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March 13, 2012
One Year After the Japan Earthquake: A Journey, Part IIPosted by Henry Tzu Ng, Executive Vice President
While not well visited by foreigners, this isolation is one of the reasons Japanese treasure this area—rural, agricultural, isolated— “the old Japan” —not only scenically, but in terms of the agrarian pace of life and a real landscape of snow covered mountains and trees that we see as we whisk by in our car. To the left are the Ōu Mountains, the longest mountain range in Japan dotted with age-old volcanoes and stretching 311 miles south from Aomori Prefecture to the Nasu volcanoes at the northern boundary of the Kantō region. These dramatic, high, snow covered mountains, with the highest peak around 6,700 feet—popular with skiers—accompany us for a long part of our drive. This terrain is “typical Tohoku” and unlike most of Japan. It has a refreshing alpine quality, and so different from the heavily tourist travelled areas, especially those south of Tokyo that are dense with modern urban cities strung together along the rail lines.
Heading north now, we just left Miyagi Prefecture (which is where Sendai is located) and are now entering Iwate. These two prefectures were the two most badly damaged by the tsunami; the third badly damaged area was Fukushima prefecture where the nuclear power plant is located, to the south of Sendai. We are taking the Tohoku highway north into Iwate, and then east on Route 284 towards the ocean, avoiding the interior mountainous road. These mountainous roads are beautiful, but one risks being snow-bound by sudden snowfalls. When it snows here, it comes down suddenly and abundantly.
There is still snow on the ground now. Kesennuma is directly on the coast, and Mitsuo, who has taken the coastal roads there—long admired for their beauty—has said that when he traveled that road last year after the disaster one would see nothing but the debris of towns totally destroyed by the tsunami.
Route 284 is what is known historically as The Golden Trail because it connected a string of prosperous gold mining towns that prospered during the twelfth century. The west end point of this trail is the short-lived city of Hiraizumi, a World Heritage Site, that was the political and administrative center of the northern realm of Japan ruled by the Northern Fujiwara (1087–1189) and that once rivaled Kyoto, politically and commercially. Its demise came with the establishment of Kamakura—the first Samurai shogunate government in Japanese history—as the capital in 1192. The trail exists as a long string of historic towns at the base of a narrow mountain valley that heads east to Kesennuma on the coast and very close to the terminus of the trail, which is slightly south of Kessenuma on the coast, long a popular tourist route and now a national scenic park. The local tourist brochure displays a map of historic highlights, except now one cannot help but notice that a number of these buildings, including some of the historic ones in Kesennuma, are now destroyed or badly damaged.
Ancient Japan was strung with roads that united the entire realm, including those like the Gold Trail, where there was a travelers’ station every four kilometers with inns and rest stations for horses. We just crossed a large rounded truss bridge still being repaired for damage suffered in the quake last year and are about to stop at a modern travelers’ station now.
It is the site of an old travelers’ station, but is now housed in a modern building. The local and prefecture governments constructed this covered market so that local farmers and merchants can sell their produce and wares. It’s full of fresh vegetables, homemade artifacts, and freshly made tofu in covered bowls for an amazing $7.00.
On the road you can see signs indicating safe places to be in case of natural disasters—a raised piece of land, a temple—but Mitsuo says that the damage last year was so severe that many people perished in Tsunami even though they retreated to these refuges, which were simply not strong enough to withstand a disaster of last year’s scope.
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