Hachinohe, Japan. 11th November 2014.
When Sae, my friend’s Japanese wife, suggested I visit the Tsunami hit areas on the north east coast, I wasn’t at all sure about it. The idea of sightseeing through other people’s tragedy just didn’t make me feel comfortable. But Sae insisted I should. Her reasoning was that I would be helping local people by supporting their economy every time I stayed in a hotel or bought a meal. That argument carried enough weight to persuade me to visit the area. And, of course, I was naturally curious.
I headed across country towards the coast from Mutsu, still enjoying the memories of my pleasant stay there. The route led me through Oirase Gorge, noted for its steep sides and plentiful waterfalls. The road was fun to ride although I had woken up that morning feeling a bit queasy and that was affecting my riding. I just wasn’t ‘on it’ and was actually riding a bit too quickly. A couple of nearlies slowed me down somewhat and I stopped to take some photos too, which helped. The lake the river ran into was very pretty, nestling in the surrounding hills, but looked like a lonely place with all the summertime cruise boats moored up for the approaching winter.
In the nearby village I got talking to a middle aged Japanese couple who looked at me in surprise when I took my crash helmet off. They asked me where I was from and when I told them I’d ridden there from London, across Europe and Russia, they asked me my age. No surprise there, it’s become a common question.
Finding the hotel I was aiming for in Hachinohe wasn’t easy. I had headed for the station, as usual, but no hotels there. A friendly security guard led me up to the Tourist Information centre where they directed me to the other station in the town. And there it was.
My GPS was proving to be a bit tricky for finding addresses in Japan, usually about one kilometre out. That’s a lot of buildings! I needed to find a way around that. I’d come to realise that street numbers were tricky things, seeming to contain much more information than just the building number. There could be as many as four numbers, linked by hyphens, as well as a street and area name. The numbers can refer to a Ward and a District as well as an apartment block and the apartment within it. It’s no surprise that the GPS mapping was struggling. I ended up using a system which combined GPS coordinates, Google maps and Google street view. I’d photograph the webpage of the Google info and then use the image on my camera as a map. It worked quite well in the end. Just as well though.
Once the hotels are located the price is usually bearable – £25 – £30 for a single room, and they are well equipped if sometimes small. But they all have the aforementioned luxury toilet seats, free soap and shampoo, and a small water heater. Fortunately they also have an air conditioning unit which doubles as a heater. Autumn in Japan is wet and Japanese rain is easily the wettest I have ever encountered! On one occasion I had everything I’d been wearing or carrying spread across the table and dresser, or hung up on door knobs and curtain rails, hoping it would dry in the thirty degree heat. A morning of heavy rain followed by an afternoon of torrential downpours left me hankering for the Kazakh desert.
But once I reached the north east coast it was easy to forget my slight discomforts. As I write this the fourth anniversary of the Tsunami has just passed. Here’s a reminder of what it was all about.
The Tohoku earthquake of Friday 11th March 2011 was at 9.0 on the Richter scale, Japan’s most powerful and the 4th most powerful ever recorded. The epicentre was 70kms off the coast which meant that the effects on land weren’t so destructive. The big problem was the tsunami (Tsu – port, Nami – wave) that followed it. The seabed rose by 6-8 metres at the earthquake site while a 400km stretch of Japan’s coastline dropped by 0.6 meters – a devastating combination.The tsunami wave was as high as 40 metres in places and the havoc it wreaked was seen on our TV screens. I don’t need to repeat it here. Although the damage has mostly been cleared up there are still signs of it in the abandoned buildings, closed off roads and depopulated areas.
Worldwide, the tsunami affected coastal areas on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in the Americas, but the anticipated huge waves thankfully didn’t materialise. However, the earthquake was powerful enough to have some effects that most of us won’t have realised. Parts of Japan moved closer to America by as much as 2.4 metres while off the coast the seabed rose by 3 metres. The redistribution of mass on the Earth’s surface resulted in small changes to its rate of rotation. The planet’s axis shifted by between 10 and 25cm and the speed of rotation increased, shortening the day by 1.8 microseconds. Some GPS locator beacons had to be reset as a result.
