Back on the road, when we go five minutes without seeing another car in either direction of the four-lane expressway. We leave the toll road and join more winding roads. They are free but single lane which means, this far from Tokyo, getting stuck behind white mini-pickups.
It’s around 4pm when we hit the first traffic lights of Kesennuma. Four policemen in uniform are by the side of the road, as a wiry man in a scruffy baseball cap is being made to walk in a straight line by an officer with a clipboard. A white pick-up is at an odd angle on the pavement.
It’s a beautiful sunny day and we come down through a winding road, with small-town shops on either side. It could have been Eureka Springs in the Ozarks but for the faded painted kanji of the signs. It’s not exactly a thriving metropolis, but not dead either.
We have a satellite navigator and are confident our lady of the dashboard who speaks unfailingly polite Japanese will not lead us astray. The route she picks to the Kesennuma Plaza Hotel is the most direct, on the screen, at least, but our car is seven years old and so much can change in that time.
As we come out of the last of the foothills and glimpse the ocean, our car tells us to turn right at the ENEOS petrol station. There is no petrol station. In fact there is no right. The road just continues through an open plain of brown earth on either side of a gravel road.
For the next five minutes she keeps telling us to turn right or left at the next traffic light or convenience store, but in front of us is just gravel.
That’s how we know the tsunami came through here. The densely packed shitamachi old town that the polite woman’s voice is dutifully guiding us through is no longer outside our windows.
Hiroki graduated from Kesennuma High School three years ago. He has a good idea of where the Plaza Hotel is. We follow the new road layout with our eyes. The satnav picks out a Shell petrol station that we were to turn left at and it actually is still there. But the forecourt is boarded up. It has the same brown film of dirt that is covering the tsunami zone.
The hotel is 100 metres up on the bluff overlooking a cove. From the hotel lobby you can look out the floor-to-ceiling windows and watch life all along the Kesennuma coastline, a channel leading to Oshima island and to the Pacific beyond.
Directly below us is the street through the tsunami zone. Parallel to that a dozen fishing trawlers are tethered motionless to the quayside. We had driven in right next to the ocean. In the setting March sun, the ocean glistens a golden brown.
“See that Shell petrol station? On March 11th, the tsunami waters were up to its roof,” says the hotel receptionist, lowering his bifocals on his nose.
“But it could have been worse. Oshima out there prevented the tsunami from being even more deadly.”
He points to the left and the rows of bayside buildings that in any other locale would be worth a small fortune for their views.
“A lot of the houses over here were badly damaged but they were not swept away, they could be repaired. But not so over there.”
He points to the right and further along the quay from where we had driven in. On the wall of the hotel lobby are aerial photos taken in the days after the tsunami. You can make out the hotel undamaged on the bluff, but all around, anything on lower ground, perhaps a third of the city of Kesennuma, is destroyed. I think of military aerial reconnaissance photos from the war after a bombing run.
Did he personally suffer in the tsunami?
“My job disappeared with the tsunami. That’s a tough thing to deal with for a guy like me. I never thought I’d have to worry about finding a new job in my 40s, but things are OK now. I have this job. I’m happy.”
A white sign on the door of the room next to ours proclaims “Tsunami Media Centre.” In the three months after the tsunami the hotel was home to emergency personnel and the media. Now, apart from this sign, the hotel resembles others I’ve stayed at in Japan, slightly too grand for the number of guests, with a stale air of tobacco in the lobby.
|The preceding was an excerpt from Children of the Tsunami: A road trip through post-disaster Japan in words and sketches by Patrick Sherriff. It's available as an ebook for $0.99 or an oversize paperback at $6.99 from all Amazon sites including here at Amazon.com. Amazon.co.jp and Amazon.co.uk, or get the paperback directly from CreateSpace.|