This upcoming week is Obon and the entire country, more or less has a week off of work. This year it falls on a weekend so I only get three work days off. Normally, my wife, daughter, and myself would be heading off to visit the in-laws on the beautiful island of Chichijima, but this year due to scheduling conflicts at work I am unable to accompany them. I am, of course, disappointed that I won’t get to enjoy Chichijima this year but instead of just sit around the house and mope (and build gunpla), I thought I should go somewhere, too. You know, I’m not that old. Sure I’ve got a family now but I still feel that adventurous spirit I had in my youth. I can do it. Why not Touhoku?
I’ve written a lot about the happenings in Touhoku and how everyone, including myself, has been affected by the earthquake and tsunami (and that nuclear thing). I have thought about going there for some time, but I would never take my family with me to that kind of place, but now, unfettered, I went for it.
I saw my daughter and wife off on saturday morning and then I threw a bag of clothes into my car, filled up with gas at the nearest station and got on the Touhoku Expressway.
I take this road to work everyday so it’s not like it’s unfamiliar territory. I also have a map book in my car and maps applications on my iPhone so I had no worries or reservations as I accelerated onto the highway joining the other cars heading north.
I didn’t have a specific destination in mind but I wanted to see the seashore in an area where the tsunami struck. Doing some quick math and calculating the gas mileage in my car I figured I could make it to Sendai (仙台), a major city that took a brunt of the tsunami’s blow, over three hours and three-hundred kilometers away, on about half a tank of gas (depending on traffic, of course.)
The first twenty minutes was the same old routine just as if I was driving to work but once I passed the Sano (佐野) Interchange I was on a stretch of road I had only driven on once before. Two years ago the wife and I drove out to a hot spring resort in the famous area of Japan known as Kinugawa (鬼怒川). A highway is a highway and except for some changes in the road signs it pretty much looked the same; three lanes of traffic moving in both directions.
Half an hour later and I was at the exit that I took the only other time I had drive this far north, the one that takes you to Utsunomiya (宇都宮), Nikko (日光), and Kinugawa.
From here on I am in well-charted but unknown-to-myself territory. Almost immediately the highway changed from three lanes to two and things slowed down. As I passed under the sign I saw that this route would take me not only into Fukushima (福島), home of the now famous melting nuclear reactor, but I also saw that I would be passing Yaita (矢板). Yaita is also famous but only for having terrible traffic congestion especially during holidays. Why was I going this way at this time again?
Driving on the highway in Japan isn’t much different than driving Canadian highways. Well, except for the fact that most highways in Canada are free where most in Japan are not. Yes, I was paying for this little trip of mine but as I was driving on a weekend in a very small car, I figured it wouldn’t amount to much. One other major difference between the two countries I have called my home is size. Canada is huge and you can drive for hundreds of kilometers and still be in the same province. Japan is quite the opposite. I had been driving for an hour and had already been in three prefectures. Before lunch time, I drove into my fourth prefecture of the day, Fukushima, at a good pace.
Fukushima is a very beautiful place. From the highway I could see the mountains rising in the distance and green in almost every direction. Of course, I had in my mind that I was driving into the prefecture that was experiencing the worst of the fall-out (pun intended) of the nuclear disaster that is still taking place. On the Touhoku Expressway, the nearest I would come to the Fukushima Dai Ichi plant was about 60 kilometers.
This is outside the evacuation zone designated by the Japanese government but inside the 80 kilometer zone that foreign governments had been advising from the beginning. Hmm. I’ll know in 20 years if this trip was a bad decision or not… maybe.
I hit Yaita and it lived up to its reputation. Traffic on the highway actually came to a stand still. Crawling along I lost almost an hour of driving time. It also started raining slightly. Hmmm. It turns out the traffic was stopped because of an accident. Some poor fella descended too quickly and smashed into the back end of the car in front of him. Poor guy. Past Yaita things picked up again.
Heading towards Miyagi Prefecture (宮城), where Sendai and many of the cities, now famous for standing in the way of that wave, are located, the roads started getting steeper. We were heading into the mountains. With the steep incline it was tough to maintain speed but the highway actually had a third lane open up in some places specifically for slower traffic. Great idea!
At this stage of the game the road started playing tricks on me. I thought I was descending an incline, but I would see the sign indicating a lane for slower traffic. ‘Hey. Wait a minute.’, I thought. ‘Why would you need a slow lane when you are going downhill?” and just as I thought that, my little car’s pace started to drop as it struggled to maintain its speed. I took advantage of the slow lane and shook my head in disbelief.
Another cool aspect of the road signs on the highway. Signs indicating the radius of the turn you are about to take.
As someone who enjoys driving quickly, I found it an informative touch.
At one point I passed this sign.
I pondered going to Iwaki (いわき) now known to myself simply because it was in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tsunami came, but then I realized that I didn’t know if that highway was repaired yet or not. Parts of the Joban (常磐) expressway were also closed because repairs were taking a while and also because they passed too closely to the nuclear plant. I decided to just stick with the plan of going to Sendai somewhere. Ya, I still didn’t have much of a plan.
