Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

03/11 — A Day of Remembering and Reflection

The Conveyor Belt

The wind was bitingly cold as I stepped into the taxi for the ride to the entrance to the Miracle Pine Ippon Matsu. Had it been a normal day, I would have stayed inside my hotel room with the heater set at a comfortable 26 degree C. But today was no ordinary day. At exactly 2:48 in the afternoon on this date in March 2011,  the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami destroyed wide swaths of the Tohoku Region of Japan.

The conveyor belt loomed large overhead as I walked toward the Miracle Pine. The belt stretches for 3 kilometres in length from a nearby mountain to its dumping location. The pillars at their highest reach 42 meters in height. The belt transports enough earth each hour from a nearby mountain to  fill 600 ten-ton dump trucks. The earth is being used to raise the level of the former downtown commercial and residential areas by 11 meters. The extra 11 meters in height could minimize the damage to lives and property in the event of another major tsunami.

On the way I climbed the steps to the observation platform built on an elevated mound overlooking the land and coastline undergoing construction. From that height I was able to capture a panoramic view of the conveyor belt. An engineering wonder of mammoth proportions and a testament to the commitment to rebuild.

The Miracle Pine

This was my second trip to the Miracle Pine Ippon Matsu. This time the sun came out from behind the clouds and I was able to shot some clear shots of the tree and its surrounding areas. Media people at first outnumbered the people who came to pay their respects or to take pictures of the tree. Some prayed in front of the tree. I experienced a strange sensation as I heard the warning siren sounding in the distance. It was barely audible as gusts of cold wind blew intermittently forcing me to pull my knit hat tighter over my ears.For one minute people bowed their heads in silent prayer. Out of respect, I stopped taking photos.  Even the workmen on the conveyor belt switched off its motor. A solemn one minute.


The following day while I was waiting for my room to be cleaned, I sat in the hotel lobby at a table with the laptop in front of me. For the longest time, I thought about the events of yesterday. I struggled to put them into words. Sitting at tables nearby was a group of two men and two women guests. I assumed they worked for a news media organization. One man had set down a large professional video camera on the floor next to him.  Yesterday, I observed large numbers of camera operators and news reporters. I envied them for the equipment they were using to capture the news event at 2:48 p.m.

So many cameras and so many media people clustered in groups in different locations — an unusual high level of coverage, I thought, for an event that took no longer than one minute.

Today, the event has become yesterday’s news. A van drove up to the entrance to the hotel. The group hefted their bags and camera and went outside. I watched as they loaded their baggage and equipment and then climbed inside. The van drove off — perhaps taking them to their next assignment.

From the hotel lobby window, I could see the conveyor belt and the dump trucks driving along the main roads.   Construction was proceeding as scheduled. And no doubt many Rikuzentakata residents had woken up earlier in the morning to face yet another day of uncertainty.

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

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Rikuzentakata Diary — Continued Day 4

0800: I was eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant when a Japanese couple stopped to talk on their way out.  The wife commented that I handled the chopsticks with dexterity. At which point a morsel of tofu slipped from the chopsticks’ iron grip. “Only if the food is not slippery,” I joked in embarrassment. They told me they had driven up from Saitama Prefecture. “Our third trip,” the wife said. “A lot of changes. You should have seen it when they were clearing away the debris.” “Did you come here shortly after the disaster?” I asked. “No, we couldn’t because the roads were blocked and only people with special passes could drive through. But after the roads opened up to regular traffic we took a trip through Rikuzentakata. There were still mountains of debris and they were tearing down buildings.” Eager to learn more, I invited them to join me, but the husband reminded his wife they still had packing to do before checking out. Too bad, I thought. They had seen Rikuzentakata in different stages of clean up and reconstruction. I arrived and have seen Rikuzentakata without any reference points to record the progress of reconstruction. My only reference points were YouTube photos and video clips.

0845: I decided to walk toward Yonegasaki, a direction I could see from my hotel room window.

The roads were muddy and I had to walk around puddles on sides of the road. I also had to watch out for the dump trucks driving over puddles on the road. Twice I was forced to step into soggy fields to avoid the splash of water. Though waterproof, my shoes somehow seeped water and dampened my heavy socks. But I was determined to squish my way forward.

