The Hills Above, the Sea Below
Iwate Prefecture, Japan, March 11, 2011
When it started, Jun Akazaki was putting his café in order, the TV playing in the background. He ran a coffee shop in the back of the first floor of his family’s building, and his mother had a rice store out front. On the second floor, there was a Buddhist shrine for Jun’s late father and an office out of which they operated a small heating oil delivery service. On the third floor, his mother and he each had a bedroom, and his window had a view of Otsuchi’s shopping district with the town’s quiet port in the distance. That afternoon, his mother had invited over a few friends from her haiku poetry circle to eat, have coffee, and admire the display of dolls she’d put out for Girl’s Day. Every year for the Hinamatsuri, she set out a five-step platform showcasing figurines that represented the Heian court of ancient Japan: the emperor and empress in flowing kimonos at the top; court ladies pouring sake below; then the wise, gray-haired ministers and the musicians clutching miniature flutes and tiny taiko drums. Once every two years, she held a party and served bowls of white rice with azuki beans, fried tofu, and chirashizushi with shitake mushrooms in honor of the holiday. Her guests were coming at four, but at a quarter to three, the ground gave a shudder. When the first tremor hit, Jun froze, the trembling fixing him in place. His china cups and saucers quivered on their shelves, and then the refrigerator and tables and chairs and every piece of furniture in his café—so silent before—began to rattle and shake. There’d been a small quake a couple days before but nothing like this; it was as if the earth itself was growling. After several minutes, the vibrations started to die out, and in the quiet that followed, he knew—though the swell would probably be a small one, at worst it might do some damage to the old, rusting fishing boats down at the docks—they should evacuate. He started up the stairs to the second floor to his mother. Jun had spent nearly all of his life in Otsuchi. He’d been born in 1964 and attended high school in neighboring Kamaishi City. He’d gone away to Sendai for college, but after earning a degree in economics from Tohoku Gakuin University, he’d come back and started Mumin, his café. Growing up, he’d heard about tsunamis that had devastated the region in the past.
He found his mother in the room that held his father’s shrine, a room with tatami flooring where she often hosted guests. Her dolls had fallen from the platform, and she was picking them up. “What? Everything’s fine,” she said, looking at him. “We have to go,” he told her. “We’re not in any danger here.” “A wave could come.” Jun moved around his mother, flicked off the space heater, and chased her downstairs. The initial quiet that had followed the quake was turning to cacophony as the town stirred from its midday drowse: doors and windows slammed shut, cars sped through the streets, people shouted to be heard. On his way out, he turned off the heater on the first floor— a precaution he would later be glad that he’d remembered—grabbed a jacket, took a ten-thousand-yen bill from the café’s register, and stuffed it in his pocket. Five minutes had passed since the earthquake. Outside, everything was panic and flight. The road in front of their building was jammed with cars as people tried to get to the evacuation areas. Jun and his mother owned a light truck with a five-hundred-liter tank mounted on the back for kerosene deliveries. She went to the passenger side of the cab, while he lowered the metal shutters over their storefronts as if he was just closing shop for the day. He was about to get in the driver’s seat when he saw the old man from the house next door. He was standing in the brisk air, watching the exodus. “Let’s go,” Jun said, motioning him over. “Come quick.” “My daughter’s on her way. I’ll wait for her.” In his haste, Jun didn’t think to argue with him. As with many of the people he saw in those final, confused minutes, it would be the last time he ever laid eyes on his neighbor. Jun slid behind the truck’s wheel, twisting the key in the ignition. He shifted into gear and pulled into the alley behind their place, which let out onto Route 45, the main route through town. Everyone was heading right toward the Shiroyama community center, a cluster of buildings on a tall foothill in the middle of Otsuchi; it was only a few hundred yards away, but the road had become a traffic snarl. He turned left, took another left at the next stoplight, and then another after the taxi garage two blocks down, navigating a semicircle through the narrow streets—a back way to the Kouganji temple grounds. The otera lay at the bottom of the same rise that the community center stood atop—from their building, not a quarter mile as the crow flies. The temple’s cemetery covered the hill behind the main hall, and a walkway snaked up between terraced levels of stone monuments. At the
top of the path, on the other side of a knee-high, imitation-wood fence, was the community center. They’d be out of danger there. He parked by the temple’s towering, tile-roofed gate. Getting out of the truck, Jun and his mother went into the courtyard, which was already crowded. He thought he might recognize some of the evacuees if he had a moment, but while he’d initially seen their flight as a precaution, the atmosphere of frenzy was raising his sense of alarm. His mother started up the hill, and he told her he’d be right behind. He watched her walking toward the hill, toward the very graveyard where his father and grandparent’s bones were interred; she was the only parent he had left, and his love for her was immense. Years ago, he’d reconciled himself to the life of a bachelor. He would never marry, never start a family. Instead, he had his band, Mumins, which he played in with four middle-aged friends and which he had named after his café; he had an ex-girlfriend, who worked at a sunakku bar in town, and from time to time, he’d go to her place for a few drinks, and they’d wind up in bed together. These connections sustained him. No one would have mistaken Otsuchi for a posh neighborhood in Tokyo, but here, he was content. He stood outside the temple’s main hall where he made his offering every New Year’s, looking on as the town’s elderly headed for the kitchen building off to the left. Many of them didn’t move well and were cold in the freezing March air as they shuffled between the white pillars of the entryway. Still, taking refuge there seemed insane. He