Last day on Oshika

My last day on Oshika. And Ohara’s much-loved bus shelter was moved today. Yes the entire building was lifted by a massive crane and moved to a temporary spot, while the land on which we built the bus shelter is raised.

It took five hours for the shelter to be moved. There were comments about how this was made in a different way to buildings made by local carpenters, so they had to try different techniques to be able to lift it from its concrete foundations. Saitama-based Asako-san did a fantastic job of making a strong, sturdy building years ago, and it really did not want to be moved. But eventually the local people working today got the bus shelter on to the truck and up to its temporary location. It will later be moved to a spot along the new bus route.

For five and a half years this building has provided a safe shelter for people to wait, or to share a coffee and look out at the beautiful view of the sea, even if they weren’t going anywhere. Its comfy sofas, pictures on the walls, and cosy cushions have provided a home-like environment at a time when people here didn’t have one. It’s luxurious design (as bus stops go!) has provided many a conversation for people on and off the peninsula, right from the day we started building it when locals would pull over and ask what we were doing. It has become legendary, with tourists stopping by to take photos, and as I recently heard, one Tokyo professor regularly telling his international students about this unusual bus shelter in the middle of nowhere in Tohoku, and built by a woman who came all the way from England.

I am reminded of the story behind the bus shelter … of how the local government refused Kucho-san’s regular pleas for a little bus stop to protect people from the harsh weather, of how this in itself annoyed me enough to become determined to build one … a very special one. Of how Takahashi-san allowed his land to be used, because it would be too much trouble to ask the local government to use their land on the other side of the road. Of how I heard about Takahashi-san’s story … an elderly man who grew up on this spot, and later lived with his wife with whom he ran a ramen shop for their whole lives together. And of how he begged his wife to join him on the roof of their home as the tsunami surged through the village. And of how he was swept inland, standing on the roof of his home, clinging to an aerial. His wife’s body was found days later.

When I first met Takahashi-san I recognised him as the man who walked around Ohara every day, who rarely smiled, but after a while he managed a little wave when he saw me. When I heard his story it broke my heart. And I offered to brighten up the tatty wooden storage building someone had made for him next to where the bus stop would be, the building in which he stored all the memorabilia that had been recovered from his life before the disaster. I ended up painting his building bright blue, and covering it with massive red and white hearts. Just another heart here, and another heart there. I couldn’t stop. I had wanted him, and everyone here who saw the heart building, to know they were loved.

Takahashi-san visited me yesterday. He doesn’t live in Ohara anymore. He lives over an hour away. He didn’t know anybody when he moved to Higashi-Matsushima, but now he has three friends. He talks to his daughter on the phone every day, and says that his granddaughter is doing very well. He misses Yukio-san, his nextdoor neighbour before the tsunami, and asks me to give him some strawberries he’s brought with him but can’t wait to give them personally because he wants to get back before it’s dark.

He apologises that the heart building is no longer there. It had to be pulled down to make way for raising the land. I tell him that it doesn’t matter. And then he talks and talks about how much fun it was to watch me painting all those hearts, and how he still can’t believe that anybody would do such a thing. So many hearts. He laughs and laughs at the memories of me painting that building for him. And I remember how people said that Takahashi-san started smiling again after his building was covered in hearts.

At ten o’clock that night Takahashi-san’s daughter calls me. She says that her father did not stop talking about me for one whole hour that evening. And she thanks me for still making him smile.

I am not sad that the heart building had to be pulled down. Instead I am struck by the thought that not everything has to last forever. Just as long as whatever it is — a relationship, an experience, a building, a person — it leaves behind happy, loving, caring, warm memories even after it is gone. I suppose that’s the way it does last forever.

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