A fresh start
Japan’s post-tsunami hipster hub of Onagawa
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