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Gretel Ehrlich: Shattered Worlds

By
February 6, 2013

In an excerpt from her forthcoming book, the poet-reporter bears witness to resilience on Japan’s tsunami-ravaged Tohoku coast.

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Photo of Great Japanese Egret via Kanegen

Where the Naruse flows into the Kitakami River we cross a narrow bridge to the east side and follow the river toward a country temple called Shounji. Here, the river makes a wide, sensuous loop, a U-turn that heads north. Small farms and lumber mills line the narrow road. Great white egrets stalks fish in the shallows. Dredges and search-boats ply the water: there are still so many missing.

Less than an hour after the 2:46 p.m. earthquake, the tsunami wave surged six miles up the river. People were standing on the levee watching when the water rushed backward. They were taking pictures, while their children were at the Ookawa Elementary School a few miles away. Farmers were working the fields or driving their produce to market. Almost all died.

“A river does not belong to this shore or that…it’s just a river flowing down,” Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher said. The river is the bardo. Bar means “between”; do means “tower”, or island in a river. Together, the words mean, “the space between,” and refer to every present moment. We could be breathing, or between breaths; we may be treading water between life and death, from tumbling in the dirty surge and gulping salt, to stand on firm ground.

***

Today the river is wide, flat, blue. The road passes farmhouses with central courtyards, thatched roofs, and large vegetable plots. We stop to ask the way. A tiny, elderly woman emerges from her field with a basket full of green onions and eggplant slung over her arm. She wears the traditional cotton scarf, pantaloons, and rain boots, and her gray hair is pulled back tight. We ask where the temple Shounji might be found. “Up the road,” she answers in a soft, measured voice. “But not as far as the one that washed away.”

Flickering candles illuminate framed photographs and the vessels that hold the ashes of the recently dead: they are mothers and fathers, farmers and workers, and many children. We bow, we light incense, and breathe in their suffering.

We follow the river road north. Earlier on today’s journey, I read a poem by Bashō that used the “cutting word” ya which separates, yet joins, expressions of before and after. It signals something struggling, something coming into being or else leaving what it once was. It is a river word, a word that warns of impending movement, change, and flux, and helps to describe the Buddhist concept of “bardo.”

My friend Tenku Ruff, a Buddhist nun who came to Japan to help survivors, agreed to meet me at Shounji where another nun, Fukan-san, lives. As we pull up to the temple, Tenku runs down stone steps, black robes flying to greet me. An American, she speaks Japanese with a soft Florida accent. Her features are sensuous, her face beautiful; her head is shaved. She was ordained in Japan along with Fukan-san, after training at a monastery in Nagoya.

We follow her up the steps to the temple courtyard. An exquisite S-shaped pine tree stands in the center, so old and heavy its bows are supported by vertical sticks—bones braced by crutches. Past the abbot’s living quarters, we ascend another set of stairs to the temple. Fukan-san stands at the entrance and bows.

Flickering candles illuminate framed photographs and the vessels that hold the ashes of the recently dead: they are mothers and fathers, farmers and workers, and many children. We bow, we light incense, and breathe in their suffering.

Shoes back on, we cross the courtyard to the abbot’s living quarters. Shoes off, we step up. In another room the television is on: he’s watching the evening news. We’re asked to sit and wait. Finally he emerges.

The abbot’s entry is quiet. Slender and tall, with a kind face, he sits with impeccable posture. “I have three daughters,” the Abbot says. “I put them through school, and they haven’t been back since!” Laugher. “Then my niece, Fukan-san, came visiting and said she wanted to become a nun. I thought she was joking, so I told her to shave her head. Right then and there. And she did. That meant she was serious, so I sent her to the monastery in Nagoya.”

“It takes five very hard years of practice, study, and training to become a Buddhist nun. Fukan-san graduated three days after the tsunami. I was so sorry that I couldn’t get there. I’m eighty years old and I need someone to take over the temple. I asked her if she would do it and she said, Of course!” He looks at her with an impish smile. “So I’ve adopted her as my daughter.”

“Earlier, when the earthquake happened, I was only concerned that the statue of the Buddha would fall. Then I realized the tsunami was serious and our whole world had changed. My temple became an unofficial evacuation center and a morgue.”

