A fresh start

Ja­pan’s post-tsunami hip­ster hub of Ona­gawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - STEPHEN PHE­LAN

Six years after the dev­as­tat­ing Ja­panese tsunami, I’m on the edge of what was the dis­as­ter zone, watch­ing pro­fes­sion­als break­dance over a cock­tail mixed by a hip-hop DJ. Bar Sugar Shack is one of the few places you can get a drink around here. On March 11, 2011, the port of Ona­gawa was dwarfed and then drowned by an in­com­ing wave that reached apoc­a­lyp­tic heights of more than 15m. Where we’re sit­ting is ground zero, land that was briefly at the bot­tom of the sea that af­ter­noon.

Tonight, the Bi-Hive Crew, a vis­it­ing break­dance troupe, is turn­ing head spins on the dance floor. Later, Tokyo rap­per Rino Latina II will be per­form­ing live. Owner and bar­tender Shuhei Sakimura is a hip-hop DJ and street artist. His dream, he tells me, is to host big­name US rap­pers here in his tiny home­town on Ja­pan’s To­hoku coast, an area which is still re­cov­er­ing from near an­ni­hi­la­tion. Like who, I ask?

“Like Nas,” he says in a heart­beat, mix­ing me an Ona­gawa High­ball. It’s a cock­tail he de­vel­oped with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from John­nie Walker whisky; its Ja­panese dis­trib­u­tors at the Kirin Brew­ery Com­pany are spon­sors of the port’s on­go­ing re­cov­ery. The whisky brand’s slo­gan, “Keep Walk­ing”, has been adopted as a kind of motto for the post-tsunami spirit, and a gen­eral open­ness to in­vest­ment and en­trepreneur­ship has made Ona­gawa a kind of model vil­lage for re­gional re­con­struc­tion.

To­day, a new com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment called the Sea­pal Pier stands on raised ground along the water­front, with stylish wooden store­fronts de­signed to re­sem­ble tra­di­tional Ja­panese machiya, or town­houses.

Neigh­bour­ing units in­clude a gourmet cof­fee house, a Span­ish tile fac­tory, a work­shop where elec­tric gui­tars are carved from lo­cal cedar trees, and Garuya Beer Bar, ded­i­cated to craft brews, which serves a hops-heavy, home-brewed Ona­gawa Ale.

Terms such as “hip­ster” would never have ap­plied to Ona­gawa be­fore the tsunami. Noth­ing like this ex­isted here when Sakimura was younger, he says. The only thing for teens to do was hang around out­side the train sta­tion, and the only work avail­able was in the lo­cal fish­eries, the town hall or the vast paper mill in nearby Ishi­no­maki, where this bar-owner used to work.

All these build­ings and busi­nesses were swept away by the tsunami, along with Sakimura’s child­hood home, his grand­mother and his younger brother.

But from the shock and grief came a cer­tain res­o­lu­tion. As D-Bons, which is his street art name, he’s ded­i­cated him­self to fos­ter­ing a cre­ative scene and youth cul­ture in a town that never really had one. And his art, mu­sic and bar have be­come part of an in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to re­make Ona­gawa as a vi­able des­ti­na­tion.

The project is based around the word kizuna, loosely mean­ing “heart-con­nec­tion”, which is how Sakimura de­scribes his art. Fish­er­men, whose in­dus­try has re­cov­ered to al­most pre-dis­as­ter lev­els, com­mis­sion him to spray­paint their units with mu­rals and slo­gans. Do­mes­tic tour op­er­a­tor Ja­pan Travel Bureau has spear­headed a To­hoku Kizuna cam­paign high­light­ing the area’s dra­matic shore­line of thick pine forests, sin­u­ous coastal moun­tains and deep blue fjord-like in­lets.

Mean­while, Bri­tish-based op­er­a­tor In­side Ja­pan, which of­fered vol­un­teer place­ments for tourists as part of its post-dis­as­ter trips, runs a pop­u­lar North­ern Soul pack­age that brings trav­ellers from across the world to this quiet, ru­ral cor­ner of Hon­shu, Ja­pan’s main is­land.

Since the wreck­age has been cleared, re­cent itin­er­ar­ies have as­signed a lo­cal guide from Ishi­no­maki to re­late to vis­i­tors their ex­pe­ri­ences of the tsunami, and sur­vey those razed and haunted ar­eas where the dam­age is still very much in ev­i­dence. “The idea is to help ed­u­cate trav­ellers about the tsunami, con­trib­ute to the re­cov­ery, and high­light the beauty of the re­gion, which is really spec­tac­u­lar,” says In­side Ja­pan’s James Mundy.

Ja­pan Rail also of­fers the pop­u­lar Kenji tour, named after fa­mous lo­cal poet Kenji Miyazawa, shut­tling daytrip­pers in from Tokyo to pay re­spects, take photos and spend money in Ona­gawa. They ar­rive on the re­cently re­opened lo­cal line at the town’s new train sta­tion. De­signed by Pritzker Prize-win­ning ar­chi­tect Shigeru Ban, it’s al­ready a land­mark — a lu­mi­nous, car­toon­ish-look­ing struc­ture with a hat-shaped roof that fol­lows the con­tours of sur­round­ing moun­tains.

For my visit, town school­teacher and out­doors­man Ikuo Fu­ji­naka in­vites me on a trek up a peak called Kuro­mori, where he’s been com­mis­sioned to map out routes for hik­ing trails and na­ture walks. Some of these are

Res­i­dents of Ona­gawa ob­serve a minute’s si­lence on a re­cent an­niver­sary of the tsunami, left; street artist Shuhei Sakimura, aka DBons, be­low left; restora­tion work con­tin­ues, be­low

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