Day three (part 2) – The Coast (Miyako to Namiita)

Fri, 23rd Sep. From Jodogahama we headed back into the centre of Miyako and then turned onto Route 45 south heading for Kamaishi just over 50 miles away.

Route 45. A frustratingly beautiful, winding road which hugs the coast from Aomori in the far north all the way to Sendai. If ever there is a rival to California’s Highway 1 this is it. What a front row seat at the terrible events of March 11. it must have had, linking as it does, every town and village along the ravaged coast.

I have traveled every mile of Route 45 at one time or other and in every fashion. Perhaps the most memorable was when I hitchhiked to Sapporo and back with Kevin, Yves and another UK JET, Ruth. That was pure adventure, but there was also a much more emotional road trip – my final as a JET in Tohoku with Kevin, Yves,  Katie and Paula – when we drove down to Ishinomaki and the Oshika Peninsula in Miyagi staying on the Island of Kinkazan at its very tip. Those are both separate stories all together (and maybe I’ll get round to telling them at some point).

Hitchhiking Route 45 in the rain. Somewhere north of Kuji heading south. Would you have given this guy a ride? Nov. 1992

Miyako

We couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather at Jodogahama but as we headed south it clouded over and started to rain again. The heavy, overcast skies and drizzle accentuating an already depressing view. We skirted Miyako port and followed the low sea wall along a narrow strip of land with damaged buildings on both sides. There were some signs of activity and fishing boats ready for work in the port but no people in sight (perhaps explained by the fact it was a public holiday).

Miyako Port
From Miyako Port looking north across Miyako Bay
Miyako Port
Route 45 South. Miyako
A favourite Route 45 date-spot. The Ijin-kan Cafe with Mt. Junijin beyond.  Miyako

As we headed south we lost sight of the open sea beyond the bulk of the Mt. Junijin Peninsula. However, even this hadn’t been able to prevent the tsunami from penetrating deep along this southerly strip of Miyako Bay. I was heart-broken to see the ruins of the Ijin-kan Cafe which I had frequented on a regular basis during my second year in Iwate when I started going out with my first Japanese girlfriend. Afraid of the stigma attached to dating a ‘gaijin’ we had always met in secret and generally headed as far out of Ohtsuchi as possible. The Ijin-kan was a quiet, romantic spot with a ‘foreign’ atmosphere and beautiful views across the bay.

Finally, the road started to climb and we left the sea and tsunami damage behind. In its place we encountered our first piles and piles of debris. Six months on, the devastated areas have been cleared of rubble and although they are now sad, empty places, there is an air of order and cleanliness about them. That gives a false impression and hides the utter chaos of the immediate post-tsunami landscape. Only when you see the mountains of twisted rubble which were once buildings, factories, homes, livelihoods and possessions do you begin to understand the scale of what took place and feel the utter powerlessness of man against the forces of nature…

Piles of debris with Mt. Junijin beyond. Route 45 South. Miyako

Rikuzen Yamada/Funakoshi

As we dropped down the south side of the Mt. Junijin Peninsula a familiar sight came into view – Yamada Bay punctuated by Ojima (large) and Kojima (small) Islands and a web of (I believe) farmed oyster and scallop beds. From a distance, and through the increasingly heavy rain, it looked as if nothing had changed since the last time I had gazed upon the scene in 1994. It is still one of the most beautiful views I have seen in my life and it is etched in my memory due to the fact that I only used to see it in the early morning as the sun was rising and in the late afternoon as the sun was setting on my way to and from Yamada High School. I also recall that some of my students lived on the islands and used to come to school by ferry across the bay. I wondered what had happened to the people still living there.

Oshima and Kojima Islands, Yamada Bay
Broken sea wall. Yamada

It was already well past lunchtime but we had lost track of all time and it was impossible to guess the hour from the sky which was almost black. We decided to push on through heavily damaged Rikuzen Yamada as I no longer have any acquaintances left in the town, and having come this far – and despite an increasing sense of foreboding – both Yuka and I were keen to reach Ohtsuchi and Kamaishi.

However, I did want to make one small detour out onto the Funakoshi Peninsula. If Yamada Bay is one of my favourite views, the Funakoshi Peninsula has some of the best beaches I’ve visited – the water is pristine and clear enough to rival the most celebrated south sea destinations. Whenever I used to visit in the summer there would always be gangs of young boys fishing and diving for abundant shell-fish and crabs. The road skirting the peninsula to the south was so low to the water that it almost felt like you were driving in the sea, and so narrow that if anything came in the opposite direction you often felt like you were going to end up in it! It terminated at a shrine beyond which you could only go by foot. Despite the scenic beauty I was always slightly wary of this path as I will never forget clambering up some rocks one day only to come face-to-face with a couple of extremely poisonous Mamushi Pit Vipers (the same ones that you will often find inside a bottle of shochu rice vodka in these parts to increase the potency of the brew due to a chemical reaction with the snakes venom).

The reality of Funakoshi today however is very different. Like a dream, but in fact a nightmare. Think Aliens or Terminator and you have exactly the scene that I saw – with the rain pounding down in torrents and giants trucks laden with debris thundering passed on pot-holed roads.

The entire area of land connecting the mainland to the peninsula had been converted into one gigantic waste pile separated into general debris, cars, boats, telegraph poles… Even in this inclement weather the power shovels high up on the waste piles continued hard at work, although they didn’t appear to be making any headway against the sheer volume of twisted, tangled wood, metal, concrete, furniture, appliances…

Meanwhile, I was snapping away with my camera with the window wide open until the inside of our car was as wet and muddy as the outside (sorry Yuka). In the end we turned back and didn’t make it to the shrine. The visibility was just too bad and the roads too damaged. We headed back onto Route 45 and the set off on the last 24km towards tonight’s hotel in Kamaishi. Next stop my home town, Ohtsuchi.

