After the Tsunami: Nothing to Do but Start AgainCharles Graeber
(Corrects the measure of yearly earthquakes in Kamaishi in paragraph 15.)
Kenji Sano was two years old the first time his home was destroyed. His family had a small wood and rice paper house in Kamaishi, right on the town's main street, parallel to the port and near the ancient blast furnaces that produced iron used in everything from samurai swords to rails for high-speed bullet trains. Sano hid amid the tombstones on the Buddhist hillside, clutching his mother as the tsunami of Mar. 3, 1933, swept his town away. Later, on the spot where his mother helped burn the bodies recovered from the wreckage, the survivors placed two steel Bodhisattvas, commemorating the high-water mark. Little Kenji-san sat before the arch of the temple gate, watching the smoke.
It was different the next time. Unlike the tsunami, which unpacked houses to timber, leaving things—everything—scattered, the American bombardment burned clean, leaving only ash. Three weeks after Sano's teenage home had been incinerated, on Aug. 8, 1945, the bombardment started again. An atomic bomb fell on the southern city of Nagasaki the next day. There would be no bombs after that. Kenji helped his father and brother rebuild. Theirs was a small place, no more than a barrack, but enough. There was nothing to do but start again.
After the war, Kamaishi bloomed. Furniture factories and seafood processing plants, a granary and fish farms, rows of restaurants, and a maze of one-room taverns, all fronting a busy international port and protected by a massive breakwater. Tsunami experts from around the world considered Kamaishi to have the best harbor protection anywhere; according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the 207-foot-deep, 6,430-foot-long breakwater is also the largest in the world. Constructed at a cost of 165 billion yen ($2 billion), it took 30 years to build and was completed in March 2009.
For decades, Kenji Sano could see the breakwater taking shape on his daily morning hike in the Rikuchi Mountains, which sandwich Kamaishi (pop. 40,000) against the Pacific. Even at 80, Sano took to the foothills in the early hours, sometimes with his wife, often alone, for the view of his hometown below. If he hiked far enough, he could visit with a god.
The deity Kannon, more than 100 feet tall and cradling a fish, stood on the ridge facing the sea—Kamaishi's unofficial patron saint and a tourist attraction for 41 years. The Bodhisattva of compassion had been built on this mountaintop overlooking Kamaishi Bay, a prayer in reinforced concrete. "Be calm," Kannon implored the Pacific. "Don't rage."
On Mar. 11, Sano started out early as usual, leaving a house busy with three generations of his making. He slipped past his teenage grandson, Ayumu, who was running a finger down a book for the next day's university entrance exam; past where his son's wife, Hiromi, kneeled over the cooking ring preparing a school lunch of rice for her younger boy, Hiroyuki; and down the stairs to his shop, where his 44-year-old son, Shigeru, was sweeping the stoop.
For 60 years, Kenji had run Sano Liquor, a wholesaler, package store, and bar at the corner of Oodori and Aoba streets, Kamaishi's main intersection, on the ground floor of their home. Sano Liquor was the kind of daily meeting place vital to any town. It was known to sailors from around the world, too. Kenji pulled on his surgical mask and exchanged a few quick nods with Shigera and headed up Oodori street and into the morning light.
Sano's carved walking stick clicked on the sidewalk as he nodded to his neighboring shopkeepers—the mother and daughter from the cake shop next door; his friend the dentist, whose wife had Parkinson's; the old pharmacist, walking briskly in his floppy denim hat; Yuko Kariya, the woman who owned the tidy Jazz cafe by Aoba Park. In Kamaishi, everyone knew Sano.
The surrounding peaks would remain white with snow for a few more weeks, but the early cherry blossoms showed promise, and as Sano climbed into the hills, he reflected on the beginning of a new season for Sano Liquor. Each year, on the third day of the third month, when Kamaishi latched the great vault doors of the seawall during the citywide tsunami drill, the loudspeakers might as well have been announcing a surge in business. March meant office parties, which meant booze delivery, which meant that he and his son would be very busy. He'd be ready. His legs were still strong. Sano liked to walk, but he could run when he had to.
