Thursday, June 19, 2014

Looking for the 'There' There Pt. II

I stand amongst the graves stacked up the side of the hill.  Most are black, new, the numbers upon them written with the expected date.  They look over the town where they had passed and lost their lives, a town that was no longer there.  Instead all that remains are the weeds dull in the mist, and the gentle lapping of the sea beyond.  

The rain continues, having probably never stopped during the night.  While the clouds of yesterday had hung low and oppressive, they'd moved in even closer this morning, dimming all visiblity.  As I move deeper into Ōtsuchi, I can hardly make out the edges of things.  The only building still intact seems to be the town office, paired with a makeshift gas station with one pump.   Workmen come bicycling out of the mist, headed toward projects that I can't see.  Other workmen are walking in pairs, ever in their bright yellow jumpsuits, ever willing to say good morning.  On the wall of one of the construction trailers hangs a sign showing what the town will look like when rebuilt, all neat and tidy and ringed by a canal to offset any future inundation of water.  The plan is quite ambitious and surprisingly 'eco' for Japan.  But I know that somewhere unseen in the mist is a large wall being constructed, behind which would be the sea.  

The rain is growing heavier, but it doesn't stop me from getting my first ride of the day.   The driver is a young man coming off the night shift at Japan Auto Federation.  Kubota-san tells me of his wife and children, now living an hour away in Tono, relocated after their home was washed away.  He wanted to return here to rebuild, but his wife refused.  His father on the other hand insisted on staying near the place that had been his home.  This young man comes to visit him everyday after work, before returning home to his own family.  Though tired, he is quite friendly, and shows a definitive spark when discussing his passion for motorcycles.  He is also studying English, since he had wanted to talk more with the international rescue teams who had spent months here in clean-up, yet he had lacked the ability to do so.  As we pass through Kamaishi, he sadly mentions that it had once been a beautiful place.   

I had wanted to visit Kamaishi myself, but he drops me off on the far side.  It isn't long before I am picked up by a young workman heading to oversee a construction team that is digging a drainage system for the large bypass being built through here.  Route 45 was the only road along this stretch of coast, and after it was destroyed by the tsunami it was decided that this long-proposed highway project be pushed forward in order to create an alternative route.  For dozens of miles I'd seen the machines hard at work high in the hills above, scattering trees down into the flatland below.  It truly felt as if man was punishing the landscape for what had been wrought. 

I stand watching the machines as the driver has a brief discussion with his team.  Above me, badly twisted metal reveals what had once been part of a protective tsunami gate.  The train line over my head is no longer there.  My driver, Takahashi-san, addresses these as we get back in the car, and further along points out that this year's rice was the first since the disaster.  He too is quite friendly, and his enthusiasm for his hometown of nearby Hanamaki grows so contagious that I too will pay it a visit many days later.   He likes picking up hitchhikers since years earlier he used to hitch back and forth from his university in Tokyo to visit friends in Osaka.  But these carefree days seem behind him as his position in his construction company has grown to the point that he travels all over the region to supervise the rebuilding.

Ōfunato surprises me in how unaffected it looks, despite the town having lost a third of its structures.  Yet closer to the harbor I begin to see the signs, or again, the spaces of things absent.  For the first time in two days the rain has stopped, revealing finally the nature of the construction going on.  Massive blocks are stacked atop one another to form what immediately brings to mind a Pink Floyd record cover.  I don't mean to sound flippant here, but that's exactly what it looked like.  The Wall.   

Ōfunato was twice leveled in the tsunamis that destroyed Miyake, and again in 1960 to a five meter wave that originated with a massive earthquake in Chile.  I can understand why people find security in the idea of a wall.  As I ponder this, I walk the tell-tale yellow stripe laid upon a brick sidewalk, the raised ridges specifically designed to enable the blind to slide their canes along the grooves between.  Now the sidewalk is a meter below the road upon which I'm walking, and I'm pulled from thoughts of the past with the sudden recognition that this had once been a bustling shopping arcade.   The only thing that remains are the little benches of concrete and wood built so that people could stop and rest and have a little chat.    This had all been constructed at the water's edge, and for the first time on my walk I can actually see the sea.

Everything else is gone.  As I continue to walk along the sea, new homes and factories begin to appear.  The only thing of any age still standing are the old kura storehouses, built upon remarkably sound architectural principles centuries old.  I pass a few people as I go, and my inability to make eye contract betrays the sense of shame I'm still carrying.  On my last ride with Takahashi-san,  we passed an obvious long-distance bicyclist, and another walker with a big pack.  I wish I had been able to meet with them and find out what it was that had drawn them here.  

When the road begins to pull me away from the water's edge, I look up a low rise and see a train station.  It looks clean and  newly built, though I know that the trains themselves are not running.  I climb a flight of stairs and am amazed to see that the train line has been paved into a road as narrow as a bicycle path.  Mere minutes later, a bus pulls up, headed in my direction.  I climb aboard and begin the swift ride along the coastline, looking down at broad bays striated with oyster beds.  It all feels like some part of a fantasy novel, along something that is neither train line nor road.  A ride at Disneyland is the closest, I suppose. 

I disembark on the edge of Rikuzen-Takata, walking past rice fields.  Occasionally, gulls raise their white heads from their job of clearing the fields of insects.  I find the rail line and begin to walk atop it.  Ironically, a few days later at the history museum in Tono, I'll meet the president of this very Sanriku rail line that these buses have replaced.  It is a chance encounter initiated by him, as he was curious what I was doing in such an out of the way place.  Our conversation will continue for an hour, at the end of which he'll invite me to return with him to the devastated area in order to share with me more stories.

But in a few moments I'll have another encounter that will change the nature of the entire day...

On the the turntable:  X, "Live at the Whisky A Go-Go"
On the nighttable: Ian Buruma, "God's Dust"

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