Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Miracle Pine

The Final observations

The computer monitor was as blank as my mind. My thoughts strayed. “Funny, I spend a bundle on word processing software and I can’t find the thread I need. The thread to tie together the sights and sounds I collected during my two trips to Rikuzentakata.” For five nights I wrestled with opening statements. None sprang to mind. Finally, I remembered my former editor’s advice. “Simplicity is the key that opens the door to incisiveness.” Simply stated, during my two trips I was observing a work in progress.  I recorded the construction work taking place in nearly every disaster-stricken sector of Rikuzentakata. The construction work indicated to me the city’s determination to replace the infrastructure and to rebuild a community. I was impressed by the energy I experienced as I watched heavy equipment and workmen  repair roads, elevate the level of the former downtown district, transport tons of earth, build high schools and other public buildings, and raise new neighborhoods of temporary and permanent housing. My observations combined with the information from the Rikuzentakata Facebook and other sources indicated that the rebuilding is necessary before people can return to their normal patterns of life. As Amya Miller stated in a March 7, 2015 Japan Times article, “Rikuzentakata isn’t just rebuilding in terms of infrastructure. It is aiming to become a new kind of inclusive and open community that welcomes people from all walks of life, including single parents, foreign nationals and those with handicaps. Our message is simple: Come and visit and get to know us.” http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2015/03/07/travel/rikuzentakata-looks-future-new-tourism-ventures/#.VR5Tuly-38s Simply stated, the city officials and residents of Rikuzentakata need to face challenges posed by the demographics. One of the most obvious challenges struck me as I was shopping in the EON Supermarket near Yonesaki Post Office. The supermarket was about a thirty minute walk from the Capital Hotel 1000 where I was staying. In Yokohama, I take the bus to the EON Supermarket near Higashi Kanagawa JR Station. In the supermarket, I am often assaulted by the screams and cries of tiny children in the aisles. My septuagenarian ears are particularly sensitive to children’s squeals. In Rikuzentakata, I could have called a taxi, but I preferred to walk along the unpaved roads among the rice fields to the store. In the Rikuzentakata supermarket, I was struck by the sound of cash registers, people talking to clerks, and announcements of sales items over the PA system. But no sounds of bawling children. I did see two or three mothers with babies wrapped under their coats and pushing strollers with sleeping toddlers. But they were the exceptions. Elderly people fingered the vegetables and squinted at the ingredients of packaged foods. The employees appeared middle-aged in their thirties and forties — similar in age to those working in the Yokohama supermarket. The observation reminded me of the demographic statistics about Rikuzentakata. Over one-third of the population of nearly 20,000 is 65 or over. The statistics mirrors population trends nationwide. Japan’s population pyramid is progressively teetering on a pivotal point. The population of those 65 and over overshadows that of 14 and under. In rural communities, the problem is acute. Young people leave for the cities to attend universities, or to explore greater opportunities for employment than what they can find in their hometowns. In the primary industries, children leave farms and fishing boats to find work more rewarding financially and less arduous. After the tsunami ravaged the city, Rikuzentakata witnessed an exodus of residents to other locations. Rikuzentakata Population The challenge facing Rikuzentakata is two-fold:  (1) how to attract young people to return from the cities and (2) how to entice people who desire to live away from the hustle and bustle of the cities and to relocate to their coastal city. In his book, Mayor Futoshi Toba wrote that few people ever heard of Rikuzentakata before March 11, 2011. Immediately after March 11, the media focused on the damage, the plight of the survivors, and debris clean up. The mayor pushed forward the plan to create a monument of the Miracle Pine paid by special donations separate from the money specified for the rebuilding of the city. Today, the Miracle Pine has become a tourist attraction. An attraction that creates a positive image — a symbol of recovery and hope for the future. Among the other steps the mayor, vice mayor and other Rikuzentakata residents have taken to demonstrate a dynamic and forward looking posture  include the Facebook postings and the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project. The purpose of the project, as reported in the same March 7, 2015 Japan Times article, is to create a unique tourism venture “with the aim of letting visitors and residents interact  in a way that brings tangible benefits to both sides. The Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project offers visitors the opportunity to work alongside local farmers, fishermen or craftspeople to get a taste of their daily activities. . . ‘Marugoto’ roughly equates with ‘entire’ or ‘whole’ in English, conveying the hope that participants in the program will get to know Rikuzentakata on a deeper level.” (Contact the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project by calling 0192-22-7410 or emailing info@marugoto-rikuzentakata.com English or Japanese) Simply stated, Rikuzentakata must find answers to questions plaguing residents whose businesses and residences remain in limbo. If I were a shopkeeper or homeowner, I might ask questions that include the following.

