Sanriku Coast | Iwate, Japan
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Sanriku Coast | Iwate, Japan

The Sanriku Coast (三陸海岸, Sanriku Kaigan) is a dramatic, rocky shoreline with countless bays, cliffs and coves that stretches for over 300 kilometers along the Pacific Coast of the Tohoku Region.

This image was taken prior to the 2011 Earthquake, before the devastation.

Due to its natural beauty, the coastline has long been a popular tourist attraction, and a considerable part of it has been designated as national park (Sanriku Recovery National Park).

The Sanriku Coast has periodically been struck by large tsunami. On March 11, 2011, the strongest ever recorded earthquake in Japan triggered a huge tsunami that hit the Pacific Coast of northeastern Japan and was particularly destructive along the Sanriku Coast. Around 20,000 lives were lost, and tens of thousands of buildings were washed away. Many cities along the Sanriku Coast lost entire districts, while several towns and villages were almost completely destroyed.

The reconstruction process is ongoing and will take several more years. The coast reopened within just a few months of the disaster, and tourism is considered one of the best ways to revitalize the area and keep the event from being forgotten.

This is Part 2 of the Great Tohoku Earthquake series that we wrote in 2011 in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. You can read the full blog post with images here.

Here's an excerpt of the blog (words only)

The end of the world feels a universe away, but for many it’s just a few hours drive north of here. And we are back from it again, and changed some more. The heart aches even harder this sequel time around. For little has changed really in the grand scheme of things. Here and there pockets of life re-ignite and certainly there is hope. In others it is simply extinguished for good.

We go back to Tohoku. For another week. So many moments and images to share. A few here and more in the coming days.

Overwhelmingly the grandeur of tragedy is epic. It consumes you again and again, rolling waves of sadness and grief and utter incomprehension. Finally letting go. Every time the tears stop they come again just as often. Even a little over a month later. Earth shakes not uncommon but the sheer screaming wail of the tsunami lingers in the debris of life and bare foundations now left behind. Covered in mud and a toxic perfume. Tohoku emerges from it’s dream-like state as Utsumi-san, caretaker and evacuee at the Minato-sho-gako, tells us. “I thought it was a dream… I understand now this is my life, this is real”. And so we continue to document the voices, the people, the stories and the situation. Just telling it like it is. Doing what we can, then a little bit more. Like so many. Hoping to just reach one again. Which is all we can do, giving many thanks always for so many that care.

This trip back to Ishinomaki was intended to see how things were one month on, connect with familiar faces and areas and travel a little further afield now that the gas situation has stabilized. Not only was every petrol station on the way open, but also the Ishinomaki MacDonald’s and a convenience store here and there. The tsunami swamped area still reeling from the shock of the waves just a few weeks earlier. But as we would find out, in some streets, hope does float.

We made our way in a happy procession with beautiful companions this time; old/dear and new friends. Corry & Jane. With a goal to connect not only on a human level to those living through this, but to also volunteer, get dirty, document and discover. It was wonderful to reconnect finally with both cars simply bulging with the many donations so kindly given from neighbors near and far. Our car was fully submerged in all kinds of underwear and hygiene products, Corry & Jane’s with the most incredible array of art supplies, games, toys and materials for children. Hoping to bring a little joy and heart, if needed and wanted.

The drive up was much faster than the last, the collection of vehicles heading in the same direction as eclectic and massive as before. Trucks, bulldozers, tanks, mini-cars, buses, every imaginable emergency vehicle. Sometimes with sirens blaring, sometimes without. We stopped a few times, coffee much needed, as well as briefings on what to expect and achieve and simply how to shape our mindset. In almost any other situation we would simply be going on a much-needed girls road trip. But this one was of course, very different.

Arriving in Ishinomaki, not much had changed initially, but there was a sense of urgency and motion in a town where time had stopped. We rolled up to the University and what was just a cluster of tents 3 weeks ago was now a mini-dome city. Colors of every shade, tents of every shape now dot, dot, dotted the once empty sports fields. The athletic track a-ring-a-round-a-tent-rosey. The volunteers were here. And will keep coming. They are so very needed. Trucks, vans and cars of every type pulled up to the supply shed and unloaded donations. Volunteers took them, sorted them, stacked them high in the now relief-shrine. There was a sense of contained order, chaos not too far away but tempered for now. We met with familiar faces and ran into Yoshioka-san, so inspiring in this ongoing relief effort heading Peace Boat. His passion and commitment seeping through on every level. Leaving us with nothing to do but willingly continue to create ongoing awareness within the international community in Japan and the global one beyond. Photos and a few words.