0920:  I found a dirt road leading up to a clearing.Part 4 20003 Ladder up the Hill

On the left, I saw two houses with vegetable gardens and plants.  Farther upward the road led to another group of houses nestled among the trees. On the right I saw an old storage shed and a ladder leaning against an embankment.  I climbed up the ladder and discovered a sc50001 Two Housesenic view of Hirota Bay. As I shot videos and photos from this vantage point, I wondered if the people living in this isolated neighborhood clamoured up here to watch the tsunami surge inland.

I packed up the camera gear and climbed back down the ladder. Little did I know that a deer was observing my awkward descent. I must have interrupted her morning snack of garden grown fresh vegetables.  She looked at me, more perturbed than wary, before scampering off .

Deer perturbed

The perturbed deer

1030:  On the way back in the direction of the hotel, I saw a monument in a field near the road. As I trudged over the rain-soaked ground, a construction worker on his way to an excavator saw me and shouted, “Where you from?” He had a sun brown, wrinkled face encased in a hood covered by a hard hat. He looked to be in his early sixties. I told him and answered his follow up question of where I lived.  “Yokohama.”

“Thank you for coming.” A smile smoothed away a few of the his facial wrinkles. Obviously, he spent most of his working life outdoors. This was the second time someone had thanked me for coming up to Rikuzentakata — the taxi driver on the first day and now this construction worker.  He was about to continue walking toward the excavator when I asked him if I could take his picture. “Wait,” he said and ran to get his workmates.

Four Men 80014

Five Workmen welcoming a break for a photo op

1040: I took photos of the memorial stone.The inscription in brief stated that originally a 4.5 meter high statue of a Buddhist  Memorial Stonebodhisattva (who looked after children and travellers), had been erected in honor of Sandayu Niinuma, the sixth generation owner of the  Manninseshuku Inn located on this particular field. During the frequent famines that took place between 1830 and 1844, he opened the inn to the those who were suffering from hunger and deprivation and to travellers. The tsunami destroyed the bodhisattva statue. In its place, the Tokyo Association of Architectural Firms erected the memorial stone in support of the restoration of the memorial and the city.

1115: I reached a cross street where I found a sign with the familiar logo of a supermarket chain with stores nationwide including the one near my apartment in Yokohama. I could do a little shopping there and buy fruit and snacks for those in between meal hunger pangs.  I picked a narrow dirt road that paralleled the main highway on the way to the supermarket and the other shops. Quite a contrast! SupermarketSauntering along the dirt road I saw fields and heard the rippling flow of water. I had an unobstructed view of distant hills and mountains and I stopped from time to time to take in scenery.

In Yokohama, I often take the train to the supermarket. Outside the train windows, I see only densely packed buildings interrupted by a park and then more densely packed buildings. The buildings block the view beyond. Only the sky is visible above the roofs. In an urban environment, the view seems barely to extend beyond the nose.

Of course, sights not prevalent in Yokohama were the remains of the foundations of homes that once occupied the open fields. Somber scenes left in the wake of a wave that destroyed the lives and happiness of residents who had lived this neighborhood. Would they ever return to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives?

1230: I arrived at the supermarket, exhausted and ready to take a rest. Inside, the supermarket took on a familiarity. The meat counter was where it should be. The vegetables and fruits were easily found. I loaded a shopping basket with bananas, snacks, and sandwich meat. I was about amble over to the cashier when I heard a woman’s voice call out in English. “Do you like mikan?” In her hand covered with a disposable glove, she held out  peeled slices. “Try  one. It’s sweet.” She must have been in her late thirties or early forties. Dressed in the supermarket’s uniform, she had a smile that filled her entire face. Slightly bewildered by her exuberance and naturalness of the English language, I accepted one slice and bit into it. “Delicious,” I said. “On sale!” she said and proffered a net filled with mikans. I put the net into my basket and asked her a series of questions. “Where did you learn English?” “In school.” “Ever travelled overseas?” “I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston.” The ring on her finger indicated she was married. However, I didn’t get much chance to pursue forward with more questions. Other customers stopped and she went into her spiel in Japanese. And then an elderly woman hard of hearing asked her where she could find curry powder. The sales lady took the elderly woman by the arm to guide her to the spice counter. I walked to the checkout counter to pay for my groceries, after which  I went to the alcoholic beverage section to pick up a few cans of my favorite beer. When I hefted the rucksack filled with camera equipment and provisions on my back for the hike to the hotel, I regretted my enthusiasm to load up with the in-between-meal drinks and snacks. At the exit, the electric doors opened and I was about to step outside when the sales lady cried out: “Thank you for coming. Come again!” I turned and waved a goodbye to her. She beamed back a smile, and somehow my rucksack did not feel quite as heavy. I left the store and hiked back to the hotel.