Then the Touhoku Expressway started showing the effects of the quake. I was a little surprised to see it this far from the shore and the epicenter of the quake, but there it was. A big sign stated to be careful of unevenness in the road due to the quake and the signs of quick patchwork repairs done to the road were seen every dozen meters. The further north I drove the more evident it was that this region had had the crap shaken out of it. Steel roadside barriers were bent and warped, the cement walls that line the highway to keep things from getting onto the road were out of alignment, showing gaps in places. Some had even been removed as they were useless and some had fallen over. Instead of being flat like a highway should be some areas had shoulders of the road that had sunken down, pilons put in place to indicate caution. When you think about it, though, it is amazing that the road was made serviceable so quickly. Just after the quake, some spots looked like this.
Around Kunimi (国見) it started to pour rain. Traffic slowed to a crawl as everyone turned on their headlights and tried to see where that vehicle was in front of them. Under overpasses bikers were pulling over and waiting out the sudden downpour. Fortunately, it didn’t last long.
I missed the turn off to Sendai. Well, that’s not exactly true. I didn’t actually know which turn off I should take. There’s a Sendai south exit a Sendai exit, a Sendai airport exit, a Sendai north exit. Before I knew it I had missed the last exit that would take me to Sendai. I decided I would drive for a while longer to see if anything interesting caught my attention. Then I passed this sign.
I had reached the exact middle of the Touhoku Expressway. 340 kilometers from where it starts in Kawaguchi (川口), a city I used to work in, and 340 kilometers from where it ends in Aomori (青森). Maybe I had better stop.
Pulling into a rest stop to look over my map book and add some fuel I had a bite to eat and looked at the information maps and saw in big letters the words Matsushima Kaigan (松島海岸). Kaigan means seashore and I thought there was no way I could miss getting to the ocean if I followed directions to that place. Still nibbling away at rest stop food I used my iPhone to search the net for information about this Matsushima Kaigan. Boy, was I in luck.
It turns out Matsushima Kaigan is part of the Nihon Saneki (日本三景), the three most scenic places in Japan. Seemed like the perfect place to go.
Matsushima Kaigan is a collection of small pine covered islands, hence the name Matsu = pine, shima = island, located just north of Sendai.
Looking at the layout of the coast of Japan I noticed that Matsushima Kaigan seemed right in the middle between devastated towns such as Kamaishi (釜石) along with Kesennuma (気仙沼) and Minamisoma (南相馬). And by devastated I mean…
(When I first wrote about my experience in the Great Tohoku quake, I used this picture, not realizing it was Kesennuma. Now I know.)
(If I’m not mistaken, this picture is pretty famous now too.)
So I wondered how Matsushima Kaigan, a celebrated scenic site, had fared. Matsushima Kaigan was south a ways meaning I had passed the exit not long before. Getting back on the expressway I had to drive north Until I could get to an exit so I could turn around. Fortunately, I only had to drive a short distance to the next one and was able to exit through the toll gate, bust a sharp U-turn, and head back through the toll gate again without being stopped by the police officers sitting in the patrol car parked in the service area of the toll gate area.
This time I paid careful attention to the road signs and was able to get off the Touhoku at the proper junction and take a smaller highway almost the whole way to Matsushima. Exiting at a toll booth again I was now on countryside winding roads heading to the coast.
The drive was pretty straightforward and I as I descended towards the shore I was met by this site.
It was beautiful and from this vantage point looked untouched.
Here are some more pictures of Matsushima Kaigain I found on the internet.
I parked my car in a parking lot right next to the ocean and walked to the beach.
It lived up to its reputation and wasn’t necessarily the worst for wear from the Tsunami. Then again, I had to take into consideration the fact the tsunami happened over four months ago. But there were still signs that it had hit. On the beach there were still piles of debris.
The debris piles were arranged neatly on the rise of that separated the ocean from the town. I noticed on the other side of the rise, where the ocean never comes, the ground was still soft and muddy, the sea water still softening the earth.
I wanted to walk along the seashore but many of the walkways set up as part of the scenic routes were closed off because they had been damaged or completely washed away.
Wanting a more complete picture of what had happened here I spoke to local shop owners and tour operators.
“Oh, yes the tsunami did come.”, one said.
“The water came up to about your height.”, said another. “It came roaring in and smashed all the windows in all the storefront buildings and when the wave pulled back almost every building was emptied.” I was then I noticed that most the shops along the beach had brand new glass windows, while some were still boarded up.
I also saw these signs everywhere.
These look very new.
Many people expressed gratitude that the bridge to Oshima was still intact.
I managed to find pictures on the net of Matsushima Kaigan after the tsunami came ashore.
After a stroll along the water I decided that I should be leaving. I had been in the sun quite long at this point and still had a long drive ahead of me.
I had some dinner in a local establishment taking my time to enjoy the food and catch up on the happenings on the internet via my iPhone, and then realized that it was dark outside. The drive home would be another four hours or more depending on traffic and I didn’t feel like sitting in my car for that long again at that moment. I thought I had better spend the night somewhere and head home the next day. Still feeling adventurous and not wanting to waste this opportunity of being alone and do whatever I fancied, I climbed back into the car, drove back towards the Touhoku Expressway, got on at the nearest junction and drove south. After an hour or so I pulled into a rest area, bought some snack food, ate it, then reclined my seat and went to sleep.
[continued in part 2]