Kebabs To Tōhoku, v2.0

the sun rises in the Onagawa

I’ve just returned from another expedition to the disaster-stricken Tōhoku coast and wanted to fill you in on this latest trip. (GR has published earlier reports for anyone interested!) This is the seventh time I’ve made the Tōhoku run since the March 11th quake and, as with previous excursions, I return to Tokyo depleted but also moved and humbled by the experience.

My mission this time was to load up my brother-in-law Kazu’s kebab-mobile in Onagawa and rendezvous in Kesennuma with Eiko Mizuno Gray and the Rainbow Cinema team, a motley crew of volunteers screening films (generously provided by Warners, Fox, Toho, Asmik, and other distributors) for quake survivors in the various shelters up north. The idea was for Kazu and me to provide free fresh kebab and ice cream to viewers during the breaks, while Eiko and her crew would keep the audience stoked during the screenings with their two popcorn machines (salt and caramel, respectively).

Onagawa, my in-laws’ home town was also hit hard by the quake and tsunami, with well over a thousand residents confirmed dead, several hundred still missing, and, according to a recent tally, about 1,200 living in shelters or temporary housing. So the morning before our deployment I had a walk around Onagawa, to see what progress had been made since my last visit a month ago. The whole port area is enveloped in a haze of fishy-smelling dust, but, to be honest, I couldn’t see much clear evidence of improvement. Yes, cranes are demolishing and clearing non-stop, and convoys of trucks haul debris to sorted piles (mountains, really); paths have been cut into the wreckage around the port, and many of the lightweight items (cars, refrigerators, bicycles, propane tanks) seem to have been gathered up. Nonetheless, the clean-up still appears quite superficial, just peeling away at the skin of an onion. A big-ass onion. Enough said.

flag waving in Onagawa

This current trip comes on the heels of a very belated two-weeks of chilling out at my parents’ home in Hermosa Beach (my first visit to the U.S. in well over a year). And what a strange contrast: The coastal villages I drove through on my way up to the far north of Miyagi Prefecture were once not so different from some SoCal beach towns; and yet to look at them now, you’d never know it.

Shizugawa 3/14/2011

I was meaning to take the inland route all the way up to Kesennuma, but a wrong turn off the Sanriku Expressway took us straight into downtown hell, ground zero of the tsunami. Shizugawa, Minami Sanrikucho, Koganezawa, and many other little towns that line this particular stretch of Route 45, grew up around river deltas and estuaries, their common geographical feature being a mountain-fed river spilling into the ocean at the mouth of a valley. Seeing the now-familiar pattern of destruction repeated in each of these depopulated port villages, one imagines a wall of black water roaring up the mouth of the valley, erasing everything in it’s path. Imagine turning a corner to see that coming at you! You actually can’t even see the ocean from many of the spots the tsunami hit.

I’d been to Shizugawa and Minami Sanrikucho in the first days following the quake, had stood at the back of the valley looking down on the tsunami’s aftermath, still steaming fresh; impossible to forget the sight of a classroom full of children pried from the wreckage and placed in boxes (boxes for heads, boxes for torsos, hands, etc.). Even now, over a hundred days since the tsunami, the record of what happened is unmistakable. Debris in every possible configuration fills low-lying spots, and the tsunami waterline is in plain sight everywhere one looks. The transition between Unharmed and Obliterated is absurdly drastic. (It was, in fact, quite maddening to contemplate what a difference just a couple meters of elevation might have made at many locations.)

still searching for bodies in Shizugawa


Our first kebab offering was dinner at the Karakuwa Sansankan, a public nursing care facility on the outskirts of Kesennuma, currently serving as shelter for about fifty people, and located adjacent to a complex of perhaps a hundred units of prefab-type temporary housing for the quake and tsunami homeless. Dinner was to be served between the two films Eiko and her crew were showing (late-vintage Tora-san and Fishing Fool’s Diary installments). Kazu and I parked the truck and generator in front of the main entrance to the shelter and commenced our kebab and ice cream service at around five o’clock (it had been our intention to start earlier but the winding single-lane road we took through the dead zone left us little time to spare).

The kebabs and ice cream were a hit, as they were when we fed the kids of the Onagawa First Primary School back in April. I was watching to see how the adults in the crowd would react to such unfamiliar fare. Sendai is a good-sized city but, even there, people tend to favor takoyaki, yakisoba, and other perennial favorites. And who knew how people would react here, in such campestral settings. It’s not so much a matter of taste – everyone who tries Kazu’s kebabs agrees on how superior they are – I think it’s more a reflection of the reserved nature of people in the northern countryside, an inbuilt reticence to splitting from the pack. Kids will try anything, but would any of these older folks here step up? I was concerned, at first, but it wasn’t long before we had adults asking for seconds and thirds. There was even a grandmotherly woman who took ten home to feed her lodgers.

auditorium at Sansankan

It’s interesting to me that the whole weekend I didn’t hear a single mention of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Plant now leaking (leeching?) microsieverts of God-knows-what into our air and water. I’m not certain if this is a case of the elephant in the room that no one can bear to acknowledge, or if there’s simply too much obvious misery in front of everyone to allow contemplation of the really big problems. (I mean, you can’t actually see radiation, right?) But it’s practically all anyone talks about in Tokyo – the most obvious symptom of the current nuclear dread being a cloying eco-religion sweeping the Japanese intelligentsia. It’s all very nice preaching the benefits of wind farms and solar power (while at home your kids bathe in bottled water), but that doesn’t really help tsunami refugees sleeping on the gymnasium floor, does it? This summer in Japan is set to be the hottest in years and already you can see people eyeing the air-conditioner remote nervously. No one wants to be the first one to switch it on or show up for a meeting in shorts and t-shirt. Casual swimwear Fridays at the office, anyone?