After tents were pitched and hugs were lavished we got around to working on the logistics of our week. Deciding to generally take it day by day, keep up with the volunteer effort and do what we came to do. We started with a re-trace of old steps. Through downtown Ishinomaki where the big white boat on the corner now doesn’t wait to cross the road. The dramatically parked red fishing vessel is also gone, the streets a little bit clearer, change certainly occurring here.

We made our way over the bridges and down to the port. The roads and in some places footpaths walkable, soaked remnants now finally making their way to an enormous tip just north of the university. All refuse so orderly arranged. Tatami soaked towers stacked to the right, smashed cars to the left. Summer can wait for the residents living nearby as the stench piles up with the round-the-clock deliveries. 3 weeks earlier it was simply an empty field. Now it is a mountain of tsunami stuff – not garbage – which is what we were told to call it. A sight we would see repeated town by town by town up and down the coast.

In the port area little has changed. It is simply as gone as it was before. Rubble has been walked through. Signs of life and details emerge from the ruins. We took more notice this time. It was more personal and intimately obscene. What we found we didn’t touch. This was just how it was, how life and survivors had positioned fragments, belongings, connections with the living. As shocking as it ever was. It is still there. Not going anywhere soon. More toxic in the slightly warmer spring air. Summer please stay away. The late afternoon sun spilling gold over the dead zone. Piano’s glowed, dolls stood up, hand-knitted teddies waited for cuddles that will never come. Walking sticks bent beyond use but horribly recognizable in their intention. Of no use anymore. Helmets in no way protecting owners. Burnt homes, empty shells, a random jacket still on its coat hanger swaying with the breeze in a house with no walls. Each visual more incredulous than the next.

But there was one new welcome addition. Enough to make nearby residents with homes intact stop and snap a pic on keitai’s. Just the day before our arrival a local man finished a message. A large plywood cry, dying to be heard above the decimation. It is as simple a message as you can ask for. A crude call to perseverance “Gambaro Ishinomaki” – hang in there, don’t give up, you can do it, let’s go for it Ishinomaki, let’s do our best Ishinomaki, even good luck Ishinomaki. Pick your nuance. We love them all. We met another local man while viewing the sign. He was deeply moved by it. And explained his feelings of anxiousness about the current situation. His home was spared, the tsunami a mere 100 meters away. He will stay in the area, it is his home but we must be more understanding about the power of nature and prepare accordingly.

We left him as the sun went down. Back to camp, in muted, stunned silence, cup noodles firmly on the menu and hysteria too. We were frozen as sleep came. Ready for the uncertainty of tomorrow.

After a restless night, spent mostly applying kairo’s and avoiding a hike to the loo we headed to the morning meeting and our first round of radio taiso. A most uniquely Japanese phenomenon, a morning exercise regime which we were hopelessly uncoordinated at. But what a way to start the day. With bones creaking and groaning, there were just as many smiles. At the conclusion teams huddled, instructions were given and the day was underway. Into action.

Today we would have an amazing experience. I wonder if I even have the words to describe it.

The Fruit Shop Story

We found our way to I-Plaza, the central meeting point for volunteer efforts in town. With buckets, spades, and mountains of materials to move mud this was a mobilization area. We met-up with one of the 10+ PB teams whose job it was to do mud-cleaning. The laborious task of removing mounds of toxic mud from shops, homes, spaces still in tact. Dark and pungent.

Shovel after shovel of sludge-infused remains; just adding another layer of insult to injury. The day before this team had finished clearing out the 80-year old Moriya Fruit Shop. Today, unbelievably it would be the first shop on main street to open since March 11th. 1000 fish were being delivered to be cooked up and given to local residents for free. The scent of fresh fish cooking in the streets reminiscent of familiar times gone by, yet not so long ago. Would we like to come and document proceedings? Seriously… we were so there.

We arrived to much kindness and warmth from the owners and staff. So grateful for the tremendous work of the volunteers, in particular our new friend Kei. Simply a heart of gold, and just a great guy who was integral in making this happen. The opening of the shop with its very basic supplies was such a boost to the battered community. Hope in hopelessness. A sense of new beginnings and an effort to move beyond the mud and despair, and belongings still waiting curbside collection.

