Viewing the Tsunami’s Tragic Aftermath (2)

Freelance writer Hirose Tatsuya and photographer Kuyama Shiromasa continue their journey south through the stricken Tōhoku region. As they make their way down the shattered coast they come to realize that the damage suffered by the communities and landscapes of this part of Japan is far from uniform.

Freelance writer Hirose Tatsuya and photographer Kuyama Shiromasa continue their journey south through the stricken Tōhoku region. As they make their way down the shattered coast they come to realize that the damage suffered by the communities and landscapes of this part of Japan is far from uniform.

The city of Kesennuma used to be a beautiful place. A 10-minute ferry ride from the city center took you to the island of Ōshima, with its beaches of fine sand that squeaked beneath your feet. The city was particularly famous for its exquisite shark’s fin cuisine, but the city’s restaurants served up a whole array of creative dishes at wallet-friendly prices.

Now, this beautiful city lies buried under a mountain of charred rubble. The land itself appeared to have sunk during the earthquake: the closer I got to the shore, the stronger the stench of the sea became. Pools of stagnant seawater were everywhere. We headed south through the city, sharing the road with Self-Defense Forces vehicles that seemed to guide us through the wreckage. No street signs survived the devastation, of course, and the roads we took were often little more than barely passable clearings in the rubble that could be covered up by an aftershock at any time. A police officer we asked about road conditions snapped back at us impatiently: “Look, I have no idea what the road conditions are like in there. If you’re so set on going, just go!”

Kuyama Shiromasa, the photographer accompanying me, was stunned by what we were seeing. “I’ve never been in a disaster zone like this,” he kept muttering to himself. “No order. No restrictions.” Even so, this urban zone was far from the worst of the disaster-stricken areas. Here, at least a few neighborhoods had been indicated as no-go zones. In the countryside, where even before March 11 the unpaved roads were barely wide enough for a single car to pass, there was almost no guidance at all.

Based on map created by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.

Southward on the “Lifeline Roads”

Even local residents had lost their sense of the road network. An elderly couple in a small truck pleaded with us: “We’re trying to get to [a location in town]. Can you show us how to get there?” It was heartbreaking to see the wretched state these people were in. All the local knowledge, geographic awareness, and confidence they had built up over a lifetime in this community had been washed away in an instant on March 11.

Immediately after the quake, the city’s road network was in utter ruins. Streets shattered by the shaking were hammered by the tsunami and the flood of buildings, ships, and other supposedly immovable objects that followed. The roads were scraped from their very foundations. By late April, though, when we arrived, most of the wreckage had been cleared. Places where the roads had collapsed had been shored up with dirt and bridges washed away in the waves had been replaced with temporary spans. For the people of Kesennuma, these makeshift roads were literally lifelines.

We headed south as far as the Tokura district in the town of Minami Sanriku, where National Route 45 leaves the coast and heads inland. There we bid farewell to the old couple and headed southeast along the coastal road, National Route 398. Along this stretch of the coast the road is relatively high up on the seaside hills, and we could see little tsunami damage. But the road surface bore the scars of the quake: cracks tracing the centerline between lanes, potholes, and jarring vertical displacements.

We made it as far as the Shin Kitakami Bridge, which spans the Kitakami River near where it empties into the sea. The bridge was in no shape to be crossed, though, having lost many of its piers and crossbeams. At the southeast end of the bridge lies Ōkawa Elementary, the Ishinomaki municipal school where many children lost their lives in the disaster. It was as though time had stood still. We could still make out clear signs of the frenzied search that had taken place for survivors—another bleak reminder of the terrible tragedy that had befallen this place.

We decided to head upstream to the Iinokawa Bridge, the next chance to ford the river, and then return downstream to Route 398. The hastily constructed temporary roads that ran along and on top of the riverside dyke were little more than a series of metal plates thrown onto the ground. It looked as though the slightest rain might be enough to submerge everything again.

Based on map created by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.

Overwhelming Damage

At last we crossed the river and entered the city of Ishinomaki. We were confronted with dust, with rubble, with the stench of rotting things. The sheer size of the objects that had been shattered by the quake and waves bore testament to the scale of the blow dealt to the region. The number of relief vehicles and people involved in recovery efforts was overpowering. A soccer field on the outskirts of town had been turned into a burial ground for the victims of March 11, its turf stripped away and orderly rows of rectangular holes just big enough for caskets dug into its soil. Some of the graves were already covered with earth and flowers, but many more remained open, awaiting their coffins. It was unbearable to see.

South of Ishinomaki, the terrain of the coastline gradually changes, with broad open plains taking the place of the rugged cliffs and inlets of the north. As our field of view opened up, we got a clearer look at the damage the waves had caused as they surged inland. Of all the places we had passed through on our journey here from Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, no two towns or roads had been affected in exactly the same way. Every time we moved, the scenery changed and the damage was slightly different. The pain and suffering of the people who live here must vary from person to person in the same way, I thought.

Based on map created by the Geospatial Information Authority of Japan.

A Scenic Town Facing New Problems

Heading southwest from Ishinomaki we came to Matsushima. The town had been protected from the tsunami to some extent by the famous islands at the mouth of its bay. The damage here seemed somewhat less than what we had witnessed in other places along the coast. The residents were hard at work getting their shopping districts up and running and relaunching the tourist ferries that take visitors out to see the beautiful islands of Matsushima—one of the celebrated “three views of Japan.” The sight of these people striving to rebuild regular lives and the unchanged beauty of the pine-covered islands provided a welcome respite from the bleak vistas we had seen so far.

But the people here were voicing worries we had not heard until now. As one tourist operator put it: “After the nuclear disaster, are people down south really going to travel through Fukushima to reach us here?” Here was a new form of anguish for the residents of Tōhoku to grapple with. (Written on May 9, 2011)

In This Series
250km Journey Across Tōhoku—From Sanriku to Minamisōma
Viewing the Tsunami’s Tragic Aftermath (2)
Viewing the Tsunami’s Tragic Aftermath (1)

Hirose Tatsuya

Born in Kumamoto Prefecture in 1954. Has worked as a freelance editor since his time as an undergraduate at Asia University, writing for a wide range of publications on motorcycles and automobiles, outdoor activities, and travel. Also has experience in competitive racing, having entered such events as the Baja 1000 in Mexico and Rally Mongolia. Published works include Bōken Nippon (Adventure Japan) and Zekkei Nihon no tabi (Journeys Through Scenic Japan).