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

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 man-made lighting.

My first impression was one of space. Space where there shouldn’t have been any. Space where there should have been a dense mass of houses, shops, fish processing factories and all the other components that had made Ohtsuchi a small, crowded, pleasant fishing town situated on a beautiful, deep inlet in the Pacific. Instead there was nothing. The town had disappeared save for the ghostly silhouettes of a few building in the area once called downtown. Everything else was perfectly flat and empty,

The feeling of emptiness was accentuated even further as we took a first left and descended from the Route 45 bypass to ground level in the district of Ando before heading out east along the north side of Ohtsuchi Bay towards the fishing port community of Akahama and Ohtsuchi’s symbol – Benten-jima Island with is shrine and lighthouse at the entrance to the Bay. On the right, towards the water, there was absolutely nothing save for the odd boat left high and dry. On the left, towards the hills, it was a similar scene until the land began to slope upwards and the odd enclave of houses which had been spared was visible.

First view of Ohtsuchi entering on Route 45 south out of Kiri Kiri Tunnel (downtown in the distance)
Heading east through Ando to Akahama and Benten-jima
A few houses up the hill in Ando were spared.

At the end of the road leading to Benten-jima we were suddenly confronted by a wall of debris, two-storeys high and stretching as far as we could see, so we left the car and continued to the waterfront on foot. Where the mountain of rubble met the water’s edge, we could look out over Ohtsuchi Bay to the small rocky island of Benten-jima and just make out the remains of the Torii gate, shrine and lighthouse. Prior to the earthquake and tsunami it had been possible to walk out to the island, but the whole seabed along this part of eastern Japan has sunk by several feet, so the causeway remains submerged. As we stood taking in the scene the only sound was the gentle lapping of waves at the foot of the pile of debris.

Piles of debris. Akahama, Ohtsuchi
Benten-jima and shrine beyond debris. Akahama, Ohtsuchi
Benten-jima Shrine missing Torii gate and lighthouse. Ohtsuchi


Benten-jima Shrine in the snow with lighthouse and Torii gate. Jan. 1993
Close up of Benten-jima Shrine in the snow with lighthouse and Torii gate. Jan, 1993
Ohtsuchi Bay from Akahama

We returned west towards Route 45, initially running alongside the tsunami wall before it broke off towards the south at the mouth of the Ohtsuchi River – supposedly to protect the downtown area. It had proven completely ineffectual of course, and there were gaping holes visible along its entire length. Much of the land immediately on the town side of the wall was still flooded where the land had subsided. Behind the wall on the sea side, and looming above it to twice its height, was a monstrous pile of rubble, representing the entire matter of what once had been Ohtsuchi Town. I’m not sure if the choice of location was an attempt to hide the demoralizing view or whether it was simply a result of using the available space but it left a lasting, troubling impression on me.

Broken tsunami wall with debris beyond. Ohtsuchi
Residual flooding inside broken tsunami gate. Debris beyond. Ohtsuchi

We had to go all the way back to Route 45 in order to cross the river as the bridge nearer to the sea had been taken out by the tsunami, leaving only the supports rising from the water. We didn’t have long as evening was rapidly approaching and we wanted to get to Kamaishi in the light, but we felt compelled to drive through the town. We took the bypass through the Shiroyama Tunnel and entered Ohtsuchi’s main street from the south.

There was not much remaining that was recognizable. We passed the burnt out shell of the Elementary School and made a brief stop in front of the station, now no more than two opposing platforms. Somewhere between the two was my old house, but in the half light and with no landmarks to guide me it was impossible to tell where exactly.

The remains of the downtown area was no more than a dozen buildings – the hotel, the hospital, the pachinko parlour, the town hall – all gutted by the tsunami and then by the fires which followed. As darkness closed in we headed south for the final time towards Kamaishi.

Heading into town. Looking beyond battered railings to missing bridge. Ohtsuchi
Ohtsuchi Elementary School
Burnt out pedestrian bridge in front of Ohtsuchi Elementary School
Ohtsuchi Station
Downtown Ohtsuchi
Ohtsuchi Town Hall


As if on cue, the moment we left Ohtsuchi it began to rain again. The next town south was Unosumai, part of Kamaishi City and the location of my third High School – Kamaishi Kita. In the rain, Unosumai looked like an expanse of green fields dotted with houses, whereas in reality, this was the remains of the town returning to nature as wild grasses and weeds took root… We turned right before leaving the town and headed inland on a new bypass which I had not seen before, rejoining the old Route 45 shortly before the final tunnel into Kamaishi City.

Unosumai as the rain falls again
New bypass from Unosumai to Kamaishi

Arrival in Kamaishi

The skies cleared as we entered Kamaishi. We turned into the Main Street at one of the few traffic lights which had been repaired. Unlike Ohtsuchi, most of the buildings in Kamaishi city centre are made of concrete and therefore, were still standing. But the initial impression that perhaps the damage had not been as great as we had expected was misleading. Every building had a gaping hole in its ground floor where shutters and windows had been pushed in by the advancing sea, and in many cases the only remnants of the ground floor were the vertical steel girders supporting the floors above. Inside the buildings, some had been cleared and emptied, whilst others were still strewn with rubble and belongings.

The closer we got to our destination the more Yuka had begun to fret. A recurring story we had heard from the people we had met so far was that it was very difficult to find people in the coastal towns because so many of them had been displaced and were living in temporary housing ‘estates’ some distance outside of each town. “What happens if we can’t find Sano-san and the Master of the Town Hall Jazz Bar?” she asked. “Believe.” I replied. “We’ll find them.”

Arrival in Kamaishi. Main Street.