All very interesting but pretty much irrelevant to the Japanese people who lost relatives, homes and livelihoods.
As of now, the appalling statistics include: nearly 16,000 deaths; over 2,500 missing; over 16,000 injured; well over 1 million buildings damaged; insured losses up to US$35 billion. Another major problem was the damage to three of the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear plant. The effects of this are still ongoing. Perfectly good houses and business premises have simply been abandoned, probably for hundreds of years. The whole nuclear industry is in a state of flux worldwide, and in crisis in Japan.
None of these figures can demonstrate the human cost. Just think how many wrecked lives and livelihoods lie within the statistics relating to the number of deaths, injuries and buildings damaged.
Riding down through the affected areas brought it home to me in a way that the TV pictures never could. The areas close to the coast are completely cleared of buildings and in some places there are simply large, flat areas with nothing on them at all. As I rode into the towns within the affected area I could see signs that gave information as to how far in front of, and behind, the sign the tsunami struck. In other places there were signs warning that the area could potentially be affected in a future Tsunami. The rain of the previous couple of days had cleared and the sunny weather completely belied the way that nature can turn on us within moments.
At one point I turned off the main road and rode along a narrow road which ran between a cliff and the shore. There were notices advising drivers and pedestrians the distance to the nearest escape routes up the cliff. This gave me a really spooky feeling and I couldn’t help but glance out to sea every so often, checking for large waves. It was a strange feeling to ride in and then out of the previous, and likely affected areas as the road went up and down the hills and valleys of the coastline.
There is a huge amount of work taking place in these areas. Japan has a very good tsunami protection system. There are early warning systems where text messages get sent out (for earthquakes too) and there are seawall type barriers along the coast. On this occasion the tsunami was so big that it overwhelmed everything. People who had received warnings headed for higher ground which simply wasn’t high enough. I suppose these systems can only be based on previous experience.
So it was no surprise to see works in place to strengthen and raise seawalls and also to understand why some of the devastated areas hadn’t been rebuilt on. There is a massive project under way to build what look to be hills that I assume are designed to reduce the speed and reach of any future wave. They are flat topped, with sloping sides, and have been grassed over. They will have trees planted on them too. They are probably 15 metres tall, 100 meters long and 50 metres wide. The work is so extensive that in several areas the earth is being quarried out of the local hillsides and conveyor mechanisms have been built to transport it. These projects are big! Had I been able to see them from above I think I would have seen them laid out rather like the blocks on a bar of chocolate. That’s what they reminded me of from the ground.
The national and local governments are making decisions about zoning certain areas so that in some there will be no building allowed; in others only commercial premises; in a third group domestic buildings. The problems around this approach relate to people who want their land back or compensation for not being able to use it. Many will simply not want to return to such a high risk area. The problems are endless and solutions costly. All I could do was to feel sympathy and also do what Sae suggested, which was to spend time and money in the area so as to support local people and businesses.
One of the bigger cities in the area is Sendai. Its port area was badly affected but I headed into the city centre, looking for a hostel whose address I had. As usual, the street wasn’t on the GPS so instead I toured round the hotels looking for one which wasn’t full and I could afford. No joy. Eventually I came to an APA Hotel where they allowed me to use their wi-fi to double check the location. I pin pointed a hotel near to the hostel and the APA reception gave me a map which had the hotel marked on it. Step by step, I was getting closer! At that hotel (full) they marked the location of the hostel on my map and after a bit of chasing my tail I found it. My one fear was that it would be full but I was in luck, they had a bed.