“One of the founding fathers of Soto Zen came from China and that priest’s ancestors built this temple 530 years ago. I’m the thirty-second abbot. I hope Fukan-san will be the thirty-third.”

The abbot’s wife joins us. Green tea is poured. There’s a long silence, then he speaks: “No one expected the tsunami wave to come up here on the river. People were standing on the levee watching, not realizing they were in danger. They were swept away, along with most of the children from the school up the road at Ookawa. Many years ago, I went to that same school.”

“There were two waves. One was two meters high. It receded and came back as a three-meter wave, a big tsunami wave. The bottom of the river showed. This has never happened before. The temple up the road, Kannonji, was washed away. It lost all the headstones from the graves. Rice fields were swept clean. No one wants to live in that village now.”

He recalls that after the tsunami, it began snowing hard. An eighty-nine year-old woman showed up at the door. She was soaking wet and shivering. The abbot’s wife warmed her and gave her dry clothes. “Earlier, when the earthquake happened, I was only concerned that the statue of the Buddha would fall. Then I realized the tsunami was serious and our whole world had changed. My temple became an unofficial evacuation center and a morgue.”

He remembers the Ogachi Bridge collapsing. No one could get out. The commuter train stopped on the tracks and hasn’t moved since. “Water came so far in, it was as if the ocean was right here. There was no river, just water stretching across everything.” he says, holding his hand to his heart.

Tenku tells of the priest and his wife who went to the second floor of their temple as water approached. “The whole building lifted off its foundations and started floating. It swung near the mountain. They ran out onto the veranda and when the temple floated close enough, they jumped off onto the steep slope and grabbed onto tree branches. From there they watched their beloved temple collapse.”

The abbot continues: “After the tsunami water came up this river, we had seventy or eighty people staying here. It’s a small country temple and it became too crowded. We had nothing to eat for three days. I sent them to an elderly lady’s farm down the road to get some vegetables, and they did, and came back. On the sixth day volunteers came with food and supplies.

“One hundred people died who lived near the temple up the road. It’s only a roof and a frame now. Then the most extraordinary thing happened: survivors began dragging the dead out of the river and bringing them up the road to us. Some were carried over men’s shoulders, others were put in wheelbarrows, or in the back of small trucks. The dead kept arriving. Corpses filled our temple courtyard. They were lying all the way around the center pine tree.”

The abbot recalls how the faces of the dead were covered with cuts. The Wave had knocked them around. “They were unlucky,” he says. “I felt so sorry for them. Eight adults right here on this little road died, then twelve more were found. Twenty are still missing.”

The abbot and Fukan-san took turns performing funeral ceremonies. At the first one, they young nun said there were forty bodies and forty hastily made coffins because the crematorium had been washed away. Just out of monastery, she wasn’t sure she could do it. “I opened my mouth and a chant came out. I got to the end without faltering.”

When she had to give the dedication and say a few words, she says, “All I could think of to say was, ‘Return to the sea.’ Later, I called my teacher at the monastery and asked her about it. She told me the words didn’t matter as much as the way the heart was speaking.”

The abbot: “We had ceremonies here for the dead, even when there were no bodies. Two families in our sangha are missing four family members. Only one has been found. But there are still seven missing. Another neighbor never found his family at all. He read in the newspaper that they had died.”

The police told the residents to leave the bodies as they found them, as if the river was a crime scene, but the survivors ignored the order and kept searching, and digging, and carrying the dead to Shounji. Funeral services continued. A man who once taught at the Ookawa Elementary School returned to help and still walks the river.

“But the most courageous of them all,” the abbot says, “is a young woman who was on pregnancy leave. She had her baby just before the earthquake. But her older daughter, a sixth grader at the Ookawa School, was washed away and hasn’t yet been found, so Naomi, the mother, got a license to drive a backhoe. Now she digs for the missing every day. Not only for her own daughter, but for the children of other survivors. So far she hasn’t found anyone, but she won’t give up,” the abbot says, holding his hand against his heart.

