Return to Beautiful Fukushima

Hi, guest blogger Steve here again! Today I will write about Tomoko’s and my visit to Japan over the 2012-13 Christmas and New Year’s holiday.

We went back to Tomoko’s hometown of Sukagawa, Fukushima to visit with her friends and family. During the visit we took photos of damage and rebuilding since the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake. We also made a day trip to Ishinomaki, a coastal city that was devestated by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

OK, let’s begin…

On March 11, 2011 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the Tohoku region of Japan. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami resulted in major infrastructure damage and loss of life. The tsunami also disrupted operations at Fukushima #1 nuclear power plants, leading to meltdown and release of nuclear material to the environment.

Tomoko has posted some photos from immediately after the earthquake on a previous blog entry.

There is another side of Fukushima prefecture. In English, the name “Fukushima” translates to “lucky island”. In addition, and attesting to its heavily rural landscape, it has a pro-tourism catch phrase of “Utsukushima-Fukushima”, a mashing of words, which roughly translates to “beautiful Fukushima”.


My first day in Sukagawa, I started asking Tomoko’s parents about the earthquake. Her dad explained how first everything went to the left, and then went to the right. The shaking persisted for 5 minutes.

Afterwards a lot of buildings were leaning over.
Tomoko’s mom showed her “emergency kit” which she always keeps nearby. The cell phone announces earthquake warnings and the flashlight is a good item when the power goes out.
Aftershocks are still abundant and we felt five sizable earthquakes over our two week visit. You should always have a warm coat at hand in case if the next quake destroys your house.
After the quake they boiled water before drinking.
They had to manually discharge the toilets by pouring water that they received from the self defense forces.
Tomoko’s mom had a lot of beautiful hand crafted bowl and plates before the quake, the earthquake left a pile of smashed debris on the floor.
More stuff that came down – basically anything that wasn’t securely bolted to a wall ended up on the floor.
Tomoko’s mom laughed as she explained that the refrigerator’s contents made a big mess of the floor.
She now keeps fragile valuables stored away. These are photos from Tomoko’s and my wedding. I suggested that she display them if she wished; if another earthquake broke them we could easily send a replacement.
Tomoko’s brother, unable to escape the second floor office, rode out the earthquake from under the desk. From the street, Tomoko and her family watched the facade popping off the building and screamed for him to get out.
More stuff in their family’s business that came down.
This printing machine moved about 1/2 meter during the shaking.
All the printing chemicals ended up on the ground and spilled out.
An old water source was contaminated – limiting their supply of water until the municipal source was restored.
Two years later and many buildings are still being repaired or even demolished.
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There are also a huge number of dirt lots where buildings once stood.
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There are also a high number of new buildings that have sprung up. People are getting back on with their lives and experiencing a sense of normalcy.
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Temporary shelters are still in use while the city rebuilds.
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The religious shrines and temples also experienced significant damage. Many gravestones still litter the cemeteries, waiting to be righted to a more respectable position.
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Fujinumako was a man made lake that failed soon after the quake. Seven people died and one is still missing. Fortunately these were the only deaths in Sukagawa.
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The fear of radiation has prompted the installation of radiation detectors in public spots. There is also a new emphasis in developing clean energy sources such as wind and solar.
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We took a trip to Ishinomaki, a coastal city, to view the results of earthquake and tsunami.
We didn’t know exactly where we would be treading and needed to be concerned of the possibility of spiritual impurities. Guided by Buddhist traditions, Tomoko applied an oil which would release an incense-like scent. This scent would help to protect us from anything considered impure by Buddhist beliefs.
We had to take a bus part way since much of the train lines were still being repaired. From the bus we could see many villages on the coast and the flat landscape dominated by rivers and rice fields. In the event of tsunami there would be little time to evacuate to higher ground. Many of the buildings are seemingly abandoned with no indication of repair efforts.
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We were finally able to pick up the last section of train into Ishinomaki.
Ishinomaki is famous for a manga (cartoons) museum and it was shocking to see the lighthearted displays and we disembarked from the train.earthquake-84 earthquake-85
Quickly however we saw familiar sights of dirt lots where homes and businesses once stood. Being closer to the earthquakes epicenter, the amount of destruction was quite higher.
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The tsunami impact was enhanced since many coastal areas also dropped in elevation during the quake. The dome structure is the Ishinomori Manga Museum (site in Japanese).
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The duck shaped safety barriers seem horribly out of place.
Even churches and peace monuments were damaged.
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The remains of a amusement park lie partially submerged. It previously contained children’s rides and animals. Only the Statue of Liberty replica remains.
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“Blue sheets” – as the Japanese call them – were quickly installed to protect buildings from rain. They are a common site throughout damaged areas.
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We found the owner of this boat repair shop staring out over the water. He recounted the events during and in the days after the quake.
After the shaking subsided, he was surrounded by shouts for help, but with so much debris in the water he was unable to assist.
The city was incapable of cleaning up the marina and amusement park so he kept on his employees to help. Over two months the removed debris and 22 bodies. He hoped that they had dies quickly – particularly one lady how was trapped under a gas tank. During this two months the smell was foul and he sprayed some chemicals to help clean the area.
Everything near the water was swept to a new location. Ships, some full of bodies were piled against nearby bridge and his own boats were lost.
He donated tens of thousand of dollars worth of food to survivors who had relocated to shelters at schools. The most that he could do given his own limited means.
He also has a permit to fish in the ocean waters near Fukushima but contamination from the nuclear disaster has made the fish unfit for consumption. With no boat repair customers, he had to give his workers four months severance pay and his best wishes.
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An overturned toilet was at this lot.earthquake-132 earthquake-133 earthquake-134
If there was a survivor at this house, they felt little need to recover this body fat device.
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Some parts of the city are perhaps more vibrant and lively than ever. This sign hopes to attract visitors to a makeshift shopping center.
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The Ishinomori Manga Museum (site in Japanese) – a source of pride for local residence – has now reopened!
Amidst the destruction there is huge amount of beauty. Proceeds from this store in Sendai station help the area to rebuild.
A tree on the coast near Ishinomaki.
Much of Ishinomaki and Tohoku is recovering and regaining its original beauty. We did however go treading through some limited areas that may still be considered impure by Buddhist beliefs. As a precaution, guided by the Buddhist traditions, Tomoko sprinkled salt on us, which would protect us from any spiritual impurities.
A fairly no nonsense bumper sticker.
The bullet trains have signs on their exterior encouraging the Japanese and Tohoku residence to rebuild and come back stronger.
I was truly saddened to see the remains of so much destruction – almost two years after the quake and tsunami. There is much rebuilding to be done but Tohoku seems to be turning a corner. Many new buildings have sprung up and the local economies are restarting. Perhaps most telling is that stories of the earthquake seem to quick move onto talk of better times – both in the past and those to come.
I will follow up with a collection of my favorite photos from Fukushima but until then I have two small requests.
Many deaths were prevented in Tohoku by good earthquake preparations and earthquake safety drills. Prepare yourself and your family for emergencies that you may experience. For example, review the quickest way out of your house in a fire.
Second, take a moment to appreciate your friends and loved ones. Life is fragile and unpredictable – enjoy your life and those around you and make the most of every day!