Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Looking for the 'There' There Pt. I

The train had been a rattletrap affair that moved through a landscape growing greener by the minute as the rain thickened.  The businessman adjacent to me had kicked off his shoes and placed his feet on the seat before him.  His wristwatch sat atop the train's window ledge, as if an acknowledgement that this particular slice of time was his and his alone.  

I left the train in Miyako, end of the line.  I could have started further north in Aomori, but the name of this place had caught me, translated simply as 'old capital,' a named shared with old Kyoto.  The history of the latter had been superimposed over this region, and all the regions of Japan, as the opening to the west in the Meiji period had simplified the definition of this vast country to that of a specific city, and to that of its culture.  Thus, all the provinces had lost their gods, quickly followed by the richness of their character. 

What characterized the town today was rain.  Ironically, Miyako had been the site of one of the most important naval engagements of the Boshin Wars, which had helped usher in that same Kyoto culture.   The immediate vicinity of the city center looked like it hadn't suffered much damage in the most recent tsunami, though the city had been completely destroyed in the 1933 Sanriku earthquake, as well as in another tsunami less than a half century before that.  

Yet the waterfront was a massive construction site.  I couldn't see past the high wall that had been erected beside the busy Route 45, but from beyond came the sounds of large machinery noisily moving earth around.  Further along, I began to see reminders of the recent disaster, mainly in all the bent things: railings along the top of older sea walls, more along the odd bridge.  One bridge itself had been cut in half.   

The road ran below the sea wall for a long while, and on the opposite side were large open spaces where the machines were pushing earth into tall hills whose tops were flattened to resemble Mayan pyramids. I imagine that new housing would be built atop these, the added height to protect from the tsunamis to come.  A number of homes had already been rebuilt, their structures balanced atop tall pillars under which their cars were parked.  Well beyond were the older homes, safe as they were higher up the hillsides.  

I also saw areas where the reconstruction had not yet started,  vast and open and covered in knee-high weeds.   If one could ignore the cement rectangles of former foundations, and could forget the terror the people who had lived above them must have faced, there was a certain beauty in all the new green glistening in the rain ever falling.

I eventually arrive in Yamada.  This had once been the center of commercial fishing in the area, it had been completely inundated by the waves. Many of the buildings still remaining have been blown out at their bases, but appear to be usable from the second stories upward.  One hair salon was completely gutted, yet a date and a mark written on the wall by rescue teams indicates that no bodies had been found inside.  A few meters beyond this, a man sits in a recently built prefab office with his back to the sea.  How long did it take him to regain this amount of trust?  Schoolkids wait at a bus stop out front.  What are their memories?  I pass an old woman with pained eyes.  What has she lost?  

I walk south.  Despite the entire shoreline having been converted to a construction zone, there is a sign erected by the sea preservation society, stating their case against cutting the communities off completely from that which had brought life as well as death.   Another sign brings a smile, that for the Ippo-Ippo Cafe.  Step by Step.

I also notice a good deal of police cars passing by, perhaps one every fifteen minutes, including one of an older 1970's vintage.  I remember reading reports about thieves burglarizing intact homes abandoned after the tsunami, but that was three years ago.  A strong police presence has an profound psychological effect in Japan, where the police are still seen as the friendly Irishman on patrol-type who, ensconced in his corner police box, serves as a lynchpin of the community.  My skeptical American-born eyes see a cop suspicious of a random white dude tramping through.    

This is a reminder that I need to be very careful not to project my own beliefs upon what I see, as I did with the office worker, the schoolkids, and the old woman earlier.   On the contrary, the staff at my hotel just outside Ōtsuchi are friendly, and overtly express a happiness rarely seen in big city Japan.  The hotel was opened a month ago, mainly to house the workmen operating all that heavy machinery at the water's edge.  The facilities are somewhat spartan, as is the food.  At dinner, I hope to engage some of the workmen in conversation, but they all look exhausted, and even the ones in small groups barely talk with one another.  

Again, I begin to have doubts about what I am doing here.  I had hoped to talk to people that I encounter along the road, yet there aren't any, since in many places there is barely even a road.  Instead all I encounter are the weeds, the rain, the sound of machinery.  What did I expect to find here?  It's not like I would walk up to a random stranger and begin to ask them insensitive questions.  I decide that I'll later try to connect with aid groups, to get a more emotionally neutral sense of what is happening here.  

Geography dictates my next decision.  As I walked, I grew puzzled by the repeatedly used word "Rias," which the internet later tells me is the shape of a coastline that is composed by a series of isthmuses cut by parallel coastal valleys, like a hand with fingers splayed.  While walking across the 'fingers,' Route 45 takes me far inland.  So I decide to hitchhike these sections, and to merely walk the coastal 'webbing' between.  Hitching will bring the contact with the locals that I'm looking for, and the nature of all hitched rides is shared stories.   Rather than ask them their stories, and bring up things they may be trying to move away from, I'll instead try to entertain them with my own.  

This isn't easy to do with the ghost that visits my room during the night. I don't necessarily see this one, but a presence is definitely felt.  I've had a number of these sorts of encounters during my life, most dramatically on the morning of the Kobe earthquake in 1995.   When this happens, I usually tell whatever is there that this is my space, and that they aren't welcome.  But this time I say nothing, since I feel like I'm the outsider.  It isn't long before the presence is gone.  Shortly thereafter, so I am...

On the turntable:  Charlatans, "Some Friendly"


1 comment:

Alex Hurst said...

Happy to be able to read your blog. I'm just jumping in, so I don't know the purpose of the trip you mention here, but it sounds like it must have had some intense moments of silence.

Does hitchhiking work for you in Japan? There were a couple young college guys trying to hitch a ride to downtown Kyoto several weeks ago in my neighborhood. They ended up standing on the corner for over three hours. I don't know if they ever got their ride.