Monday, March 10, 2014

3/11 Three Years On Part 1

            I was in Northern Japan on 3/11/11, the day of the Great Northeast Japan Earthquake.  It has gotten easier for me to talk about it since then, because I have told the story so many times, and have been able to come to terms with my experiences, and with the consequences of the earthquake that I did not experience firsthand.  I do not intend to write about radiation and nuclear energy specifically, because enough people continue to write about that topic, and they do not wait for the anniversary to do so.  I will use my soapbox to write about the rest of Tohoku, where is lived and worked for a year, and came to appreciate and love.  I will tell you about Tohoku, because this is the story of the earthquake that is neglected these days.
            Tohoku is a backwater sparsely populated by Japanese standards and with a more depressed economy than the rest of the country.  Much of Tohoku is rural, and suffering from rural flight, as members of my generation and younger leave the countryside in search of better opportunities in the big city, often Tokyo.  3/11 just made all of these problems worse.  The earthquake accelerated rural flight out of Tohoku, because many displaced people have not returned to the region.  People displaced from the Fukushima exclusion zone talk about how they would like to go back, but many people who lived on the northeast coast, where the tsunami struck, are not going back and do not act like they intend to return.  A lot of families and individuals that survived the waves and tremors left Tohoku behind in search of greener pastures.  Without people to build for, much of the infrastructure Tohoku lost will not be replaced.  Dwindling population means that there is no reason to spend money rebuilding lost houses, harbors, rails and buildings. 
Two stories that are of special interest to me have been the fates of Kinkasan and the Shotaro Ishinomori Manga Museum in Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture.  Kinkasan is an island off Miyagi Prefecture with a shrine to Daikokuten, one of the gods of good fortune.  The shrine was first built in the eighth century with money from goldmines in the region, and rebuilt in late nineteenth century when it caught fire.  It is said that if you visit the shrine on Kinkasan three years in a row, you will be blessed with riches.  I only visited once, for the island’s summer festival.  Reports about the fate of Kinkasan have been hard to come by.  I have managed to piece together a small picture: the island was struck by the waves, and some buildings were damaged, but the shrine and inn were not among them.  Besides the shrine, Kinkasan has a lodge for tourists, a souvenir shop and restaurant (all owned and operated by the shrine).  I hope that that will be enough to bring tourists back to Kinkasan for its festivals.   
                                                                         the shrine hall

However, to get there, one must go through Ishinomaki or Onagawa on the mainland, and both cities were hit hard by the tsunami.  I passed through Onagawa on my way to Kinkasan in August, 2010.  August is festival time in Tohoku and I went to see the Dragon Dance on Kinkasan, but I lingered in Onagawa for their Harbor Festival.  I do not know how badly that town was damaged on 3/11, but I fear any tourist catching the ferry there is in for a less inviting sight than I got.  Onagawa was a small town, but they threw a lively festival with lots of food, games, music and a parade of sailboats.
Ishinomaki, a much larger city, lies just south of Onagawa.  It is famous as the birthplace of Ishinomori Shotaro, a TV producer and cartoonist who created Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Cyborg 009 and other popular anime and TV works.  Nowadays the town hosts a cute museum dedicated to Ishinomori’s work.  The Manga Museum was hit by the waves, but stayed standing and has been repaired and reopened.  In August 2010, Ishinomaki was not exactly a bustling town, or lively, but the wharfs and streets were lined with houses and open businesses.  In the days after the earthquake, I heard rumors that the city lost two-thirds of its population.  Thankfully it was just that—rumors. In reality, 3,097 people were confirmed dead with 2,000 reported missing, and 29,000 people left homeless, out of a total population of approximately 100,000 people.  The town had life.  In contrast, I lived in a farming village where half of the buildings on main street were vacant.  I have not been to Ishinomaki since August 2010, but what I have heard makes me quaver to consider it.  The blogger behind Life to Reset reported in October2012 that Ishinomaki has been rebuilding, but half of the buildings she saw were abandoned.  Worse yet, the Miyagi Tourism Board reports that train service into Ishinomaki has not been restored making it harder for tourists to reach the town. 
            Travel to Tohoku can be interesting and fun, but off the beaten path for Western tourists.  I spent a year living in the area, and grew to love it as much as I had loved the area around Kyoto, where I first lived in Japan as a student (and where most of the Western tourists find themselves).  Go in August for festival season and enjoy the party, because small town festivals tend to be less crowded than those in big cities, but no less lively and interesting. 

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