Friday, June 20, 2014

Looking for the 'There' There Pt. III

I am standing at the junction of two roads debating whether to hitch or take the bus leaving in a few minutes, when the driver stops.  He asks me if I can speak Japanese, and when I answer, he gestures to the van.  Chiba-san is a man close to my age, somewhat bohemian looking, and the owner of his own soba restaurant in Ōfunato.  He happens to be running an errand to Kesunnuma, where I am planning to stay the night.

He tells me immediately that he had always regretted not having the English ability to properly thank the foreign relief workers that had come to his city after the disaster.  (He even asks me if I'm a volunteer.)  It is a telling admission as it will dictate the next few hours, as if he feels the need to say to me all the things that he hadn't been able to three years before.  With every ride I've heard a similar statement, the foreign mark here still running deep. 

As we are in Rikuzen-Takata, he asks if I would like to see the Ippon-matsu, the tree known internationally for having surviving the onslaught of the waves.  I say yes, slightly puzzled since I had heard that the salt water in its system had eventually killed it.  But he assures me that its still there, and pulls off into a makeshift parking lot.  Above us, a street sign points the way. 

But I am puzzled by what I saw above and around me.  A massive conveyer belt system had been erected to move earth from a nearby mountain to the beach front.  The earth wil be used to build those high dirt foundations for the new homes.  But what I see is a horror show.  Rikuzen-Takata was one of the worst hit towns, with over 80% of its buildings swept away.  This wide, open shorefront looks like it is enmeshed in a massive spider's web, as the elevated conveyers stretch for a kilometer or more in every direction, right angles meeting right angles.  The mountain too is half the height of what it had once been, I'm told.  Chiba-san also mentions that at the mountain's base there used to be an old barrier station for the Takata Kaidō that had once run through here at its own defensive masugata right angles.  But all had been offered as sacrifice to the gods of construction.  I am in no position to judge how a community should deal with the loss of the entire town, but this seemed excessive.  Beyond excessive.  I'd like to think that I'll come through here again in ten years and see a pleasant and bustling town.  But at the moment I am shocked by what abuses man can inflict.  

We come to the tree, standing above a ruined building.  I will later read that it is an artificial replica of the tree which did in fact die not long after the tsunami.  It was hard to believe that the waves also took out 70,000 other trees that had once stood alongside, a literal forest that had famously lined these shores. Chiba-san tells me he hopes that his children remember the trees throughout their life, as any new trees planted will never achieve the majesty of the old during their lifetime.  In general, he hopes that his children will remember how things once were. 

As we begin to walk back to the car, he tells of a memory from his own childhood, when he had once played a series of soccer matches in the collapsed building beyond the tree, what had once been part of a sports complex.  As we walk back to the van, we pass a handful of others on their way to the site.  We nod silently as we pass.

The drive to Kesennuma is filled with more stories about what happened on that day: about how the water came up the road and washed the houses into the river; or, when seeing the shell of a school, about how all the kids had safely evacuated to the nearby hilltop. Other stories are simple reminiscences about places and things three years gone.  I have a moment of embarassment when I tell him that I'd just left Ōfunato, and that it seemed to me that the people were doing okay.  He replied with any anger that they aren't okay, but are surviving.  People simply want to move forward. For him, this means putting all his energies into building a strong future for his children. 

As we drive on and grow more comfortable, I ask him his thoughts on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, whether he sees them as a positive thing, or as a betrayal.  But Chiba-san maintains his good nature here too, saying that the games give people something to look forward to, for the children in particular. 

We arrive at Kesennuma harbor.  The town here is bustling, like nothing had happened.  Chiba-san buys fish from a shop at the water's edge.  Everyone jokes and talks as if truly glad to see one another. The owner is an strong-looking, slightly-past middle-age woman who invites us back to have tea.  Chiba-san has prepared a surprise for me:  raw hoya, or sea pineapple.  He looks excitedly at me as I chew, telling me that most people hate it.  I say, no, its okay, as my tastebuds conspire to kill me.  I wonder if durian tastes half this foul.  It'll be hours before I get the flavor out of my mouth.  As we eat, the owner sits and looks dreamily out at the harbor.  "It's good to be near the water,"  she says.  "Even when there was nothing here, even when I had no food, I thought how nice it was to sit here with the hills and the water."  

Business finished, we go next door to K-port, a cafe built and funded by Watanabe Ken, who had visited the town after the disaster.  Inside is like any coffee shop found anywhere in the West, with good coffee and sweets, cool jazz. Kesennuma appears to have the right approach to recovery, putting the priority on people rebuilding their lives rather than on constructing defensive measures that block out the natural elements.  I buy Chiba-san a coffee in exchange for the ride, and we begin to talk about other things.  He has a passion for motorcycles, and seems determined to buy the Harley of his dreams.  I picture him riding these windy hills above the sea, the ever-present smile on his face as he accelerates into the next turn.

On my own again,  I walk a few blocks to my hotel.  This area has yet to be rebuilt, and my hotel is one of only two structures standing, the other being an abandoned apartment building. Across the street is a small shrine, a handful of small huts amongst some large stones.  Something is bothering me about it , until I realize how odd it is to see a shrine devoid of any trees.  The rocks will do for now.

The hotel staff tells me that from the third floor up, the hotel is the same as it has always been, but the first two floors have been rebuilt after being inundated.  The new lobby and lounge are beautiful, so I sit and with a juice for awhile to enjoy them.  Later, I sit in the bath on the roof, a luxury after a day spent in the rain.  But the view is surreal, surrounded on all sides by empty space.  Later, when the sun sets, the darkness is absolute...

On the turntable:  Eric Clapton, "Crossroads" 

1 comment:

Alex Hurst said...

I can't even imagine what it must be like up there. Even with the recovery images I see, the word "skeleton" hardly cuts it. I say that with no judgment; there is trouble in finding the beginning again after such destruction, but just to see those images... it is unreal.

Thank you for sharing.