OK, next question was where to park the bike. The hostel people told me of an underground bike parking garage nearby. I found it eventually and had to ask a taxi driver to move so I could get onto the pavement and up to the entrance. Odd. They drive on the left in Japan so I started to take the bike down the ramp on the left hand side of the entrance. I quickly realised I’d made a mistake because the steep ramp had no room between it and the wall for me. I sat there on the bike, a few feet onto the ramp, stuck. Suddenly the ramp started to move and I was shot backwards onto the pavement. Luckily I hung on OK. I turned tail and rode off, defeated by a system I couldn’t deal with. A bit of thought got me to realise that I should have put the bike on the right hand ramp and walked down the steps on the left hand side of it. The ramp on the left was for people coming up, who would have done the same thing. The up ramp moves because you’re not supposed to sit on the bike while it goes up or down. So simple when you know how, and very clever. I also realised that the garage was designed for cycles and scooters, not overlanders with luggage. I don’t think I would have made it down there even if I had gone about it the right way.
Back at the hostel I saw a couple of cars parked in the street so I put my bike between them, covered it up and hoped for the best. It wasn’t very long before a couple of policemen knocked at the hostel making it clear I needed to move it. The area was very busy, with small clubs and restaurants. It had typically narrow, busy streets. Think Soho. No street parking allowed. The policemen told me to follow them and that I had to wheel my bike. They walked me along a few streets, including some that were one-way, and showed me a bike specific street level car park. I had to wheel my bike into a bay and pass a chain through the front wheel. The chain locked into a clamp on the wall. As soon as I’d done that the machine attached to it started the clock ticking and I would have to pay to get it released. A clever system, I thought. The first two hours were free and then it was Y300 (about £1.75) per 8 hours thereafter. For Japan, very cheap. Very helpful of the police to take me there and not to give me hassle about the illegal parking. They wrote down all my passport details, although I’m not sure why.
By the time I was back at the hostel and settled in I was exhausted. Riding into Sendai had involved a typical Japanese scenario of about 25kms of endless towns and traffic lights. I put my London rider skills to good use but even so, it was still an arduous journey. My resolve not to use the expensive Expressways any more was weakening.
I slept in next day, feeling a bit under the weather. But I’d booked two nights at the hostel, and I wanted to look around the town, so I headed out to find the museum. The walk down to the river on a crisp autumn day did me good and the museum was located in a nice park. I had a pleasant couple of hours discovering the history of the area although the audio guide I got was pretty useless because very few of the numbers on the exhibits matched anything to the guide.
However I did learn about the first Japanese envoy ever to visit the Pope. This was at a time when Japan was coming out of its isolationist period and was starting to welcome western visitors and diplomats to the country. They built a ship in the European style and the envoy travelled to Rome, was received favourably by the Pope, and then travelled back. He had been supported in his mission by the King of Spain and his journey took him seven years, going via Spain and Mexico. By the time he returned the Japanese had started persecuting Christians. Oops! Even so, his mission was deemed successful and he gained notoriety and good fortune from it.
Up at the top of the hill was the site of the castle and on the way up there I got chatting to a guy who was directing traffic around the roadworks. He spoke good English and we chatted about where I’d come from and about London. He was about my age and seemed to be one of the many older people I’d seen who do this kind of work. There’s legions of people who wave illuminated red sticks, or red, white and green flags at traffic. They’re always there at roadworks or the entrances to building sites and seem to be part of an army of semi retired people who can’t, or don’t want to let work go. On the Expressway I had seen some automatic versions of these people with electrically waved arms holding a flag. They made me feel quite annoyed on behalf of the real people who were being denied gainful employment because of it! The castle was closed for renovation but the view was great and I felt much better after the walk there and back.
I only had time to visit that one area although Sendai has quite a few noteworthy places, including an important shrine and the Miyagi Museum of art. The city has a hop on, hop off bus service called The Loople. It enables the visitor to take a tour and visit any of the city’s special sites.
I’d picked up a leaflet about a nice steak restaurant that was near the hostel and when I told the people there where I was heading to they said it was rather an expensive place. ‘Not at thirteen hundred Yen’ I said. They quickly pointed out that the leaflet actually said thirteen thousand Yen. They laughed, I slunk away to Lawsons to buy another noodle meal. My method of preparing these meals also raised a chuckle among the friendly and English speaking crowd at the bar. I seemed to be breaking the rules.