At 9 a.m., Shigeru raised the metal shutters on Sano Liquor. The place was neatly arranged. Against the right wall was a glass-front refrigerator loaded with iced coffees and ginseng hangover remedies. The shelves on the opposite wall were for wine and Western whiskeys. The cheaper white jugs of Shochu rice liquor took the center island. He kept the good stuff in the back—fancy bottles of fine sake, lighted well to catch the eye. Theirs was a small store competing with the new chain supermarkets along the expressway, and the expensive sake offered the best profit margin.
Twenty years earlier, Shigeru had left Kamaishi and had been glad to do so, as he knew Ayumu must be eager to do now—the way any kid from a remote city feels. Fresh from university, where he finished a degree in engineering, Shigeru had taken a job working with NAS, the Kawasaki-based microprocessing giant, building chipsets for the first Nintendo Game Boy and Seiko G shock systems. After a couple of years in high tech, Shigeru returned to Kamaishi. As Kenji's only son, it was his duty to tend to his family and the family business.
What disappointment he experienced in returning was blunted by the pride he took in what his father had built from scratch. Shigeru dusted the display before turning to the bar—10 curved feet of oiled Japanese cedar hugging the corner by the fridge, with a stack of cups on top for the paying customers and a baseball bat behind to keep the peace.
Shigeru piled cases into his delivery truck, checking against the list, and when his father returned from his morning hike, he took off on his usual rounds. Business had been brisk at the small pubs lining Kamaishi's Nonbe Yokocho, known as Drunkard's Alley, and he hurried to fill the bars' orders. After making his deliveries, Shigeru returned home to kiss his wife and eat a quick bowl before hopping back into the truck for another run. Around noon he hustled back to the store to be ready for a regular, if intermittent, client that had just arrived in the harbor: the 7,000-ton cargo vessel Asia Symphony. Her flag was Panamanian, but her crew was Filipino, young male sailors loaded with money and free time while they awaited the stevedores. They didn't speak Japanese, but they knew "Sano"—Tagalog for "fellow countryman." Shigeru served a few customers, restocked the back, sold a bottle, and waited.
His son had promised to call when he reached Hirosaki, where he was to take his exam the next day. Shigeru kept checking his watch; he couldn't help it, he was still an engineer. At 2:40 he rearranged his desk, then checked the breast pocket of his jumpsuit, looking for his smartphone. His phone was on, charged, full bars, no missed calls. 2:42.
The bar was polished, but he polished it again, until his phone rang. Shigeru breathed a sigh of relief and checked his watch: 2:45 p.m. JPT. He was on the phone with his son a minute later when the bottles started falling. It was an earthquake, but that didn't rattle Shigeru. Most of the 1,500 or so each year in Kamaishi were innocuous, between magnitude 1.0 and 5.0, with the occasional 6.0, which broke a few plates.
This one started like the others, but it didn't stop. Shigeru dropped the phone and ran to the shaking shelves of imported spirits, pushing each teetering bottle back to safety. Then the sake bottles started falling, too, and he ran to protect the most expensive ones. He pressed his body against the shelf and spread his arms and legs, trying to cover as many as possible.
It was, he knew, ridiculous. He was clutching two top-shelf bottles and two more in his armpits when his prize four-liter bottle of Junmai Daiginjo-shu sake hit the tiles. At that point he knew it was pointless, and he ran out to the street.
By then the earthquake was like a mass hallucination. Roads and sidewalks caterpillared like unfurled carpets and crooked smiles opened in the earth, vomiting water. It seemed to Shigeru as if it would last forever, right up until he realized it had stopped. Then the earth was quiet, and the people were loud. Running, screaming, hysteria.
It wasn't immediately clear what to do next. Only three days before there had been a healthy jolt and the tsunami warnings had sounded, but the small swell that approached the harbor had been diffused by the breakwater. It hadn't even breached the seawall. Besides, the earth had cried wolf before, and it was tempting to ignore it this time. The earthquake had left the store a vulnerable mess, and walking away is not in the DNA of a small businessman.
Still, the elder Sano, who'd been upstairs visiting with his wife, Yoko, felt they should leave immediately. Even in memory, the earthquake that released the massive 1933 Sanriku tsunami had not been nearly this strong. Forget fiddling with the radio, he told his son. They didn't need an official bulletin to know they should go.