Broken tsunami wall, Funakoshi Peninsula
Derelict building behind the tsunami wall. Funakoshi Peninsula
Tsunami gate and port in rain. Funakoshi Peninsula
Ready to get back to work. Funakoshi Peninsula
Broken sea wall. Funakoshi Peninsula
Broken sea wall. Funakoshi Peninsula
Derelict fishing boats in torrential rain. Funakoshi Peninsula
Stranded fishing boat on tsunami wall. Funakoshi Peninsula
Stranded fishing boat on tsunami wall with rain falling. Funakoshi Peninsula
Piles of debris. Funakoshi Peninsula
More piles of debris. Funakoshi Peninsula
Leaving Funakoshi Peninsula in the driving rain. 24 miles to Kamaishi

Namiita

Having left Funakoshi the rain subsided as quickly as it had started, and looking back we saw a rainbow rising out of the sea and arching over the peninsula. Perhaps a sign that this place could return to its former glory after all…

Rainbow across Funakoshi Bay

Coming from the north the first of Ohtsuchi’s communities that we came to was Namiita at the southern end of the Funakoshi Bay – known for its surfing, its campsite on the beach and the Namiita Kanko Hotel. For me, Namiita held one of my first memories of Ohtsuchi and my last…

Shortly after the beginning of the autumn term in August 1992 Ohtsuchi High School threw me a welcome party at the Namiita Hotel. As the guest of honour I was subjected to a steady stream of teachers coming to my low table to pour me beer, then sake, which they encouraged me to down in one so the next teacher could refill my glass and repeat the process. I didn’t need much encouragement to drink, but it does leave my memory somewhat hazy on the events of the evening. However, I do remember eating the biggest, most succulent crabs and more sashimi than I had ever previously seen in my life.

The last time I had passed this way was in 2004, when on a RV tour of Tohoku with my wife, I had camped on the beach among the pines. Today, half the pines are missing and the Namiita Hotel is an empty shell with an uncertain future.

Although right on the beach, the Hotel is an impressive and sturdy building, built to take a buffeting from wind and waves. The basement level sits atop the sea wall which rises one storey straight up from the sand. This means that the main entrance lobby is effectively three storeys up from the water. Even so, it s now just a gaping hole framing a picture of the sea beyond. Apparently, the owner refused to leave and died, so it is not clear what the hotel’s future will be. We climbed to the upper car park and looked back over what used to be the patio area and outdoor rotenburo baths facing the sea. These hadn’t been there the last time I visited but it must have been some view to sit in the tub and watch the sun rise from close to the most easterly point on the coast of Honshu.

The Namiita Kanko Hotel
Namiita Kanko Hotel, Main Entrance. Namiita
Namiita Kanko Hotel from the sea. Namiita
Namiita Kanko Hotel. Rotenburo (outdoor bath) and patio. Namiita
Namiita Beach camp ground. Namiita
Broken stand of pines. Namiita camp ground. Namiita

The scene at Namiita was depressing, but the sun suddenly peaked from behind the clouds and lifted our spirits slightly – reminding us that although it was getting on for 4pm we had eaten nothing since breakfast and were hungry. We retraced our steps slightly up the hill away from Namiita to a couple of restaurants – Sun Palace and Kiri Kiri Zenbei – which were well out of harms way and, due to the fact they now are just about the only restaurants operating in Ohtsuchi, they were doing a roaring trade. Even at this time of the afternoon the car park was full of trucks and vans belonging to the many contractors who now reside in the area and are working flat out to aid the recovery and reconstruction process.

Yuka had set herself on a bowl of Iso (sea food) Rahmen so we opted for Kiri Kiri Zenbei and took a window booth with fine views across the southern end of Funakoshi Bay to the Kiri Kiri Peninsula. The mood in the kitchen and among the other diners was jovial – just another afternoon with passing tourists enjoying the public holiday. Almost like nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened…

In search of Iso-rahmen at Kiri Kiri Zenbei Restaurant, Namiita
View across Funakoshi Bay to the Kiri Kiri Peninsula from Kiri Kiri Zenbei restaurant, Namiita
Menu for Iso-rahmen and view of the Kiri Kiri Peninsula
Iso-rahmen. Kiri Kiri Zenbei Restaurant
Yours truly with Iso-rahmen

Then we got back in the car and drove through Namita into the neighbouring community of Kiri Kiri, to be reminded once again what had happened and why we were there. Kiri Kiri had been a dense concentration of houses in a small bay with its own Elementary School and a few shops. It had been completely flattened for a kilometer or so inland from the beach to the point at which the land began to rise and the town miraculously came back into being.

We also followed Route 45 up the hill and entered the Kiri Kiri Tunnel. As we headed into the darkness with the pin-prick of light at the other end getting steadily larger my heart was in my mouth. I knew Ohtsuchi was on the other side but I really didn’t know what I expected to find there…

Kiri Kiri Beach

Ohtsuchi and Kamaishi

To be continued…

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One Response to Day three (part 2) – The Coast (Miyako to Namiita)

  1. Jeremy says:

    Wow. Astounding pics Alan. I am heartened by what you said on the phone the other day that (even though the pics make the devastation very clear), Tohoku is getting back on its feet and is ready to receive visitors in a more ‘normal’ sense. We will make a trip to Tohoku later this year.

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