A few months ago, I embarked on a three-week pilgrimage throughout the country to visit several often-overlooked historical cities and towns of note. I took this journey, masked, just as the state of emergency was lifted in late March. I did it alone. And it was transformative.

To date, the country has administered over 60 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and is currently inoculating over 1 million residents every day. On that note, we can reasonably assume that it might not be that long before we can all feel comfortable traveling among others again. And perhaps it might not be too soon to begin planning a pilgrimage of your own.

Along the Dragon Tail

The two-car train on the Ofunato Line departed Ichinoseki Station at 10:17 a.m. Eleven minutes into the 88-minute journey eastward toward Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, the train, called the “Dragon Tail” by locals, owing to the route being shaped like the mythical serpent, slowed to a halt and jostled from side to side. A magnitude 6.6 earthquake had just jolted the area. After 15 minutes of stillness, the conductor walked the length of the train’s two cars patiently inquiring about the destination of each of the 35 passengers. He seemed visibly nervous when he learned toward me, most likely pondering whether his native Japanese would be understood.

“Ehhh…,” he said, obviously contemplating how to best phrase his question.

Not wanting to prolong his apparent discomfort, I softly responded, “Kesennuma.” He penciled each passenger’s response in a palm-sized notebook.

A visibly disturbed teenage boy paced the aisle, repeatedly asking an elderly couple about the earthquake’s magnitude. After about six interruptions, they shooed him away. He continued to march from one car end to the other, repeatedly advising himself aloud, “I should call my mother. I can’t get there by bus.”

After an earthquake, passengers of a train headed for Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, get out and walk the rest of their journey. | MICHAEL HASSETT
After an earthquake, passengers of a train headed for Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, get out and walk the rest of their journey. | MICHAEL HASSETT

After two hours and seven minutes of sitting idle on a single track in forested Tohoku countryside, the conductor opened the rear car’s back door, lowered a ladder, and asked the passengers to descend. As I approached, he once again seemed concerned about me properly comprehending him. He stepped in front to demonstrate how to suitably descend the ladder. After climbing down, the 35 of us walked single file between the two rails for about 10 minutes until we reached a clearing to a nearby road. Groups were formed by destination and then herded into awaiting taxi vans. Upon arrival at Kesennuma Station, the stationmaster welcomed us apologetically and covered payment: ¥18,270, according to the meter.

I then boarded a bus to my chief destination for the day: the Ruins of the Great East Japan Earthquake Kesennuma City Memorial Museum. The 40-minute route crossed huge tsunami-cleared areas in the middle of great infrastructure development, a civil engineer’s canvas — new roads, bridges, river embankments and seawalls.

The museum itself is the former site of a high school only steps from the shore, today shielded by a new 7.2-meter-high seawall. The tsunami waters on March 11, 2011, rose 12 meters above the outside ground, reaching 25 centimeters above the third-floor ceiling of the four-story school. An automobile deposited in a third-floor classroom is rather unnerving, but more chilling may be a set of wobbly student desks on the roof that had been stacked atop one another in a frantic attempt to get to yet a higher point as the rough waves splashed about. My eyes fixed on a photo showing people on the rooftop as the volatile ocean neared the edge, and I couldn’t help but acknowledge a timbre of tension not even close to what must have been endured on that fateful afternoon.

Seawalls, like this one in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, 30 minutes north of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, now border the Sanriku Coast as far as the eye can see. | MICHAEL HASSETT
Seawalls, like this one in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, 30 minutes north of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, now border the Sanriku Coast as far as the eye can see. | MICHAEL HASSETT

Dropping stones

“We would like you to ‘wash your hands’ and ‘gargle’ carefully to prevent infectious diseases, such as influenza. — Japan Hotel Association”

Having addressed the science behind the Japanese custom of gargling as a measure against infectious disease in this very newspaper over a decade ago, I was rather amused to come across a notice recommending as much in the bathroom of my Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, accommodation.

