Kesennuma story of hope and redemption for noodle maker in tsunami zone

Japan tsunami survivor goes home, finds hope in disaster zone

KESENNUMA, Japan — Running a business in a battered economy in a tsunami-ravaged community is an exercise of hope and redemption for one man with a noodle shop.

“There’s a risk in starting a business now in a terrible economy in a disaster zone,” Yasuhiro Ishiwata, 28, said in his shop in this seaside town that was decimated in the March 11 tidal wave.

“But compared to the tsunami, there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore. I’m starting to believe that there is such a thing as tomorrow.”

More than nine months after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed half of his native city of Kesennuma, Mr. Ishiwata and many other survivors say they are finding a deeper meaning in the shocking tragedy that left perhaps 20,000 dead and missing in northeastern Japan.

Long before the tsunami, Mr. Ishiwata had been cynical about Japan’s future and unsure of his direction in life. He did not want to join childhood friends who moved 300 miles south to Tokyo to live in cramped apartments and ride in crowded commuter trains.

Instead, he attended college in nearby Sendai and played both offensive and defensive tackle positions on the school football team, having learned the game from videos of the Super Bowl.

He then went to China in search of work but found love instead. He married a Chinese student and brought her back to live in his hometown, Kesennuma, where she gave birth to their daughter on Valentine’s Day 2010.

Lacking other options, he worked along with 30 others in his father’s company, buying and selling shark fins in the port area that was later obliterated by the tsunami.

The tsunami wiped out the ports and much of the fishing fleet and sent Mr. Ishiwata and his family scurrying up a nearby hill to safety. He watched the rushing wall of water drown others who could not escape. A massive fire broke out and engulfed half of the city.

He said he told himself, “This is the end, there is no tomorrow.”

For several dark winter nights, he drank sake and whiskey to keep from freezing to death. He used a cloth doused in alcohol to wash their baby.

Still traumatized a month later, he sent his wife and daughter to live with her parents in China. With no jobs in Kesennuma, he moved southwest down the coast to work in Choshi, Chiba province, which temporarily took over the shark-fin trade.

But his new boss, dealing with a bad economy and a global movement against serving shark-fin soup in restaurants, was insensitive to his plight.

Mr. Ishiwata quit and again joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed nationwide.

Passing through train stations, unsure where to go, he saw hundreds of homeless men, many from the disaster zone, sleeping on cold floors and streets. He wondered if he would end up joining them.

Not able to find work, he went back to Kesennuma, where at least he had relatives and friends.

By chance, he ran into a man from Saitama province who offered to teach him how to make udon noodles by hand. The wheat flour noodles are widely used in Japanese dishes.

“I never thought I would be a noodlemaker, until the day I actually learned to do it,” he said.

Volunteers from Lion’s Club international had set up a little “yatai” outdoor market with red lanterns in the port area. Since he still had a home and car as collateral, he was able to get a bank loan, unlike many tsunami survivors who lost everything.

On Oct. 12, he opened his shop, Mizuki, named after his daughter.

Day by day, life and commerce returned to the area. A giant crane lifted a hulking ship the tsunami had pushed to the street back into the water.

Teams of local men and a few women in hard hats and uniforms removed millions of tons of wreckage from the south end of the city. Japan Railways reopened a train line connecting Kesennuma to Ichinoseki and Japan’s high-speed rail system.

People who endured up to five months in overcrowded shelters moved in with relatives or into temporary homes. A new spirit of camaraderie, born of communal suffering, breathed joy into a city many feared would never come back to life.

“We are beginning to overcome the tragedy of this year,” Mr. Ishiwata said. “People are starting to smile again. We appreciate all the things we have, especially our families and neighbors.”

Mr. Ishiwata said he wants to build up the handmade noodle business and hire as many unemployed people as he can, especially because the government is cutting off welfare benefits.

“We can’t just expect the government to give us things forever. This city belongs to us. We ourselves have to make things happen now.”

He is now optimistic that Kesennuma will recover.

“As we always say here, ‘We have nothing to fear anymore,'” he said. “We survived the tsunami. We can overcome anything.”

photos by Christopher Johnson

–Using traditional techniques, Yashuhiro Ishiwata makes udon noodles by hand — and feet — at his new shop in the disaster zone of Kesennuma, Japan

–The cleaned off platform of the South Kesennuma railway station stands in the midst of the obliterated city of Kesennuma, Japan on a cold December day more than 9 months after the March 11 tsunami. 

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