Shigeru turned up the bar's radio so people out in the street could hear the tsunami warnings. Then he pocketed the contents of the cash register and pulled the metal gate on the business.
"Don't worry about that," his father chided. "We should go!"
"Just a moment," Shigeru said. He checked the lock, checked his pockets, grabbed his favorite courier bag, the new one, with the cell phone holster and ...Should he find his charger?
"Hurry!" His father said. The sirens had already started—the two-tone alert, the voice calmly echoing from pole-mounted speakers throughout the city. Tsunami coming. Evacuate.
Not everyone was sure. Shigeru could see people in their shops, old people, whole families looking out their second-floor windows and then closing them, as if that might keep the water out. He ran outside, wanting to help, yelling at his neighbors, "Come on, run!" Next door, in the cake shop—the mother and daughter. Why wouldn't they run? They should run, he thought. Suddenly he realized that he wasn't running, either. And he ran.
In the midst of the parade of evacuees, people speculated aloud that they were overreacting. Shigeru watched as some turned and ran back down the hill toward town. Then even his father slowed and stopped. It was cold, and the earth wasn't shaking. Sano turned to Shigeru.
"Hey," he said. "Listen, I'm going to go back and get the car."
It was a classic father-son reversal, and Shigeru understood his old man's impulse. The delivery truck was new, not fully paid off. It was the engine of their business. He would save it, Sano said. His legs were good, he'd been a sprinter.
"I'll go," he said. "I'll be quick."
At first the seawall held, and a few dozen cars even stopped along the overpass to watch Kamaishi's fishing fleet spin like bathtub toys under a faucet below the distressed blue bulk of the Asia Symphony. The waves soon ripped the Symphony from her moorings, too, and left it at the mercy of the flood. Cargo ships like the Symphony are graceless, flat-bottomed steel brutes designed for abusive loads, heavily ballasted to keep them from turning turtle with the weight of cargo. Their design makes them remarkably stable in rough seas. The problem was, the water was being smashed against a mountain. The ship became a football-field-size, 7,000-ton torpedo hurtling through town.
Under the stress of the flooded harbor, the seawall began to give, folding like the walls of an above-ground pool. Gaps split open and erupted like Jersey barriers in a collision, and the contents of Kamaishi Harbor began pouring on top of the town. Many in the crowd on the overpass reached for cell phones to snap photos before they recognized the danger. A few made it into their cars before the water overwhelmed them, too. The big streets acted as sluice gates and filled first, but soon the water found the smaller roads that connect the grid. Block by block the racing headwaters rushed in from both sides, smashed together, and created eddies and backwater alleyways.
In seconds, Kamaishi became a battleground of fluid dynamics. Where the mountains crowded close to the ocean to form a sheer wall, the skate-park of surfaces forced the flow of the tsunami west and south. A chunky black mass with the force of Niagara surged down Oodori with a pumice of pulverized Hondas, backhoes, boats, and house parts until the basin was flooded and Kamaishi was a lake. As the last ripple came ashore, there was a moment of sudden calm. It lasted only an instant before all that water started flowing back out to the sea. Many of those who had, by luck of geography, survived the first forward surge now found themselves in the deadly drainage of cars and floating homes.
The government had encouraged every citizen of Kamaishi to have a tsunami plan. For those near the intersection of Oodori and Aoba, that plan centered on the high ground in front of the Aoba municipal building, next to the town cemetery. This gathering spot was familiar to the old people and revered by the young, a place considered both holy and safe. But was it really safe?
It was difficult to fight against tradition. One family, a group of five, friends of the Sanos, was adamant; the 104-year-old patriarch reminded them that this was where they went each tsunami drill, a place that had been safe during the tsunami in 1933. The old man had been young then, and had survived. He would not behave differently now. His family listened to him. Others in the crowd were also persuaded.
Akihito Hirota, the town's chief clerk and Aoba's disaster liaison, was not so certain. He saw what looked like dust rising above the buildings near the port. Then Oodori Street, only two blocks away, began to flow—the intersection became a blur. There was no superior here to tell him what to do. It was up to him. And to his mind, no—the Aoba building and park no longer felt safe enough.
