Friday, May 29, 2015

The Tsunami and its Aftermath

We had another day off yesterday, leading up to tomorrow's boat launching (with a pre-launch party tonight).  Angela and I had been wanting to explore the massive, mind-boggling earth moving project in Rikuzenatakata ever since we saw it from our overnight bus window the morning we arrived.  The scale is almost overwhelming.  I've been taking photos of tsunami damage and reconstruction from time to time so I am posting a long selection here.

People never mention the earthquake nor the tsunami directly here; instead they talk about the shinsai, or "the disaster."  You hear this word a lot, and many conversations are either "before the disaster" or "after the disaster."

This is one to two apartment buildings destroyed by the tsunami.  The other building was torn down, but you can see how the wave destroyed four stories but didn't reach the fifth floor.  We've heard people talk about wave heights from ten to sixteen meters.

A massive earthen wall is slowly being built, approaching the apartment building.

This was the former tourist information center, located near the former shoreline.  There is now a very small building at this site with information about the disaster and two memorial stones.

The interior of the information center.

A photo showing the complete destruction of Rikuzentakata, which sat on the broad, low delta of the Kesen River.  The dark rectangles in the center are former rice fields, but this was the city center.

The former youth hostel, which was situated on a beautiful pine-covered spit of land.  I remember going for a run in this seaside pine forest my first trip here in the 1990s.  The forest was swept away and the spit itself is now gone.

70,000 pine trees stood on this famous spit and after the tsunami just one was left standing.  Dubbed the "Miracle Pine" it became a symbol for the region.  Unfortunately it later died and we believe the top was cut off and a replica of its upper branches was added to the dying trunk.  The public is allowed to walk out through the reconstruction zone to get a close look at it.

Near where the spit defined the shoreline now a huge earthen and concrete seawall is being built.

This is part of a colossal conveyor system carrying earth from a mountain across the river, creating a plateau where the city stood.  The idea is to rebuild on this new, artificial table land.

I suppose this technology comes from the mining industry, but I can't imagine it existing anywhere else on the scale seen here.

The mountain across the river that is being eaten away to rebuild Rikuzentakata.

The conveyor system branches and stretches in all directions.

The final leg of each conveyor is on a wheeled carriage, and can pivot on a semicircular railroad track beneath it to spread the earth.

"The Bridge of Hope" as its called, the conveyor crossing the river.

The local train ran along the coastal lowlands and it will be rebuilt inland, on higher ground.  They paved a one lane road over the rail bed and run buses.

All along the coast various construction projects are enlarging seawalls and setting blocks along the shoreline.

This massive harbor reconstruction seems to be for one fishing boat.

Temporary housing like these tiny units are all over the region.  Four years after the disaster and only a small percentage of victims have been able to move into permanent housing.  

This building is close to where we are staying.  Located in the port, it was swept clean down to the framing by the tsunami.  Our inn is a replacement built on a raised earthen bed on the site of the former inn.

The coastal lowlands are full of empty house foundations.

Our local seawall is basically being doubled in height...

... and extended.

Mr. Murakami's house and shop, with the boat visible.  You can just make out the cove down below.  He said the tsunami came in three waves over a thirty minute period and the water rose to just the edge of his home.  I've tried to figure how high the water had to have risen to reach his home but it must be fifty or sixty feet.

A series of descending rice paddies across the street from the Murakamis.  They said these were full of boats from the cove, and the seawater poisoned the soil.  The hope is this crop of rice, four years after the tsunami, will finally be all right.

Rikuzentakata's major Buddhist temple invited people to carve stones in a large memorial.  There are many figures, both wistful and sobering.

On a point below the Murakami's house is a stone marking the grave of 35 people killed in a tsunami in the 1890's.  Mrs. Murakami said the local people gathered the bodies from the shoreline and buried them at this spot in a mass grave.  Major tsunamis have struck this coast in the 1890's, 1933, 1960, and 2011.

As a visitor, its really impossible to reconcile the scale of what happened with the incredible beauty of this place.  We have both been struck by the friendliness of everyone we've met, but beneath there is also mass trauma here.  Everyone has a story.  Everyone knows people who were killed.  I've read many accounts that the government is reluctant to spend reconstruction funds on an area deemed rural and backward, but the region seems anything but that to me.  There seem to be lots of school age children (conspicuously absent in many other rural parts of Japan), there are almost no empty houses, and the fishing industry seems thriving.  

