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)




A trip to Sankeien in Yokohama — a memory

S1001 Boat Pond

Saturday, April 20. 6:30 a.m.: The temperature felt cool as I threw aside the futon cover. I climbed out of bed and opened the curtains. Outside gray skies covered Yokohama. Hardly a promising day for a walk in the city. But I was determined to get outdoors and do something totally at variance to my self-imposed work schedule.

During the week, my mornings after washing the breakfast dishes start off with a review of the InDesign layout I finished the day before. I am working on creating an Apple app of A Christmas Carol — the video production I had labored over for nearly two years editing.  Creating the app was the only alternative opened to me if I hoped to monetize the product. A painstaking job, I assure you. But one that gives me a sense of achievement. With each facet of the InDesign software I master, I feel as if I had reached the summit of Mt. Everest.

I take a two hour lunch break. Then I pack my briefcase with the prison diaries of Terrell Henry Greene. I generally pore through them in the reading room of the Yokohama Archives of History near Osanbashi Pier. The room is quiet and often I have the place to myself.

Terrell spent nearly two years in the Japanese penal system. The crime — overstaying his tourist visa 90 day permission by eight years. His diary entries are filled with self-analysis, description of prison guards and inmates, and stories from his early life as a boy growing up in a Catholic orphanage. I am taking notes which I will have to collate before I undertake the serious task of writing his story.

On Friday I substituted for a teacher at the Asahi Culture Center and taught two of her morning classes. On a note attached to her folder, she wrote: “The students’ ability level is pre-elementary. Some are even false starters.” She neglected to add that the students were in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Contemporaries of mine. I started off the class by introducing myself and then asking them questions about themselves.

“I’m 80 years old and when I woke up this morning I had to cook my own breakfast. Two boiled eggs.” The octogenarian student sat up front to my left in the narrow classroom.

“Why did you have to cook?”

“My wife left early to play golf.” He smiled. The lenses of his glasses magnified his mischievous brown eyes.

I turned to the woman sitting opposite him to my right. She was also in her 80s and a little deaf. Her friend, a younger woman in her early 70s repeated my questions in an amplified voice.

“My husband died two months ago,” she said, her eyes moistening. “I live with my daughter and her family. She cooks the meals.”

As she spoke, a memory flashed through my mind. Years ago I was sitting with friends in a restaurant when I heard a woman’s voice call out. “Borromeo-sensei!” I turned and saw a former university student of mine making her way to my table. “Aiko-san!”

A young man dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie followed her.

In a breezy style, Aiko introduced the young man. “This is Takeshi. We’re getting married next month. He works for a bank and we’ll be posted in Hong Kong. Isn’t that exciting?”

I had to smile. Already she was using the pronoun ‘we’ to describe their lives as a married couple. She had a future to look forward to. The 80 year old widow sitting in the classroom at the culture center had only memories to look back on.

I realized my function in the class was to provide a diversion in the lives of the students. They came to enjoy the companionship of classmates and to have something to talk about with family members and friends. None of them, I’m sure, came to improve their English to the extent of conversing fluently with native English speakers. For those two 90-minute sessions, I gave them simple English conversational exercises that allowed them to respond with confidence.

10:31 a.m.: At Yokohama Station, I boarded the express bus bound for Sankeien Garden. In all the years of living in Yokohama, I had never visited this famous landmark. http://www.sankeien.or.jp/history/. A quick look at the guide pages on the Internet gave me a token understanding of the garden’s history. Designed and built by a successful silk merchant who went by the name of Sankei Hara, the garden was opened to the public in 1906. It became a popular gathering place for both the elite and the common citizen to meet for conversations over cups of tea, or for walks along the garden paths.

Though interesting, the garden’s history was not what motivated me to visit there. Rather I wanted to go somewhere to clear away the debris left over in my mind after five days devoted to job-related tasks. Already on the thirty minute bus ride to the garden I began feeling relaxed.

11:15: Walking through the entrance of the garden was like stepping through a thin membrane separating the present from the past. The scene of the boat in the main pond in the outer garden reminded me of the picture postcards from the Meiji Period in the Yokohama Archives of History. I blinked in disbelief. Even the people in the park seemed to have stepped out of the pages of history.

The image shattered when I heard the sound of someone kicking a soccer ball. The ball flew in front of me and rolled along the road between the main pond and the lotus pond. Two young French boys, ages I guessed to be 9 and 7, ran after the ball. Their mother cried out admonishments in the French language. Not knowing French I surmised she was telling the boys to watch out where they kicked the soccer ball. The two brothers smiled sheepishly at me. Then within an instant they darted to the main pond where they knelt for a closer examination of the carp.