Part 4 20039 Tangerines

Mikan that remind me of the beaming smile of the woman in the supermarket

1430:  In my hotel room, I dropped my rucksack on my bed and plopped down beside it. I unlaced my shoes and removed my wet socks.  The plan for the rest of the day was to soak in the hotel spa and to take a lengthy nap before dinner.  I wanted to make sure I recharged my  batteries to write up later that night the draft of an outline for my observations and conclusions.

2300: I read the words to the methodology I would follow in the iBook version of my first trip to Rikuzentakata. I based the  storyline on the lessons I gleaned from Muneyuki Nakazawa’s book.

Nakazawa was born in 1940 in a forest  in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture. As a boy growing up, he woke up and saw the morning sun shining through the tree leaves. He could hear the river flowing nearby his home — the river where he and his friends fished and swam. Like many children growing up in a natural environment, he was curious about and familiar with the animals and insects he observed in his daily boyhood life. His father, who worked as a tree farmer, exerted a profound influence on him.  While helping his father care for and cut the trees, he gained the knowledge to evaluate the texture and quality of trees that would help him later in life as a violin maker.

Inspiration for the Rikuzentaka storyline Three incidents from Nakazawa’s book provided the model for the storyline.

Violinmaker1. His father explained the transformation of a caterpillar inside the chrysalis into a butterfly. Lesson: What appears to have died is merely transforming into something new

2. His father acted as a guarantor for a loan made by a friend. However, the friend was unable to pay back the loan and Nakazawa’s father in paying back the loan lost his property and money forcing him and his family into a poverty-stricken life. Depressed, his father considered murdering his wife and 8 children and then committing suicide. But when he saw the sleeping face of his son, he changed his mind. Instead, he hit upon the idea of constructing a water wheel. Once constructed he could build a lumber mill and thus create a new business that would help support him and his family. Lesson: With determination, people can rebuild something new from the wreckage in their lives.

3. After the finishing the construction of the water wheel, his father often played the violin at nights after dinner. The young Nakazawa and his siblings joined in by singing the songs he father played. Significant in this scenario is that his father made the violin himself. This encouraged the eight-year old Nakazawa to learn from his father and make his first violin. Lesson: Parents through their care and nurturing lay the foundation for the future of their children.

2315: Exhausted, I reviewed in my mind what I needed to accomplish on Day 5. 1) To collate the photos and videos and 2) to write a storyline based on the three points from Nakazawa’s book. There must have been something else, but I was too tired to force my mind to keep functioning. I fell asleep without turning out the light.

To be concluded (Observations and Conclusions)

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Rikuzentakata Diary — Continued

Day 3

06:45: Soaking in the hot water in the hotel spa, I let my thoughts wander as the Carpenter’s tune ‘We’ve only just begun’ yet again flowed in subliminal musical notes from the speakers overhead. My plan for the day was to take photos of the Newly Constructed Shopping Center. I had already taken photos of empty fields, construction equipment, the Miracle Pine and the Conveyor Belt. I splashed my face with hot water as I pondered a niggling question: For the iBook production how was I going to tie everything together in a meaningful narration?

11:30: The taxi driver left me off in a parking lot. “The Mirai Shoten Gai is over there,” he said and handed me my change and receipt. I looked in the direction where he had pointed his finger. “Thank you,” I said and got out of the taxicab. I expected to see a shopping center much like the ones in Yokohama. What greeted my eyes was a work in progress.