Our destination for the night was the Hotel Sunroute at the corner of O-machi and Aoba-doori. This area, in the heart of downtown Kamaishi and just a few hundred metres from the port wall, had been submerged to the second floor. When I had called to make my reservation for four nights, the receptionist who answered the phone had said, “You understand that we are repairing the hotel? – Yes. You understand that we are not at full operation? – Yes. You understand that there is no air-conditioning working? – Yes. You understand that we don’t have a restaurant? – Yes” I had started to wonder if she would let me stay there at all…

When we arrived, the ground floor of the building was still swathed in sheeting and scaffolding. The white, wooden frame around the door read on one side, “Temporary Entrance. Sorry for the Inconvenience” and on the other, “Kamaishi will not be defeated”. The receptionist had omitted to say that the elevator wasn’t working, so I made a few trips up and down the converted tradesman’s staircase carrying suitcases and omiyage up to ‘reception’ on the first floor. A folding table, covered with a white cloth, had been set up as the reception counter. Two members of staff wearing uniforms stood up and bowed, “Irasshaimase” (welcome).

Temporary entrance to Sunroute Hotel. Kamaishi

Luckily, above the second floor the elevator was still working. We took our stuff up to our rooms and then headed straight back outside. When we had arrived at the hotel we had noticed a few lights up the street and we wanted to check out what restaurants might have reopened.

It wasn’t that late but it was already almost pitch black outside because none of the street lights were working. Apart from the glow coming from the Sunroute doorway the only other light was from the Lawson convenience store on the other side of the Main Street to our left and a couple of lights uphill towards the Buddhist Temple on our right. The first of these, about a block up the road, was the distinctive, orange-red sign with black kanji lettering of the Yoro-no-Taki Izakaya. I am not sure how many Yoro-no-Taki restaurants there are in Japan but to me there seems to be one in every town. It was a familiar, homely sight.

Gradual re-opening of restaurants. Yoro-no-Taki in O-machi,Kamaishi

But we were more interested in the single, rectangle of white light another two blocks up the road and hurried straight for it with great expectations. We were not disappointed. It was the sign belonging to our old haunt – the Town Hall Jazz Bar – and it was open for business!

Jazz Spot Town Hall. “Old & New Dreams”.
Town Hall. Dangerously steep stairs to second floor which saved the bar.

As we stomped up the steep stairs and panted through the doorway at the top, the Master, Konno-san, showed a brief flicker of surprise before he regained his cool. “Oooh, Alan-san, Yuka-sensei. “Hisashiburi! Yoku kita na~” (Long time no see. You’ve come a long way…) The he added, “Your timing’s perfect we’re having a free, live Jazz concert this evening”. Suddenly, it was like any other Friday night we had spent in Kamaishi all those years before. The bar decor, the dim lights, the musty smell, the soft jazz, the racks of records and the antique record player were all the same – and there were even a couple of familiar faces sitting at the bar.

Then, before even asking us what we would like to drink Konno-san said, I’ll call Sano-san. He dialed a number and somebody at the other end of the line picked up. “It’s Town Hall. Alan-san’s here.” Konno-san passed me over the phone but without even waiting for me to speak, Sano-san’s familiar voice said, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” and then he hung up.

Town Hall Master. Konno-san.
Free Live – Hiroki Koichi Jazz Guitar
Full house – Hirokai Koichi jazz guitar concert

The bar gradually filled up until there wasn’t a seat in the house. Among those who came was Aaron Brook, the new JET in Kamaishi who had only arrived in town a couple of months before. I had been introduced to Aaron over email before my trip by the JET CIR in Morioka and he had been very helpful in giving me a realistic picture of the state of Kamaishi. He was still finding his way around so I was keen to introduce him to the Town Hall and Sano-san (who he had already heard about). To say that I – and everybody else in the bar – was surprised when we saw him is an under-statement. I had had an inkling from some of the pictures I had seen on Facebook that he was taller than average, but I wasn’t expecting 2.10m! Neither was Yuka who stands about 1.50m.

Aaron had received notification of his placement in Kamaishi before the events of March 11th, and must have questioned the wisdom – as I’m sure his family did – of fulfilling his contract. However, he went ahead and came. I have a lot of respect for him for that. I asked him if it had been a difficult decision but he replied that he felt strangely honoured to be able to play his own small part in Kamaishi’s recovery. On the basis of one evening and a couple of beers I would say that he has just the right personality and character to help get Kamaishi back on its feet. Good luck, Aaron.

New Kamaishi JET. Aaron Brook from Canada


Then Sano-san arrived. As he made his way from the door to the counter he was warmly greeted by name by everybody in the bar. He had driven into town from the house he was borrowing which was some distance into the mountains west of Kamaishi. Even though he is now 80 he didn’t look a day older than the last time I had seen him.

He was clutching a photo album and a folded piece of A4 paper. The album contained photos of almost every foreigner who had ever set foot in Kamaishi including me, Kevin, Katie and Yves. Some of the photos were discoloured with large, white spots. Sano-san said that he had managed to salvage the album of his precious memories from the wreckage of his shop after the tsunami had subsided. The piece of A4 was a colour copy of a double-page photo taken from an article in April’s edition of Bloomberg’s Businessweek entitled, “Nothing To Do But Start Again”. It showed Sano-san sat on his low counter-stool in the midst of his wrecked shop. I will post my personal recollections of Sano-san later, but this time around I will let a pro describe Sano-san’s story… It is quite something, and the full article was eleven pages long. It is available online at:

Kamaishi’s living legend. Sano-san. Sano, 80, in his store in Kamaishi, Japan, on Mar. 30.                          Photo by Giulio Di Sturco from Businessweek (Apr’11)
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