A trip through the disaster zone


During my trip to Sendai on the way to the beautiful Matsushima resort town with some friends, we made a stop in Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture.

It was a gray, rainy overcast day as a typhoon was headed in. The waves were somewhat turbulent as they crashed onto the beach, but calm especially compared to that day in March when a 10-meter wave roared over the embankment engulfing everything in its path. Over 3,000 people most likely lost their lives in that town, though there’s no possible way of knowing how many.

About half the city was engulfed at the time. It seemed that a large highway had divided the town between the disaster zone (the area heading towards the sea) and normalcy. My impression overall is that it was a typical Japanese suburban highway town. One of the first things I noticed was a large Aeon Mall, complete with a Warner Brothers Cinema. There was a K’s Denki too. (I don’t know why, but whenever I see a K’s Denki, I have to announce to whomever I’m with, “Hey, there’s a K’s Denki!”)

As we turned toward the disaster zone, I saw a group of elementary school kids on the way to or from school in powder blue uniforms. I wondered if they’d lost any of their friends. As we got close to the waterfront, far from being a ghost town, workers and construction cranes could be seen spread out through the town. In the middle of one particularly hard hit area, I noticed that the owner had the second floor windows open and was airing out a bright red futon. It was unclear whether the person was trying to salvage their home, or had decided to stick it out.

Some houses and shops in the area seemed to have been rendered little damage (it was difficult to tell which, if any, were lucky or had simply been rebuilt), others stood only on twisted wires and beams, their first floor totally gone or reduced entirely to twisted piles of rubble, but facades of the upper floors intact. Most haunting were the cemeteries with the grave stones knocked over but freshly laid flowers. There were also huge mountains of abandoned SUVs piled atop of one another waiting to be claimed, many by owners who’d most likely been wiped out to sea.

As we drove through the town, I remembered my own hometown in America’s abandoned and sinking houses and scrap lots and the slums you had to go through if you opted to take the “scenic route” down town. I also saw the construction rigs there in Ishinomaki and thought to myself, “This town is being rebuilt.”

But then there was the gray sea. I couldn’t help feeling that it wasn’t a normal ocean. Oceans normally are calming and serene. Seagulls hover over them. I can’t recall any that day, but there was something different about this particular ocean. Maybe it was the rain, a typhoon after all was headed in ... but in many ways it seemed subdued, almost as if it was bowing its head with a sense of shame or guilt. This, after all, was not an ordinary ocean. Months before it had done a terrible thing, swallowing up the people of its own town and carrying them off to sea.

The waves crashing onto the shore reminded me of my earliest memories playing on the beaches of Atlantic City. I remembered collecting seashells in the sand and storing them in an old cigar box.

The Smells

Ocean towns are famous their distinct smell, but for most of my life, I haven’t had much of a sense of smell. I rely mainly on people’s descriptions of what I should smell, then try to imagine it and treasure the few things I can.

I’m told there was an odor from the construction. I thought I smelled burnt wood, tires, maybe the sea itself. Regardless, we pulled over, I got out of the car and stretched. Carefully (and clumsily), I climbed up the embankment. I faced toward the sea, thought – and turned around and faced the devastated town. It was humid. I was sweating and it felt good to be rained on. (So many of us foreigners have observed: Japanese people are too quick to get out the umbrellas. What’s wrong with being rained on, especially when its so “mushi atsui” out?)

At the same time I tried to, but couldn’t imagine what the big tsunami wave looked like. I noted to myself that that body of water was neither good nor bad. It was simply an ocean on a gray overcast day. At the same time, I wondered if the surviving townspeople would ever be able to look at that sea and forgive it. As it would be there forever, I guessed they’d have to.

As it was time to go back to the car, my main concern was to find a way to climb back down the embankment without twisting my ankle.

The next stop was a “konbini,” an oasis in the middle of a disaster zone. There was an eerie sense of unreality; inside it was just a normal Japanese “konbini” with your typical “arubaito” at the counter. I went to the back of the store to use the restroom and grab a drink. As I returned, I noticed that the magazine rack in front of the window was freshly stocked with pornographic magazines much in the same way convenience stores all over Japan are. I thought of an Orwellian computer stock management logistics system gone haywire. This was Ishinomaki, after all, where months earlier thousands had died.

And so I made my purchase. We went back in the car and headed off to the relatively unaffected paradise temple and inland resort of Matsushima, an unbelievable 20-minute drive away, yet a totally different world.

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A personal glimpse if ever there was one; I wish that the word town would not be used for Ishinomaki. Where I come from and where english is still used as far as I know, this size of place would definitely be referred to as a city.

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"Town" and "city" are designations, not necessarlly related to size. I don't know where you're from, but in the UK we have, for example, St. David's (population 1,700) which is a city, and Reading (poulation 230, 000) which is a town. At present only the Queen can grant a town the status of "city".

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yeah thanks zichi-lucabrasi get off the pedantic high. I know what I said, and I do realize that city is nominated by political avenues rather than size, which is why I mentioned the English language with a little e, cause Down Under, if ya be asking me, it isnt actually English but Australian that is spoken......and so on. Too many damn English teachers here in Japan who think their version is correct. Thank you for highlighting this. But thank you Zichi for recognizing that what I wrote was for an emotional appeal to the numbers and size and grief that must have swept through that area, that is quickly forgotten or not even realized at times; and as I stated this article seemed rather a personal viewpoint....need I add?...... in english......

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and I was enjoying the extra take that lucabrasi and zichi were adding...

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As I returned, I noticed that the magazine rack in front of the window was freshly stocked with pornographic magazines much in the same way convenience stores all over Japan are. I thought of an Orwellian computer stock management logistics system gone haywire. This was Ishinomaki, after all, where months earlier thousands had died.

I guess it begs the question then - how long are they supposed to wait to restock the porn mags? 1 year? 2? Or should porn mags just be gone for forever?

If you lived there, you'd probably want everything to get back to normal as much as it could as quickly as it could - porn mags and all.

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how long are they supposed to wait to restock the porn mags?

Some of my students live here and I asked them to write a small report to some of our overseas friends who have helped us out. One student wrote "I've met many, many contractors!"

In areas where there is a high concentration of men working in positions of manual labour, those magazines are almost as essential as cigarettes.

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