Quake-hit cafe in Miyagi port city of Kesennuma connects people through jazz


Located in the port city of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, an old jazz cafe hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which has offered coffee and jazz to local residents for more than half a century, is evolving into a venue connecting people through the music.

When vast areas of northeastern Japan were devastated on March 11, 2011, the Vanguard cafe was hit by tsunami but the building remained standing.

The cafe reopened just four months later, after its former owners and others worked hard to get everything back in order.

“A grand piano had been dumped across the street from the cafe, along with other miscellaneous stuff. The image never leaves my mind,” said Kazuo Komatsu, 65, who now runs the cafe with Tomiyasu Imakawa, 70.

Komatsu, a former city employee, and Imakawa, who is self-employed, were regulars at Vanguard. When the cafe was on the brink of closure after their two predecessors died in 2016 and 2017, they decided to take it over, despite needing to learn basics such as how to brew coffee.

“When you come here, you can see your friends. It’s a place with a lot of value. It shouldn’t be lost,” Imakawa said.

“The town now looks totally different (compared with before the quake). But the fact that the cafe is still here has supported me emotionally,” Komatsu said.

When a customer asked whether people could meet at the cafe to learn about jazz, Komatsu readily said yes. He hoped that the cafe would become a place for people of different ages to interact.

Now people gather once a month for jazz sessions where everyone is welcome.

About 20 people from the prefecture and elsewhere, from teens to those in their sixties, took part in the August event, playing piano, sax, drums and double bass.

“I wanted to create a space where people can communicate with each other casually through jazz, regardless of whether you play well or not,” said Yukihiro Takeda, a 48-year-old local resident who planned the event.

Shunsuke Tada, a 33-year-old drummer and elementary school teacher from Kamaishi in neighboring Iwate Prefecture, has taken part in sessions at Vanguard many times.

“Even if you are a total stranger, they welcome you to the sessions. Such places are hard to come by,” Tada said with a smile.

“Vanguard is a place that should exist forever,” Komatsu said. “To make this happen, we want to make it a place where young people can feel relaxed and come in.”

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