Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Observation  and More Observations

Saturday, December 6 0830: I waited outside the hotel for my taxi to take me to the bus stop near the Rikuzentakata City Office for the first leg of my trip back to Yokohama. I took a final few photos of the view of Hirota Bay and the empty landscape below.

A middle-aged woman who was part of a tour group that had checked in the night before was standing next to me. “Looking cleaner,” she remarked in English. “Before the debris was piled up high everywhere you could see. And a lot of buildings remained half destroyed. A sad sight. When I first came, I cried. A lot of businesses and homes were destroyed. And a lot of people were killed.”

She lived in Tokyo and, like many Japanese, wondered how she could do her part in contributing to the recovery of the disaster areas. She said she had no particular skills. “I like to travel. I wanted to see with my own eyes the destruction. As a tourist I thought I could contribute something.”

Her story encapsulated one of the motivations for my trip to Rikuzentakata. I, too,  wanted to see ‘with my own eyes.’

The Chrysalis


In the first chapter of his book, Muneyuki Nakazawa, the violin maker who crafted two violins from the pine tree debris, described incidents from his early childhood growing up in a forest in the mountains in Hyogo Prefecture. His father played a profound role in his life and gave him a deep appreciation of  the natural environment in which they lived. One day his father told him about caterpillars. They were standing in a cabbage patch and his father held up a leaf filled with holes  — the result of caterpillars feasting on the cruciferous vegetable.

“The caterpillar is a remarkable insect,” his father explained. “When it is ready to be transformed into a butterfly, it creates a chrysalis. From the outside, it looks as if nothing is happening. In reality a transformation is taking place. From the chrysalis, a butterfly will emerge.”

I arrived in Rikuzentakata at a time while it is still undergoing a transformation.On December 1, 2014,  I stepped off at the bus stop near the Rikuzentakata City Offices in the rain. I looked around and saw the temporary structure the offices were housed in and then across the street at the Seven Eleven Convenience Store in what seemed like a recently constructed building.

If I had relied on  my creative faculties to come up with an opening sentence in a fictional story, I might have dredged up a statement out of a sci-fi B-movie script.

“Charles Borromeo stepped off the bus into the interior of the chrysalis.”


Rikuzentakata Trek Redux

 On March 9, 2015, three months after my first trip to Rikuzentakata, I stepped off the bus at the Rikuzentakata City Office bus stop — again in the rain. But this time I sensed something different — something exciting — something dynamic. Across the street behind the fire department I saw two new buildings. I made a note to learn more about them later. First, I needed to pick up odds and ends at the store before asking the clerk to call a taxi. Inside the store, I was surprised by the number of customers. On my first trip I was the only customer.

During the taxi ride to the hotel, I observed the progress the construction workers were making in elevating the land by 11 meters and landscaping the surface and sides to prevent erosion: their work no doubt complicated by the heavy rainfall and the blustery wind.

In the hotel, I was surprised to see the lobby filled with people. At every table people sat drinking coffee and seemed rapt in conversations.  One woman at a corner table was pounding the keys of her laptop with inspired fingers.

In my hotel room, I shed my clothes, changed into the pyjamas provided in each room, and practically sprinted to the hotel’s spa. Ah, the spa. The hot shower. The soak in the hot tub. And yes, even the looped Carpenter tunes were music to my ear. Somehow I felt as if I was back visiting a good friend.  I sang along with the Carpenter’s tune : “We’ve only just begun . . .”


Morning Walk

I decided to stay indoors on the first night. The rain and the blustery wind dampened my spirit to get out and explore. A good decision. That night NHK aired a documentary about Rikuzentakata. The program deepened my understanding of what I have been observing during my walks around the different districts of the city.

03/10 AM: After a solid breakfast, I decided to take a walk up the hill toward the Sports Dome in the Takata Machi section of Rikuzentakata. The rain had transformed rice fields into lakes, and the wind blew angrily through tree branches.

The fields inundated by heavy rain.

The fields inundated by heavy rain.

During my walk I came across houses with a variety of architectural styles.

The weather was getting chillier, so I decided to head back to the hotel. On the way, I spotted an unusual building that stood out from the earthen colors of rice fields and muddy roads. The building turned out to be a coffee shop and restaurant. I stopped in for a coffee and sat by the wood fire stove.  A relaxing atmosphere and I made up my mind to return here for my mid-morning coffee in the following days. The name of the coffee shop is Punenuma. http://www.ne.jp/asahi/rikutaka/puneuma/

03/10 PM: Around 1:15 I took a taxi from the hotel to the NOKA Cafe Frying Pan for lunch. On the way, I asked the driver, a young man with an easy-going personality, questions about the buildings I saw as we drove along the road.I pointed to the old apartment building I could see from the hotel.

He explained the height of the tsunami reached the top of the building and continued inland until it started to lose its forward momentum around the vicinity where the EON Supermarket is located, which is approximately 3 or 4 kilometres from the sea.

Later in the afternoon on my way back to the hotel, I climbed up a hill and took photos of the land below. No wonder the tsunami could push inland with such unobstructed force. The land was practically level with the sea.

The land and sea seem to form one level lowland.

The land and sea seem to form one level lowland.

To be continued — March 11, 2015 at 2:48 in the afternoon

One thought on “Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

  1. I will be in Rikuzentakata for just 8 or so hours next Monday for a Public Forum event as part of the World Disaster Risk Reduction conference being held in Sendai. The Rikuzentakata event will focus on building an inclusive community, focussing on aged and people with disability.

    I might head to the little cafe you mentioned! I also intend to seek out any store selling local craft or other products, so I can make a small contribution to restoring ‘the new normal’.


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