spotted a man he knew from the neighborhood, and though he couldn’t remember his name, Jun went to him, saying, “Wouldn’t it be better to get them up the hill?” He gestured to the graveyard, but when he looked he didn’t see his mother. Forgetting the man, he turned and started up the path—he needed to be sure she was safe before anything else. He took the walkway as fast as he could and was halfway up before he saw her. Catching up, he slowed to a walk, and together they turned through the switchbacks, stopping to rest near the top of the trail. From there, the sounds of evacuation were distant, and the town spread out below them: traffic moved slowly on Route 45, which ran north to south, perpendicular to the Otsuchi River. Most of his neighborhood’s buildings were bunched together in the valley this course had carved out between the hills, which widened where the flow met the bay, a blue-gray V cutting into the coast from the east. From the hillside, through the clear, crisp air, the town looked so tranquil. Around them, grave markers covered the hillside. Each granite haka had a pillar where a surname was carved; behind the markers, tall
wooden boards painted with the names of individual family members stood in stone receptacles. His family’s plot lay down near the base of the hill, behind the temple’s main hall with its red-tile roof. As Jun and his mother caught their breath, the others who’d taken shelter on the hill began calling for those below to come up. He added his voice to theirs, saying, “It’s safer up here.” Soon, many of the people streaming into the temple grounds began heading up the walkway. Below, the Ogayu brothers, two monks whose family had run the temple for twenty-six generations, were still helping those who couldn’t make it up the hill into the temple’s kitchen building. Ryokan, the plump eldest brother, was five years older than Jun, while Chimyou, his thin sibling, was a year younger. Their temple was a designated disaster evacuation site, though it didn’t sit any higher than the Akazaki’s building. After ten minutes, everyone on the hill around Jun began talking all at once, especially the children—the schools had been sure to evacuate, and it seemed there were more kids in the hills than adults. He and his mother squinted toward the bay along with everyone else. The surface of the ocean was striped with bands of white water, as surges raced toward Otsuchi. The districts nearest the shore were already flooded and black cubes floated in the current, which he presently realized were cars. From that point on, the higher the water rose, the more he felt he was being sucked into a lucid nightmare. The tsunami didn’t take the form of one, huge, curling wave, but was more like a very quick flood. The flow rushed into the cleft of the river first—the concrete-lined banks filled with ashen water as if the channel was a bowl set under a gushing tap. A surge rubbed out a dark line that spanned the river, washing away the bridge that carried the Yamada local train line. Then the tsunami slammed the districts on the far side of the port, sending up plumes of dust like Hollywood special effects. Water cascaded over the river’s banks and rushed toward where Jun’s building was. The sheet-metal roofs of the structures nearest the coast shook and fell out of view as waves flattened them. Concrete power poles snapped down like pieces of straw. Jun had thought a tsunami might come, but he’d never imagined anything like this. At first, the carnage had been remote, muted, but as it advanced, the roar of destruction rose all around him. The children’s exclamations turned to screams, as if they weren’t sure if they should be thrilled or upset. One boy cried, “I’ll never forget you, father”; a girl said, “My home, my home”; while others simply screamed, “Yabai!” How terrible. A man above him said, “Look. Those people.” When Jun peered into the pattern of buildings, he saw an intersection where a car and a motor-
cycle flew around a corner—then came several people sprinting for their lives as a black flow of debris spilled into the street behind them. The vehicles outran the water, disappearing behind a roofline. Most of those on foot made it out of sight, though the last few were swallowed by the waves. Through it all, Jun had kept an eye on his home. His father had overseen the construction of their building in 1988, calling the contractors and looking over the plans himself—it was his last remaining material legacy. But, as Jun looked on, a veil of brown dust covered his view. What he could see were birds: tens, maybe hundreds of crows and seagulls stirred from their perches by the chaos. They took flight, leaving Otsuchi behind with such ease. He could also still see the temple’s kitchen building below. He watched the water crash into it, breaking down the front door. In seconds, the flooding was up past the windows. Jun knew there were at least thirty people inside, the Ogayu brothers and their wives and children among them. It was a mercy when a cloud of dust concealed this sight as well. In the three minutes that he’d been standing there, the tsunami had destroyed more than half of his hometown. Beside him, his mother was crying, and none of it felt real. He’d fled as a precaution, but he’d been sure he would be back in his café before long. It seemed that at any minute he might find himself brewing a cup of coffee, talking with a customer about a strange dream of the world underwater and the town full of the dead and the living in a cemetery. And yet he remained on the hillside, and each minute he stood there, reality diverged further and further from this image. It took a while for the dust to dissipate. When it did, Jun and his mother saw their building was still standing, the tops of the secondfloor windows just visible above the water. He couldn’t tell how badly it had been damaged, and many of the other structures that were still upright looked ruined: the town’s hospital hadn’t collapsed but was battered, like a beaten prizefighter about to pitch over. He didn’t feel relief—the waves that had washed away the jumble of his hometown had swept away everything inside him as well, leaving a gray numbness in its wake. Though hours seemed to pass before the tsunami receded, time was stretching and compressing—changing with the speed and direction of the currents as the flooding ebbed, then another surge pushed inland. It was still light when some of the people on the hill decided to go down to search for survivors. “I’m going with them,” Jun told his mother.