  1. As the level of the downtown land area elevates, the surface areas on top is reduced. How much smaller will my property become? Will I receive compensation for the loss of property?
  2. The government will pay for half of the cost of reopening my business. At my age, should I take out a loan to pay for the other half?
  3. And even if I take out the loan and reopen the business, considering the demographics will there be enough customers to cover the overhead costs?
  4. When will I be able to move into a house of my own again?

I could write more questions, but I suppose the residents of Rikuzentakata have asked them in public meetings and in conferences with city planners. Simply stated, Rikuzentaka holds a lot of attraction for me as an individual. I could write an op-ed piece about the tug of war between the localities in the Tohoku Region and the central government in Tokyo for funds. And I could ruminate about the resources diverted from the Tohoku recovery projects to the construction of facilities in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But those are issues I have no control over. I do have control, however, over how I will contribute in a small way to Rikuzentakata’s recovery. Now what was that email address again? Ah, here it is: info@marugoto-rikuzentakata.com https://vimeo.com/124135739

The End of Observations

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Rikuzentakata Trip Diary

Monday, December 1 The first leg of the trip Yokohama: Woke up at 5:25 a.m. before the winter sun rose above the high-rise apartment buildings. I wanted to make sure I had packed everything I thought I would need for my trip to Rikuzentakata. I rechecked the rucksack I filled with cameras and equipment. Two days earlier, I shipped a tripod and a suitcase by delivery service to the Capital Hotel 1000. I looked one more time through my briefcase to assure myself I did indeed pack the power cord for the computer and the USB adapters for my iPhone and microphones.

7:30: I was on the street leading to Yokohama Station. A nervous Nelly whenever I travel I wanted to make sure I was on the Tohoku Joetsu Shinkansen to Ichinoseki at exactly 9:40 a.m. The trains to Tokyo during the commute hours are generally reliable. However, an unexpected event might take place and the trains are thrown off schedule. Someone falls from  a train platform. A signal malfunctions. A train door gets stuck and won’t close. No worry, I thought. I was early enough to run through the surging crowds in Tokyo Station to connect to my train.

7:45: On the crowded Keihin Tohoku Line to Tokyo Station, I stood with the rucksack between my lower legs. The train sped toward Tokyo and made the scheduled stops without incident. I smiled at my reflection in the train window. The reflected image showed a man in control. A man who planned a trip with the forethought and precision of a Julius Caesar.

Kermit Selfie

The first feeble attempt at taking a selfie. On the way to Ichinoseki.

At Kamata Station the train seemed to be taking an inordinately long time to start-up again. Then the conductor made an announcement I dreaded.  “The train ahead is stopped. A passenger is not feeling well. There will be a short delay.” Suddenly, the image in the train window took on the contours of a man consumed by doubt and nagged by recriminations. “I should have left at 6:30!”

Within five minutes, however, the train started off  and I breathed a little easier. By 8:15 the train arrived at Tokyo Station. I pushed my way through the flow of passengers toward the Shinkansen waiting area. On the way, I stopped by a coffee shop for a small coffee and a sandwich. The cashier turned out to be a former student of mine at Meiji University.  When I taught her she was a first-year student. She told me she would graduate next April and start work as a full-time employee at a company.  She was looking forward to working and becoming a responsible member of society. “I’m a little nervous,” she confessed. Nervous? I was a little nervous as well. I was heading to the town of hope and recovery.  What would I discover there?