Shigeru persuaded his father to seek higher ground, just as he had finally talked Kenji out of going back for the truck. Kenji, Yoko, and Shigeru moved with the crowd across the temple grounds to the courthouse on the hill, leaving the centenarian and his family to their fate.
Three minutes later they arrived at the courthouse. It was a simple administrative building designed for common civil actions, not scores of refugees, but it was on high ground and dry, with a roof and walls.
Sano and Shigeru took a spot there, desperate for news of Shigeru's family. Soon the sun set, and the temperature dropped below freezing. It was dark everywhere; the city was a wet shadow.
There was no electricity, no water, no heat, no phones. Cell phones and smartphones had no service, either. The 50 or so refugees here knew nothing about what had happened, except what they had seen. In the dark courthouse, fear crept in. Hirota-san walked to the temple and returned with candles. The flickering shadows were only slightly less frightening, but they allowed the survivors a better view of who had made it, and their first inkling of who had not.
Among the nearly 600,000 people displaced along the Japanese coast, the residents of Kamaishi were lucky, if only relative to their neighbors. To the north, the town of Ryoshi now existed only on maps; on the ground nothing was left but the Pompeii-like remains of foundations and piles of wreckage. Continuing north to Otsuchi, Kirikiri, and Namatakaigan, the same scene was repeated. In Yamada, where the earthquake had ruptured the natural gas containers and the tsunami had floated a fireball, even the wreckage had been torched.
Kamaishi had been shielded in part by the overwhelmed breakwater and the foothills; only half the city had been annihilated. A quarter of the town's residents had become refugees, but they were at least within reach of dry structures and uphill neighbors to lend support.
Among the displaced, the Sano family had been particularly fortunate, finding floor space in the Buddhist temple, sleeping on stacks of blankets before the altar. The next day, Shigeru and his wife were reunited. Hiromi had been out shopping when the earthquake struck and had been unable to get back to the shop before the tsunami; her life had been saved by traffic. Her youngest son had remained frightened but secure in a school built into the cliffside, while Ayumu was still far inland in the city of Hirosaki—his university acceptance was uncertain, but he was, presumably, fine.
The temple became a partial reconstitution of the old neighborhood. The familiar company more than made up for the lack of water, heat, and electricity. But it would not feed them.
The two surviving supermarkets and the handful of convenience stores had been stripped immediately, and the vending machines soon after that. The temple monks and volunteers tried to provide each person with one billiard-ball-size ball of rice a day, but soon those supplies ran out. Luckily, Shigeru proved a resourceful scavenger. All around them, the contents of their city lay in piles, some of which contained food or fuel. They foraged from the ruins.
For the first couple of days they lived on packaged seaweed. Enzo wakame came in a brick, like ramen noodles but heavy, and was made right there in Kamaishi—the Sanos carried it in their store. The distinctive blue packs with green and red lettering became a city currency; a single un-split pack, boiled in water, could provide enough nutritious instant miso to feed a family. The problem then became finding enough water to reconstitute them.
Shigeru was out on a search when the first trucks arrived from beyond the mountains. The convoy had license plates from Hyogo prefecture, hundreds of miles to the south. It had left within a few hours of the quake and had been traveling for 48 straight hours to bring Kamaishi water. Right there on the street, Shigeru Sano started to cry.
The central emergency response from the government was quick, and by the end of the second day a procurement center had been set up on the outskirts of the destruction. While crews continued to scour the wreckage for the dead and missing, others used claw-fitted backhoes to scrape wreckage from the streets. The clearer the streets became, the more aid could flow, and within three days the place had the air of a working war zone.
When the roads opened, many fled to Tono, an hour and a half due west, in charter buses. The hotels, filled beyond capacity, offered special tsunami rates for those who stayed; many more continued on toward friends or relatives elsewhere in Japan, or left the country, along with half a million foreigners. Tickets for all flights leaving Tokyo sold out for a month.
