Eight Years Ago Today – My Neighborhood in Hojo, Tsukuba (つくば市北条), Devastated by Killer Tornado
By Avi Landau
Yesterday morning, May 6, 2012, we left home in a good spirits. My niece from New York is here with us and we were going to Tokyo for the day to see sumo. When we left the door, my little son, who at 2-years of age can barely string together three words, for the first time is his young life constructed a real sentence. I will probably never forget it. He said: Its a nice day today, Avi!
That`s how glorious the weather was- at about 11pm. When we parked the car 30 minutes later at Tsukuba Center, we noticed that the monthly natural food fair ( the Tsuku-Ichi) was being held in the park across from the station. We decided to take a little stroll and check it out ( mostly so my neice could see one of Tsukuba`s iconic features). It was good seeing old friends and sampling some of the tasty and healthful goodies they had there. But the wind suddenly started picking up. I even noticed that City Councilman Iigarashi, the founder of the market event, was urging all the vendors to take down the canopies from their stalls. At that time I remember feeling that those gusts were a bit ominous, but I could not have imagined what was brewing in the air.
A few minutes later I observed yet again what I now realize was a foreshadowing of what would unfold ( or what was in fact unfolding right at that very moment) as after having boarded the train and departed, we had emerged from the tunnel leading out of the underground station. I wanted to show my niece Mt. Tsukuba from afar. The problem was, I couldnt find it. I looked in its general direction and saw nothing but dark shadow.
I said: Hey, its raining where we live. Its a good thing we are off to Tokyo!
Tsukuba did not cross our minds again at all for the next few hours, as we were caught up in the excitement of the first day of Sumo`s Summer Basho (tournament)…………
Then the calls started come in:
Are you ok? Are you all safe? Where are you?
I answered: Of course, we`re ok! We`re in Tokyo! Whats going on?
There`s been a big tornado in Hojo. Haven`t you seen the news!
Well. naturally, I was surprised to hear this, but I remained unfazed. I mean, what kind of tornadoes were there in Japan? I had only known of two incidences ( though both in the Tsukuba area)- one, at the Sports Festival ( Undo-Kai) of Teshirogi Junior High School in which a tent was lifted off the ground, and the other- a bit more serious, a little twister which did a bit of damage in the Kamitakatsu Area of Tsuchiura. Reflecting on this I continued to be nonchallant about this so-called tornado, even as the calls of concern from friends and acquaintances kept coming in ( until it was impossible to focus on the sumo anymore).
It was not until we had gotten back to Hojo later that night that we realized the full scale of the disaster ( and how we probably should have left Ryogoku immediately and headed back home as soon as we had heard the news.)
Having been let through the police barricades outside the town center, we drove down a street which should have been as familiar to us as our own faces ( since we walk down it every day). But where our neighbors houses should have been- there was nothing……. only a full moon shining bright.
We just could not believe it. The little old town that we had become so strongly attached to- had been destroyed.
(To be continued……. this is not the time for me to being writing blog posts! The whole town is out cleaning and fixing up. More details soon!
Pulling into our drive it was a relief to find our house standing in one piece. But before checking for damage I jumped out of the car and ran up to our neighbors` house to see how they were. Though the house was dark ( most of the town was blacked-out) I rapped on the door and called out. Mrs. Shirai emerged almost right away and told us what she had experienced earlier in the day.
She said that she had been working at the FUREAI KAN, the rest-stop for visitors which is located in the center of the old commercial strip. First she heard a deafening noise- what another neighbor of mine later described as being like a group of fighter-jets at an air-show. Hearing the defeaning ruckus, she looked out through the front glass and saw what seemed like the whole town exploding. As she and the others with her retreated towards the back room, the window she had just been looking through shattered- and it seemed to her as if there was a tornado inside the room- with dedris and object of all sorts whipping around madly. In a few seconds ( which seemed like minutes) the FUREIAI KAN and all the shops alongside it had been stripped of windows, walls and roofs. Most of what was inside also ended up for far from where it had been.
But fortunately, Shirai-San`s house was like ours- almost unscathed. You see, our houses were just off the monster twister`s path- and despite the fact that we had no electric power, we did have flash-lights. So we did not, like most other residents of the town, have to go sleep at the shelters which have been set up ( in fact at about 11 pm a crew from Asahi Television which had apparently seen light coming from inside our house came to interview us as to why we had not sought refuge).
After making sure my family could settle in at our house, I set out in the dark, to survey as best as I could under those conditions, the damage. Any relief that I had felt in finding our place intact, gave way to a sense of loss and horror. Just a little walk to the east brought me to a section which looked not very different from the scenes we saw of last year`s tsunami damage. What did remain of the houses there were only their frames. Concrete utility poles and large trees were knocked over, car windows were smashed- debris was everywhere.