The abbot looks tired so we stand to leave. I ask him about Kannonji, the temple up the road. He says all that’s left of it is the huge bell, the bonsho, traditionally hit with a large stick. I suggest they bring it to Shounji and ring it at New Year’s to commemorate the dead and those who survived. He says, “Good idea!” His wife agrees. The mood brightens.

The gentle abbot smiles, then frowns: “But if they rebuild Kannonji, we’ll have to take it back.” I suggest jokingly that they put wheels on it and have the monks push it back and forth. Fukan-san looks at me: “But I’m the only monk!” Laughter. I tell her I’ll come and help push. It’ll be good Buddhist practice, I say.

***

Ahead are islands and islets of red pine and rock, with tiny coves and narrow beaches, as if they had been torn from the mainland, and are now the last remnants of earlier tsunamis.

“Every instant is death; every instant is birth…there’s nothing you can grasp onto.. The impermanence of the rebirth is the continuity of it.”
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

***

It’s what I call “pure bardo.” Neuroscientists have named it “the wave of death,” referring to a strong wave-shaped signal in the brain that continues after death, after the oxygen supply has been cut off, pressing scientists to ask, When does life end? It represents what Anton Coenen, a neuroscientist, called “the ultimate border between life and death, a massive signature, an eerie shudder of activity that goes beyond the end of breathing.”

***

The sea becomes light, a window is open.
–—Ozaki Hosai

***

In the seventeenth century a twelve-panel folding screen called “The Waves at Matsushima,” painted in ink, powdered color, gold, and silver on thick paper by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, shows rows of combers rolling toward shore in seeming unison, parting for each pine-studded island. Under the panel, I read this poem:

Islands and islands
Shattered into a thousand pieces
Summer’s sea

Masumi and I are on the morning ferry from Shiogama to Katsura Island plowing through floating debris and blue sparkle. Ahead are islands and islets of red pine and rock, with tiny coves and narrow beaches, as if they had been torn from the mainland, and are now the last remnants of earlier tsunamis.

Looking back, I can see the towns of Shichigahama, Shiogama, Higashi-Matsushima, Nobiru, and Ishinomaki that once lit this sensuous arc of land, and are now, for the most part, razed.

We slide by half-ruined ship-building factories. A Japanese Navy ship that was used in rescue operations after the tsunami is tied up at a pier. A man explains that the outer islands helped block the inner ones from the Wave. The tiny islets we pass in the middle of the channel are green dots with huge scars where half their mass was removed by roaring water.

Gulls follow the boat and snatch shrimp snacks from children’s hands. Fishermen are cleaning debris from the ocean’s surface and hauling it in small barges behind their trawlers. One island was home to the lighthouse that showed sailors the way into port. The Wave washed over it and its light no longer shines.

When Matsuo Bashō came to explore Matsushima, he was astonished by its beauty. In Oku No Hosomichi, he wrote: “I would like to say that here is the most beautiful spot in the whole country of Japan….Tall islands point to the sky and level ones prostrate themselves before surges of water. Islands are piled above islands, and islands are joined to islands….”

I snap a picture from the ferry railing. The wind picks up and current lines divide the sea surface into pale blue and ink blue crenulations. Towns recede—they are dark—and the islands ahead are wave-drenched. The farther out we go the more wind-bent the trees. The ferry slows to avoid floating debris; a fishing boat rescues an upside down skiff with a hole in its hull.

Bashō had a keen eye for unexpected beauty at the moment of destruction. If he’d been here he would have seen islands breaking, fires lighting harbors, snow flying past red pines, humans and houses vanishing in a wave-riddled sea. We turn north and the channel narrows. Ahead, in bright sun, the flower-lined paths of Katsura Island come into view.

The island is shaped like a drumstick, narrowing from thigh to toe. Near the dock fishermen mend oyster beds with long bamboo poles. We disembark. A hand-painted sign shows Bashō’s trail. Near the top of a steep hill ravens call out and mosquitoes swarm and bite. We enter a hilltop jinja built in 1627 surrounded by a dark cedar forest, and continue on, following the path down the other side. We end up marching right into the middle of someone’s garden.

