Day five – Ohtsuchi. People & Places.

Sun. 25th Sep. It is already two months since I returned from Iwate and I believe the time for dwelling on the destruction is over. Instead, I’d like to focus on the future and what I can do to help the recovery and reconstruction. However, I do have some final photos to share from my visit to Ohtsuchi, and with them some more fond memories of the people who befriended me there.

Ohtsuchi in the snow – from the hills of the KiriKiri Peninsula, Winter 1992

On the day of Ohtsuchi festival, I must have wandered the town on my own for about 4 hours until it got dark. I am a ‘walking’ person and during my first time in Ohtsuchi I spent many a weekend roaming the port, the shrines and the hills on my own. The difference in those days was that wherever I went I would always meet people, and even if I didn’t see them I became used to being conspicuous. I would arrive in school on a Monday morning and my advisor, Mrs. Hiraga, who sat opposite me, would have a steady stream of visiting students to her desk who would whisper and giggle, all the while stealing shy glances in my direction. When they had finished, Mrs. Hiraga would turn to me and report my movements for the entire weekend as observed by the student population and their extended families. There was always great excitement if I was ever seen with anyone, and of course, if it was a girl they would all want to know who she was and whether it was my girlfriend. I started making up weird and wonderful stories, and for a while, was ‘officially’ dating Ishida Hikari, then Uchida Yuko who were two popular TV actresses at the time.

In contrast, as I walked through downtown on this visit I saw no-one except a lone researcher from Tokyo University who told me he was mapping the surviving building structures and trying to work out how that could assist with town planning and construction specifications in ‘tsunami-zone’ towns in the future.

Tokyo University researcher & grassy ruins of downtown Ohtsuchi

I walked the length of Main Street from south to north; from the Elementary School blackened by fire, past the JR Station which was no more than two platforms, through the downtown area and via Pachinko Route 45 to the Town Hall where 30 of 60 employees had died, including the Mayor and almost the entire town council which had gathered on the second floor to direct the emergency operations. Haruko Ogawa, who also worked at the town hall, had returned here after the earthquake and took refuge on the roof as the tsunami engulfed the building. She and the other survivors stayed trapped all night as gas explosions and fires raged throughout the town until they were air-lifted to safety the following morning. Finally, I walked out to the sea wall where the view of the water is now blocked by a two storey pile of debris stretching almost from one side of Ohtsuchi Bay to the other.

South Main Street looking towards the Post Office (centerright) and Elementary School (rear right)
South Main Street in 1992 (Post Office is white building on right & Iwato (岩戸) Eel Restaurant is on left)
Close up of burn out shell of Ohtsuchi Elementary School
Platform of Ohtsuchi Station. The main entrance would have been on the right
Main Entrance to Ohtsuchi Station & taxi rank in 1992
Flowers of remembrance left by a plot in Ohtsuchi downtown
Destroyed firetruck with Ohtsuchi Hospital in the background
Pachinko Route 45 & leaning fire hydrant
Ohtsuchi Town Hall where the clock stopped at 4.16pm
Piles of debris behind the sea wall

During my walk I thought of the people I had known and wondered what had become of them. Most of the towns-people I had known in Ohtsuchi were connected to one of four drinking establishments that I frequented, and frankly there weren’t many more places to frequent, apart from the pachinko parlours. At 9pm every evening after ‘Yesterday’ was played out over the public tannoy system I would set out with my small Japanese dictionary in my back pocket to see who I would meet and whether I would understand a word of what they might say to me.

My first port of call was generally B-Cafe because it was only a matter of a few hundred metres from my house on South Main Street. It was run by a lady called Mi-chan and while I was there I would usually bump into Shiro-san the owner of Iwato’s Eal Restaurant which was just another couple of doors away. I haven’t managed to get any news of Mi-chan, but I did hear that Shiro-san was safe, although he had lost his restaurant which had only just been refurbished.