The Japanese Self-Defense Force—Japan's version of the National Guard—set up along the road to the mountains in a giant tent structure that had once housed the Kamaishi Dream Park. At first, Kamaishi needed everything—and gradually everything arrived. A typical pile contained crates of apples from Aomori; cup ramen redistributed from Sendai; medicine, masks, and soap from Wakayama Ken; two tons of rice, trash bags, sweaters, milk, glasses, and gas tanks from the Yomiuri newspaper company; toilet paper from the people of Miyagi prefecture; and boxes of pencils and crayons from well-meaning but misguided donors in Singapore.
The daily manifest of deliveries was inches thick. The civil authorities turned to Japan's largest trucking delivery company, Kuroneko (Black Cat), to help with distribution. Company employees donated their time, joined by a volunteer force of high school students and members of the Japanese Welfare society. The Seawaves rugby team helped unpack the heavy loads. The relief efforts brightened the present, but they couldn't undo the devastation.
For decades, Sano's friend the dentist had lived in a sturdy corner building near the harbor. His was the usual arrangement, with the bottom floor used as an office and clinic, the second floor for his living quarters with his wife, and the third rented out to another family. When his wife started showing signs of Parkinson's, the dentist changed the arrangement and moved their living space onto the building's ground floor, as she could no longer use the stairs. Gradually, as the dentist's wife deteriorated physically, he rearranged other aspects of their life, picking up some of her household duties and finally taking them over entirely. He would go out with a small bag each day and shop for the few items the couple required, and each day he would make his regular stop at Sano's shop to sit and chat and have a drink or two. Mostly they talked about music; the dentist loved classical music in the Western tradition. Sometimes he talked about his wife—it was good to talk about it.
The dentist and his wife had been at home when the earthquake hit, and like most in Kamaishi, they had a plan. They would gather some belongings and meet the other tenants of the building on the third floor. It was a sensible plan and perhaps it would have worked 10 or even five years ago. But the dentist had become old. He had the strength to carry his wife only so far. Three days after the tsunami, their bodies were discovered on the home's second floor.
By the end of the first week, the snow returned. It fell in huge horsey flakes, covering the wreckage piles, muddying the refugee centers, and confounding the work of the rescue teams. The roads that hadn't washed away had become rivers of debris, clogged with houses and dead traffic. Each car was a potential coffin. The new snow covered the windshields like a shroud, making each pried door a potentially grisly surprise.
Every structure needed to be searched for the living and the dead. International forces with their various uniforms and languages roamed the city, accompanied by muddied locals, searching the piles for familiar faces. As they went, they spray-painted circles over each vehicle and home they checked. Personal appeals for the missing were printed on paper and lettered on car hoods. At best, the survivors were hoping for a reunion; at worst, awful certainty.
By the end of the first week, the refugees in the Kamaishi courthouse moved on. Some went down the hill to the Buddhist temple, others were sent to the gymnasium down the road.
In the gym, the days started early. At dawn, a Red Cross nurse in a tracksuit and surgical mask efficiently set two pumpkin-size aluminum tea kettles on the gas rings, fueled by a salvaged propane tank, and placed juice boxes and space heaters by the bedridden. A half hour later, at 6 a.m. sharp, a young male volunteer stood at the front of the basketball court.
From a crank-powered radio and a speaker came a whirring distortion and the distant voice of a morning radio deejay. The refugees sat up in their morning stupor. One after the other, they rose from their squares of bedding and, to the tinkling of an accompanying piano, began to assume a variety of poses, calisthenics known as Radio Jaizu. In the pale morning light, the sight of 50 citizens bending and leaping in unison was strange and inspiring. The first modest attempt at normalcy. Five minutes later, it was over.
The change that came over Kamaishi happened so fast that it did not seem real. Well into the second week, the survivors wandered the streets, looking at familiar corners that were now unrecognizable, trying to reconcile the present with what they knew. Here was a park, a playground, a green space, a lively street on a sunny spring day. Here was a muddy ruin, shattered trees, an uncombed pile of crushed cars, and debris that even weeks later yielded the bodies of the dead. Many talked about the new world as a bad dream from which they could not awaken.
