National

Floodwaters recede but damage lingers: One Japan couple's harrowing autumn

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

David Bowen and his wife, Yoko, thought the worst that 2019 had to offer must have passed after Typhoon Faxai blew away part of the roof of their house in September.

But in a year ripe with disasters in Japan, particularly in Chiba Prefecture, the couple’s problems were just beginning.

The couple, who have a 14-year-old daughter and a dog, own a cafe in a district that is a 15-minute walk from a Keisei Line station in Sakura, a city located between the city of Chiba and Narita Airport.

While growing up Yoko saw her father, a barber, interacting with customers, fostering her desire to one day own her own business. She met David in the 1990s in Australia, where she became enamored with the cafe culture there. Someday, she thought, she would start her own coffee shop.

After her mother died, Yoko’s father, Heisaku, spent three years remodeling the barbershop that he had managed for about 50 years. They opened Krazy Espresso two years ago, serving specialties such as a flat white — espresso with microfoam — a signature Australasian beverage.

Yoko was finally living out her dream.

Then Typhoon Faxai roared through the region in September in a sign of the tumultuous months ahead.

David and Yoko Bowen's home is flooded on Oct. 26, with waters rising 60 centimeters high. | COURTESY OF YOKO BOWEN
David and Yoko Bowen’s home is flooded on Oct. 26, with waters rising 60 centimeters high. | COURTESY OF YOKO BOWEN

In late October, a downpour flooded a nearby river, and the couple’s home, right behind the cafe but on lower ground, was inundated above the floorboards. With the pair relying on income from David’s part-time job as an English teacher, they had to move into the cafe while repairing the extensive damage to their home.

Forced to shutter the business for over a month, the cafe’s economic survival was in doubt.

“I had never thought I would be so affected by a natural disaster,” Yoko, 49, recalled.

For many in Japan, 2019 was a year of natural disasters. Two monstrous typhoons — Faxai and Hagibis — wreaked havoc across many parts of the country, submerging homes and killing scores of people.

While the media and the rest of the country moved on to other news, those ravaged by flooding this autumn are still taking gradual steps to regain a sense of normalcy.

In Sakura, which has a population of about 175,000, the flood that struck on Oct. 25 and 26, as the city was still recovering from the pair of typhoons, was particularly harrowing. According to the city’s estimate, 86 buildings were flooded, 16 buildings were destroyed due to landslides and 120 mudslides were confirmed. An aerial photo showed vast areas of the town, mostly rice and vegetable fields, covered with brown water.

David, 50, and Yoko woke up at about 3 a.m. on Oct. 26 to what sounded like an open faucet.

Water was trickling in from cracks of an exterior wall that was separating the property from a parking lot. The couple hadn’t thought about evacuating because the rain had stopped by the evening of the 25th, but after the day’s torrential downpours the Kashima River finally burst its banks.

Soon a mixture of floodwater and sand seeped into the first floor, and by 10 a.m. had risen thigh-high. The muddy water damaged their furniture and possessions — fusuma doors, beds, wardrobes, a couch, books, a washing machine, jackets and cabinets — leaving permanent stains or destroying them.

City employees who later surveyed the damage indicated the water had risen 60 centimeters high.

Together with a friend, David made around a dozen trips to a disposal facility, using two trucks, to throw the damaged goods away.

“They are all gone,” David said, adding that the flood had made him realize how much people, in general, take simple things for granted, like cooking in a kitchen or sleeping on a bed at night.

Floodwaters inundate David and Yoko Bowen's house in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, on Oct. 26. Furniture and clothes on the first floor were submerged in water. | COURTESY OF YOKO BOWEN
Floodwaters inundate David and Yoko Bowen’s house in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, on Oct. 26. Furniture and clothes on the first floor were submerged in water. | COURTESY OF YOKO BOWEN

All 40 or so tatami on the first floor of their home were damaged in the flood. Furthermore, the floodwater lifted up the mats and toppled the furniture over. Local firefighters who volunteered to clean up the house told Yoko that each tatami had weighed roughly 100 kilograms after absorbing floodwater.

A chest of drawers swelled out of shape after being immersed. Yoko had to smash it open to retrieve any clothes that could be salvaged.

Air conditioners had never been installed; the couple used to live in Australia so they could endure the heat, David said, and instead relied on stoves for warmth in the winter. But with the fusuma doors that had separated each room gone, biting drafts now cut through the house. More than two months after the storm, they are still battling the cold by wearing jackets indoors.

Heaters are ineffective because everything is open with the fusuma doors, David said in mid-December. “So at this moment, we are looking for those Japanese doors. And without those doors, we can’t use heating.”

By the evening of Oct. 26 the water had completely receded, but the damage left in its wake was severe. The worst part was having to shut down the cafe.

David recalled a family meeting one day between Yoko, her father and her brother, where they discussed the cafe’s future. There’s no guarantee that the October flood was the last they would suffer. An eel restaurant next door that was also flooded closed down. They wondered if they should cut their losses and do the same.

But Yoko resisted. She wanted to reopen the shop not purely as a commercial enterprise but also as a way of saying “thank you” to customers and the community she grew up in. Resuming the business as soon as possible became a top priority, even if that meant waiting until later to replace furniture or buy new fusuma doors at home.

While the cafe was closed, regular customers and neighbors showed up offering to clean up the house. A friend of Yoko’s brought a portable high-pressure cleaner to wash dirt from the floor and off furniture.

“We just didn’t know where to start,” Yoko said. “Everyone came down to help.”

The cafe reopened on Dec. 2, more than a month after the flood, coinciding with the two-year anniversary of its opening.

David Bowen and his wife, Yoko, stand in Krazy Espresso on Dec. 13. The cafe reopened on Dec. 2 more than a month after flooding, coinciding with the two-year anniversary of its opening. | SATOKO KAWASAKI
David Bowen and his wife, Yoko, stand in Krazy Espresso on Dec. 13. The cafe reopened on Dec. 2 more than a month after flooding, coinciding with the two-year anniversary of its opening. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Between 30 and 40 customers, mostly from around the neighborhood, stop by at the cafe on weekends. Since its reopening, the number of customers has slightly dipped. Perhaps some are unaware they have reopened, David speculated.

The effects of the disaster still linger. Even though the pair are slowly replacing the items they lost, for now they are sharing a bedroom with their daughter, Ashley. And there will be no new fusuma doors until early next year.

On a Friday afternoon in mid-December, Yoko had baked a batch of meron pan (sweet buns) and David was bringing an English lesson to a close. Christmas music was playing, and on a big, flat-screen TV was footage of a Christmas concert broadcast by an Australian station.

Slowly but surely their lives were getting back on track.

Yoko still gets anxious whenever it rains outside, fearing the house might flood again.

“Maybe I’m experiencing light trauma,” she said. “My friends have been jokingly asking me whether I’m alright. But it’s no longer a joke for me, now.”