After stocking up with fresh fruit and veggies we started driving the 20 or so miles along the west coast of the Oshika peninsula. It soon became clear that, despite not being able to see the ocean, we were driving through a seaside town — wherever you are in the world they always seem to have a certain feel to them. Traffic going in both directions along the main road was busy, and we noticed more SDF vehicles. We also noticed that the street was becoming increasingly dusty, tatami mats were piled up next to the road, and the entire first floors of some buildings were empty. But the buildings themselves, windows and all, remained intact.
We drove over the bridge between Ishinomaki Bay and the Mangokuura Sea and the landscape quickly changed. Officials wearing dust masks filled the streets, and waved those orange batons in place of traffic lights. We had to fill the jerry cans with gasoline that people on the peninsula had requested and wanted to leave it as late as possible to ensure the money went to a gas station that really needed the income, but I was worried we might be leaving it too late so pulled over and waited for Andy to catch up with me. I got out of my van to speak to him — the smell that everyone has talked about hit me immediately. Some say it is the smell of rotting wood or fish, or even other things rotting that we’d all rather not think about. It’s strong, and pervasive, but it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it.
I ran to a police officer to ask him if there was a gas station ahead; it had started to look a bit like we were about to enter a disaster movie so I didn’t hold up much hope but he assured me that there was one right around the corner so we kept driving. On either side of the road were the remnants of buildings and cars that had been destroyed — Andy was later to comment on how he had expected to see cars that had been battered about a bit but not to see them so completely and utterly mangled. Next to one elementary school was a big swimming pool — a couple of cars jutted out from one end, and one car sat right in the middle of the pool. We were to drive past this pool four times in the following 24 hours, and each time there was a bunch of officials standing and staring at the car in the middle of the pool, surely wondering how on earth to deal with it. I’ve had mixed feelings about the idea of taking photos of all this sadness and destruction but Japanese people were standing around taking photos so I felt it would be OK to take one of this bizarre sight.
There were plenty of bizarre sights to see but we didn’t photograph them; there have been enough photos of those already and they weren’t the memories we wanted to carry with us nor share with others — it was great that Andy and I were on the same wavelength with so many different aspects of this trip. As we drove through the town looking at all the broken houses and mangled cars you knew this was caused by a force of nature, but you somehow forgot it was the sea until you came across a ship right in the middle of it all — these random sea vessels are found balancing precariously everywhere inland.
We drove through what looked like a massive puddle, about a foot deep and 100 metres long, going across the entire road, and soon reached the gas station. It was a small family-run business so it felt good to be giving them the money to fill up both vehicles plus the jerry cans we were to deliver further along the peninsula. The yellow thing with wheels you can see in the back of my van was given to me by Paul Kraft — a friend of a friend who thought it might come in handy for the people of Tohoku. I had taken it, thinking it would be helpful for us to carry items in to places where the vehicles couldn’t go and then planned on giving it to someone up there to help them.
The proprietor of the gas station was a woman who explained she was celebrating her 60th birthday on the day of the tsunami and she, along with her husband and son, had escaped to the second floor of the gas station. She pointed to a line just below the ceiling of the first floor, indicating how far up the water had come. I was amazed at how cheerful she seemed as she pointed out all the damage that had been caused, and I was also amazed that she had found the time and effort amid all this chaos to have the most beautiful false eyelashes put on — their toilet had to be filled from a hose, tsunami sludge was packed up against the side of the building, they had no fruit or vegetables, yet she had impeccable eyelashes. You go girl!
We offered her some fruit and vegetables and set up a “free shop” of goods donated from England, so her customers or anybody passing could help themselves. She urged us to be careful of the tide, indicating water that had suddenly appeared along the road by the gas station and it was then that we realized we were in the place that had sunk after the earthquake so was now subject to tides. I had read about this but hadn’t expected the water to seem to come up out of the concrete before you realized anything was happening. We started moving quickly.
Andy and I had met for a coffee a week before we had left for Tohoku. We didn’t know each other well and while I really appreciated his offer to drive everything from England up with me, I had heard stories of people coming up north with companions they didn’t know well, only for the whole experience to turn into a nightmare because of differing opinions on what to do. I had always had the sense that simply getting in a vehicle, driving up, and responding to what I saw as immediate needs was the best way to distribute the items and cash I’d collected. I had wanted to travel with someone who was prepared to rough it by sleeping in the truck, didn’t care about needing a shower, and would be able to cope with my tendency to charge full steam ahead on occasion — I am fully aware that this can be irritating for some but also aware of how handy it can be if you need someone to make a quick decision and act on it; I wanted Andy to be forewarned so hopefully he wouldn’t fall into the former category! I didn’t have anything to worry about — we were in complete agreement about just stopping randomly without too much planning and focusing on the people who were trying to make it independently. I honestly couldn’t have hoped for a better companion.
We drove up and down the hills of Oshika-hanto, in between each we found tiny villages, with most of the houses completely destroyed, a random roof perfectly intact but without a building underneath it, boats lying on their side in the middle of the rubble, and large buoys scattered around the broken wood. Village after village was the same. We admired the absolutely stunning views and countryside from the top of the hills, and I was reminded of driving through the English West Country lanes I grew up around — I had not expected to find beauty here. As we drove down the windy roads I could feel us both tense up as yet again we drove through yet another village that had been destroyed by the sea, which was now only inches away from the recently cleared roads. We breathed out the tension as we started the drive up the next hill. It was an odd rollercoaster of emotions, but strangely I found a peace I had been missing since March 11th — I still don’t quite understand the effect that Oshika-hanto had on me but I think I started to fall in love with it. And who can ever explain the whys and hows of falling in love?
To the left I saw half a house standing, with someone walking around outside it. I asked Andy to stop and was out of the truck door almost before he’d come to a halt. I ran up through the rubble toward the house, remembering stories of how dangerous the wreckage was just in time to miss jumping on a huge nail pointing upwards — I had had a tetanus shot and bought metal-soled wellies just in case but didn’t want to waste the time rummaging around trying to find them so was still wearing my Diesels.
I cheerily yelled hello, asked how they were doing, and whether they needed anything. I encouraged them to bring their car down to the truck to take whatever they wanted, saying it was all from England and there was plenty of stuff for them and their friends (I hadn’t expected to see cars in such perfect condition amid such carnage until I remembered that this was probably how a lot of people managed to get away and survive). A woman and two men drove down a track road I hadn’t seen before toward our truck.
Before travelling to Tohoku, I had sent my translator, Satomi, some sentences that I had thought might be useful during our trip, including the following:
I went to England and gave talks to schools about what a wonderful country Japan is, and how much I love living here. I showed the children some photographs of how beautiful Japan is. Their parents donated lots of items that could help you in your daily lives. And many of their teachers now want to visit. Please know that England supports you!
Please tell me if you need any of these items: jerry cans, nappies or nappy bags or baby wipes, cans of dry shampoo, nail clippers, any medical items, cling film, garbage bags, dust/surgical masks, cotton buds, food items, sanitary towels, brand new underwear, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and children’s toys, games, and books.
They studied our printout with the translation, pointed out what they needed, and we loaded up their car. The fruit and vegetables were a huge hit and again we were so pleased to have taken that cash up with us. Two men in overalls soon joined us and also studied our “mission statement.” We assumed they were from the neighbourhood until they explained they were JCB-operators from Yokohama, who had volunteered their time to help clear the area. They were to become the ONLY volunteers we came across over the entire 40 miles we ended up driving in total on that part of Oshika-hanto, but connecting with them was going to turn out to be invaluable when we encountered them unexpectedly once more.
TO BE CONTINUED