In three short months I shall be reversing my bearhunt and heading the 6000 miles back to the UK. If not for good, then certainly for the foreseeable future. Before leaving I wanted to visit Tohoku one last time, to get sweaty and dirty and to say my farewells. This time to Minamisanriku (南三陸) with OGA for Aid. OGA for Aid are a small non-profit organisation who are trying to set up a farm in order to provide employment opportunities for local people. In particular single Mums, who struggle to find work elsewhere because of their childcare commitments. Turning fallow and virgin plots donated by locals who can’t work them into productive farmland is an incredibly labour-intensive job, but until they are able to turn a profit, they can’t afford to employ any workers. A catch 22 that volunteers are helping to break.
Today, though, I didn’t work on the farm and instead I headed into Minamisanriku on foot to see the area close up. I have visited many towns and villages along the North East coast of Japan, both as a volunteer and as a tourist. Over the two years since the earthquake and tsunami I have seen rescue give way to clearing streets, give way to clearing and cleaning buildings, give way to demolishing unrepairable structures, give way to, finally, rebuilding. But always there are things that shock and two years since I first visited the region I still struggle to make sense of the power and the scale: this trip is no different.
I’m not sure, but I think this is what remains of the town’s tsunami defenses:
And this is what remains of the town:
The structure still standing is the town’s disaster-readiness center. It is famous for Jin Sato, the mayor of Minamisanriku, who survived by clinging to the mast as wave after wave overtopped it. 30 people were on the roof when the first wave came in, only 10 were left when the water subsided. The site is now a centre of pilgrimage, and I sat there for half an hour or so to collect my thoughts:
In front of the old entrance is a makeshift shrine. The piles of flowers next to it are fresh and there is a constant stream of cars and busses pulling into the car park to take pictures and pay respects. I sat amongst the clover that now carpets the entire town and thought about Miki Endo, who sat at her post in that building broadcasting evacuation warnings until the water cut her off. Her body wasn’t found until April 23rd.
I’ve never noticed that clover has a smell before, but sitting there surrounded by acres of the stuff, all in full bloom, the scent was intoxicating. I picked a flower and added it to the pile. The centre must once have had an attractive formal garden and it, together with the clover, throw the level of destruction here into particularly stark relief. There are only a handful of houses left of what was once a thriving fishing town:
On my way back, I stopped to take a closer look at some strange standing structures and mounds. I couldn’t for the life of me work out what there were, and then it clicked, this is what remains of the train line that ran through the town!
I climbed up onto the mound and looked along its length, gazing through half-closed eyes to try and see the tracks that were once there. It didn’t work. So little remains that I couldn’t imagine it in its former state:
Under what was once the railway bridge I saw some uncleared debris, now home to a thriving colony of mussels. It brought home to me the time that has passed since this happened. Minamisanriku exists now in name only; the main streets have been repaired, the traffic lights work, but the only visitors are people like me who have come, yet again, to try and understand what happened here. There is through-traffic, one petrol station, a single demountable convenience store and a constant stream of trucks carrying out reconstruction work. But they are passing through too, the demolition here was complete: there is nothing to reconstruct.
I turned for home and left the inundation zone. The walk back was lined with wisteria, azaleas and irises, all in full bloom.
I don’t know what will happen to Minamisanriku: it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to come back and live here. Unlike Ishinomaki, where I have volunteered before, rebuilding seems pointless. I wondered for a moment why I was here at all, rather than somewhere where I could do more good. Then I passed an automated rice-polishing machine. These crop up all over rural Japan and they are there for the families with enough land to grow their own rice to bring and polish it into the perfect grains Japan is so famous for. There are still plenty families in this region who are completely self-sufficient.
This is why I am here, helping to set up a farm to employ local people who have lost everything. Minamisanriku may never be rebuilt, but the way of life that existed here can be. Jobs can be created that allow the people who have lost everything to stay, so they are not forced to the cities in order to survive, and so that they can continue to grow and polish their own rice on their own land.
Goodbye Tohoku, I will miss you, and good luck.