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Published: March 10th 2015
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t sure quite what I’d see.
It seemed like a typical rural station as the train rolled in, and still as I walked through the overpass and out the turnstile. Choosing to walk to my accommodation, again there were no immediate clues. Further on and the picture began to look not quite right. The occasional empty lot neatly cleared and obviously being readied for construction turned into regular gaps showing an increasing state of abandonment the further I went. Little did I know.
I spent the next day wandering along the edge of the river leading out to Ishinomaki Bay. It was a lot to take in. It would be easy to forget that what I was seeing was the town already two and a half years down the road to recovery.
It’s going to be a long road.
That evening I walked around town looking for somewhere to have dinner. I avoided anywhere that looked busy, or looked as though business was doing alright. I probably gave the owner a bit of a fright when I walked in the door and sat down at his counter. We chatted
as he prepared my meal, then had a few laughs together watching the TV programme I had earlier interrupted.
On the way home I got talking with a guy who had moved up from Tokyo and spent a few months working on the volunteer programme. He begged me to go and see the untouched wasteland by the bay, which had been my plan for the next day anyway. “People need to know about it” he said. “There is nothing there, no ̴̴ ̴thing at all”.
I turned round at the friendly shout, and walked back to the woman sitting in her car in the driveway of one of the temporary homes. “Are you going to see the memorial? It’s hot, get in I’ll take you.”
I would have been quite happy walking there but didn’t like to decline the kind offer, so got in. During that short drive I learned what Friday 11 March 2011 had been like for Mrs S. She told me how she had been working with her husband in the family business when the earthquake had struck. Being concerned for her elderly mother who wasn’t very mobile, she rushed home. She never
saw her husband again, and his body was never recovered. A few days later her mother passed away.
Mrs S and I spent about an hour down in that wasteland, at the memorial sites. We also stopped at the burnt shell of Kadonowaki Elementary School, now mostly covered by scaffolding and grey sheeting.
When we got back in the car Mrs S invited me to have lunch with her. In the few minutes it took to drive back she thanked me three times for coming to Ishinomaki. Leaving the lunch location up to her, she took me to a temporary food hall, erected to help some of the local business people whose restaurants had been destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami. Mrs S seemed to know all the stall holders - chatting with some, calling out to others. She introduced me to everyone at the table we sat down at. Things relating to the tsunami that I would have been sensitive about asking, they talked about freely – almost like an unwritten right of those that had been through what they had.
After lunch we drove up to Hiyoriyama Park and Kashima shrine, the hilltop park which
had been a refuge for many residents when the tsunami hit. Mrs S offered to take me back down, but I was keen to spend a little more time sitting up there, just looking and thinking. Before leaving, she went back to the shrine and returned with a good luck charm for keeping one safe, and pressed it into one of my hands, with both of hers. There, on top of this hillside refuge, this person who had lost so much was still thinking of and wanting to give to a stranger.
As we parted company I asked Mrs S if she would mind me using the photos I had taken that afternoon.
“Please do. In gratitude for my husband and mother, please do.”
I spent my last day in Ishinomaki back down at that wasteland. Standing by the pole marking the height the waves passed at, I closed my eyes - trying to wonder how it must have been that far inland to have so much water and debri rushing by. How it must have been, that far inland, seeing cars flung around like matchsticks. How it must have been in the midst of those fires,
and seeing the elementary school alight.
Unless you were there that day you really can’t know.
* Why Ishinomaki?
Although the immediate need when something like this happens is shelter and food, to rebuild businesses and community financial support is the best way to help. I wanted to go somewhere in Tohoku and support local business by spending money, and show that there are people thinking of them. Shortly after the tsunami an article was written in Japanese about the American English teacher Taylor Anderson living in Ishinomaki who died trying to save her students.
They were looking for a volunteer to do an urgent translation of it to get the story out in English, and I picked the job up. I've never not been able to remove myself from a translation before, but this one I couldn't get out of my head.
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