Evidence of the tsunami is everywhere in Japan’s Tohoku region. But the people’s resilience and the beauty of the coastline are remarkable.
The artists who create the dramatic floats that fill the streets during the annual Nebuta festival in the northern Japanese city of Aomori have found ways to wrap fire with paper.
Their massive sculptures have a wire and timber framework covered in glued paper and painted in blazing colours. Illuminated from the interior and jockeyed through the streets on truck-sized wheeled platforms by teams of up to 50 men and women, the Nebuta floats depict landscapes, characters and scenes from a typically-eclectic Japanese mix of history, mythology, religion, Kabuki theatre, manga comics and TV programs.
Guided by a fan-waving leader, the teams bring their floats to life, dipping, spinning and weaving between the cheering crowds that line the streets. Samurai warriors glare fiercely into the night; gripped by mighty hands, swords of light clash; fanged serpents writhe, coil and spit lightning; the foaming crests of breaking sea-waves engulf demons dancing among tongues of flame.
All made of timber and wire, paper and paint.
Spectacular as they are, those breaking waves on the Nebuta floats are nothing compared with the awesome ocean surges that followed minutes after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of 2011. Protected inside its wide north-facing bay, Aomori itself missed the impact, but large areas of the nearby port of Hachinohe were inundated by the tsunami. Boats floated into the city centre, to be stranded in streets, gardens and on top of wrecked houses. Vehicles were swept away as roads became rivers.
The same mind-numbing scenes occurred along hundreds of kilometres of coastline, with the wave reaching 10km inland in some places. Almost 20,000 people died. While the best-known symbol of the tsunami’s awesome power is the ruined nuclear reactor near Fukushima, the most widespread damage and highest loss of life occurred much further north, in the coastal cities, towns and villages of north-eastern Tohoku.
Tohoku is one of Japan’s lesser-known but most beautiful and welcoming regions. After experiencing the spectacle of Nebuta in Aomori, my plan is to walk and ride local trains along the coast, south from Hachinohe as far as Tohoku’s major city, Sendai.
I make a slow start. Shuji Morikai, a friendly young conductor who had studied in Canada, tells me the stationary train I’m waiting in at the Hachinohe Station won’t leave for another three hours. We chat and I decide to start walking, then pick up the train further down the line. Before I leave, I ask him about his own experience of the tsunami. His answer is eloquent.
“My village was broken,” he says.
I take his picture and tell him that when I reach Noda I’ll show the photo to his mother, who works in a pharmacy there. A soft rain is falling as I walk past the harbour. Here, vessels big and small jostled and jammed together as the tsunami wave rose.
It quickly breached the sea walls and flattened dockside warehouses. Three years on, the port has been reconstructed and apart from many new buildings there is little sign of the devastation. But on the southern outskirts of the city I find a powerful reminder, half-way up the steep steps up to the Kabushima shrine, perched on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by the rookeries of black-tailed gulls. A brass plaque marks the height of the water, which reached 5.3m above the normal sea level.
But today the sun breaks through clouds, glinting on the water. There’s hardly a ripple on the beaches, surfers are ashore, divers are busy around the craggy islets.
The footpath carries me several kilometres onward, to a tiny station where I rejoin my train. My goal for the day is the harbour city of Miyako, where terrified onlookers on upper floors of portside buildings captured some of the most astonishing and terrifying images of the tsunami. (Search for Miyako tsunami on Youtube – it’s impossible to do the video justice in words.)
But first, I have to visit Noda, my young friend Shuji’s ‘broken village’. Here, it’s easier to see what the wave did – all the low-lying parts of what was a busy little coastal settlement have been swept bare, while on higher ground, the life of the village goes on. It’s here I find Mrs Morioka’s pharmacy and show a proud mother the photo I took of her handsome son. Then I walk to the fishing port, shepherded across a near-deserted road by a cheerful uniformed crossing guard with illuminated baton and hard-hat. She steps importantly into the street, holds up the non-existent traffic with her baton and waves me safely over to the other side.
Heading south again, the train passes the sites of more coastal villages, each with its little protected harbour at the point where a narrow valley runs down to the sea. In these places, nothing much remains – the tsunami’s height was magnified many times by the steep valleys and the wave swept everything away.
Miyako, a much larger city on a deep inlet, is my base for a few days as I explore north and south along the spectacular Sanriku Coast, lined with high cliffs and deeply indented by coves and gorges. A famous landmark is Jodogahama Beach, a short bus ride from Miyako. The scatter of jagged, pine-crested islets, white-pebbled shores and calm, clear waters reminded an early monk of the Buddhist idea of paradise – he named it Pure Land Beach.
On the day I visit, the sun is hot and the water cool. After a swim, I call in to the rebuilt beach-side rest house for a cold drink and to marvel at the photographic record of the damage done by the wave.
Overlooking the scenes of carnage in the photos, the white islands of Jodogahama stand serenely untouched and unchanged by the many tsunamis that have struck this coast over the ages.
Before I leave Miyako, I wander through the maze of shops and restaurants in the city’s fish market. I’m seeking an elusive souvenir – a fish print, or gyotaku. These artworks are traditionally made so a fisherman can record a special catch. The trophy fish is rubbed with printing ink before a piece of fine cloth or paper is smoothed over it, then lifted carefully off. In the best examples, every scale appears in crisp detail. A scarlet stamp in kanji characters, naming the fisherman, the date of the catch and the gyotaku artist, completes the work.
In repeated trips to Japan, I’ve trawled through likely-looking antique shops and galleries hoping to buy one but without success. Maybe I’ll find one here in Miyako.
The shop of an elderly fishmonger looks promising, and a painstaking explanation of my quest is translated by a friendly passer-by. After a few exploratory questions, a string of rapid-fire Japanese is aimed at my interpreter. The old man sits back. I turn to my helper in anticipation.
“He say, ‘You want gyotaku, buy big fish, make one!’”