Sumimasen, we are lost,” we say to a spry older woman picking vegetables. She waves her hand and says we are welcome to come through. “The tsunami stopped just below our house,” she says, resting her hands on the handle of her hoe.

Tsunami-wa. It was taller than that big pine tree,” she says, pointing. “The tree next to it was swept toward our house…It was snowing that day, and it was hard to see, but I heard a deep rushing noise. The ocean was dirty and kept getting higher.”

She accompanies us down the narrow lane. “The water came to here,” she says, pointing to a terraced garden just below her house. There’s a line of rosebushes in bloom. I ask how this is possible. She says, “The water came in over the beach, and over these flowers, and went out very fast. Not enough time to kill them.”

Below this point every house is in ruins. A man walks across the inundated rice field from another hilltop shrine, wiping his eyes. The woman looks at him. “A few people died here, but most survived. We are isolated so we always have food, and there’s a spring with a tap, so, after the tsunami we could get water.” But the seaweed factory over the hill where she’d worked all her life is in ruins. “I’d just retired. I’m seventy, so now we just grow our food and live.”

A bird cries. She looks up: “That’s a kiji, a pheasant. They let us know when an earthquake is coming. They crouch down and press their chests and stomachs to the ground; they can feel it coming. If we see them do this, we know.”

At the island school, now an evacuation center for those who lost their houses, we’re met by a young Japanese man wearing a Yankees jersey, number 55, Hideki Matsui’s number. He’s comes forward with his hand extended and says hi in Brooklyn-accented English. “I’m Japanese but I went to boarding school in Connecticut, and lived in New York. I produce hip-hop.”

He has gathered a motley crew of Japanese musicians from all over Japan to volunteer in Tohoku. A hefty guy with a long pony tail sits splay-legged under an umbrella and smokes one cigarette after another. He says he’s a singer from Kyoto. Two others, barefoot and wearing bright headbands, practice aikido on the lawn.

“We’re just musicians who decided to help. This is our statement to the world,” the producer says. “Natural disasters can’t be stopped, but radiation can. We can say NO to nuclear power. I hope people in this civilization will think harder about where they’re going. We are dying from this. We’re gathering data about the children of Fukushima, creating a data bank for the future.”

A musician from Fukushima City who volunteered to be the cook throws a bowl of yakisoba on the outdoor grill, adds shoyu and cabbage, and bends an ear to listen to it sizzle.

“I believe in the power of music,” the young producer says. “We all share the world through it, we all have music inside us. Humans can be a loving animal. This is what the whole world should do—get together and help each other in times like this. We need to face the way of our living, how it has separated us, how it has destroyed the world.”

“We’ve gotten money mostly from America, the producer says. “The American always help. Not the Japanese. We organized medical supplies from Direct Relief in Santa Barbara California, and money from SoftBank in Taiwan.” When his cell phone rings, he excuses himself with the aplomb of a strangely dressed CEO.

“The snow made it hard to see the wave. But the next day—it was beyond our understanding. The wave came from the same direction three times. Each time it was higher. It was more than fifteen meters high.”

The singer whispers: “His label is called ‘Future Shock.’ Pretty cool, huh? Perfect name for all this!” he says gesturing to the razed coast behind the hill.

Utsumi Kumezo hangs his head out the window of the school and asks if we want a beer. A handsome man in his seventies, he’s serious and playful at once. The sun is very hot, almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so we gladly go inside. He’s chatty and gregarious, at home in his island world, a widower who lost his wife thirty years ago.

“On March 11 I felt something different. I’ve never felt an earthquake that strong. I knew immediately that the tsunami was coming. So I got the island’s fire truck and drove it around to warn everyone. The fishermen went behind me in small trucks, picking people up to take them up the hill. We evacuated everyone to the top of the island. We spent one night up there. The snow made it hard to see the wave. But the next day—it was beyond our understanding. The wave came from the same direction three times. Each time it was higher. It was more than fifteen meters high.”

I ask him why he thinks this happened. He tells me that the kamisama didn’t do this. “It’s just the natural way of things. So we can’t get angry at anyone. It’s just shizen—nature. We can’t go against nature because we won’t win. We must accept what is and just follow it. Nature flows wherever it wants to go.”

