On a sunny October day in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, the calm sea reflects an azure sky. Goldenrod blooms on once-barren ground, and a small but gleaming fleet of fishing boats bobs peacefully in the harbor. On river flats where the train station and shops once stood, bulldozers are raising massive earthworks to form foundations for stores and factories.

Nearby, newly cleared hilltops are being graded for housing developments. Buses pull in to the Minamisanriku Portal Center, where “voluntourists” from across Japan come to glimpse the town-that-was juxtaposed with images of the devastation wrought by the 2011 tsunami.

Outside Bayside Arena, hawkers selling local seafood rub shoulders with vendors selling balloons and cotton candy as the air reverberates with taiko drumming. When the drummers stop, their noise is replaced by the gentle thud of wooden hammer and mortar churning out mochi rice cakes and the chatter of the market.

As lunchtime approaches, scallops sizzle open-shelled on barbecues, oysters steam, and the smell of frying permeates the air. Along a line of trestle tables, a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of people assembles an enormous maki sushi roll. Inside the arena, people rummage through a bazaar of vintage kimonos. Outside, a large red octopus mascot greets customers, delighting children.

A closer look reveals volunteers in corporate-branded smocks pitching in at many of the local booths. Tents around the periphery sell produce from across Japan, manned by voluntourists affiliated with the Disaster Preparedness Morning Market Network (Bosai Asa Ichi Network), which helped establish the market in 2011. Once again, Nagano pickles and apples squeeze in next to satsuma oranges from Ehime.

It has been three years since I first visited to write about the monthly Fukko Ichi, or Revival Market, and it seems that as much has stayed the same as has changed.

“The first market after the disaster was really the first chance people had to catch up with each other socially. People were calling out to each other, ‘You’re OK, you’re OK!’ ” Mayor Jin Saito tells me. Forty months later, the atmosphere has brightened considerably at what has become an important social event.

“It’s much more light-hearted — it’s become a local festival,” Yusuke Fukuta says, emerging from behind rows of packaged kamaboko fish cakes. When he moved to the area three years ago to work for Oizen Inc., the market relied heavily on outside goods. Now, as industry rebuilds, local companies are taking over.

Initially a stopgap measure in the absence of local shops, the Fukko Ichi was reconceived as a way to fund the rebuilding of the shopping district. But by the time the Sun Sun shopping plaza opened in July 2012, the regular market had become a cherished institution. The hope now is that it will continue indefinitely, funding recovery projects and bringing locals together with each other, volunteers, tourists and visitors from across Tohoku and other parts of Japan.

Smiles no longer seem to ward off tears. People are getting back on their feet. Mieko Matsuno, selling rice flavored with sea urchin roe and a hearty soup of sea vegetables and noodles, says it has helped her find a way to keep going: “If I can inspire people, that’s reason enough.” Three years ago, she couldn’t bear to think about the future. Now, she’s opened a restaurant.

While there is only so much a monthly market can do to rebuild a community so devastated by the disaster, it’s obvious that Fukko Ichi continues to be a key part of revival efforts in Minamisanriku. While the market has become less important economically as local industry rebuilds, the continued presence of volunteers and visitors remains psychologically important.

Standing over a smoky yakitori grill, the market presence of her husband’s once-station-side (recently reopened hillside) cafe, Filipino schoolteacher Amelia Sasaki sums it up: “We can’t recover by ourselves. We need to lean on each other.”

In rebuilding lives, as well as the town, it seems that while foundations have been laid, there’s still a long way to go.

The Revival Market takes place on the last Sunday of every month at the Bayside Arena in Minamisanriku. Do you know about a citizens’ group or of any other helpful resources? Your comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp

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