The second leg of the trip Ichinoseki Station 12:10: The Yamabiko 0045 arrived at Ichinoseki Station on schedule.  A bracing breeze slapped against me as I stepped onto the train station platform. The weather was decidedly chillier here than in Yokohama. Outside the West exit, I stopped at the tourist information window and asked the woman at the counter where the bus for Rikuzentakata stopped. “Bus Stop 5,” she said in cheerful Japanese. “How much does the bus ride cost?” I asked as a follow-up question. “¥1600.” I thanked her and started to walk away when she asked me where I came from.  I never know how to respond to this question. Having lived in Yokohama for more than half my lifetime, I consider Yokohama my home. For simplicity sake I said, “From the USA. California.”  She smiled and picked out two picture postcards showing scenes of Tohoku forests ablaze with autumnal colors. “Here. Take these postcards for your family.”

12:35: I climbed aboard the nearly empty bus behind an elderly woman who scaled the bus steps much like a mountaineer who sought footing on a steep cliff. Finally, she reached the top and hobbled to a front seat. Toward the middle of the bus, I plopped my rucksack on the window seat and dropped my body on the aisle seat.

Rikuzentakata City Hall

Rikuzentakata City Hall on a Rainy Monday in December

14:25: The bus stopped at the Rikuzentakata City Office and I got off.  Rain pelted me with thick drops as I stood facing the road and surveyed the area. The bus might as well  have dropped me off on the planet Mars.  Internet information indicated that the Capital Hotel 1000 was a mere 40 minute walk from the city office. But in which direction? Across the street, I spied a 7/11 Convenience Shop. Ah, there I could get directions. Inside, I grabbed a bottle of sparkling water from the refrigerator and brought it to the cashier. The cashier was a young attractive woman in her early twenties. “How do I get to the Capital Hotel 1000? I’m walking.” She replied the hotel was too far to walk. “Shall I call you a taxi?”


Within five minutes, the taxi pulled up in front of the shop. The taxi door opened and I threw my rucksack on the backseat and crawled inside. “Be careful,” the driver said. She gave me a solicitous smile and closed the taxi door. She was a woman perhaps in her late thirties or early forties with an infectious smile. I felt my face forming a smile. “Where you from?” This time I replied, “Yokohama.” “Ah, gokuroosama! Thanks for your efforts (for coming all that way to this town).” I hardly expected that response, but it did relax me and I took in a deep breath. This was going to be a pleasant trip.

On the way to the hotel, she gave me a run down on the conveyor belt I could see in the gloomy Sign Indicating Target Heightgrey distance. “It carries dirt from a mountain,” she explained as though she were a tour guide. “The city wants to raise the level of the land to the level of that red mark.” She pointed to a sign against a hillside that had a thick red horizontal line drawn on it. “There’s the hotel up there.” The hotel stood atop a hill. “It used to be by the bay. They rebuilt it up there and it opened last year in November.” She turned left onto a muddy road but stopped short. A puddle filled the width of the road and stretched for nearly two car lengths. “Doesn’t look good,” she said.  She shut down the meter and said, “I’ll have to take a detour. You won’t have to pay the extra fare.”

15:05: We arrived at the hotel front entrance. The driver turned back and accepted the fare. “You better take it easy today,” she said and handed me a card with the name and contact information of the taxi company. “You can also arrange for tours.”

At the front desk, the desk clerk, a man with balding hair and earnest brown eyes framed by glasses, took pains to explain in detail about the services the hotel offered. Then he lifted my rucksack and guided me to my room.  After giving me a brief orientation about meals and bath times, he left and I plopped down on one of the beds. The solicitous taxi driver was right. I needed to take it easy. I unpacked and got ready to soak in the big bath on the first floor.

7:00:  The hotel had a procedure for serving guests dinner.  The front desk clerk asked me what time I would like to eat dinner. I told him 7 p.m. At the appointed time I was still in my room working getting my camera equipment and computer set up for the following day. Time slipped by and I hadn’t noticed it was pushing 7:15. The front desk clerk called me and reminded me of the dinner time.