The pickings were slim but the bounty more meaningful as a result. Bananas, plump strawberries, natto, daikons. Fresh and welcome after weeks of relief diet. Oranges, grapefruits, soy sauce staples. There was much piqued interest in the street way before the 10am opening. Businesses lay in dangerous ruins on all sides. The once elegant ryokan opposite, now in abunai tatters. But there was hope in Moriya Fruits. The volunteers unloaded the fresh pike and squid from neighboring Onagawa, completely obliterated by the waves. A best friend bringing the catch. The characters were so real, the emotions raw. The most often heard phrase as neighbors and acquaintances reunited in the streets; amid restrained cries of delights, bows and hugs and tears…”Oh, you are alive!” Really.

The grill was made. The foil found.

The cash register set-up, running off a temperamental generator. The boss simultaneously removing mud from coins salvaged from the aftermath and serving loyal customers with gusto. The Irashimase’s clearly forced but real, focused and meaningful. Welcome, you are so very welcome.

Then the first customers came.

Bunches of bananas were a big hit. Yatta Banana’s! Bicycle baskets were full. The fish were frying. The squid roasting, sliced and prepared expertly prior. The bbq aroma wafting through chuo as Moriya Fruits gave away generously, fish to all. There was delight and moments of tasteful meaning as each mouthful was savored, thankfully and gratefully.

Faces expressed it all. A brief respite. So much more than it seemed. Coming together and sharing a taste of the past and future. Life tasted good for just a bit. Stories of survival and not were shared over the sweet pike and shoyu-ika.

We made new friends, some canine. This little puppy, Lamb, making it through the tsunami, both owner and the toy poodle still in deep shock as the water reached above her waistline. She held her doggy tightly as the water came up, unable to escape. Beyond terrified. There were tears and smiles. And talking, lots of talking and tasting. She left after eating 3 fish, telling us she was unable to fit another bite in. Completely satisfied. Her words.

The walk home now laden with bags of groceries was less heavy-hearted than it looked.

But of course in the middle of life, we are reminded of the complete opposite. The crippling grief barely being dealt with. As Moriya Fruits bustled to life, the hearse passed by seemingly unnoticed. But not really. Most seeing it in the distance well before it came into view, choosing to discreetly turn away, searching deep within the fruit store for another exit divergent from the somber gold carriage. Not an altogether uncommon sight around town.

In the back of the shop the tidal wave is stained on the wall.

Outside signs were hastily, lovingly created to be waved at passerby’s, and attached to walls. Moriya Fruits is open, you know. There is fish.

There had to be a quick group shot. It is Japan after all. Under the faded, muddied awning there were peace signs and moments made. But it was fast and not so much celebratory rather more a seriously commemorative affair. We promise to come back with a print for the wall next visit.

And then Kei rocked up on his motorbike, in a sight that left us all moved. He had a massive spray of flowers. Where he had procured them in the misery and destruction that is Ishinomaki is a miracle in itself but he found some. And ceremoniously delivered them to the shop staff. Now it was official, Moriya Fruits was really open. The traditional congratulatory bouquet said so.

In a final gesture so befitting the spirit and sense of Tohoku would we like to sample the fish? Oh, no… please, we are fine, please save it for those who need it. No, we would like you to have some. We really would like for you to taste today. And so we did. There was much joy and many giggles from the locals at our very awkward way of sharing the ika. Even after all these years, give us a pair of chopsticks and we can still entertain. We shared a fish and some squid in the streets. One between us all. A taste of Tohoku in so many ways. And it was good.

It was poignant to shop where those lost once did, pay with real money and stand in the sunshine. If only for a bit.

“When hope is hungry, everything feeds it.” ~ Mignon McLaughlin

Dee & Trace. April 2011…

More about The Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami 2011 Japan:

Read The Black Mouth here…
Read Dead Zone Ganbaro & The Fruit Shop Story here…
Read Sweet Philosophy, that Ishihara and The Bath House Story here…
Read Graveyard Views & Grateful Thanks here…
Read Sequels, Smili’s & The Gumboot Story here…
Read Children of the Tsunami, Lady Gaga and the One about the Clock here…
Read Dark, Heavy & the one about the Drum here…
Read Strangled Blossoms, Trespassing & the One about Sinking towns here…

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