Some powerfull lights running on portable generators were shining bright at an intersection along the main commercial street ( the SHO-TEN GAI). I headed that way and when I got there I found a group of volunteers who were distributing food ( delicious chicken curry prepared by the Indian Restaurant Young Guns), and saw that work was already underway to get the power back ( the people at the Tokyo Electric Power Company seem to be making extra efforts in order to make up for their responsibility in last year`s nuclear power plant accident).
Wandering about among the ruins, in a daze, zombie-like, I staggered back home, turned off my flashlight, and went to sleep.
I awakened with the first light of dawn, shook the sleep out of my head, and set out once again to the streets. I was not the only one up. But more than the few locals who had slept at their homes, there were the tv crews, city officials, and curiosity seekers roaming the streets. I ran to the homes of friends and acquaintances to see if they were ok or not. I spoke with some people, mostly elderly about their experiences. Though they must have been shaken up, even the people who had lost their homes did not show any despondancy- the clean up was beginning, And as the day wore on, the pace, intensity and number of those involved in debris clearing and other usefull activities seemed to continue to grow unto it got dark ( and well into the night).
By late afternoon there were people on every damaged rooftop, groups of people in every debris scattered yard and a truck with professional crew beside every fallen utility pole.
There were also the kind people who came out of concern for friends and acquaintances- they brought with them emergency supplies, gifts, and most importantly an encouraging smile and a show of concern. ( the word used for visitng victims of disasters is the same as that used for visiting the sick- OMIMAI.
Besides those doing USEFUL work, there were the reporters. I have never seen so many, – interviewing nearly everyone and filming just about everything (some friends called to tell me they saw me on tv, caught on some footage walking around)- but not lifting a hand to help out. Even when a ninety year old woman passed by with a cartfull of heavy and sharp debris they found this as an opportunity to get some good footage rather than help out.
Helicopters, most probably belonging to tv stations, were hovering over the town all day, with there sometimes being several over the area at one time.
But the most impressive presence in our devastated town today, at least in terms of numbers, must certainly have been the type we could call the curiousity seeker. There were countless of them, and an amazing variety of cameras could be seen in their possession. As one foreigner who had brought his family out to Hojo for the day told me: My kids have only ever seen disaster scenes like this on tv, I wanted to give them the chance to see the real thing!
There is no doubt that the worst news of the day was that of the death of a Junior High School age boy whose house was literally lifted up, and flipped over. After this murderous act, the twister crossed route 125 and ran into an apartment complex run by the city. In the parking lot there cars and trucks were tossed about like toys and all the windows in one of the buildings were blasted out. Looking at all the large and heavy debris which was hurled about, sometimes to great distances, it was hard to believe that there was only one fatality related to this tornado.
Still, plenty of damage was caused by flying objects- in my house the water heater out back was smashed and put out of service by a big chunk of wood. The roads, yards, canals, and rice fields were all carpeted with this debris. So I repeat what I have just said- it is a miracle that many more people were not seriously injured or killed.
I first joined my neighbors in clearing our local ( and not very serious) debris. When we were satisfied with how our undamaged part of the city looked, I walked a hundred meters east and asked if I could help one family clean out their debris. I worked with about 6 other guys ( all of them young and strong) and with very little talking we started loading a truck with the shattered remains of the houses that sit in one badly devastated compound.
All around me was work. People in each yard, high up on the roofs and electric wires and in all kinds of working vehicles. The throngs of people elicited images in my mind of Hojo`s old glory days when the streets teemed with crowds of shoppers and everywhere was hustle and bustle.
A NOTE FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO HELP OUT
One thing which must be noted, however, for anyone who wants to come out here and lend a hand. The residents of Hojo are proud, independant and stubborn folk. The people who I have described above who were involved in clean-up efforts were all RELATIVES ( who had arrived from near and far), or people with some sort of bond or connection to the victims. There were of course also professionals (i.e.- the folks from the Tokyo Electric Power Company). Any strangers who try to help are adamantly told that their assitance is not needed ( even if it really is). This is probably because the reciever of the aid would then feel a troublesome obligation to the person who helped. Another reason might be that some probably feel too embarrassed to let strangers sift through their household goods, now strewn about in their yards and on the street.
Anyone who wants to help should first register with the city office and join a team of volunteers. You will then get an official volunteer uniform ( a vest) and be assigned to various usefull tasks.
I can only hope that something good- an influx of funds, a wide-scale renewed interest in the town, a surge in local energy and creativity- will come about in the wake of this terrible tragedy.
Though I know I shouldnt get my hopes up.
Still even if it is just for now, it is remarkable how the people of Hojo have emerged from what seemed like a long slumber and have gone into fervent action- it is too bad that it has taken a disaster of this proportion to bring this out. It is certainly remarkable to witness….. and amazing how fast the town seems to be recovering ( and I say this only one day after the event!)
One of my acquaintances, a man in his mid-sixties who grew up in Hojo while it was still a thriving commercial center which served the entire surrounding area said ironically as he looked at all the people and activity around him the day after the tornado: This is what it used to be like. This is how the streets always were when I was a kid- packed with people and everyone busy!