7:20: The dining room resembled more a university cafeteria with its long tables arranged in rows. Two young servers waited at the door. One accepted my dinner chit and guided me to my seat. She was a young woman in her mid-twenties and spoke polite Japanese.  The salad had been placed on the table in anticipation of my arrival. I sat down and within moments the second server set down a plate of tempura and the side dishes.  I was a little surprised to discover that dinner was a set menu.  A little disconcerted but hungry,  I eagerly picked up my chop sticks and plucked a prawn from the serving dish. Side dishes included rice, pickles, soup, sashimi, seaweed and salad. A welcome meal after a day of traveling on nothing but snacks for meals during the four-hour sojourn from Yokohama.

9:30: Exhausted, I slipped under the covers of the bed and fell fast asleep.

Tuesday, December 2 6:20: Oh, no! I looked out the window of my room. The skies were grey, fog shrouded the mountain tops, and dark rain clouds hung over Hirota Bay.  I was not going to allow a little rain to keep me indoors. The plan for the day was to walk to the location of the Miracle Pine Tree. When I first decided to travel to Rikuzentakata, I emailed Amya Miller, Director of Global Public Relations, City of Rikuzentakata. “Rent a car,” she advised, “it’s hard to get around otherwise.” I smiled when I read her reply. I hadn’t driven a car in nearly thirty years. My California Driver’s License lapsed in 2007. In Yokohama, I walk or take advantage of public transportation. For me owning a car would only mean additional headaches — renting a parking space, insurance, the annual car inspections and getting stuck in traffic jams.  No, I never really had a need for a car. To compensate I enjoy hiking and walking long distances — leisure activities I regularly do during the weekends come rain or shine. So when I looked out the window on that morning of December 2, I was thankful I had packed my poncho, warm socks and waterproofed walking shoes.

7:00: Breakfast. A set Japanese style breakfast served in a lacquered box. Inside, a piece of fish, seaweed, vegetables and Japanese pickles. I could add bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs from among the other selections of food from the buffet table at one end of the dining room.  I loaded up with food to fuel my body for the long walk ahead of me to the Miracle Pine.

8:30: With the tourist map I picked up from the front desk, I headed out of the hotel into the cold, grey day. Outside on the hotel grounds, I had an unobstructed view all the way past Hirota Bay to the horizon.  An unaccustomed sight for my urbanized eyes. With my hands, I formed a rectangular camera lens and for 180º I panned from left to right. The land toward the bay was practically flat all the way from the direction of Yonegasaki Promontory to the direction of Takata Matsubara Park where the Miracle Pine was located. I learned later the land was below sea level. No wonder the tsunami surged inland with the destructive force of an avenging angel. On some areas huge mounds of earth formed flat-topped hills. The width and length of just one mound could fill the entire square area of my neighborhood in Yokohama.

In its March 25, 2014 Internet news item,  the Japan Daily News reported that, “. . . the local government plans to raise the area by 11 meters. A nearby hill will be used for its soil, which will then be transported to the low-lying areas with the use of a conveyor belt. The project is estimated to need 7.85 million cubic meters before its completion, as landfill from the shaved hill will make up 80 percent of the required soil.”

8:45: I started walking down the paved road from the hotel to the muddy roads below. Gingerly I stepped around puddles and stayed on the edge of the roads. Occasionally, a car or truck passed by. As I walked I could see bulldozers and excavators here and there on muddy fields and atop the mounds of earth. I saw only a few workers  on the empty fields. None were operating the heavy equipment at that time. Perhaps, the rain had forced construction to come to a stop until the inundated fields could be drained.

On the Higashi Hama Highway I was relieved to see a path set off by a barrier. As I walked west toward the Miracle Pine, I stopped to take closeup photos of the mounds of earth I observed from the hotel. Streams of rain water had formed narrow gullies on the steep sides. The formation of the mounds reminded me of  the first level of a Babylonian ziggurat.

Road to Miracle Pine

The road leading to the Miracle Pine.