The fish surfaced perhaps in the expectation of receiving a serving of bread crumbs. The boys obviously had other intentions. The older brother leaned over as if to grasp one of the larger carp. This time older sister, seeing what he was up to,  delivered the admonishments. The boys paid marginal attention to older sister. Instead, they scampered off along the same path Rabindranath Tagore must have walked during his two month stay in Japan in 1916. The recipient of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature had been the guest of Sankei Hara.

I followed the path past the water lily pond and entered the Sankei Memorial. The displays and photos reflected an earlier, less manic lifestyle. People took time to enjoy the tea ceremony in the garden’s calming atmosphere. One photo from the Shofukaku Observatory showed the scenic unobstructed view of Tokyo Bay.  A contrast to what I actually viewed nearly a century later from the same observatory.

S1010 House Between11:45 a.m.: I climbed up the walking trail to the Kinmokutsu Tea House in the inner garden. On the way up, I encountered the French family again. The father was explaining to his wife the architectural design of the tea house. I deduced this explanation by observing his gesturing over the lines of the roof and his constant referral to the open guidebook in his hand.

As I headed back down the trail, I saw the older son. He had climbed over the fence and started scaling the rocks leading up to where his father was giving his tour guide lecture. He was straddled almost at a 90 degree angle between a rock and a bamboo tree trunk.

“Oh, Lord!” I thought. “The kid is defying gravity.”

I sighed with relief when he returned to a perpendicular state on top of the rock. My nerves wouldn’t allow me to observe his progress upward. I hastened down the trail.

12:05 p.m.: I walked in the direction of the Three Story Pagoda of Old Tomyoji and approached one of the tea serving stations. Here in the old days visitors sat and enjoyed tea under the canopy.  A photograph inside the canopy showed Sankei Hara surrounded by the literati of the Taisho Period among whom was Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 – 1927).  Akutagawa, impressed by the garden’s natural beauty, composed a haiku in which he focused attention on the garden’s tranquility.

Suddenly, my attention was distracted by the sounds of scuffling. A short distance from the tea station, I saw the two brothers fighting for control of a cloth sack. Inside was the soccer ball. The older brother was getting the best of his younger, shorter sibling. The mother came running down the path shouting out warnings. Older sister pulled the fighting brothers apart.

As the youngest of three brothers, I could imagine what the mother was saying in French. “Stop picking on your little brother! Let him hold the sack.”

The moment the older brother let go of the sack, his little brother, snug in the protective arms of his sister, flashed a smile of victory.

“Wait till I get you alone,” the older brother no doubt threatened.  Or was I putting the words of my older brothers into his mouth?

I continued on my way, leaving the stormy scene behind me.

12:36 p.m.: I reached the Three Story Pagoda of Old Tomyoji. I am amazed whenever I see old structures build centuries ago. How they can survive the heat of the sun, the dampness after a downpour, or the gnawing of termites still puzzles me. Of course, as a cultural monument, the pagoda undergoes periodic repair. I made a note to buy a guidebook before my next visit to the garden.S1015 Three Story Pagoda

1:05 p.m.: At the former Yanoharake House, I took several shots of the firewood outside. The firewood brought back memories of me as a six-year old boy. My parents owned and managed the Trimmer Hill Boarding House in Pacific Grove http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM7HEP_Trimmer_Hill_Pacific_Grove_CA. In the living room, there was a large fireplace. One day while my family and the boarders were in the dining room, I  was fascinated by the flames from the burning log. The rich red colors of the flames under the log looked good enough to eat. Curious, I wondered what fire felt like. I decided to experiment and stuck a dinner napkin into the flames. The flames shot up the napkin and enveloped my hand. I let go of the napkin and screamed.

S1022 Wood StackWhy the firewood piled in neat stacks outside the Yanoharake House should cause me to recall that particular memory is a mystery. One thing for certain, I never again held a napkin over burning logs.

1:44 p.m.: I headed back toward the main entrance. Rain started falling as I walked over the Yatsuhashi Bridge. I sought shelter under the roof of a wisteria trellis near the main pond. The sound of rain drops splashing against the pond produced a soothing effect inside me. Reluctantly, I walked to the main entrance. Before I stepped through the gate, I turned for one last look at the boat in the pond.

In a soft voice, I said, “I’ll be back.”

Yokohama Sketches

Fireworks have always fascinated me. As a little boy living in Pacific Grove, California, my mother took me to informal fireworks displays along the beaches near our home. Of course, setting off fireworks on beaches have long since been banned. Who know? They might have even been banned sixty years ago.

