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The friend I was visiting in Sendai last week, happens to be an author – Anne Thomas – and also wrote a blog post about our tour through the devastated coast line of Miyagi and I thought I would share it. Additionally, if you feel compelled to learn more about the amazing people of Japan and support the victims all at the same time, please purchase her book from Lulu (not amazon because they take 60%).  I’ve started to read a copy and am extremely inspired by the Japanese spirit and it has given me greater insight into the Japanese culture.

Dear Family and Friends,

Recently a friend of my cousin came to Sendai for a visit. Marcus is a doctoral student in oceanography at Dartmouth and has a ten-week stint at Hokkaido University. Even though his main interest is salmon migration, he wanted to see and learn more about the tsunami of last year and its ongoing after-effects.

Marcus arrived at Sendai Airport, so that is where his tour began. I had been there several times before, but am always fascinated by the changes I find when I go to any devastated area. The first thing that strikes anyone in these places is the lack of buildings. In this particular case, Sendai Airport itself has been impressively rebuilt and is in full operation. But the expansive, once densely populated area around it is still empty except for tenacious grasses, punctured by an occasional ruined structure with its strong frame miraculously intact, but its walls smashed or gone.

(Here you can see Sendai Airport in the background. The building in the front has no first floor walls. The grass area is where other houses used to stand.)

There was also a small graveyard. The time of Obon, when the spirits of ancestors visit the earth, is fast approaching, so having well-cared-for tombstones is very important, particularly at this time. A few months ago this very site was a mass of fallen and broken stones. But this time it held mostly well-kept, flower-adorned graves waiting for the steady stream of families to come and perform their yearly duties to the deceased.

From there we walked closer to the sea, with its barrier of pine trees. Many, even most, are now dead, but a few rickety ones were still hanging on. Four months ago there were enormous sturdy plastic bags filled with sand, forming a temporary seawall. But this time there was a convoy of dump trucks carrying sand so a permanent wall could be constructed. We were not allowed to enter, of course, so observed from a safe distance away.

(These are “before and now” shots of the Sendai Airport tsunami wall)

Then we wandered over the vast grassy plain to where a farmer was plowing a small field. He politely stopped to chat and told us that patch of land was where his farm had been. “This was the main house where I now have onions and am plowing. Over there was the barn. And here was the garage. And that was where my wife had her flower garden. We lost everything except our lives and our land. I had three tractors, but now rent this hand plough. I can’t do much, except feed my family But I need to be doing something useful. So I come here everyday.”

“How long will you be in temporary housing,” I queried.

“Don’t know. We’re waiting on what the government decides. The land is ours, of course. We’ve been here for generations. Eight to be exact. But we don’t know anything for sure now. So we just have to wait and see.”

Later in Sendai City my new friend interviewed a professor of oceanography at Tohoku University. She apologized that tsunami research had a slow start. “We couldn’t get into certain areas for a long time,” she explained. “In Fukushima it was because of radiation. Up here the entire seabed dropped by several meters, so of course fish and sea plants were completely disrupted.

In our recent research, however, we have found that certain species vanished, started to come back, decreased again, but now seem to be returning steadily. It is very uneven, though. Some creatures and plants are doing better than others. Fishermen want us to introduce fish, but we say no. That would throw off the natural balance, which is still pretty fragile.”

This professor and her students, along with many others from various research institutions, go out frequently for sampling. “It’s too soon to say for sure, but I think things look positive. So we can only hope things will continue as they are now.”

The following day we went to the coast again, to Ishinomaki. This was my fourth time there, and of course, I was curious to see what had changed, what had stayed the same. We hired a taxi for the day because there is still no public transportation to areas we were interested in.

The knowledgeable driver took us first up a hill so we could get a bird’s eye view of the devastated area. From there we could easily see how being alive or dead depended almost entirely on where you were. The dividing line between tsunami-struck and safe areas was clear and very precise. The tsunami went as far as the land would allow. Only the hill we were on blocked its progress.

We then went to the school that had not only been pounded by the infamous sea monster, but had also been devoured by fire. Marcus took one look and said, “This looks like war zone. I can’t believe it. The extent and force of that tsunami are too much for my mind to grasp.” And that was just the start of the tour.

We went to pray at the makeshift altar, where the Dalai Lama had been. This time there were more flowers, especially huge pots of sunflowers. “Sunflowers are hopeful and have power for new life,” a woman explained. “Look. You can see how people have planted them where their homes used to be.”


There was a couple there with a canopy and table. The land was theirs and used to hold their dress shop. But now they were selling seaweed and telling stories about what it was like on the day of the tsunami.

“We just managed to get to safety. But when we turned and looked back, we saw our neighbors racing to escape. The tsunami was huge, but a second problem, somewhat less reported, was the fires. They were everywhere. From the top of the hill we watched about 500 people we knew either drown or burn to death.  We will never be the same after experiencing that horror. But life goes on. We are here. We smile. We try to always be grateful.”

From there we ventured to other “old familiar places” (for me). The smashed hospital and wrecked-car wall were still there. They were more weathered, but otherwise unchanged. Cars on the freeway overhead hummed by, reminding us that life does indeed go on.

Even though it seemed as if everything in the tsunami-struck areas was in abeyance, you can be sure thousands of meetings and discussions are taking place everyday. On the surface things seem to be frozen in time, but when the final plans for these coastal areas are finally decided, rebuilding will take place with startling speed.

And it is beginning, albeit unevenly. The paper factory is back in operation. Fish factories are slowly reopening. More individual working boats are bobbing about. So progress is being made. In fact, in another area of the city there are whole mini-complexes of temporary houses. Not one of them, but several. The largest was so huge, with 2,500 homes, that it was divided into districts with street signs and house numbers. There was a police box, a bank, a post office, a sports field, a hospital and a convenience store. A supermarket was not too far away. Some homes had small potted gardens and brightly painted exterior walls.

We got as far north as Osaki Elementary School, where almost all the teachers and students were swept away by the tsunami. That infamous place, and everywhere else we visited for that matter, seemed hollow and desolate. When I visited all these places before, the atmosphere was alive. The feeling ranged from confused, frightened spirits roaming around to deep horror and unspeakable sadness. But this time there was a sense of emptiness, almost as if we were looking at archaic ruins or deserted war-torn cities of long ago.

Adding to that feeling was the taxi driver’s attitude. He was a polite gentleman, who said, “Life is movement. We all are doing the best we can.” And he accepted his fate graciously, while realizing the ongoing uphill struggle was far from over.

Also to my amazement there were quite a few tour buses. Maybe “tour buses” is the wrong word. It was more as if people from all over the country were on a pilgrimage. They wanted to experience firsthand what they had seen in the news. They also came to pray. They, like all of us, wanted to be part of the healing of this poignant and terrible time.

And most curiously, Marcus found something glittering in the yard of the burned school in Ishinomaki proper. He went to pick it up and to our utter amazement it was a damaged CD of The Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead. Was that a message to us? Was it telling us that those who died finally were able to feel grateful for the time they had on earth, and also grateful to at long last be moving forward towards the Greater Light?

-Anne Thomas
–August 1, 2012

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