isolated by the disaster, many seniors appear happy to meet visitors who can help them to carry home groceries, or even drive them to evacuation shelters or town halls to look for relatives or acquire medicines. Many elders simply enjoy having someone to talk to, and every little bit of kindness — a small gift, a compassionate smile — helps the recovery gather momentum.

After returning for a night in Miyako, the highway north leads to the fortress town of Taro, where 18-meter-high waves overwhelmed a series of thick, 10-meter-high walls. In a cemetery near the sturdy town hall at the high end of town, two “tsunami stones” recall the disasters of 1896 and 1933.

Famous for harvesting seaweed, urchin and abalone, Taro was again obliterated on March 11, but most residents escaped to high ground thanks to the town’s habit of holding tsunami drills every March 3 on the anniversary of the 1933 disaster, which killed 911.

Many residents, such as Shinpei Oshita, 87, trace their lineage back to the 36 survivors in 1896, and they can tell amazing stories of how they survived tsunamis in 1933, 1960 and 2011.

Most residents now stay in temporary housing units, the Green Pia resort, or an indoor dodgeball gym on a flat slice of mountain a few minutes north of Taro. Immaculately clean and bright, the gym has an unusually cheerful vibe, with cardboard partitions dividing the area into “streets” and “homes” often decorated with teddy bears, name tags and even drawings of “windows.” After checking in with local staff, visitors can chat with seniors or help kids do homework, play games or read manga from a well-stocked “library” of donated books.

Just beyond the Green Pia resort complex, a back-road leads to a tourist destination of the future: the narrow cove where the tsunami reached up a cliff to a record 40 meters above sea level. Gazing downward, it feels like standing on a 12th-storey balcony and imagining the ocean come all the way up to your feet.

Like everything else in the disaster zone, it seems beyond imagination until you actually see it for yourself. And once you see it, you might never forget the hospitable people of Tohoku, who will need your help and understanding for years to come.