Tsunami City

 I was in a Gold Coast (Australia) sushi bar, owned by my friend Shu, when the recent Tsunami struck. I got home, turned on the TV and saw scenes of devastation as a wave of water raced towards the city of Sendai. Shu came from Sendai and I phoned him immediately. That was one amazing coincidence but not the only one. In Sydney, Yukino McHugh, the daughter of my friends, Tim and Toshimi McHugh, turned on her TV and saw a wall of water racing up a river near to where her parents live in Japan. 

Tim recounts how he had gone to the rescue of friends, living on low-lying land, and was taking them to safety when his phone rang and he heard his daughter’s voice. ‘Daddy! Daddy! Where are you?’ Tim told her. ‘Daddy. The tsunami is coming at you.’ Tim had almost reached a designated safety area. He knew there was a severe risk. He did not expect his daughter, in Australia, to be giving a detailed account of just how bad it was. We live in an amazing world. Information flows around at lightning speed. I phoned Shu and he phoned his mother in Sendai. The tsunami sirens were blasting away when he reached her. Mother was safe. Sadly, not everyone followed the evacuation instructions. Tim got his friends to safety and set about collecting relief supplies. He took time off from his English language school and went up the coast to help devastated communities. 

He writes sci-fi novels using the name Vindal Vandakoff. Toshimi convinced him to switch genres and write an account of the tsunami, as seen through the eyes of ordinary people. His book is called Japan Beyond Tragedy and is available as an ebook. Last year (2015), my wife and I visited Tim and Toshimi and they showed us some of the damage caused by the combined disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.

We toured the local sake distillery and were shown where an ancient structure had collapsed, spilling thousands of litres of the precious liquid. That was nothing compared with the spilling of highly radioactive nuclear material. I recalled visiting the Nuclear Energy Authority’s information centre some years earlier. To my amazement, some of the displays claimed it was safe to store nuclear waste underground in Japan. I can believe it is safe to do that in parts of the world which have been geologically stable for billions of years. Japan is not one of them. It sits of the Pacific Rim of Fire. The Japanese have become highly suspicious of people in authority, on this and other issues. They have good reason to be. And they are not the only ones. 

We spent a few days with Tim and Toshimi then went north to take a look at the part of the coast that suffered most when the tsunami struck. Our first stop was Aomori in the far north of Honshu. We used one of the five days available on our JR-rail pass and took the shinkansen. The Aomori district has some spectacular scenery. The name means “blue forest”. Its rugged mountains are clothed in a variety of trees and shrubs. Some are the magnificent blue pines which give the region such a distinctive appearance. It is a marvellous place to visit. But expect mist and rain. We hired a car in Aomori city and set off down the rugged east coast. Most of the area is designated National Park. Picturesque fishing villages nestle in quiet coves. Bigger towns cater for tourists.

 Here and there, broad valleys stretch inland. These were badly hit by the tsunami. Tsu means harbour and nami means wave. We once called them tidal waves and that was misleading. Tides are caused by the moon. Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes. The seafloor moves up and down and water mounds up. The mounds are packed with energy. 

In deep water they are scarcely noticeable as they spread out. When they reach shallow water, all that energy becomes packed into a small volume. The mounds wander around furiously drawing water towards them. The sea recedes from the shore … and returns with extreme violence. When fishermen see the water level fall in their harbours they know that disaster is about to strike. We noticed that most fishing villages were built on high ground. The only buildings, at sea level, were those needed for fishing. The people in the big towns sought protection behind tsunami walls. 

These were effective for small tsunamis but totally useless when the last one struck. The Japanese government was criticised for being slow to react. When it finally swung into action it did so on a massive scale. Huge walls are being built in some places. In others, hills are being carted away and dumped in valleys. Ground levels are being raised by fifty of more metres. Vast areas resemble the opencast mining sites that I visit in Australia.

My photos (directly above) give an idea of what you can expect to see on a trip from Aomori to Sendai by car. The first is of a Shinto Shrine in a volcanic area near Aomori. The last is of the massive equipment that has been brought in to raise the level of the valley floors

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