Previous Entry: Day 1
I woke at 7AM on March 12th in Zenrinji to an austere scene. My breath was still visible as I lay warmly under my pile of blankets; Diffuse light shone through the paper of the sliding doors, and sunbeams filtered through the cracks between them, illuminating the tatami mats; gongs, chanting, and long spans of silence of Buddhist ritual reverberated through the room from the next one over.
This was confusing for a moment, as I normally don’t wake up in temples, but soon enough the events of the previous day came flooding back and I knew where, and why, I was. I lifted the blankets I was smothered in and got up. Still in my stained clothes from the day before, I looked around and familiarized myself with my surroundings.
Whereas the night before I had entered a room that was large, dark, empty but for the futon we put down, I was now in an even larger room, full of light, the scent of incense, and a massive altar made of wood and gold in front of which the head monk who had so kindly taken me in was performing rites.
But this mountain top buddhist altar wasn’t at all magickal. Unbeknownst to me, the night before we had walked past it in the dark on our way to set up the sleeping quarters, but the sliding paper doors that separated the altar itself from the room we had slept in had been closed, and I hadn’t noticed. It was a bit jarring, and I quietly scuttled past the proceedings, not knowing if I should’ve been there, a feeling that echoed across basically my entire existence.
Through to the living quarters, I met the Kandos and others sitting around the fire, also in the same clothes as the night before, largely in the same positioning around the hearth. Their faces, while long, looked at least a bit more rested. I must have looked somewhat confused having woken up in the middle of a religious service, but Mr. Kando suggested I go sit in on it for a minute, that it might give me some peace.
That was maybe the most spiritually awkward experience of my life: filthy, homeless, and in what was ostensibly a very religious stranger’s home but for the Kandos, I did my best to practice the vague notion I had of what proper buddhist etiquette was as I sat seiza behind the priest while he conducted the ceremony as if nothing had changed, or perhaps in observance that everything always changes.
Sunbeams shot in from the clear blue sky, laser-like, through thin cracks in the shoji, through the thick, fragrant, smoke of the incense burning on either side of the altar, hitting the tarnished bronze sheen of the gongs — sounding slowly, ephemerally, wistfully even, keeping an otherworldly time to the deep baritone of the priest’s incantations — and then shot back out, back through the smoke, back towards the sun. But of all the photons in that sunbeam, most were stopped by the shoji that had let them in, trapped in a cruel inversion of history, while those lucky enough to escape were now so few in number that their journey back home was doomed to fall short for lack of substance.
This is what I meditated on.
After about 10 minutes, I paid my respects and went back to the living quarters, where the Kandos & company gestured for me to join them around the hearth. On the table that sat opposite the entryway was a very sparse spread of rice porridge, a few slices of dried salmon, and some pickled plums.
We picked reservedly at the limited offering, grateful for every morsel. It may have been the lightest meal I have ever had, but the warmth of the porridge and tea along with the strongly salted fish and plums were a welcome jolt back to sense reality.
I’m not sure what I did immediately after breakfast, but at some point I made to venture out into the unknown. In my haste the previous day, I had brought with me only a bunch of useless trinkets, and hadn’t thought to pack any additional clothing, including suitable coats and boots. Not being one to ask favors, I simply decided to make do with what I had and not bother anyone in our collective hardship.
But right as I was about to step outside into the wastes, I was stopped by one of the younger women, who came bearing a laughably puffy but immensely warm coat and some insulated, waterproof long boots. This was better than my present setup by a few orders of magnitude, and I accepted them at her behest.
But this was still only hours into the disaster and I hadn’t yet shed my pride. I remember a feeling of incredible self-consciousness as I accepted such humble and unfashionable clothing despite my own lack. From a stranger. In a disaster zone. Where many others had already perished. Where many others were slowly freezing to death completely without shelter in the sub-zero morning temperatures or trapped under rubble slowly crushing them or slowly drowning in pools of water they couldn’t escape. My, how vain, how shameful.
As much as I hate to admit it, I exited the temple still harboring this vanity, and stood at the spot where the night before Mrs. Kando had taken my arm and guided me inside, away from the mesmerizing destruction. But it was relatively dark then, and adrenaline was pumping hard; now, with new eyes and new light, the scene was quite a bit different, and far worse. It simply didn’t end. From edge to edge, all there was was wreckage. The landscape was completely alien to me. Except for recognizing the cleared part of the top of the road we had escaped to Zenrinji on, which reminded me that my apartment would have been a 5 minute walk away except for the endless debris, I may as well have been on Mars.