“I don’t have much time left, so I want to do something right now for this island. I thought we needed to do something good, so we’re planting cherry trees at people’s houses and sunflowers along the lanes. This island is a beautiful place. We all know each other. The flowers are the first step in rebuilding our lives. The flowers are important: a small gesture, but a symbol of being alive.”

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless/ Or of an ocean not littered with wastage/ Or of a future that is not liable/ Like the past, to have no destination…

***

Evening. Because Abyss-san’s house has no hot water, we stop at a workman’s hotel up the hill from the devastated town of Rikuzentakata to use the public bath. In the steam, a naked middle-aged woman, one of the local workers, greets me in a loud, hoarse voice and shows me where to stow my clothes. Nikki and I sit on pink plastic stools, wash ourselves, then slide into hot water.

“The river is within us, the sea is all about us,” a line from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Dry Salvages” begins. Radioactive water is absorbed by living tissue. We scrub dirt off, as radioactive iodine and cesium-137 soaks in.

Fresh water pours from a pipe over Nikki’s shoulder.

We cannot think of a time that is oceanless/ Or of an ocean not littered with wastage/ Or of a future that is not liable/ Like the past, to have no destination…

Ten naked women’s bodies stir around, old and young, the unbeautiful and the lithe, hands, wrists, breasts floating, minds unraveling, letting loose scraps of dreams and knife-sharp scenes of a water-flattened town. Seismic rumblings cause waves to travel across the bathwater. They bump into us, into our shoulders and cheeks like the abyssal waves that peel off underwater mountains, causing gentle crests to curl.

We drift. When the heat gets to be too much, we rise up, displacing water, as if our bodies had the kind of seismic power that could tear Earth apart. We sit on the edge cooling ourselves while Nikki tells how, when translating for London journalists from the Telegraph nine days after the disaster, they talked to a young boy, aged ten, who had been looking for his mother in the rubble of Rikuzentakata.

“The boy finally accepted that his mother was dead after three days, then went looking for her body at the temporary morgues, but never found her,” she tells me. “His father turned out to be the town’s mayor. When the tsunami came, Toba-san, the mayor, clung onto the roof of city hall as the third floor of the building, where the American school teacher, Monty Dickson, among others, thought he would be safe, was ravaged by a thirty-three-foot-high wave.

“Toba-san watched his own house torn apart by the Wave, knowing his wife was inside. But duty to the town came first, he explained: ‘I’m a human being and a father…but I had to stay at the office…a lot of my staff have been lost or have lost their families too….’”

Nikki tells me how the young boy’s friend ran when he saw the water coming, leaving behind his own mother, who had gone back into the house for something; how other classmates were picked up by their mothers and never seen again.

We climb out of the bath, dry ourselves with tiny towels, and put on our dirty clothes again. Abyss-san emerges from the men’s bath and we rumble through the outskirts of this nonexistent town with the ghosts of its dead, including the sixty-eight city officials, wandering legless around the moving van.

In June the survivors organized a traditional dance to commemorate those who died, held at one of the few remaining buildings, Kongoji Temple, perched high on the hillside overlooking the ruins. Now, debris piles exhale smoke, and the single remaining pine out of thousands of trees has gained government protection as a symbol for the destruction here, and for survival.

Nine months earlier when I first saw this town, I was stunned by the extent of destruction. Now, passing though morning and evening, stopping for gas, groceries, and a dip in the public baths, the sight is almost commonplace. Is it possible to become inured to near-total destruction?

We no longer brood over the memory of the 284 firefighters who drowned while trying to close the water gates, or the deaths at city hall, or the lack of standing buildings, or the foaming ocean with its whitecaps’ glinting brevity—not because we’ve become hardhearted, but perhaps the opposite: we’ve begun living the reality, dipping our own bodies into its toxic waters, no longer just voyeurs.

Up-mountain. The effect of the bath pushes me somewhere new. I can’t think; the apparatus of logic fails me. My mind free-falls like a building uprooted, collapsing, floating…. Once we make it to Abyss-san’s house, I go to bed with all my clothes on, including hat and parka, intending to take just a short nap before dinner, and sleep until dawn.

