CHANGING FACE OF NAGATA

Photo tour shows Kobe before the quake

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KOBE — Pointing to photos posted along a quiet street in the Mikura district of Kobe’s Nagata Ward, the head of a local community council explained how the area was once a shopping arcade.

“It used to be crowded with shoppers,” Hiroyuki Shibamoto told the group standing before him — participants in a 2-km walking tour of the area.

The spot where they stood, with a neat row of new houses along a 6-meter wide street, bears no resemblance to the bustling shopping street that can now only be seen in photographs taken before the devastating earthquake that hit Kobe and adjacent areas on Jan. 17, 1995.

Seizing the opportunity of the eighth anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, local community councils and others joined hands to hold a photo exhibition to show the changes wrought by the earthquake, which left more than 6,400 people dead and thousands homeless. Nagata Ward was one of the hardest-hit areas.

The exhibit, organizers hope, will not only let people recognize how the area has changed but also help local residents share their experiences with each other and become more involved in community activities.

Although the Mikura district was rebuilt and many of its maze-like alleys widened, longtime residents say its liveliness and strong community bonds have been lost as only one-third of the original neighbors returned after the temblor.

The exhibition, which runs until Friday, showcases some 1,000 photos collected from local residents, a photographer, a private company and the municipal government.

Photos showing the transition of the area are displayed on panels at 12 spots along Mikura streets, while many other photos, most of which are on loan from local residents, are displayed on the first floor of a local co-op housing complex.

Panels explaining objects linked to the disaster, including a charred electricity pole and a monument created in a park to commemorate the dead, are also set up at 12 sites that can be located with the aid of a map made by organizers.

Preparing for the event was not easy. Mayumi Toda, a member of the citizens’ group Machi (Town) Communication, said she had difficulty gathering photographs taken before the quake, because most were destroyed by fire.

“The area was 80 percent burned to the ground,” Toda said, and survivors lost most of their belongings. “It was hard to ask them whether they had old photos.”

Toda, who lived in the city of Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, at the time of the quake, began working for Machi Communication five years ago. “I also had to consider the feelings of the residents, as there are many people who still want to avoid anything that reminds them of the quake,” she said.

Despite this, hundreds of pictures were collected.

“We never imagined that we would be able to get so many photographs,” Toda said. “It was also good that many local residents helped make the event successful.”

Mizuyo Namao, 61, who has lived in Mikura for 41 years, offered many pictures for the exhibit. Although she lost everything when her house burned down, her daughter, who was living in Osaka when the quake struck, had some old photo albums with her.

“My husband and I could not take anything from the house. We did not think it would be gutted by fire,” said Namao, who now lives in a public housing complex about five minutes from the site where her former home stood.

She said holding the photo exhibit is a positive event, but it could not have been held earlier, as the sad memories were too vividly engraved in people’s minds to remember more joyous occasions.

“(The photo exhibition) helps bring back some good memories of the town. But I think we needed this amount of time (to pass) before such an exhibition could be held.”

Namao, who served as a guide on the 2-km walking tour, pointed out to the group an orange tree that stands in front of where her house once stood, noting that the tree was charred but still alive.

“It shows how strong the tree is,” she said, underscoring the vitality of the local residents as they work to reinvigorate their community. “I think the tree will bear fruit in the future.”