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After I took the photos I wanted, I decided to head in the direction of the Rikuzentakata City Hall. I’d forgotten my map, so I asked the clerk at the Lawson’s Convenience Store how to get there. The clerk, a young man in his mid twenties, pointed out the window and told me to walk up the hill. “About a ten-minute walk,” he explained with a Lawson’s  smile.

13:10: I spied two restaurants across a field on a backroad. My stomach gurgled a reminder that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so I doubled back to the backroad and headed to the first restaurant called Maius 2000 Dinette. Inside, a woman in the kitchen leaned over the counter that divided it from the dining area. She instructed me on how to select my meal on the vending machine near the entrance.  I thanked her and selected my choice of tonkatsu teishoku, deep fried pork lunch special that included rice and miso soup. A meal fit for a king! Or at least for a grumbling stomach. Field and Restaurant

Part 4 10027 Sign_

The restaurant was empty except for me and two women at a table near a window. They were deep in conversation. The few words I understood gave me the impression the younger woman was seeking advice from the older woman what she should do about a marital problem. Having myself divorced two women because of marital problem, I tuned out and started eating.

Four Women

Four gracious women who served a delicious hot meal to a hungry traveler

13:50: Before I left the restaurant,  I asked the four women who worked in the kitchen if I could take their photos. After much hesitation, they agreed.

(During my younger days as a videographer, I sometimes resorted to guerrilla tactics and snapped shots of people and places without their permission. Those experiences belonged to my younger, bolder days; now I was in Rikuzentakata as a tourist — a lot older and perhaps a bit more considerate.)

14:05: I continued walking upward along the road in the direction of the city hall. More fields and houses far from the coast and protected by surrounding hills came into focus of my camera lens.  Of course, the ubiquitous signs of construction also populated my camera’s memory chip.

14:30: Finally, I reached the city hall which is housed in a temporarily constructed building. The priority of the city planners is perhaps to reconstruct the damaged business and residential areas before considering the construction of a new city hall.

From the bus stop, where I got off at on the first day, I could see the newly constructed fire department. I walked across the street and took a few pictures.  Around 15:00 I was feeling tired, so I walked to the Seven-Eleven Store nearby the fire department and asked the clerk to call a taxi. I was ready for soaking in the hotel spa.

18:00: The masseur massaged my aching body. He started on my feet and worked upward.  He was curious and loquacious. He told me he had worked at many jobs, including as a security guard at Narita Airport. His main passion was art and after the massage he showed me a packet of postcards on which he had drawn scenes of Iwate Prefecture’s natural beauty. He lived in Kesennuma, a city about a thirty-minute drive from Rikuzentakata. Because he seemed reluctant to reveal a deeper insight into his personal background, I didn’t press him for answers. Besides, his strong fingers were smoothing away the stresses in my tired muscles. “Relax,” he said and I closed my eyes.

21:30: I sat before the computer fully intending to write up my observations for Day 3. The cursor blinked with unceasing insistence, but my mind was as blank as the page on the monitor. I kept on nodding off and finally I shut down the computer. Then I eased my septuagenarian body under the bedcovers and fell fast asleep.

View from Hotel Hill

Hirota Bay View in the twilight of Day 3

Rikuzentakata’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

Rikuzentakata Diary — Continued71025 Tree into the skies Tuesday Evening, December 2 — 17:15  Bath Time During my entire stay at the Capital Hotel 1000, I made ample use of the hotel’s well appointed ofuro on the ground floor to soak in the hot bathtub water. The size of the tub was large enough for 30 people to lie on their backs and stretch their legs while resting their heads on the tub’s edge. Subliminal background music flowed from overhead speakers. Ken and Karen Carpenter tunes played on a loop insinuated their way into my mind. During my walks around Rikuzentakata, I found myself humming “We’ve only just begun”.

At 17:15, I had the tub to myself. After I had showered and washed my matted hair, I soaked in the hot water to soothe in my tired legs, and I gave my feet a much needed massage. They deserved pampering. I had walked four and a half hours in a rectangular route.

The rippling sound of water falling gently from the tub’s spigot reminded me of the sound of the waves lapping on the beach near the Miracle Pine Memorial. On the path leading to the memorial, I stood for a while watching the waves wash ashore in gentle flows and ebbs. For a moment I visualized my grandchildren romping in the playful water splashing each other and squealing with delight.

