After about 6 hours of traveling, we arrived at Kamaishi station as that was as far as one can get by train now. The 2011 tsunami destroyed the local train line to Yamada so badly and in so many places, it has been decided not to rebuild that line. What a shame. Emi and Vinny were about to get their first glimpse of the aftermath but first we needed to catch a taxi to the car rental shop.
We settled into the cab and as we pulled out of the station Vinny noticed a sign on the street corner. As he struggled to remember his high school and university Japanese courses he said, “does that sign mean the tsunami came this far?” Emi and I read the sign in Japanese out loud. Then the taxi driver took notice and began his story.
His home was washed away and all the people around him were too. He explained how he tried to reach out and help others floating by, “a wife here, a store owner there, but I just couldn’t grab anyone,” he said. He has been living in temporary housing(kasetsu) for over three years, the first two years in severe depression. I timidly asked if he sometimes saw the tsunami in his dreams and he quickly responded, “nearly every day.” He showed us a picture he had taken from the third floor of his office when he finally climbed there for safety that day. The picture looked as if the third floor was oceanfront property, minus the ‘front.’
At one point he inferred that it was hard to talk about it . By this time Emi and I had been discreetly wiping our tears. I quickly apologized for bringing up the topic and he just as quickly let us know, “Oh no, I have no one to talk to about it. The people in the kasetsu don’t want to re-live it and others who didn’t lose anything don’t engage in discussing it either.”
At that point, the social worker in Emi came out. Vinny and I took her lead and settled in knowing that he needed to talk and we were to listen. The single picture he showed us was in a protective plastic folder conveniently stored behind the visor. We suspected we weren’t the first to share in his precious experience. Nonetheless, time stopped for us and we experienced it again with him.
We bowed and thanked him and waved as he drove away. The three of us took a deep collective sigh and stood in silence until the polite car rental lady cracked a joke with him as he left. “Do you know him?” I asked her as she guided me to the reception desk. “Oh yes,” she answered with a knowing tender smile.
The drive up the coast with my daughter and her soon-to-be fiancé was rewarding in a strange way. She had lived here for a short period of time as a child with her father and grandparents and has memories I cannot know. She also was the first to say, “Mom, we must do something,” as soon as we heard the news of the tsunami and stayed up all night watching one newly posted YouTube after another from our home in the US.
Shortly after the earthquake, I followed her lead and we proceeded as best we could to create this website to inform our friends of the efforts in the aftermath. Yamada serves as a microcosm of the total devastated area. We also gathered humble donations from friends and family members and tried to find a special way to help. I often think our efforts were more cathartic for us and all those who helped the citizens of Yamada more than anyone we may have helped… but so be it.
Vinny was just as moved is Emi, remarking at the newly posted signs informing the height of the tsunami along the coastal drive. “We would literally be underwater here,” he kept repeating in horrid amazement. They both began pointing out colorful festival (omatsuri) gatherings, where once thriving towns used to stand. Some areas looked like checkerboards of cement bases where buildings once stood, outlined in green weeds and scattered sunflowers. In the middle of this no mans land would be an event tent, where the surviving participants would gather to perform the music and dances that have been passed down from previous generations. The sparse splashes of color and sound brought life to a dead zone.
We finally slowed down to turn into the town of Yamada. It had been a few years since I had driven in Japan and I suspect my back-seat drivers were a bit nervous. By now, I had almost re-mastered which side was for the blinker (or as my husband calls it, the winker) and which side was for the wipers. The roads narrowed and my two co-pilots continued to remind me what side of the road I was to be on.
As we pulled up the gravel road and stopped in front of the Horiai property, everything became quiet and we all breathed a sigh relief. Now to meet the family.
Years ago, my niece Katie came and visited Toshiaki’s family. As we were leaving and saying our good-bye’s, Katie naturally went to Toshiaki’s Mom (Obaachan)and hugged her goodbye. My children had never done this before with this grandma and quickly followed suit. I joined in as if that’s the way we always said goodbye. We all looked at Tochan thinking he might cave. He has picked-up on the American hugging culture early in our marriage and never seemed to have a problem with it. But even with Katies guidance he slightly bowed with his head to his mother and said, “See ya later”.
Nearly 16 years have passed since that hugging scene; however, it appeared to have prepared Obaachan for this next encounter. Obaachan and Toshiaki quickly slid into their shoes to greet us as Ojiichan shuffled to the front of the house to catch the action through the window. Toshiaki, now a long-time hugger, held Emi so tight he could’ve squeeze the air out of her. Next was Obaachan’s turn to hug Emi. Just like Katie years prior, Vinny didn’t skip a beat and hugged Obaachan, whose face came barely up to his chest. Everyone was greeting, talking and smiling so nobody noticed Vinny mentally scrolling through this Japanese 101. Ohayo? Konnichiwa? Oh wait, Yoroshi… I quickly whispered into his ear, “hajimemashite.” He repeated it with the tone that screamed ‘that’s it’! The direct translation for hajimemashite is it’s nice to meet you, but really only to be said the first time you meet someone.
We made our way up into the house and everyone made small talk while Vinny nervously untied his laced-up boots in the doorway. It reminded me of my first visit to this home nearly 3 decades ago with my Cyndi Lauper hairdo and my studded boots. I imagined Obaachan and Ojiichan must’ve been thinking how will this relationship ever work.
Eventually, Vinny made it into the house and followed Emi and I to greet the ancestors at the family altar. Toshiaki had been there a couple days now and had made his greetings already. So I, making myself useful and feeling pretty confident said, “just follow my lead guys.” I proceeded to almost tip over the bowl of ashes that held the incense, couldn’t remember if I was to use matches to light the incense then the candles or vice a versa and then tapped the bowl a bit too hard and proudly clapped my hands three times. Toshiaki chuckled and said that’s for visiting the temple and no need for that here. Emi was smirking as if she knew she would certainly do a better job and make her grandparents proud, now that her mom had made all the faux pas’s. I sheepishly mumbled to Vinny, “better to follow her lead instead.”
The rest of the day was beautiful too. It was great weather so we drove along the coast, all the while three out of four of us nervous and excited about the events to come. The show producer in me wanted to make suggestions, help plan and assist Vinny in finding his moment for his proposal, but I refrained and allow things to unfold for the two of them.
That evening during the festival Vinny snuck away with Emi to a dark hilltop above the festival site. They were serenaded by traditional Japanese music in the background, while anxious parents awaited the answer below. At the end of that day I couldn’t decide which was my most favorite moment, seeing Emi and her father hug, the relief on Vinny’s face that Emi said yes or the joy of watching Toshiaki wake his parents to give them all the details of the proposal and their joyous reception of the extended diverse family.
As we left the house the next day, there were smiles, hugs and more greetings of hajimemashite. Just like the Yamada landscape, our lives are imperfect and unpredictable. We can be torn apart with challenges beyond our imaginations and yet we can rebuild our lives and still find joy, love and laughter if we pay attention.