Thursday, May 28, 2015

完成 - Kansei, Word of the Day

Kansei means "completion," and it is what Murakami san quietly said to us after lunch.  The boat was done, eleven-and-a-half days after starting.  Tomorrow Mrs. Murakami has offered to show us around the neighborhood and we have to start arranging our departure.  Saturday late afternoon Murkami san is hosting a party for us at our inn and Sunday morning is our launching.  I am sure all of the above will deserve one or more blog posts so stay tuned.

There is an expectation that Angela and I will take to the sea in this boat, and while I am familiar with using the sculling oar I was not at all sure how they used the kai, or paddle, in this region.  As luck would have it we walked down to the cove at lunch just as a fisherman was launching his boat.  His motor promptly quit and so he used his paddle to get back in and we watched and got our first lesson.  I am not going to try and describe it but it again makes me want to put together a YouTube channel to share some of the visuals.

Murakami san nailing on the kaizure, a hardwood pad to protect the chine where the paddle can rub against it.  The wood is nara, a type of oak he said he left buried in the mud for a year to keep it flexible.  Maybe he meant since last year...  On the hull are two strips of hard plastic which he fastened as rubbing strips.  These boats are hauled out every day and these days plastic is used to provide a slippery surface and protect the bottom.

Cutting off the base of the stem.

Except for some small details, the boat is finished.  Murakami san told us sometimes fishermen would take their boats unfinished in order to work and raise some capital.

Murakami san pounding the edges of the notch where the toko fits.  This large beam at the stern is used for hauling boats out of the water.  Note the block through bolted on top of the toko.  This is an outboard motor bracket.  The beam is walnut.

Murakami san said we'd be launching and using the ro, or sculling oar, so he made a second temporary toko for this purpose.  Here he is checking it for flatness using two of his planes.  Its made of pine and has a hardwood pin the sculling oar will pivot on.

Drilling for the toko final fastening, a pair of L-shaped bolts visible on the aft deck. 

He sighted by eye and drilled a perfect hole that lay just against the planking.  I told him it was very skillful and Angela translated his response to me: "You are one of the few who could appreciate it."  Angela's facility with the local dialect has been a huge help in this project.  As I mentioned earlier she was born here so she learned the language (and the dialect) as a child.  Because of her I've been able to understand so much more of what people have been saying.

The toko drops down into notches and onto these L-shaped bolts.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Hard to believe our most recent day off was just three days ago.  The project will wrap up tomorrow as far as building the boat is concerned, then we have a launching on Sunday.  Tonight I will go back in time to last Sunday and our day poking around, getting lost finding a historic home and tool museum, finding an overlook instead, then finding the museum, and finally looking at a famous local temple.

The mountains immediately inland from us are about 1200 feet high, and this is the view from the top of one of them.  It is looking out over the Karakuwa Peninsula and Murakami's house and shop is at the point of land visible on the left.  That large swath of earth is tsunami reconstruction, some kind of seawall, I think.  I plan a later post on the tsunami's aftermath.

This thatched-roofed house was built twenty years ago as a museum.  It reflects the local style for a very wealthy farmer's house.

Inside they have a wood fire going...

... which fills the kitchen area with smoke, but this is important because it keeps bugs out of the thatch, keeps it dry (to prevent rot) and keeps the lashings holding it tight.  But you really can't stay in this space for long. The rest of the house is cut off from the smoke by ceilings.

The small tool museum...

... which is housed in this magnificent kura, or fireproof storehouse.  This one is built in very high style.  Normally the presence of kura indicates a wealthy region (because people had enough valuables to be worth protecting) and we have seen a lot of kura in this area, built in many different styles.

The temple entrance features enormous cedar trees.

This carving over the gate was about six feet wide.

The temple itself.  Behind was a large cemetery along with a formal garden.

I loved the way the bridge to this outbuilding frames the garden.

This statue stands next to the temple and is about ten feet tall.

Trying to be artsy shooting roof lines.

The pagoda was quite small, actually, but of course featured phenomenal workmanship.

On the way home we saw a kamoshika, a type of mountain goat, or serow?  Its the second one we've seen and they are not that spooked by people.  About the size of a deer.

Our ride, Murakami's mini-truck.  I can just barely squeeze in behind the wheel and its rated to carry a whopping 800 pounds.  Not exactly the macho pickup of home, but gas gauge needle has barely moved in two weeks.