Which was quite interesting if you’re able to remove yourself from your immediate condition. Time travel was what came to mind, but instead of traveling to a point on some linear history of the universe, I had just entered a chaotic realm where that entire concept was irrelevant. I chuckled to myself at this incongruously philosophical musing as I looked over the objectively wasted city.
This would be the first of many very sardonic, escapist laughs, as the reality we were submerged in was so unimaginably awful. This time, it was the singular, and extremely pertinent, realization that as far as I knew, my apartment, and everything in it, was gone. My suits. My guitar. My computer. Everything. It was all gone, and that was such an extreme, absurd, even, realization that all I could do was laugh at my misfortunate.
Rarely do you remind yourself that one day all of your possessions will evaporate. More rarely still do you prepare yourself for that eventuality. But that day will come, mark my words. I certainly had not done the work, and in my still-materialist shock, I was faced with a series of questions:
How much could all of that have cost?
How could I possibly buy it back?
What should I repurchase?
What about leaving?
Can I even leave? The neighborhood? The city?
But if I could, where would I go? And how?
What about the others?
The list was perfectly stream-of-consciousness, and it grows even to this day, but suffice it to say, with the creation of that list in my mind, a new sensation — dread — set in. Standing there, contemplating this, my understanding of what had actually transpired grew, and I could now at least grasp the universe of potential ways this disaster would affect me.
I was able to partially quantify the that I was without everything that I had valued or ever owned, and that everything I had attached to them was gone, too. Things full of meaning, both minuscule and great, which I also attached to myself, attributed my personality to, most of which I forget now and still lament, were all gone, and so, too, it felt, was a very large chunk of my own self evacuated to some other inaccessible plane of non-existence, leaving me there alone in the cold, clear early Spring morning light.
“Alone.” Despite all those around me who saved me, fed me, clothed me. I then knew the source of my feelings of embarrassment and guilt that I had noticed the night before — that despite the awful circumstances, I was with people who cared, I had friends, I was in a group, and was as safe as safe could be… and yet I still felt alone.
This is not a great line of thought to occupy your mind with while you’re also grappling with how to not die that very day, but it is also a very strongly attractive thing that you can easily latch on to, so strong and mesmerizing are its depths. We all would find these shadows lurking around every corner in the coming weeks.
I stayed there for some time, ruminating about how I, and later, us, would possibly be able to get out of this, without even understanding the scale of what “this” was yet. It was completely unfathomable, sublime in that sense, and I dropped into a distinctly specific pit of despair still gazing over the wastes.
But all hope was not yet lost, there was still a shred of it, singularly contained in the Kando’s and the others, my guardian angels. I’d like to say that I managed to rip myself from that mental abyss and just started walking, down the hill to where the floodwaters had been not 10 hours before, but I’m not that strong. Mr. Kando approached me, much as Mrs. Kando had the night before, and with a very much renewed hop in his step, his characteristic, booming laugh, and a wide grin bearing a very prominent silver tooth, suggested we try to make our way down to the apartment. I don’t know how he managed to pull off that chipper veneer, and I tear up thinking about things like that, seemingly small anecdotally but immensely meaningful in the moment, to this day.
I received his environmentally incongruous disposition with various manners of disbelief: Was it safe? Was it “ok”? Was our job to hold down the fort? Did I have the right shoes on? Why are you laughing? You really can’t imagine the stupid things that went through my head as I was coming to grips with residing in a disaster zone, but Mr. Kondo reassured me that it’d be just fine and, hey, it might even be kind of fun.
Later, I would learn that this was a specific coping mechanism known as nakiwarai, or cry-laughing, and it is incredibly common in disaster zones.
So down we went, towards our apartment, and we quickly discovered two things.
Firstly, we could tell the place was wrecked from a pretty good distance, though still technically standing. The Kando’s residence on the first floor had been completely wiped out. From their large plasma TV to ancestral heirlooms and everything in between, it only took seconds upon discovery to determine that nothing would be recovered.
The 2nd floor remained nominally intact. We could see that the water line had hit maybe halfway up, which internally gave me a bit of hope I might be able to recover some of my possessions but I dared not let on to that externally for fear of exacerbating the sense of abysmal loss the Kando’s were surely already feeling.
Secondly, reaching the apartment would be very difficult because of the wreckage, and even if we could, we’d only be able to approach from one side. The buildings next door, including the kura that had been cracking open and closed during the quake, had collapsed against the side of the apartment that the 2nd floor walkway ran along, the walkway that the only door to my apartment opened. I gulped upon seeing that, as it immediately dawned on me that I could have easily been trapped in there had I left any later than I had. This isn’t the only time I retrospectively realized just how close to death I had come.