The placid scene blurred and was juxtaposed with the youtube videos clips of the tsunami raging over seawalls and demolishing everything and everyone trapped in its ferocious drive inland. For the survivors the raging black seawater will no doubt remain etched in their memories until the day they die.

I must confess, the news broadcasts of the tsunami at the time made little impact on me for two reasons. First, I was only mildly inconvenienced by the earthquake.  I watched the news on a TV in the comfort of my apartment as though I were watching a Hollywood produced disaster film. My neighborhood was not targeted for the rolling blackouts scheduled by TEPCO. Tokyo Gas provided me with gas to brew my morning coffee. And the city’s water company continued the flow of water for my morning showers and evening baths.

The minor inconveniences proved vexing. The supermarkets in my neighborhood ran out of critical supplies of food and drinks. The earthquake had disrupted the distribution system. Can goods, fresh vegetables, meat and poultry products, dairy products, beverages, bottled water and toilet paper disappeared from shelves. In their place, the management placed signs with apologetic words promising to keep customers informed of when deliveries would start up again.

Second, the nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima dominated the media news. I watched with trepidation as TEPCO people struggled to prevent a nuclear meltdown. The fear of radiation prompted many foreigners to leave Japan. Many Japanese and those foreigners who remained downloaded apps for their smart phones that measured levels of radiation in the air. Fears of radiation contamination in the agricultural products in Fukushima raised the concerns of consumers. They wanted to make sure the products they bought came from prefectures far from the disaster areas. Even I succumbed to the fear. On the sign with the prices of vegetables the place of origin was also written in small letters. Before selecting a head of lettuce, I squinted my eyes to read the name of the prefecture. I certainly did not want my Caesar salad made with radiated lettuce leaves.

National elections also were taking place. Political debates centered on whether to stop the use of nuclear generated electricity and shift to other sources. Editorials, news analysts, talking heads, tweets, and the internet streamed with comments pro and con about the closure of Japan’s nuclear plants. In the heat of the debate, the fate of the survivors living in the disaster areas faded into the background: Survivors were those nebulous beings living in temporary housing. As the months became years, the sense of crisis and urgency dissipated. In my case, I grew increasingly more preoccupied with concerns that were relevant to my personal and professional life.

21:00: The Story of the Miracle Pine Tree I sat before the computer reviewing the shots of the Miracle Pine I had taken earlier in the morning. “Finally, I got to see you in personal,” I mused as I examined each photo and video clip. A few photos showed the raindrops that had spotted the camera lens.“Whoever would have thought I would have been standing in front of you today?”Three years ago I had only scant knowledge about the tree. I was deeply involved in editing a major video project. Then fate stepped in.

Early in 2012 my friend from Israel Gal Vered and I were eating lunch at the Sparta Restaurant in Yokohama. Gal grew up in Yokohama and attended Yokohama International School. He returned to Israel with his parents, completed his military obligation, and afterwards embarked on his career in the diamond business. His business required him to make frequent business trips to Japan.

As we were eating he told me about the Miracle Pine of Rikuzentakata. “The tsunami uprooted and killed nearly 70,000 pine trees along the coastline Rikuzentakata. Only one tree remained.”

I recalled hearing and reading something about the trees. When he mentioned Rikuzentakata, I had no idea where it was located. I lived in Yokohama for so long that my world rarely extended beyond the city limits.

“From the driftwood and debris, Muneyuki Nakazawa made two violins.”

“Who?” I asked. Not being a musician nor a particular fan of classical music, I confessed I hadn’t a clue about this Nakazawa fellow.

Gal explained briefly that Nakazawa was a world renown maker and repairer of violins and had gone to Rikuzentakata to select Violinmaker wood from the driftwood and debris to make the two violins. Nakazawa’s hope was to have a thousand violinists worldwide — professional and amateur — play the violins. (Inspired by the Japanese tradition of folding 1,000 paper cranes to fulfill a wish, Nakazawa’s dream was to have the violins played by 1,000 people around the world. Taizo Oba worked with him to launch the project, named “The Bond Made of 1,000 Tones.”