At the base of the hill, the ground was buried in a layer of wreckage: broken cinder blocks, dented propane tanks, overturned refrigerators, crushed TV sets—all the things that make up houses, stores, factories, but smashed to pieces and mixed together as if the entire town had been pureed in a giant blender and poured out. Jun and the other searchers climbed through the remains, and every step they took seemed a venture that might land on a hidden nail or piece of torn metal. Crawling through what was left of Otsuchi was exhausting, and he was terrified that another wave would surge into the ruins and sweep him out to sea. He looked for his truck but couldn’t even pick out the place where he’d parked. With the other searchers, Jun looked through the temple grounds where the elderly had taken refuge. Chimyou was the first survivor to emerge—jun saw the younger Ogayu brother clawing his way out of the rubble, struggling against tsunami sludge and debris like a desperate swimmer, his shaved-bald head rising out of the muck. He was wet, freezing, and covered in black filth, but he could move on his own, and after he’d been pointed in the right direction, he started for the walkway up the hill. After a few minutes, Jun heard a cry, almost a whisper. “Tasukete, tasukete.” Help, help. “Where? Where?” he asked, hurrying toward the voice. When Jun and the other searchers reached the sound, they began digging, tossing aside crushed Sheetrock, splintered boards, broken tile, and tangled wire. At the bottom of the mess was an old woman, her face dark with mud and twisted in pain. He helped dig her out and pull her from the debris, and together, they carried her up the hill. In their first try, they found four people. Tomoko Ogayu, the older monk’s wife, was muttering the name of her father and son when they rescued her. Jun also helped discover an old man, who moaned as they carried him and died from the cold within minutes. They worked in teams, and those who stayed on the rise shouted warnings when the waves surged back into town. Jun had lived next to the ocean all his life but had never been so afraid of it. They pulled their friends and neighbors from the wreckage, but between the freezing air and the survivors’ soaked clothes, nearly half of those who made it up the hill died in the cemetery. They’d been searching over an hour when they heard Ryokan Ogayu calling, “Oi! Oi!” In the washing machine of the waves, he’d lost his glasses, broken two ribs, and scraped up his backside. He couldn’t move, and Jun watched a group of searchers move him onto a wet tatatmi mat. He was a big
man—though a Buddhist, he liked to drink and eat and always accepted the fish and local delicacies the townspeople brought him. It took ten men to bear him up the walkway toward his wife. The monk would be spared, though the waves had taken his son and his father’s body would never be found. Jun was still searching as it grew dark. In the dusk, he noticed a light shining into the sky in the distance. He retreated up the hill, and from there, he saw the fires. The blazes were multiplying, weaving a burning, orange pattern through the dark and sending up shadowy ribbons of smoke. Looking at the landscape was like staring into the dying embers in a wood stove: a flare might be a gas line exploding in the distance; a pulsating knot of heat might be a dry goods store. At some point, it had started to snow. Soon, he would walk with his mother to the top of the hill, climb over the fence, and retreat into the community center’s gym. They wouldn’t be able to sleep, and it would be days before the sense of shock wore off; soon they’d need to start worrying about where they’d rest at night, where they’d find their next meal. Eventually, they’d try to forget what they’d seen, let it fade like the childhood fear of night, until it was a hollow memory unable to reach them other than to send a shiver down their backs. In the months and years to come, they’d put it behind them, because they had to; because they needed to keep moving, keep living, letting one day follow the next. But in that moment, he and his mother looked on, transfixed by the fires spreading among the shredded debris. Neither of them spoke as an arm of flame moved across the night, closing in on their home.