This post is dedicated to the 2900 people of Ishinomaki who lost their lives in the 2011 Tsunami and to my friends who are rebuilding their lives and the city.
This week I went back to Japan for the first time since I lived there from 2004-2006. After my work conference ended on Friday, I took a bullet train from Tokyo up to Ishinomaki to see old friends and to witness the effects of the 2011 tsunami firsthand. My friends in Ishinomaki had told me that I would find the scenes quite startling and on the train journey, I tried to imagine what the once familiar region now looked like...
Yoshihiro and Kanako picked me up from Sendai Station and after a quick lunch in an old favourite restaurant of ours, we drove up the east coast of Japan towards Matsushima. As we moved closer to the sea, the level of destruction became very apparent and beyond the magnitude that I had imagined.
At the beach town of Nobiru, the once bustling station sat completely derelict and devoid of the throngs of beach-goers that once filled the tiny ticket hall. Vegetation had started to grow on top of the once busy tracks of the Senseki train line. As I took a few photos, a professional camera crew started to film the area around the tracks and the battered beach shop. Small houses that once lined the road up to Ishinomaki were gone. The out of date GPS in the car showed the location of convenience stores, post offices and banks that had now been swept away.
While Nobiru had changed and had been heavily affected, it was not a dense residential area. The human element of the disaster did not hit me until we drove closer to Ishinomaki city. After driving past derelict schools decorated with flowers and candles, we went to see the house where Kanako grew up. The neighbourhood was eerily quiet and I felt like I was on set of a zombie apocalypse movie. Battered and disused homes punctuated an otherwise washed away neighbourhood. Kanako waited in the car while Yoshihiro showed me the damage that had been done. The smell as we entered the house was horrific and Yoshihiro told me to use my scarf to cover my mouth. The scuffed bootmarks up the bedrooms walls documented how the inhabitants of the home desperately scurried onto the roof of the house. As we slowly made our way down to the front door of the house, we found a photo album containing pictures from Yoshihiro and Kanako's wedding. We grabbed the photos to show Kanako and as we flicked through them, she told me about how much her family appreciated the help of volunteers who had helped to clear away much of the debris after the disaster.
Much of the news coverage of Ishinomaki after the tsunami focused on the port area near Kadonowaki. As we drove over the damaged roads, we saw teams of volunteers working in the rain to remove dangerous objects. Yoshihiro stopped at a temporary shelter so we could donate some things to people who had lost everything. Everyone I talked to had a story of loss or hardship as you might expect. Many of these people however also had stories of hope and motivation to rebuild. The many "がんばろう" signs painted on the outside of buildings showed the fighting spirit that the Japanese are known for. On the drive home, Yoshihiro told me how he was airlifted off a small island where he was working in an helicopter. He then walked for 2 days to try and find missing friends.
That evening a group of my former students organised a dinner party at my favourite okonomiyaki restaurant. Despite the hardships that my students had faced, the mood was happy and celebratory as we caught up on 6 years of news. We ate delicious food, drank delicious beer and teased each other. We pulled out our phones and compared our present day faces to those of 6 years ago. I also had the chance to meet my old supervisor Akki and to meet his newborn children. We joked about old times and he told me he was excited to come and visit me in Singapore one day.
We woke up very early on Sunday to drive further up the coast to the most damaged areas. Sachie joined us and the four of us had a quick breakfast before heading to Kitakami town. As we pulled into Okawa elementary school, they told me that the flowers and offerings marked a memorial for the students and teachers who had no escape from the rising sea. We drove through the now abandoned town of Ogatsu and towards the Onagawa nuclear power station that had featured so heavily in the news. Before the tsunami, you could always see the landmarks of Onagawa town as you approached from the west. This time however there was nothing but abandoned buildings and raised ground where homes and shops once sat. The stationary shop that my friends' family once ran had gone and it was difficult to navigate the town with the absence of familiar landmarks. Sachie told me she was proud that I worked for Google as she had used the person finder tool to contact missing friends and her family during the tsunami aftermath.
As my friends drove me back to the station to go back to Tokyo, they told me that they felt lucky to have escaped when so many of their friends and family had lost everything. I was completely humbled by their positivity in rebuilding the community and how they had taken this opportunity to do things that they had put off. Sachie told me that she had finally pursued her ambition to teach English to kindergarten children. Yoshihiro told me he quit his job to do something that he really wanted to do. They waved me goodbye from the platform of the tracks and I immediately started to think about what I had seen in a very short and intense 24 hour period. As I sit on the bullet train back to Tokyo drafting this post, I feel overwhelmed by what I saw and grateful that my friends were safe. Despite watching hours and hours of tsunami videos last year, nothing had prepared me to see the destructive capabilities of mother nature firsthand. The strength and determination of my friends has persuaded me to think about the changes I would like to make to my life. I think there are very few countries in the world where the people would be able to recover from disaster as quickly as the Japanese did. I am looking forward to coming back again soon and not to leave it so long like this time - 6 years was too long to be away from a place I love and have many happy memories in.