Interesting, I thought. Another piece of information to store in one of the inactive files of my mind. A file which I might have deleted later to make room for other tidbits of information. But what Gal told me afterwards made the information more personal and definitely more fascinating.

“My children will give a concert in Tokyo. And they will play one of the violins.”

Now that bit of information struck a chord. I had known his children when they were little children. Gal was working in Tokyo at time. He and his wife Shirley with their children Jonathan and Eden lived in Yokohama. I remember visiting them nearly 15 years ago. While Gal and I watched a video movie on their big home entertainment screen, Shirley made sure the children practiced playing their violins.

“The Sukiyabashi Music Association has been sponsoring benefit concerts for the relief of survivors in the wake of the tsunami. Jonathan and Eden each have a chance to play the violin.” For a brief moment I imagined Jonathan and Eden as little children standing in front of the concert audience with violins almost as tall as they were and scraping away at the strings.

“Jonathan’s almost 19 and Eden’s 17,” Gal reminded me. I shook my head. Where had the years gone? His children had grown into young adults. Of course, I promised I would attend the concert — and that I would make a video of the performance. Poster 2




23:30 Bedtime

Shortly after 23:00 I turned off the computer and rubbed my aching eyes. I had spent nearly two hours manipulating Photoshop to remove the raindrops from some of the photos I took of the Miracle Pine.The task proved daunting. But with persistence I replaced the raindrops with less distracting cloned images.

Under the bedcovers, I lay awake and thought back to my conversation with Gal over two and a half years ago. He wondered when I would ever complete the video he asked me to make.

There was a combination of factors. Lethargy, greed (paying projects tempted me to forget from my good intentions), preoccupation with getting A Two-man Performance of A Christmas Carol completed, and coping with the reality I was heading toward the big 70 in my life.

Underlying my torpid attitude was the fact I lacked a solid concept. I was able to shoot Jonathan and Eden’s performances, but I was perplexed as to how to connect  the performances with Rikuzentakata.

From that moment when I said goodbye to full-time employment commitments, however, I had the time to complete the projects I preferred doing which included the Rikuzentakata Project.

One step was to take a trip to the devastated town — a step complicated by the lack of lodging facilities. Not an easy job making reservations to stay in Rikuzentakata. The town was wiped out in much the same way blanket aerial bombings destroy a city. Nothing remained in the wake of the tsunami. I finally succeeded and made reservations for a five-day stay during the first week of December 2014.

Toda Futoshi

Futoshi Toda – Rikuzentakata Mayor

At the same time, I studied background sources to become familiar with Rikuzentakata. I read the town’s Facebook postings. https://www.facebook.com/RikuzentakataCity. I bought Mayor Futoshi Toba’s book and read his story of the people who supported him and the challenges he faced in order to fight for and organize efforts for the town’s reconstruction. The underlying theme of his book stressed the need for residents to put sorrow and regrets behind them and to rebuild for future generations.

To flesh out my knowledge of the violinmaker Muneyuki Nakazawa, I browsed Internet resources and jotted down pertinent information. During my browsing, I came across the title of his autobiography: いのちのヴァイオリン:森から贈り物: Inochi no Violin: Mori Kara no Okurimono (loosely translated as The Life of the Violin: [Nature’s] Gift from the Forest.) The book provided me with a philosophical roadmap during my exploratory walks around Rikuzentakata.

(To be continued)

Yokohama’s Symbol of Recovery

Yokohama Centric

My name is Charles Borromeo. I have lived in Yokohama, Japan for more than half my lifetime. And I’ve experienced my share of earthquakes — some mildly surprising; others unnerving. Earthquakes are mother nature’s reminders of the fragility of human life.

Burritt Sabin in his masterful A Historical Guide to Yokohama subtitled his book Sketches of The Twice-Risen Phoenix.  He traced the history of the port city from the moment Commodore Perry in 1854 returned to Japan with a powerful squadron and with a letter from President Millard Fillmore requesting a treaty between their nations.

Yokohama historical guide

An engaging guidebook of Yokohama’s historical sites.

“The Tokugawa Shogunate could not allow the barbarians to enter through the gates of Edo, but Perry refused to anchor at the outport of Uraga. The two sides agreed to parley at a miserable village midway between Edo and Uraga. The village was Yokohama.”