At B-Cafe with Mi-chan (right) and a couple of Ohtsuchi High School students

My alternative ‘first-stop’ was ‘999’ (Three Nines) Cafe which was run by Kariya-san, the mother of one of my students. Another of her daughters, Kaoru, waited the tables and a third daughter, Mami, was in Tokyo, but made regular appearances during school holidays. I have not heard what happened to the Kariya family.

At 999 with my sister & Kaoru, the eldest Kariya daughter

Usually before heading home, I would stop off at Seishibon in front of the station or visit Ohtsuchi’s ‘famous’ Jazz Bar.

Seishibon was a classic Japanese hole-in-the-wall ‘Snack’ Bar with only enough room for a few people to sit side by side at the counter and a Mama-san. It was never busy, but most of the clientel were older men who would sing enka on the karaoke machine and drink whisky and water. I can’t for the life of me remember how I first went there, but I do remember that the Mama-san had an attractive niece who would occasionally help out and which was the reason I kept going back! The bar is gone now with the rest of Ohtsuchi Station of course, and I heard that the Mama-san passed way of natural causes prior to the events of March.

The Jazz Bar, run by Jun-san, was at the far north end of Main Street from where I lived, and if Shiro-san hadn’t been at B-Cafe he would almost certainly be there, with Abe-san who worked at the Town Hall just across the street. It was another tiny bar, but there was a back room where all the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with shelves of albums which made the whole place feel even more like an Aladdin’s cave for jazz lovers. I heard from the Master of the Town hall Jazz Bar in Kamaishi that Jun-san was safe and living inland, and that there was a national campaign driven by Japan’s network of jazz bars and jazz lovers to raise money to help Jun-san reestablish his bar.

With Shiro-san at Ohtsuchi Jazz Bar
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Day five – My house and other memories

Sun. 25th Sep. From Shiroyama I could also make out the rough location of the ‘duplex’ were I had lived for 2 years in Ohtsuchi. It had only been one block from the main road but was in the midst of a typical, higgledy piggledy, cramped residential area accessible by a road which was barely wide enough for a single car to pass down. I decided to go down and take a closer look.

Rough location of my house in respect to Ohtschi station
My Ohtsuchi house from Shiroyama, 1992

However, from street level it was almost impossible to find the exact location as there were no remaining visual markers, only rows of empty building foundations. In the end I walked back along main street to the station and retraced my steps from there, and eventually I spotted the familiar shape of my house’s floorplan with the car park ‘ramp’ to one side. I stood and stared. Then walked around the foundations to take in the view from every angle. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the lack of house that felt most strange, but the sense of distance (or proximity) to the rest of the town – the main road, the railway tracks, the sea… Previously, the residential parts of town had been so densely populated that it was easy to forget that the sea was there at all.

The remains of my Ohtsuchi house looking towards MAST shopping centre
The foundations of my house looking towards the sea

I tried to imagine what the scenery had actually looked like before, but after 17 years my memories had faded to the extent that rather than images, all I can recall are episodes of my time living there.

My Ohtsuchi house in 1992 with the car that Ogawa-san always lent me

I can’t really claim to have fond memories of the house itself. Athough it was fairly new by Ohtsuchi standards its walls were paper thin & it had a ‘drop’ toilet with no running sewage.

Luckily, my predecessor had invested in a toilet ‘seat’ – which was exactly that – a seat placed over the cesspit, but at least that meant I didn’t have to ‘squat’. It also meant that the kumitori lorry was called out every three months or so to extract the sewage from all the cesspits in the area. You can imagine that didn’t smell too pleasant, so every time the kumitori truck was due to come around Sasaki-san from across the road would drop by and gesture for me to depart in haste. After the first time, I did not dawdle again!

Perhaps the most unpleasant experience however, was during the terrible typhoons of 1993 (the same ones which ruined the Japanese rice crop and forced the unprecedented move of allowing imports of Thai rice) when we had severe flooding and the cesspits overflowed.

