Sendai Rising From the Wreckage

Mr. Akawa—Akawa-san—apologizes as he pulls the taxi over to the shoulder of the two-lane highway. “I must change my uniform when we enter the disaster zone. Company regulations.” He gets out of the car, takes off the dark blue suit coat of his driver’s uniform, and replaces it with a “disaster casual” ensemble—an immaculate white denim jacket, sleeves pressed into a knife crease. Then he gets back behind the wheel, gripping it with hands covered by white gloves. We drive on.

I have to hold myself back from chuckling at his quick change—it’s so Japanese, making sure that the form and appearance is right, even in the worst possible situation. Nothing could be worse than what we’re driving through at the moment. This area, the low, flat coastal plain between the city of Sendai and the Pacific Ocean, is the closest landfall to the epicenter of the offshore 9.0 earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11. Because the shoreline around here follows a nearly straight line, with no bays or inlets, the tsunami roared through with full power, not just once, but three times.

Even after four months, it’s a mess of Augean proportion: uprooted pine trees, splintered wood beams, crumpled abandoned cars, wooden fishing boats tipped on their side, trying to sail away on a sea of mud. Your first reaction is to throw up your hands in desperation—how on earth do you begin cleaning this up? But the Japanese have passed that shock stage, and have whipped themselves into action: a squadron of earth movers is busy, steadily organizing the endless wreckage into tidy haystack-like hills. “This was the town of Natori.” Akawa-san points over to a spot on the eastern, coastal side of the highway. There’s nothing there but a solitary house without walls, its soggy furnishings and books spilling out the way junk tumbles from an overstuffed closet.

I’m exploring recovering Japan as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organization. Tourism here dropped through the floor in the first three months after what’s now being called the “Triple Disaster”—earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima. The tourism board was so eager for upbeat stories they offered to send me anywhere I wanted over the course of a week. I emailed them a decidedly non-upbeat itinerary: Sendai, Fukushima, Tokyo. To my surprise, and to their credit, they said no problem. A few weeks later, in July, I was on a Shinkansen speeding north from Tokyo to Sendai.

Akawa-san has a leathery complexion and a broad crinkly smile that he flashes a lot, in that Asian way, where a smile can either mean that something is funny or that the smiler is nervous and at a loss for what to say. He’s in his mid-60s and has been driving a taxi for the same local company for 35 years. In Japan’s famously aging society, jobs that in other parts of Asia would be filled by twenty- or thirtysomethings—drivers, cleaners, wait-staff—are often performed by elders. Akawa-san tells me he’s lived in Sendai all his life, and I’m not surprised.

All the landmarks swept away by the tsunami still seem visible to him—along with things that disappeared from the landscape centuries before. “We’re on Route 4, also called the Sanrikudo. The highway follows the route of an old road to Edo (Tokyo) hundreds of years old.”

Everyone from shoguns to peasants traveled this route in the time of Date Masamune, the legendary northern Japanese daimyo (literally, “Big Personage,” a strongman) who founded Sendai around 1600. (The date is doing his part for the recovery. His cartoon image, featuring his trademark eye patch, is the very kawaii mascot on all the posters downtown exhorting citizens to work hard to rebuild the Tohoku region.) Date Masumune established his Sendai castle, according to Japanese custom, not by the sea but at a more propitious location inland, atop the highest hill. Sendai city, which sprang up around this fortress, is now a snug, modern, mostly low-rise metropolis that bears only minor traces of the big disaster. (This is mainly because it was rebuilt from scratch, and with concrete and steel, after an earlier, man-made one: American bombing flattened industrial Sendai during World War II.) This coastal area was left to the fishermen and their villages—until recently, that is.

“The real-estate prices out here were cheaper than in Sendai city,” Akawa-san explains. “So this became a popular area to live. It was considered healthier to be by the sea, so elderly people moved here, and nursing homes.” I don’t have time for the sadness of this to sink in, for at this moment we pull up in front of Sendai Airport. This is the very airport that was swallowed by a sickly black hand of water in the horrifying tsunami video that went viral in March.

The first thing I notice is that the main terminal has an unfortunately prescient architectural motif: a steel roof that rolls and undulates, like an ocean wave. The next thing I notice is that—amazingly—the airport is back up and running. The whine and clatter of construction fills the air, and hard-hatted workers, in very cool-looking baggy trouser ensembles (is there anyone in Japan who doesn’t know how to wear a uniform with panache?), shuttle to and fro among clutches of passengers. Full services, Akawa-san says proudly, will resume next month.

I’m expecting us to drive north now and head up the coast—we’re supposed to visit Matsushima, a nearby sheltered bay with 260 islands that mostly escaped the tsunami and is one of the most beloved scenic spots in all Japan. (The haiku poet Basho, dumbstruck by the natural beauty of the place, penned his famous 17-syllable ode to ecstasy: “Ah Matsushima! Ah ah Matsushima ah! Matsushima ah!”)

But Akawa-san keeps driving east, toward the coast, without explaining why. We pass more desolation, more wrecked cars, more half-standing houses with beams exposed, and then we come to a roadblock with more guys in hard hats. After some discussion, they wave us through. Finally, Akawa-san pulls off the road, into what’s left of a small parking lot, and stops the car.

It isn’t until we get out that I understand why he’s taken me all the way out here. Turning around, I see the tall rounded mound behind us, the stairs leading up to the traditional Shinto torii, or gate, hung with a rope from which folded white paper zig-zag strips are fluttering like tiny birds in the wind. At once a chill wraps its arms around me, a cold embrace that anyone who’s lived anywhere in Asia knows well. This is the home of the village spirits, the portal between the lands of the living and the dead.

“The tsunami destroyed everything in this village except the shrine,” Akawa-san tells me, discreetly omitting the second part of the equation—what happened to everyone? We climb the stairs, and he points out the broken stumps of the original torii’s pillars—the tsunami’s power easily swept away the 10-foot stone gate. Unseen hands have replaced it with a rough-hewn torii fashioned from pine saplings. At the foot is an unopened plastic supermarket bag of salt. Akawa-san shakes his head. The salt is a symbol of purification, meant to be scattered on the ground or arranged carefully in little cone piles. Someone came and left in a big hurry—or was too distraught to observe all the ritual details of prayer.

Up on the hill, gnarled to a picture-perfect configuration, a sacred pine tree watches over the space where the village used to be. Akawa-san, silent, flashes his smile, but it’s not a happy one this time. We stand there for a while, on the high ground, looking out across the wreckage, the mud, the emptiness, and—for the first time since coming to Sendai—I can see the Pacific Ocean in the distance, gray, coiled, and looming. That’s when it hits me: Akawa-san hasn’t just brought me here to see the shrine. He’s brought me to this hill because it is, like Matsushima, a “scenic” spot, the most aesthetically pleasing viewpoint from which to observe the terrible things that happened here. In Japan, even tragedy finds beauty. Ah ah, tsunami, ah.