Day five – Ohtsuchi. People & Places.

Sun. 25th Sep. It is already two months since I returned from Iwate and I believe the time for dwelling on the destruction is over. Instead, I’d like to focus on the future and what I can do to help the recovery and reconstruction. However, I do have some final photos to share from my visit to Ohtsuchi, and with them some more fond memories of the people who befriended me there.

Ohtsuchi in the snow – from the hills of the KiriKiri Peninsula, Winter 1992

On the day of Ohtsuchi festival, I must have wandered the town on my own for about 4 hours until it got dark. I am a ‘walking’ person and during my first time in Ohtsuchi I spent many a weekend roaming the port, the shrines and the hills on my own. The difference in those days was that wherever I went I would always meet people, and even if I didn’t see them I became used to being conspicuous. I would arrive in school on a Monday morning and my advisor, Mrs. Hiraga, who sat opposite me, would have a steady stream of visiting students to her desk who would whisper and giggle, all the while stealing shy glances in my direction. When they had finished, Mrs. Hiraga would turn to me and report my movements for the entire weekend as observed by the student population and their extended families. There was always great excitement if I was ever seen with anyone, and of course, if it was a girl they would all want to know who she was and whether it was my girlfriend. I started making up weird and wonderful stories, and for a while, was ‘officially’ dating Ishida Hikari, then Uchida Yuko who were two popular TV actresses at the time.

In contrast, as I walked through downtown on this visit I saw no-one except a lone researcher from Tokyo University who told me he was mapping the surviving building structures and trying to work out how that could assist with town planning and construction specifications in ‘tsunami-zone’ towns in the future.

Tokyo University researcher & grassy ruins of downtown Ohtsuchi

I walked the length of Main Street from south to north; from the Elementary School blackened by fire, past the JR Station which was no more than two platforms, through the downtown area and via Pachinko Route 45 to the Town Hall where 30 of 60 employees had died, including the Mayor and almost the entire town council which had gathered on the second floor to direct the emergency operations. Haruko Ogawa, who also worked at the town hall, had returned here after the earthquake and took refuge on the roof as the tsunami engulfed the building. She and the other survivors stayed trapped all night as gas explosions and fires raged throughout the town until they were air-lifted to safety the following morning. Finally, I walked out to the sea wall where the view of the water is now blocked by a two storey pile of debris stretching almost from one side of Ohtsuchi Bay to the other.

South Main Street looking towards the Post Office (centerright) and Elementary School (rear right)
South Main Street in 1992 (Post Office is white building on right & Iwato (岩戸) Eel Restaurant is on left)
Close up of burn out shell of Ohtsuchi Elementary School
Platform of Ohtsuchi Station. The main entrance would have been on the right
Main Entrance to Ohtsuchi Station & taxi rank in 1992
Flowers of remembrance left by a plot in Ohtsuchi downtown
Destroyed firetruck with Ohtsuchi Hospital in the background
Pachinko Route 45 & leaning fire hydrant
Ohtsuchi Town Hall where the clock stopped at 4.16pm
Piles of debris behind the sea wall

During my walk I thought of the people I had known and wondered what had become of them. Most of the towns-people I had known in Ohtsuchi were connected to one of four drinking establishments that I frequented, and frankly there weren’t many more places to frequent, apart from the pachinko parlours. At 9pm every evening after ‘Yesterday’ was played out over the public tannoy system I would set out with my small Japanese dictionary in my back pocket to see who I would meet and whether I would understand a word of what they might say to me.

My first port of call was generally B-Cafe because it was only a matter of a few hundred metres from my house on South Main Street. It was run by a lady called Mi-chan and while I was there I would usually bump into Shiro-san the owner of Iwato’s Eal Restaurant which was just another couple of doors away. I haven’t managed to get any news of Mi-chan, but I did hear that Shiro-san was safe, although he had lost his restaurant which had only just been refurbished.

At B-Cafe with Mi-chan (right) and a couple of Ohtsuchi High School students

My alternative ‘first-stop’ was ’999′ (Three Nines) Cafe which was run by Kariya-san, the mother of one of my students. Another of her daughters, Kaoru, waited the tables and a third daughter, Mami, was in Tokyo, but made regular appearances during school holidays. I have not heard what happened to the Kariya family.

At 999 with my sister & Kaoru, the eldest Kariya daughter

Usually before heading home, I would stop off at Seishibon in front of the station or visit Ohtsuchi’s ‘famous’ Jazz Bar.

Seishibon was a classic Japanese hole-in-the-wall ‘Snack’ Bar with only enough room for a few people to sit side by side at the counter and a Mama-san. It was never busy, but most of the clientel were older men who would sing enka on the karaoke machine and drink whisky and water. I can’t for the life of me remember how I first went there, but I do remember that the Mama-san had an attractive niece who would occasionally help out and which was the reason I kept going back! The bar is gone now with the rest of Ohtsuchi Station of course, and I heard that the Mama-san passed way of natural causes prior to the events of March.

The Jazz Bar, run by Jun-san, was at the far north end of Main Street from where I lived, and if Shiro-san hadn’t been at B-Cafe he would almost certainly be there, with Abe-san who worked at the Town Hall just across the street. It was another tiny bar, but there was a back room where all the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with shelves of albums which made the whole place feel even more like an Aladdin’s cave for jazz lovers. I heard from the Master of the Town hall Jazz Bar in Kamaishi that Jun-san was safe and living inland, and that there was a national campaign driven by Japan’s network of jazz bars and jazz lovers to raise money to help Jun-san reestablish his bar.

With Shiro-san at Ohtsuchi Jazz Bar
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