During winter, I also suffered from the cold as there didn’t appear to be any use of insulation in the house. I would sleep under 6 futons and regularly went to bed fully clothed including a bobble hat, whilst watching clouds of my condensed breathe as I tried in vain to get to sleep. When the letter from my predecessor had arrived before my departure, I had scoffed at the advice, “Don’t forget your long-thermal underwear.” However, it didn’t take long to get some sent over.

Throughout the winter the water pipes froze nightly, so last thing before bed I would have to go out behind the house and shut off the mains supply of water. At 6am the next morning, I would shuffle back outside in my pajamas and switch the water back on before I could take a rejuvenating, hot shower. I am undoubtedly a morning person but, there has never been another period in my life where I have found it so difficult to get motivated to get up in the mornings.

In Japanese-speak my house was a 3(D)K, which meant it had three tatami rooms plus a kitchen which was just big enough to accommodate a small dining table. Each room was a standard 6 ‘mat’ size, and in addition there was the dreaded toilet mentioned above as well as a typical ‘unit’ bath on the ground floor. In winter, I hung a heavy blanket over the stairwell and never ventured upstairs, living instead between the one downstairs room and the kitchen. However, when spring arrived (around May) I would move upstairs and create a palatial 12 mat space by removing the sliding shoji doors between the two rooms. This was all well and fine, except that the height of this door opening was only 180cm (and I am 193cm) which meant that I would crack my forehead against it every time I walked from one side of the house to the other. Eventually, I had to hang a curtain across this gap like a restaurant noren to make me naturally duck each time I passed through.

My Ohtsuchi room with calligraphy works, June 1994!
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Day Five – Fond Farewell and Thank You

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Sun. 25th Sep. After the brief euphoria of the festival, I headed for a more somber meeting with the daughter of my Ohtsuchi Okasan who died in the tsunami. Ogawa-san had been a friend of my Kamaishi homestay family, and … Continue reading

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interlude – Ohtsuchi Festival 1992 (#2)

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I received a shipment  of belongings from Japan on the weekend which included this great photo from Ohtsuchi Festival in Sep. 1992 of me carrying the shrine in the sea. Up until this year the festival Omikoshi ‘parade’ finished by … Continue reading

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interlude – Ohtsuchi Festival 1992

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23rd Sep. 1992. One of my best memories of Ohtsuchi (the first time round) was the Autumn Festival in 1992 (exactly 19 years to the day prior to my visit this year). I was invited to participate in the Omikoshi … Continue reading

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Day five – Ohtsuchi Festival (an unexpected surprise)

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Sun. 25th Sep. I made my way over to Ohtsuchi early on Sunday morning. This was the day I both looked forward to and dreaded the most. However, I was taken by surprise when I first arrived as the Autumn … Continue reading

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Day four – Downtown Kamaishi

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Sat, 24th Sep. After breakfast, Yuka and I headed back out into the downtown area to have a look around. Badly damaged building and car with view of port beyond View through the ground floor of a ravaged building Crushed … Continue reading

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Day four – Early morning at Kamaishi Port

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Sat, 24th Sep. It was a gloriously sunny morning just like I remembered the Sanriku Coast of old. I was up before dawn and headed down to Kamaishi port. It was a matter of a few hundred yards from the … Continue reading

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Day three (part 3) – Arrival in Ohtsuchi and Kamaishi

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Fri, 23rd Sep. As we exited the Kiri Kiri Tunnel and descended into Ohtsuchi proper the light was already beginning to fade but there were a few beams of twilight sunshine casting an eerie glow in the absence of any … Continue reading

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Day three (part 2) – The Coast (Miyako to Namiita)

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Fri, 23rd Sep. From Jodogahama we headed back into the centre of Miyako and then turned onto Route 45 south heading for Kamaishi just over 50 miles away. Route 45. A frustratingly beautiful, winding road which hugs the coast from … Continue reading

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