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An expat's journey into devastated Japan

28th June 2011

Three months after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, expat David Baresch paid a visit to one of the worst-hit areas.


 The train headed towards the disaster-hit area. Acres of rice fields met my eyes. My thoughts returned to newsreels shown in the days after the great earthquake. I remembered an aerial view, taken from a helicopter, of car a fleeing through rice fields similar to those that now passed by, as the tsuami rushed in from the left of the screen.

The train chugged on and passed through small towns. Most rooftops were patched up with blue tarpaulin. Aftershocks are expected to continue for another couple of years yet, so plastic sheets are making do as makeshift roofs for the time being, three months on from the disaster.

Matsushima was the next and final station. On this stretch of track, the train rattled through a string of tunnels. With thoughts of the earthquake and tsunami in mind, claustrophobia hit. The tunnels seemed unnervingly long. I sensed relief whenever we exited into the bright sunlight and, greater relief still when I stepped off the train and onto the platform at Matsushima Station.

It was a warm, sunny day, the clear blue sky typical of Japan. The small station seemed to have been untouched by the disaster. It was almost inconceivable that I was just a few kilometres from one of the world’s worst-ever tragedies.

I made my way through the sleepy town. Here and there, snaking fractures scarred the streets. On each side of the breaks the land had either lifted or sunk. Jagged steps of about 25cm in height had formed and were surrounded by safety-cones. In other places, heaps of fallen masonry had been shovelled up against walls and buildings.

The smell of dust mixed with damp burnt wood filled the air, as I came upon mounds of household wreckage. A sports field, consisting of two football pitches and a baseball diamond, was being used as a dumping ground to separate the wreckage from the tsunami-hit homes.

There were mounds of wood, mounds of bedding and sofas, mounds of twisted metals, mounds of colourful plastics, and all were coated in dust.

The biggest mound was that of yet-to-be-sorted debris, which looked like a pile of giant jigsaw pieces. Familiar objects poked out at odd, undignified, angles. Mickey Mouse, his lower body ensnared, grinned and waved his one free arm. CDs glinted and caught the eye. A Hello Kitty toy, dressed in shocking pink, craned forward as if gasping for air. Brightly coloured towels and curtains entwined computers, chairs, and tables. Partially trapped futons spewed forward and flopped down as if in exhaustion. And all were bound and knotted together.

Treading carefully over cracks, gaps, and uplifted masonry, I reached the seawall. A string of small islands dotted the horizon. I sat a while, trying to take in the scene, and listened to the waves. Then I hailed a passing taxi and headed down to the area affected directly by the tsunami itself.

"Taxi! Can you take me to the tsunami-hit area?" I showed the driver my ID. He smiled broadly, nodded, and turned the meter on.

We drove past scenic coastal views, then headed downhill. As we approached the lower-lying land I caught a glimpse of a car, upended, and buried into the roof of a house. We had reached the disaster zone.

From out of nowhere, a blackened, muddied wasteland emerged. A length of railway line had been uplifted by the tsunami and now stood on end, resembling a fence. Masked soldiers rummaged through rubble. Mechanical diggers twisted and jerked. The roads were partially flooded. A slaughtered, mangled town lay before me.

The taxi’s tyres swished as we drove on through sludge. The driver carefully made his way through pockets of floodwater, up to about 30cm deep in places. Military vehicles shunted to and fro. We pulled over and stopped several times to give way. As we waited, I looked around at the horror that surrounded me.

Houses lining the road had either been ripped apart, or flattened, or just carried away by the waters. Beached boats had pummelled their way through walls. They protruded, like unexploded missiles, half in and half out of battered seaside homes. Felled telegraph poles balanced on top of collapsed houses, boats, and cars. Gaping holes exposed shattered living rooms. Curtains flapped wildly out of broken windows and doorways. What of the occupants, I thought, not for the first time that day, what happened to them?

We passed by what once had been a river, but was now a stream of black ooze. The concrete banks, high and steep, were coated in mire. On the riverbed, rusting coaches, cars, and lorries lay toppled, angled this way and that, as though having given up an immense struggle, they'd lain down exhausted, and died.

How had they arrived at this final resting place? What had been their destinations? Who had been waiting for them? Where had they come from? Who had smiled and waved goodbye?

"What’s the name of this place?" I asked the taxi driver.

"Ton-na," he replied. I wondered what thoughts were concealed behind his broad smile.

That smell of dust and damp burnt wood, filled the taxi and stayed with us as we headed back towards the station. It was a smell that lingered with me for several days. It is a smell that returns whenever I think about Ton-na

I asked the driver to stop by the sea. I got out and took a long stroll by the quiet coast. The tide was in. Moored fishing boats gently rocked and knocked against each other. The seawater was about three metres below the top of the seawall. I looked around at the houses very near by. Were they safe?

Small uninhabited islands lay about a kilometre from the shore. They looked serene, covered in deep green foliage, a haven for wildlife. But, my mind constantly wandered back to the tragedy of that cold mid-March afternoon. I remembered newsreels showing entire towns lifted up by the sea and dashed asunder.

I walked back towards the station. My head bowed in thought. I was awoken by a bright, "Hello". A young Japanese boy, about ten years old, with his friends, jumped at the opportunity to greet a native English speaker. Cheerily, I replied likewise. His face lit up. His friends giggled and muttered as they continued on their way.

About fifty teenage schoolgirls waited for the train. They chatted, groomed their hair, and checked their appearances in small mirrors. I felt sure that they must have known people who had either been killed in the disaster, or who were still missing. I wondered what affect such a massive tragedy was having, or would have, on their lives. There was always the possibility of the same occurrence again, here, at any time.

Everyone I came across seemed to be coping fine. But the Japanese are masters at hiding their woes. I could do no more than wonder.


Source:  Telegraph 27/6/11