9:40: At last a road sign indicating I was approaching the entrance to the Miracle Pine Memorial! The road leading to the Miracle Pine paralleled the conveyor belt. As I walked along the road, I  drew nearer to the giant complex of conveyor belts. They loomed larger and larger overhead. Indeed, looking up I felt dwarfed in the presence of a manmade robotic behemoth.  The pillars that support the belt reaches 42 meters in height. The conveyor belt extends 3 kilometres in length and moves 100 cubic meters of dirt per minute.

9:50:  I continued walking along the path leading to the Miracle Pine Memorial. The closer to the memorial I approached,  the more I experienced a strange sensation. Visual images of the tsunami crashing over the Takata Matsubara, a two kilometer long shoreline with approximately  70,000 pine trees, flashed through my mind.  The tsunami uprooted the trees leaving in its wake one solitary pine tree. The tree became known as The Miracle Pine Tree. The tree, with its roots saturated with salt water, eventually died. Rikuzentakata’s mayor Futoshi Toba made the decision to preserve the tree and to create a Miracle Pine Memorial. In September 2011 the tree was cut down and its trunk was cut into three sections and hauled to a factory where it was split into nine more pieces. The trunk pieces were hollowed out, given an anti-decay treatment and a carbon spine was fitted in the hollowed out spaces. The branches and leaves were replicated in plastic. The price tag for the restoration totalled ¥150 million. Mayor Toba faced a storm of criticism for his decision. “That money could have been used to aid survivors and victims of the disaster!”  “I supported your town with donations. But no longer. How can you spend money on a dead tree when so many people live in temporary housing?” “Using tax money to pay for the restoration is unethical.”

410010 Book Cover

A book in which Mayor Futoshi Toba expresses his feelings and thoughts about the recovery of Rikuzentakata.

The mayor in his book がんばっぺしぺしペシペシ  (which I loosely translated as Hold On! Endure! Work Hard for Recovery!)  wrote that the city did not make use of  the tax money or of the donations targeted for the restoration of the city and for the assistance of the survivors.  Money for the pine tree restoration came from a fund-raising campaign specifically designated for the restoration of The Miracle Pine.

He had two primary reasons for preserving the more than two century old tree. First, the restoration would give the residents of Rikuzentakata encouragement in their efforts to rebuild the city. At the same time, the Miracle Pine would give the tiny town of Rikuzentakata a name recognized throughout Japan and in the world. Second, the restoration would showcase Japan’s technical skills of restoring a dead tree into a living memorial. As far as the mayor knew, this process had never been done anywhere in the world — certainly never in Japan.

Yes, the cost was high and the donations probably could have been used to defray the costs of reconstruction and rehabilitation. However, as I stood under the tree and looked up at the branches and leaves, a strange sensation came over me. The tree for me served as a two-fold reminder: defiance in the face of the destructive power of nature and the determination to overcome adversity.

The tsunami crashed over the seawalls; black seawater two to three stories high destroyed homes, businesses and farmland. The backwash dragged debris and the bodies of wives, husbands, children, friends and relatives out to a watery grave. Yet one solitary tree survived nature’s onslaught. The two-story building behind the tree had blunted the tsunami’s impact but could not prevent seawater from surrounding the tree and inundating its roots. In the backwash, debris no doubt bumped against the tree, but the tree in stubborn defiance remained rooted in place.

The determination to overcome adversity. The survivors of Rikuzentakata have endured the horror of the tsunami and have been coping with the trauma of the loss of human life and property. For many, the tree serves as an emotional symbol: a memorial in remembrance of the souls of those who perished on that fateful day in March 2011. It also provides them with a symbol of the hope for recovery, of the determination to work hard for rebuilding their lives, and of the desire to lay new foundations for their children.

The rumbling sound of the conveyor belt distracted me from my thoughts. I turned my gaze from the tree branches and leaves toward the robotic behemoth. Another fitting symbol of the resiliency of the human spirit to overcome grief and to move forward.

71008 Conveyor and Tree

(To be continued)