The Vacant Land


This vacant lot was the site of the home my father grew up in.

I began writing about 3.11.11 nearly four years ago exactly. It was late in the spring of 2014, and I’d just begun a three-year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing through the University of Alaska. The program there is a low-residency format, which at UAA translates to one semester of online followed by a two-week residency, then two semesters of correspondence with an assigned mentor. It was at the end of the online period, with the residency approaching that I tackled the problem of producing manuscripts for workshop during the residency.

How I decided on the tsunami as an essay project is now lost to me. I’d posted a few times about the tsunami in 2011-2012, but incompletely. More than likely, it was feedback from an Academy classmate named Brandon Lingle, who’d stumbled across the posts and recommended I pursue further writing. That in combination with the requirement to produce a couple dozen pages probably made the idea of repurposing existing material attractive.

So I wrote an essay for workshop about the tsunami. And it was an absolute mess. Eva Saulitis, whom has since passed away, gave me feedback during the actual workshop, which turned unexpectedly emotional for me. Eva wanted us to read a selection before falling silent to receive feedback, and tears came unbidden as I read, out loud for the first time, what I’d written. My vulnerability did not spare me tough feedback; I still have Eva’s handwritten notes on that draft and while they are kind, they are also clear.

In the years since, the essay has lain fallow on my computer. I’ve pulled it out from time to time to work on for short periods. But I was troubled by my inability to speak from firsthand experience about Kesennuma. When I was here in 2011, I was able to travel no further than Sendai, still a few hours south.

Over the past two years, I’ve read everything I could about the tsunami. Watched the videos. Clicked on the pictures. Set Google Alerts for breaking news stories. Pored over imagery from Google Earth, scrolling overlays from pre- to post-tsunami. But I was never able to find the exact site of my the family home I recalled visiting in 1988, 1997, and finally in 2005.

And now, I’m here. In Kesennuma. My feet touch the same places, but the land has changed. It was lowered by the quake, erased by the tsunami, then razed and raised in order to reconstruct. The places I remember, all gone.


The Violin Maker of Yamanashi


My cousin, Naruo Komatsu, in his workshop

One of the nice side-benefits of this trip is that it requires me to speak to, and interview my Japanese family members regarding 3.11.11. Luckily, my dad is also in Japan right now, and he was able to take some time to join me for a few days (and act as my interpreter) so the day after I arrived, we met at Tokyo Station, then took a train to Yamanashi.

Tokyo Station (Eki in Japanese) is a crazy place. Unlike airports, through which masses of humanity ebb and flow, Tokyo Station always feels ready to burst from the sheer mass of rail travelers packed within its subterranean maze. The train to Yamanashi, which gradually escaped from Tokyo’s gravity into countryside, then hills and finally small mountains, felt like an escape.

My cousin Naruo lives in Yamanashi with his wife and two children. The home is nice, its Japanese-sized yard (read: “teeny-tiny”) filled with fruit trees and vines and cultivated greenery. But its what’s in a room on the top floor that makes the home special: his violin workshop.

Violin-making is a lifetime affair: Naruo apprenticed for years before striking out on his own. From what I can tell, a small band saw for cutting the top and bottom sheets is the only powered tool he uses; everything else he does by hand. And everything requires a special tool. Naruo produced for me a litany of chisels and knives used for the intricate carving required to make a violin. The tools, too, were hand-made and as he told me the names of their makers, other famous violins made with with them, and the world-class violinists who made them sing on stages across the globe: I was struck by the gravity and time of this thing Naruo does. I don’t think I’ll ever hear a violin’s notes quite the same way ever again.

There is something special about artists who create visible things by hand, whether wood or paint or image are their medium. In a world of the mass-produced, it’s encouraging to know that some things, like Naruo’s violins, are still made painstakingly, by hand, in the same ways they always have.


Just a few of the tools Naruo uses.


The Land that Shakes

Running has always been my way of getting to know the world around me. When I find myself in new places, I fall in to a familiar rhythm. I study a digital map, pick out a running route, lace up, and head out the door to see what I can see. Over the years, I’ve passed through much at a seven-to-eight minute clip. Now, at age 41, it’s a bit slower — much slower those first few miles — but slowing down has its perks.

Yesterday morning, I stepped through the doors of the Toyoko Inn Narita not expecting much. My Google Map study wasn’t promising: the Tokyo megalalopolis is about a bajillion square miles of concrete and asphalt. One home is virtually indistinguishable from the next, due I suspect to strict building code. High rises and office buildings: it’s all the same. Not quite the cheerless gray of a former Soviet Bloc nation, but also not much better.

But instead of the concrete jungle I expected, I found myself running through agricultural land butting up against the Narita Airport. One moment surrounded by high barriers in between the runway and me, the next padding along rice paddies and small farms. And in between, tunnels beneath the Narita runways like the one pictured above.

In Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry talks about the grim resignation that comes with living in Japan, and Tokyo particularly. The projected casualty estimates for a Nankai Trough tsunami-producing earthquake are staggering. Biblical. In one passage, Parry writes of a kind of passing curiosity during which he occasionally evaluates the likelihood that the environment he finds himself surrounded by in that moment might kill him in the event of an earthquake or tsunami.

The first time I passed through the tunnel pictures, on my outbound leg, I chalked up the blue lines on the wall as graffiti, or some kind of mural. But on my return, I stopped and inspected them. The lines, in fact, trace cracks in the concrete. They’re marked with Kanji, surely an engineer’s record of old and new cracks as they lengthen and appear after each temblor. At some point, I imagine, a decision will be made as to whether the tunnel remains structurally sound. And it will be the lines on these walls that inform the decision.

Staring down the tunnel, it was hard to avoid what Parry wrote about: I imagined the terror of being halfway through when a an earthquake strikes, the sight of seawater cascading through both ends. It was a frightening specter. And yet somehow a banal reality in this place.