I have only been in Japan for a little over a week and a half, but I have to say it feels much more like a month.
It’s hard to know where to start. So I guess I will tell the stories of these four photos, all of which were taken in Kesennuma, Miyagi, Japan.
#1: I went to Kesennuma this past week to meet one of the few wooden boat builders left in the region. I heard about him from Douglas Brooks, a Vermont-based boat builder who has apprenticed with five Japanese boat builders, and whose boat building class I took earlier this summer.
I have become really interested in traditional Japanese boat building and wood working over this past year, so getting to visit a boat builder’s workshop was a real privilege. I got to observe him at work and ask him lots of questions about different boat designs.
Since his workshop is on the outskirts of a remote village, I was generously escorted to the site by Iwabuchi san, the son of another renowned local boat builder. He took me in the family van, and on the road he showed me an NHK documentary about his father entitled, “The Last Boat Builder.” It was a touching film that had shots of him working on his boats, and even teaching elementary school students how to use traditional tools. Sadly his father passed away last year, and his workshop was destroyed by the tsunami.
#2: All that is left of his father’s workshop are rusted tools that were heavily corroded by the tsunami. Iwabuchi actually took me to the plot where his house once stood and showed me the tools that volunteers had carefully recovered and cleaned. He was eager to show me the custom-made nails that his father had once used, but couldn’t find any in storage. However after walking around, he realized that the nails had been strewn about the yard by the waves. He picked the nails up and handed them to me as gifts. I was very moved by this gesture.
#3: Although a year and a half has passed since the shinsai, or ‘earthquake disaster’, the displacement and loss of people and their possessions is still incredibly real. In Kesennuma, they decided to leave an enormous tuna fishing boat right where the tsunami left it. Now it serves as a testament to the power of the tsunami and a memorial to the victims. It is a haunting site to witness, and many locals have fought for it to be removed, not wanting to be constantly reminded of the horrific event. While I was standing at the bottom of the ship, looking up from what used to be an underwater vantage point, I noticed a woman was unloading her groceries from a car nearby. I wondered what it must be like to try to continue life as usual, while living in the shadow of such an ominous structure. I hope that it has become part of the landscape, something that exists only in her peripheral vision. But I suspect that it is still front and center.
#4: As I got to know the owners of Hotel Boyo, I started to realize some of the the long term effects the disaster. Although they run a relatively successful hotel, I soon learned that the family (husband, wife and grandmother) were all living in the hotel because their homes were washed away by the tsunami. The owner said that they are refugees in their own hotel. The majority of their guests are construction workers, volunteers and other people involved in recovery efforts. This was particularly apparent when I realized I was the only woman at breakfast, and everyone else was wearing work boots and tool belts.
It appeared that many people from Kesennuma are in a kind of limbo, not sure when or where they will resettle. However despite all of the loss, uncertainty, and trauma that people carry with them, there is also laughter and a sense of camaderie. The family generously invited me to have dinner with them, and that night four young volunteers also appeared and enjoyed the leftovers of the hotel guests. We all joked around and had a great night. As the owner said, this past year has been “a year of bonding.” After talking with him for hours about everything from his family’s survival story, to his U.S.-wide road trip in the 70s, it felt like we were old friends.
Now that I’ve made it to Tanohata, I’m reconnecting with all sorts of really old friends - many of whom remember me from when I was a bald chubby baby. So that’s been wonderful as well.
Chubby baby chronicles to follow.
I hope you are all doing well. If you have the time, please send me an update about your life too.