Next day’s plan was to ride further down the coast to Iwaki then cut inland to Nikko, which was on the way to Tokyo, and stay the night there. When I went to get the bike the front tyre was half flat so I pumped it up and kept my fingers crossed. Back at the hostel the staff came out to wave me off. I thought that was nice of them but I think I’d been good entertainment value and I’d enjoyed being there.
It goes without saying that crossing your fingers and hoping rarely works and it wasn’t long before I was stopping outside a 7-11 to fix the puncture. This delayed me enough that I decided to stay the night at Iwaki instead of Nikko so I carried on down the coast seeing pretty much the same sights as I had during the previous days. And then things started to get a bit strange.
I’d been making good progress when suddenly I was being waved down by a guy in uniform with a red stick. Just past him was another guy who stopped me and led me to a pull-in on the other side of the road. Waiting there was a police van with about six policemen. What had I done?!? A little earlier I’d passed a turning where another uniformed guy had given me a hard look as I rode by. Was I speeding? Had he radioed ahead? Nothing quite that drastic. One of the policemen spoke English and he explained that I could go no further along this road. I had strayed into a zone that had been affected by radiation from the leak at Fukushima nuclear plant. Gulp! Only closed in vehicles were allowed to use the road down to Iwaki. No pedestrians, no bicycles and no motorcycles. This stuck me as daft. If there’s a radiation risk would being in a car or truck make you any safer? I didn’t get it.
In any event, I was going no further. Japanese officials are always polite so they politely took my details and then politely turned me round the way I had come. They politely explained that I should head for the town of Fukushima and then go inland. In a funny kind of way I felt quite special, as if I was in a scene from a film or something.
As I headed back towards Sendai, things began to make a bit more sense. I noticed that many of the buildings were abandoned. Some where still damaged, others just closed up. There was grass and weeds growing around them and also along the side of the road. All very un-Japanese. I assumed that radiation was preventing them from being pulled down. It was clear that some businesses had needed to close, because of damage, yet others were still open and seemed to be doing OK. I figured that some people had just given up and moved out. So the reason for being turned round was becoming clearer to me. It wasn’t to do with contaminated air, as I’d first assumed, but more to do with contaminated land and probably buildings. So the threat was greater for those in the open air than those in an enclosed vehicle, which probably have pollen filters which would remove dust. That was what I concluded anyway although I may well be wrong.
As advised, I headed for Fukushima but when I got to the turning – guess what? A man waving a red stick, displaying the crossed arms signal. Road closed. It was starting to get late so I headed to the nearest town, found the station and then discovered that every hotel I tried – at least half a dozen – was full. Didn’t they like me? I was starting to get paranoid! At the next town, Soma, I finally found a place. I asked about the price, decided it was a bit dear and went to the only other hotel to see if it was cheaper. It may have been, but it was full. Back to the first one to find that he’d now dropped the price by 400 Yen. Surprised but pleased, I checked in.
That evening,as I reflected on my ride down the coast, my thoughts turned away from the minor inconveniences I’d suffered and towards what I’d seen. The Japanese governments have, over the years, developed strategies to deal with earthquakes and tsunamis. Early warning systems, quake resistant buildings, stronger sea walls, evacuation plans. But this was a once in 1,000 years event and was just too much for existing systems to handle. Four years on, it’s easy to forget what it was like. I’d seen the huge swathes of land denuded of habitation, the areas where contamination will prevent future occupation for probably hundreds of years and the efforts to deal with the next tsunami. I was pleased that Sae suggested I go there and I hope the few thousand yen I spent has helped a bit. Even so, four years on from the event the hidden costs are still being felt by the people who not only lost their homes and loved ones but their communities too. I can only hope that, eventually, they will find peace of mind.