temporary housing under construction in Onagawa

As things were winding down, I ended up spending an uncomfortable half hour with an old fisherman, who complained to me at length about having been passed over in three housing lotteries, while the younger and (to hear it from him) less-in-need kept getting called up to move into the new units. I’m not sure if he realized that my duties were restricted to chopping onions (having flunked out on the ice cream machine), but he’d already frightened away other volunteers with his vitriol, and, in the end, he seemed to appreciate me for hearing him out. Refugee shelters are, obviously, no fun to begin with. And this guy and the others here had, for the most part, been refugees for more than three months now. A startling lack of privacy, no place to bathe (and public facilities out of walking range for the elderly), deep uncertainty about the future…  It’s difficult to imagine what life must be like here day after day. I get cranky after a night or two on a friend’s sofa, and the thought of sharing an auditorium floor with thirty other families makes my skin crawl, so how could I blame the fisherman for venting?

lining up for kebab and ice cream at Sansankan

Kazu and I managed to get lost on the way home in the kebab truck and didn’t get much sleep before our early-morning departure the next day. But we had a better time getting to the site than we’d had the previous day and the weather, thankfully, was sunny and clear. This time, we were to provide kebabs to audiences at the Higashinakasai Kaikan, a public recreation center that had, until just days earlier, served as a shelter, and whose population had now been merged with that of a larger more well-equipped facility nearby. The Rainbow Cinema team were screening three shows: a wonderful Doraemon anime (the remake of Nobita’s Dinosaur, one of my all-time favorites), the Tom Cruise vehicle Knight and Day (no comment), and a 3D concert film of teen girl group SKE48 (a low-rent Nagoya-centric spinoff of super-idols AKB48 – what really can one say?).

watching Doraemon at Higashinakasai Kaikan

These films were greeted with progressively descending levels of enthusiasm, beginning the day with a packed house (perhaps sixty of all ages) who stayed through the end of the Doraemon film, and winding up with ten or eleven still wearing the 3D glasses by the end of the concert film. I suspect there were more lining up for kebabs by this time. Still, everyone seemed to have a good day of it. The kebabs and ice cream (and popcorn) were unequivocal hits, even if the screenings started to run out of steam by the end.

kebab training

ice cream (vanilla, strawberry, and green tea)

Eiko and the other volunteers were great to work alongside and it was nice to be part of a larger operation. Movies and kebab seem a good fit and, in fact, a positive force, despite the transitory nature of the diversion we provided here. Our efforts were met with smiles and profuse gratitude from all (with perhaps just one exception). Kazu and I had a strangely silent ride back. We were both tired and deep in thought (possibly afraid of getting lost again). I wonder if this is how carnies and traveling circus folk feel after the crowds have left and the tents are coming down.

Kazu and I have been invited to participate in further trips with the movie folks this summer, but the well has run dry, so to speak, so for the moment I’ll have to focus on volunteering in other ways until I’m able to raise more kebab funds. There are many great organizations at work in the Tōhoku region – me and Kazu and our friends are but a single tiny (one might even say insignificant) thread of the immense tapestry of local and international efforts to stabilize and rebuild the northeastern coast, mess that it is. The scale of the destruction is really quite overwhelming. I think it helps, when contemplating the seeming futility of any one person’s efforts, to recall the oft-quoted injunction in the Bhagavad Gita (or is it the Mahabarata?) to add one’s own light to the sum of light, to push back the darkness.

Over and out,



CIMG0269 CIMG0297 CIMG0308 searching for bodies in Shizugawa auditorium at Sansankan lining up for kebab and ice cream at Sansankan watching Doraemon at Higashinakasai Kaikan kebab and ice cream outside Higashinakasai Kaikan ice cream (vanilla, strawberry, and green tea) kebab training kebab training debris dump in background debris mountains near Ishinomaki temporary housing under construction in Onagawa CIMG0270 shrine thanking volunteers, Onagawa Onagawa Onagawa Onagawa Onagawa Onagawa Onagawa Onagawa ganbappe! Onagawa ganbappe! Onagawa Onagawa Shizugawa CIMG0312 Shizugawa CIMG0314 CIMG0315 CIMG0320 CIMG0321 CIMG0322 CIMG0324 CIMG0325 CIMG0329 CIMG0330 CIMG0335 CIMG0336 CIMG0337 CIMG0338 CIMG0340 Higashinakasai Kaikan Higashinakasai Kaikan Higashinakasai Kaikan Higashinakasai Kaikan Higashinakasai Kaikan CIMG0356 CIMG0357 CIMG0358 CIMG0363 CIMG0365 CIMG0366 popcorn machines Eiko's creation Sakai-san pitches old lady wants two 3D screening at Higashinakasai Kaikan 3D screening at Higashinakasai Kaikan CIMG0392 CIMG0393 trying their hand at kebab volunteers outside Higashinakasai Kaikan Shizugawa 3/14/2011