Leaving Tokyo on the bullet train was a rush of emotions. Tokyo had felt like a holiday and now zooming out in to the wide expanse of scattered, seemingly nowhere towns into the unknown was wild and scary and very exciting.
Mountains cover a lot of Japan, thick, bristly, vast, overwhelming mountains; they made me gasp in awe when we first started zooming past them on the Shinkansen. Snow became thicker and thicker on the ground and we found ourselves in a Christmas card of a wonderland. Landscapes flitted by. Industrial towns barely visible in the snow appeared in the gaps between the peaks, chugging tirelessly along on the back of local logging factories.
Finally, after a minor hiccup (which involved going too far on the train and ending up in Shinjo, on the other side of the Japan Alps – three hours away), we arrived in Shichighama to our host Taka’s welcome smiles and warm house.
We were in Basho country, staying in a traditional Japanese house that Taka had renovated himself. He was given it by the government after the tsunami which followed the 2011 Tohoku earthquake that devastated much of the coastline. Shichigahama, which literally means seven beaches, is still trying to recover from the tsunami. On our walk around town the next day it wasn’t hard to find evidence of the damage caused by the ten metre high wave. Men with hard faces worked diligently in impeccable uniforms along the sea front; it was a bleak January day but the tireless job of recreating the fishing port did not stop. Steel bars twisted up out of the concrete pavement, bent by the force of the wave years before. Wasteland bordered the roads.
We found a cafe to shelter in on an estate of houses that looked like they were built in a hurry. Coffee was sipped out of mismatched Japanese cups. Whelks were handed out by the owner who stood over us and watched as we tried to pull the creatures out of the shell in ‘one try’ – it was impossible. He spoke no English but told us endless stories in Japanese, much was lost in translation bar the sadness and tragedy that he felt by the loss of the town he had lived in all of his life. An album of his photographs of the tsunami was produced from behind the counter. He turned the pages at a fast pace, pausing in places of his story which were poignant to him. His house had only missed the wave by a metre or so. He showed us the pictures of the flames that engulfed buildings in the aftermath, the ships tossed by waves to sit on the tops of buildings, people sheltering on roofs surveying the waterlogged nightmare below. I could see from his eyes that I couldn’t understand how he truly felt: over ninety people from Shichigahama died because of the tsunami, six are still missing. I tried to think of my own home town devastated in a similar way, how the loss of so many members of the community would leave a dent for decades to come.
The following day we hiked up to a Shinto shrine, Tamonzan, that overlooked the sea: the view of the islands scattered below is one of four panoramic views of Matsushima, the famous islands that are one of Japan’s top three scenic spots. Sitting to eat lunch on a bench overlooking the seascape the beauty of this famous coastline revealed itself.
We came to Shichigahama to explore the area made famous by Basho and visit Mastushima. Along the way we stumbled through a small town marred by the sadness that the tsunami brought, yet regardless of the scars on the landscape and on the local people’s faces, it was the tenacious will to carry on that made it feel as if we had discovered the spirit of Japan.