The town of Matsumoto is not recognized for its gargling though; it’s distinguished for having one of the nation’s premier castles.

Completed around 1594 and nicknamed the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior, the five-tier Matsumoto Castle is one of only 12 original castles remaining in all of Japan.

Visitors entering the wooden keep, the oldest in the nation, are asked to take off their footwear and carry it in a bag while inside, where the temperature drops significantly. The stairs from floor to floor have inclines of 55 to 61 degrees, and each step can be a physical stretch, so ascending and descending in socks on slippery wood with only one free hand — because your other hand is carrying your shoes — can be quite the acrobatic challenge.

This castle was built for battle, but oddly never saw any. A defense that captured my attention were the ishi-otoshi, chutes through which castle defenders supposedly could drop stones, boiling water or hot pitch to prevent enemies from scaling the stone base below. “Ishi” means “stone,” and “otoshi” would be “to drop,” but obvious questions about the feasibility of this defense led me to an insightful NHK documentary in which a “castle specialist” from Hiroshima University reasons that the ishi-otoshi were likely used not as a portal through which to shower attackers with rocks but rather as gunports for firing on the enemy below. So much for a name hinting at an object’s purpose.

Kokura’s luck

As I organized items around my morning coffee in Nagasaki, a vocal young girl, probably around 3 to 4 years of age, arrived at the table next to me with her mother and grandmother. As her grandmother proceeded to head to the buffet to gather breakfast, the young girl, sitting unsettled on the lap of her mother, loudly and repeatedly asserted that dango (Japanese dumplings) were desired. After the grandmother failed to return in a timely manner, the young girl looked to a staff member who was nearby and forcefully ordered, “Excuse me, dango please!”

Nagasaki is home to Japan's oldest surviving wooden church, Oura Catholic Church. | MICHAEL HASSETT
Nagasaki is home to Japan’s oldest surviving wooden church, Oura Catholic Church. | MICHAEL HASSETT

After my breakfast entertainment, I made my way over to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, where, after several hours of intense sympathy, I found myself going through a selection of videos of older witnesses — and not just Japanese individuals — telling their experiences on Aug. 9, 1945, and the days that followed. The non-Japanese accounts were mostly from Australian prisoners of war who had been in Nagasaki doing hard labor. In fact, the presence of foreign POWs was one of the reasons why Nagasaki was not the primary target that day. Interestingly, all the Australians interviewed supported the use of the bomb, and one in particular rationalized it by emphasizing that the previous 25 years had seen two world wars and colossal casualties, whereas the decades afterward had not seen any of the unimaginable casualties that would have accompanied more global conflict.

The primary target of the bombing that day was the city of Kokura near Kitakyushu, but after circling three times over 45 minutes and not being able to make visible confirmation, the plane carrying the bomb headed 150 kilometers south to Nagasaki, circled once because of clouds and then dropped the “Fat Man” as the clouds broke. Kokura avoided carnage and infamy that day; Nagasaki did not.

Afterward, I trammed to the other side of town and stopped by Oura Cathedral, Japan’s oldest surviving wooden church. As I exited, a 19-year-old student sitting on a bench looked up and greeted me with a simple “Hi” in English. I sat next to him, and we both looked outward into the warm afternoon sunshine. He told me that he was from Osaka, visiting grandparents in Nagasaki, and majoring in English at Ryukoku University in Kyoto. I told him that I was from Tokyo. He slowly voiced, “I like Nagasaki better than Tokyo.”

As I returned home, I found myself reflecting on the enormous amount of sudden unforeseen loss of life that had occurred throughout the nation over the centuries — from recent tsunamis up north to atomic bombs down south. It’s fascinating history eliciting rich reflection for the severe suffering endured.

Today, neighborhoods are safe, locals are approachable and welcoming, landscape is aesthetically stimulating, and local cuisine is pretty darn appetizing. The country offers a pilgrimage worth considering by many as we begin to travel again.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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