On July 29, 1858 the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on the deck of the USS Powhatan opened the ports of Yokohama and four other Japanese cities to trade and granted extraterritoriality to foreigners.

Nearly 145 years later on April 1, 1972,  I arrived in Japan. I was a young married man with one small daughter and one daughter on the way. With my MA degree, I parlayed a position as a teacher at Saint Joseph College and taught English, American History and Asian Studies. I fully intended to remain in Japan for two years in order to collect materials for a book about the Japanese Participation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Ah, but as the poet Robert Burns in his poem To A Mouse in 1786 wrote:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone] /In proving foresight may be vain:/The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry] /An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,/For promised joy.

Forty-two years later I am still living in the port city. My daughters have grown, and today they are raising families of their own. I have gone through the joys and travails of two marriages. Both my ex-wives live in the USA and have established successful careers in their new world. And I live alone in a small apartment in the capital city of Kanagawa Prefecture. http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/pdf/regional/kanto/kanagawa.pdf

(Oh, yes, that book about the Japanese Participation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. I never got around to writing it.)

In my forty years in Japan, I have become Yokohama-centric. Certainly, I have traveled to other parts of Japan — Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and to cities on the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. My journeys nearly always took me southward. The farthest north I have visited was to my friend’s home in a remote village deep in the mountains of Niigata.

Of course, I have flown overseas to countries  in different parts of the world. When people there asked me where my hometown was, I inevitably answered, “Yokohama.”  The reply causes eyebrows to rise and faces to contort into smirks.

Yokohama has become my reference point, my center, my home. The events outside the city limits often carries as much interest for me as the news that a tree had fallen in a forest in Denmark.

But that all began to change on March 11, 2011.

The Great Kanto Earthquake 1923

Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world. It is located in a zone where the Eurasian, Pacific, Philippine and North American tectonic plates meet and occasionally shift. Nearly twenty percent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude of six or greater happen in Japan.


Every day, earthquakes of varying intensities shake up the tranquility of everyday life.  Occasionally, the intensity of the quakes are strong enough to become headline stories in the national news media.

I’ve experienced earthquakes strong enough to shake open my kitchen  cupboard doors causing dishes and crystal glasses to cascade onto the kitchen floor. The debris on the floor is a microcosm of the death and destruction earthquakes can cause on a Biblical scale.

On September 1, 1923 at 11:58 a.m. the residents of Yokohama were getting ready for lunch. Proprietors of restaurants waited in anticipation for the lunch rush of business people, shopkeepers and traders. Mothers at home were preparing lunches for their toddlers and aging parents. And the Marianist Brothers at St. Joseph College at 85 Yamate-cho on the Bluff were getting ready for their midday meditation and prayers before lunch.

On October 23, 1923, Brother John Grote wrote to his fellow Marianist a detailed letter of that terrible moment in Yokohama’s history. “The first was a frightful vertical quake which suddenly changed to an equally frightful horizontal on, the former took everything off its foundation; the latter made everything crumble.”

http://www.sjcusachapter.com   Go to St. Joe’s Over the Years to read Bro. Grote’s eyewitness account.

Joshua Hammer in the May 11, 2011 Smithsonian Magazine wrote:

“The initial jolt was followed a few minutes later by a 40-foot-high tsunami. A series of towering waves swept away thousands of people. Then came fires, roaring through the wooden houses of Yokohama and Tokyo, the capital, burning everything—and everyone—in their path. The death toll would be about 140,000, including 44,000 who had sought refuge near Tokyo’s Sumida River in the first few hours, only to be immolated by a freak pillar of fire known as a ‘dragon twist.’”


Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923

A must read book about the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923

Rebuilding the devastated areas became the priority of the national and local governments. In Yokohama, among the myriad rebuilding projects facing city officials was how to rebuild the city’s port and Bund area.

Yokohama’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

You can’t blame the people who enjoy Yamashita Park for being unaware of its historical significance. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 has been relegated to passages in history books and the yellowing pages of eyewitness accounts have been stored in archives. Moreover, there have been more recent earthquakes.

(To be continued)