I always wanted to set off firecrackers and light the fuses of rockets, just like my older brothers. “You’re only 5 years old, my dear,” my mother informed me in a crisp English accent, (an accent she maintained even until the final moment of her life) “I will not have you blow your hands away.”

Now I live in Yokohama safe and sound from maternal admonitions. Yet I have no more interest in setting off fireworks. However, I do enjoy watching firework displays. You can always count on the city of Yokohama to sponsor firework events for the citizens who are sweltering in the August heat. One such event took place last week on August 5, 2014. The event took place at Rinko Park (http://www.yokohamajapan.com/things-to-do/rinko-park/)

I recently purchased a new camera — the Panasonic FZ100. I wanted to give it a trial run and take photos and videos of the fireworks in the evening. However, I did not go to Rinko Park and become entrapped among the thousands of spectators sitting in chairs or standing. No, I preferred to climb the steep road past Hongakuji Temple to reach a suitable spot high above nearby buildings to test out my new camera. Unfortunately, I encountered two major obstacles. One, two high-rise apartments near Rinko Park blocked an unobstructed view of the fireworks. Instead, they served as a frame within which the fireworks exploded. And two, my incompetence as a photographer coming to grips with a newly purchased camera. I took over 200 hundred photos. Regrettably only a handful turned out well. And even among them, two or three were blurred.

But I did capture with the video function the fireworks finale. A little blurry, but I’ll get it right with practice.

When the sparks of dying fireworks finally disappeared into the darkness within the frame of the high rise apartments, I could almost hear my mother tell me, “Put your sparkler into the bucket of water. We don’t want to burn our house down, do we?”

Yokohama Sketches

M2007 Temple Bell CU

A Path Well Traveled

Living a solitary life, I have ample opportunities to walk and meditate. I am fortunate that I live in an historical area of Yokohama. The street that runs in front of my apartment is part of the old Tokaido Road. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tōkaidō_(road)

Temple BellsAt five o’clock in the afternoon, a monk at the Hongakuji Temple nearby tolls the bell. Ah, time for me to take a meditative walk after a sweltering afternoon in front of the computer. I wipe my sweaty face and body with a towel. I use towels instead of the air conditioner which contributes to global warming and builds up an exorbitant electricity bill. Since the March 11, 2011 earthquake, I’ve been concerned about how many kilowatts people consume just to remain cool during the hot summer days. A towel to wipe perspiration from the body costs far less and it allows your body to ooze out the poisons that accumulate in bodies such as mine that must deal with my profligate dietary habits.

But I digress.M2003 Original Consulate General

Hongakuji was  the temporary residence for the U.S. Consulate General when the port of Yokohama  was opened on July 1, 1859. When I walk up the stairs and see the main temple, I feel the frustrations of the day melt away. I know the path I am taking that day will lead me to to find peace and solace.

M2009 Temple ProperThe temple grounds serve as a backdrop for the gravestones in the cemetery. I look at the cemetery and M2011 Reminders of the afterlifeponder on the impermanence of life. How many more days have I left to watch the sun climb above the high rise apartments? How many more hours left to me to while away precious minutes perusing  through Facebook comments? When will the strength in my thumb finally give in to the ravages of old age leaving me incapable of tweeting. Of course, I could go on and on with my meditation, but I must press forward along the Path Well Traveled. No time for regrets. No time for self-recriminations. I must move forward, like the samurai of olden day. Forward!  Always forward toward death.

Phew! That was heavy. Thank goodness, M2014 SignPostI’m close to the end of the Path Well Traveled.  Tammachi Station! The end of the path is in sight.

Ah, I’ve arrived. The refrigerator at the 7/11 Convenience Store.

The Path Well Traveled is an arduous one, but the rewards are plentiful.

M2015 Beer Cooler






Yokohama Sketches

 Yokohama  Sketches chronicles the lives and events of  two long-term Yokohama residents. Kermit Carvell (hey, that’s me!) and George Okuhara-Caswell (that’s my dearest friend!) Sometimes madcap. Sometimes dramatic. Sometimes serious and sometimes heart-rendering. But always entertaining and informative. Yokohama Sketches opens the theater curtains on a stage richly populated with engaging characters who live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

A little information about me. I live in a small apartment in Yokohama within a ten-minute walk to Yokohama Station. To anyone who will listen, I tell them I am a writer and videographer. In reality, I am a man sliding into his seventh decade of life. Retired and living alone, I spend my days puttering around the apartment, writing, editing, or keeping up with the lives of my children and their families. So I have a lot of activities to entertain myself.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t spend ALL day talking to myself. I make it a point to vary my activities. One of my favorites is talking walks.

Stay happy, stay positive.