The supply trucks were regular now, traveling roads that had been cleaned to the curb. There was enough food and water, and enough toothbrushes, to go around. The living had places to sleep, there were leftovers at the soup and rice kitchens. Hirota-san woke from his usual bench in the vestibule of the temple, by the entryway, where he could be located if necessary.
The temple was a natural gathering spot. Day or night, a group gathered in folding chairs around a fire grate. Kenji Sano visited twice each day, 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., carrying two empty cooking pots to collect rice for his wife and daughter-in-law. On this day it was the girls from the pachinko parlor up the road who had volunteered to cook, their ready smiles and puffy fur-fringed jackets providing some cheer to the ragged refugees. Afterward, Sano pulled on his boots again, needing to walk.
So many of his friends and neighbors had been taken—not only the dentist and his wife but the woman next door, and on the other side, and at the Chinese restaurant down from that, and across the street. "Pssht! Santa Maria," Sano says, the way the sailors used to. The daughter from the cake shop next door? They found her body mashed into another store two blocks downstream. A hand- letter sign taped to the battered cake shop gate indicates whom to call if the mother's body is found.
Kenji was still concerned about the crew of the Asia Symphony. The ship's crew had perhaps the most surreal tsunami experience, surfing the massive ship through the flooded city. After it had settled in a crushed apartment complex, the Japanese Self-Defense Force had tried coaxing the sailors down with bullhorns, but even in Tagalog, its men could not be persuaded. The traumatized Filipinos wanted no part of Kamaishi, and wouldn't set foot on land that had been a sea only a few days before. They had been safe on the ship; it would be stupid to leave it now. It took a week of cold nights, and the promise of safety, repeated over bullhorns, to change their minds. Slowly, they crawled out of their ruined metal fortress 60 feet in the air and climbed down. It was safe, they were assured: Nothing like this had happened before, and it wouldn't again. Nobody had told them about the aftershocks. Sano heard that the terrified crew fled to the mountains. No one could say for sure what became of them.
Every disaster has its statistics, crude shorthand for the devastation that ends up feeling both exaggerated and insufficient. The dead and missing in Japan have been numbered at approximately 25,000—1,290 in Kamaishi alone. The estimated value of Japan's Mar. 11 material losses range from $235 billion to $309 billion. This figure doesn't take into account ongoing losses to crippled businesses—the fishing industry, for instance, or the chilling effects of a disabled transportation system. Nor does it include the tainting of Japanese brands in the wake of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant meltdown, which may render Kobe beef as appealing as Chernobyl radishes. But Shigeru had his own sense of the costs—the 24 hours spent worrying whether his wife was alive, the three days it took just to clear an entryway to Sano Liquor, the 10 days-plus spent searching in vain for a delivery truck.
When his son Ayumu had left for university early that morning, he was decked out in the coolest duds he could salvage—a puffy down jacket in bubble-gum purple, blue jeans rolled at the cuffs to expose retro Nike (NKE) high-tops, but he wished he weren't showing up in the big city with only a single change of clothes. Shigeru assured him he wouldn't be the only one, and gave his son a tight wad of yen and a briefcase for his studies.
Shigeru was torn between joy for his son and a double sense of loss, and spent a few hours heaving wet planks through the window of the shop. He wasn't sure exactly why, but it was good to have something to do.
When he wasn't at the shop, Shigeru wandered the city or sat with other refugees around the fireside at the temple. They were a funny crew, the group that toasted tsunami-soaked cigarettes and rice balls by the fire grate, making tea all day, and sipping foraged brandy from paper cups at night. This was the self-appointed leadership of central Kamaishi—they cat-called the fire trucks when they drove by with their safety warnings, stood up as one whenever a meal needed to be made or a tent raised. They called themselves a "forward-looking group," if only because they refused to surrender their sense of humor.
The temple survivors considered themselves a lucky bunch; the pension across the street had not been destroyed and had electricity and water. With scavenged propane, they had all the makings of a kitchen, and could provide hot miso and rice twice a day.
"We have passed through the first stage, simple survival," Hirota explained, warming his hands by the fire and sucking on a recently dried cigarette pirated from a vending machine. "Water, food—we have that here now," he said. "In fact, it's a bit of a black mark on this group, and me personally," Hirota added with a smile. "The other refugees think we have it too easy."