***

Breakfast. “A long curry.” That’s what I call it, because the hot red curry Abyss-san made lasts all week and is our breakfast as well as our dinner. He announced to us when we arrived that he would no longer eat out at restaurants because they bought food from the cheapest sources, food grown in the highly radiated Fukushima Prefecture. At his mountain hideaway we drink hot tea made with Evian water and eat only vegetables and fruit grown in Hokkaido.

On New Year’s day, in a ritual called wakamizu matsuri, (waka = young; mizu = water), the first water drawn is said to have magical powers to maintain health and prolong life. But what of the waters of Fukushima Province, Miyagi, or Iwate? Will anyone drink it? In a bumptious effort to show how safe the new decontamination process at Daiichi is, a politician, Yasuhiro Sonoda, drank a glass of water collected from the puddles under one of the damaged reactors at Daiichi.

Abyss-san lays the dosimeter on the ground by his stream. It reads: 2.01 microseiverts. Not too bad, but not great. He looks up: “It’s important that radiation readings continue and are publicized so that people know what to eat and drink and where to live.”

In his unheated kitchen he cooks on a single gas burner. Every night we arrive back in the mountains exhausted and hungry. He heats up the huge pot of curry and we’re grateful. The big donburi bowls in which it’s served are frigid. We crouch together on the floor by the small wood stove; we use the outhouse, the toilet seat now wrapped with blue cloth to keep our bums warm. From that perch we track Orion’s belt rising. Snow falls. Red curry heats us from the inside out. Burning logs warm our skin.

***

Abyss-san slides into the seat of the van and turns the key. The engine starts, the heater comes on. We scrape ice from the windshield. He lets the van roll before putting it in gear, takes the twisted road to the top of the mountain, and careens down the other side. No traffic, the dead deer more than half eaten, its carcass a kind of calendar of days: as soon as it’s entirely consumed, he says, it’s time to leave Japan.

When I close my eyes we fall upward. The shape of the road enters us, the apple orchard, baseball field, and bamboo forest, its branches hanging down and touching ground. A farmer by the side of the road is making charcoal to use as aa water purifier. Abyss-san talks a litany of outrages at government corruption; about when he will next distribute donated supplies.

The mind is flung this way and that; the rope of days, braided back into itself, the ends joined, a loop that keeps open the circle of living and dying, morning and evening, night and day. Nikki’s sparkling youth and Abyss-san’s generosity: beautiful ruptures. Openings that delight me in the midst of tragedy. Yet a fisherman we talked to said: “Now there’s no happiness in our lives because of the radiation.”

We glide over frosted earth, over blunt-cut fields of harvested rice, sugi trees bending down to us as if in conversation, their short needles tiny, filigreed, whole forests of green lace. Where trunks have fallen sideways, we drive on heartwood—smooth, smooth—bumping across rice fields and water ditches, we pierce each small farm as we go, cutting through leafless persimmon trees hung with orange orbs. “All those moons,” Nikki says. Lopped in half.

We cross a river, our velocity splitting open the valley like a peach. Buckled roads fall to either side of the van, and smoke from debris piles fades into dusk, or is it morning? Lights from the vanquished town of Rikuzentakata come on, as if from nonexistent houses. A brief twinkling, then the illusion fades, the town’s desolation cut, the two halves identical, their tidal monotonies and rubbish-glutted shores, all pines but one, pulled like teeth.

We’re falling. Forward now, not down. Open. Away from what is broken. To slice is to heal. We enter the ocean, rapt and wakeful, its rough grain cracking open, the van moving north and south at once, the Wave falling on either side of the blade.

Excerpted from Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich, forthcoming from Pantheon Books. Copyright © 2013 by Gretel Ehrlich.

Gretel Ehrlich is the author of more than a dozen books, including works of poetry, memoir, fiction and ethnology. For her last book, In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape, she circumnavigated the Arctic Circle to document the cultures living there. Ehrlich is the winner of many awards, among them the 2010 PEN Thoreau Award, a Bellagio Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, the Harold B. Vurcell Award for distinguished prose from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and two Expedition Council Grants from the National Geographic Society.

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