After survival came issues of hygiene. The bathhouse was closed, marked with the foreboding red X of a corpse, and water was in short supply. But on the 14th day the foundry floor of Nippon Steel had been turned into a sort of bathhouse, with water heated in the charcoal-powered boilers. Shigeru's wife found bottles of shampoo in the wreckage of her former upstairs, and the Sano family sat amid the great girders and cranes, soaking for the first time in weeks.
Those who wanted new clothes could pick through the donated piles—bags full of dresses, sweaters, and pants, most brand-new and rumored to be purchased by the government with freshly printed money. The women clustered around the bags, digging through them and holding each piece of apparel at arm's length before fingering the label and the price tag.
At first, the notion of starting again was too abstract to contemplate, but after three weeks, with the streets no longer clogged with debris, some local businesses got back to work in earnest. Tako and Junko Kikuchi, a vibrant fiftysomething couple, vowed to reopen their portside noodle factory. Already, the resourceful couple had their floor clean and their udon and soba racks stacked in muddy piles. As soon as they had power back, they said, they'd have ramen to sell.
While the fishing boats in port during the tsunami had been smashed to splinters, those at sea on Mar. 11 were ready to make fresh runs. Much of the local squid, salmon, and a Pacific saury the locals call Sanma was processed in Kamaishi's port and shipped by truck to supermarkets through Japan, by a Kobe-based company called Hanshin Teion. Their operations in Yamada and Toni had been utterly demolished and they would not rebuild there, but the regional manager and a team of 10 helmeted workers were already checking the machines in Kamaishi with plans to resume operations in July.
Some days, Shigeru walked his old delivery route: west down Oodori, a quick left on Aoba, then a right down a smaller side street, and three blocks to Uotei, Kamaishi's fancy seafood restaurant. This had been a fine place, a regular customer of cases of beer and sake, a Kamaishi institution owned by a lifelong friend of his parents and in business as long as the Sanos. Shigeru walked up the steps, through the slot where the great glass doors once parted to reveal the tiled entry where the maître d's once stood. The restaurant used to be busy on a Sunday night, a few hundred laughing at tables and banquettes on the first floor, hundreds more in the rooms upstairs for private occasions. After the tsunami, it was only a blasted foundation. Even the owner had been taken by the water. Shigeru walked the length of the floor, his arms wide like a dancer while his youngest son kicked a fork into a drainage ditch, white with powdered government disinfectant.
In a pile by the back wall, where the kitchen doors had swung, Shigeru found a menu. He held it by the edges, letting Kamaishi Bay seawater run from the plastic casing as he studied this previous reality of meals beyond seaweed and rice and specialty entrées starting at 2,200 yen. He had dined here sometimes; he'd helped develop the cocktail list. It had been fun, but he had no need for souvenirs.
Shigeru placed the menu carefully on the ground and picked up a small propane tank. It was still heavy and would be useful in the community kitchen. He pulled a utility knife from his bag and cut a hose, freeing the tank, before heading into the drinking section of town.
Nonbe Yokocho was the lively night spot of Kamaishi. Here had been Drunkard's Alley, Kamaishi's Bourbon Street, jam-packed with dozens of izakaya joints. These tiny establishments, most big enough to fit only six or seven regulars, filled the formerly raucous downtown heart of the city. The izakaya were where the salarymen sang arm-in-arm through the alleys, the seat of bad behavior, confessions, cheap yakitori, squid, and livers broiled on sticks, broken promises, trysts and first dates, a place of beginnings and ends. Behind his glasses, Shigeru dreamed. He saw these things, saw also the piles, the road blasted of its pavement and lined with lime against the stink of death. The wave was gone, but it was still there.
It started to rain, a hard, needling cold, but Shigeru either didn't notice or didn't care. The nightlife would return. The drinking places and the restaurants, some of the people, and maybe the wave, too. And when they would? Shigeru was not there yet. Instead, he laughed, a noise of polite, stylized pain. Then he tucked his new propane tank under his arm and walked back through the cold rain to his new regulars at the fireside.