The other side of our apartment, too, had debris piled high next to it, too much, we quickly surmised, for us to overcome. And this debris was not just piled against our erstwhile residence; no, it went off in all directions, stacked high, obstructing our ability to reach the main road, effectively locking us in.
Understanding this, Mr. Kando signaled that he would be returning to the temple — he had found the information he was looking for. I, on the other hand, decided to carry on alone into the disaster zone — I have always been a very curious person, either out of survival motives or those lesser.
With nowhere in mind, and not knowing what my bounds were, I entered a hellish landscape full of mud, splintered wood, houses cut in half vertically and horizontally, and dead fish absolutely everywhere. It reeked, a miasmal concoction of fresh carrion and the sea floor drifting savagely in the otherwise crisp air.
The streets of the neighborhood were perfectly unfamiliar now, and I simply winded my way along them as best I could not knowing where I would come across an unexpected zig or a zag. Aside from the garbage, the streets were also devoid of people, though I can’t say that I was particularly surprised by this. While being first and foremost a nightmarish experience, there was also a very prominent sense of serenity, which is an odd combination, which I’ve only ever felt again in the forlorn woods of Aokigahara.
I wandered northwest a bit, I think, up a slight incline leading to a landing overlooking Miyako’s main drag and the bay beyond it. Where Zenrinji gave us a sprawling view of the whole city, this landing afforded me a much more focused if still macro view of the damage, and it only got worse and worse. Endless muck. Houses ripped apart. Very large boats in very inappropriate places. It was completely apocalyptic, nihilistic. Humans weren’t supposed to be there.
Again I felt that mesmerizing darkness circling and decided I ought to get a move on for fear of it sinking its claws into my psyche, so back down the incline I went and to the south, paying attention to my footing so as not to step on jagged nails or but my foot through a sheet of rusted, corrugated steel, through the shattered neighborhood very much feeling like the last man on earth.
After 10 or so minutes of meandering, I came across an elderly man, I’m guessing in his late 80s or 90s. He was standing on the street, yelling incomprehensibly, outside of a house split about as perfectly down the middle width-wise as you could imagine, like some very fine, giant, and heavenly buzzsaw came down from the skies to grace his home with its own demise. At first I thought I couldn’t understand because he was just too far away, but as he came closer into earshot I realized that, nope, definitely didn’t understand what he was saying because he was speaking in a very thick and understandably agitated Tohoku accent aka Zuzuben, which essentially means he was mumbling very loudly.
Eloquent language tends to evaporate in times like these and is replaced by much more primitive modes. There are only so many important things in the world, most of which we can communicate by gesturing and grunting. Humans are pretty versatile creatures, and despite our flaws and wars, our poems and epics, when life breaks down, language goes with it, but even then we are equipped with the most basic, universal of communication tools that will work in a pinch.
And that is just what the man did — pointed, and grunted. At a chest. Then he tried pulling on the drawers, which wouldn’t budge. He then gestured at me to come closer, and I inferred that he was asking for assistance with opening the chest to get at something important inside.
I approached him calmly and with whatever airs of friendliness I could muster or even remember. He took me over to the chest, excitedly speaking in that uniquely incomprehensible dialect while continuing his gesticulations. First I gave a few tugs on the oxidized metal handles, but that had no effect. I repositioned the chest, gave it a few shakes, and braced my foot against it for another, more exerted effort, but again, no result.
It then dawned on me that I was being precious about a mud-caked, rusted drawer in a house cut in half by a tsunami now sitting in an inescapable disaster zone and that this was ridiculous. So I found a rock and smashed it open judiciously.
Once opened, the man swept away the remnants that had been flung as a result, and clawed around inside for a bit, eventually producing a white, waterlogged shoebox. I still remember the crinkles, indentations, and pattern of dirt caked on its lid. His eyes immediately lit up at this discovery, and with a relieved look on his face, he opened it to reveal probably ¥20M or ¥30M of damp, swollen bills. I’m guessing this was his life’s savings.
His smile still beaming, he thanked me, and shook my hand enthusiastically. He then put ¥300,000 in my right coat pocket, and though I tried to give it back he insisted. I stuck around for a while to see if he had any other tasks for me, but aside from digging through his place solipsistically, there wasn’t much else he needed help with so I said goodbye and went on my way.
By that point, I had had my fill of surveying the land, and the cold was setting in once again, so I began the return trip to Zenrinji. Back through the winding, unfamiliar streets I went, past flipped cars and exposed piping, back to the steps I had fled up only the day before, and back into the temple, where I rejoined my cohort.
They had set up a long table in the sleeping quarters, on which now sat the most immaculate plating of the most meagre dinner possible, but it was extremely welcoming. I greeted them, sat down with them, and joined the dinner conversation that was so different from the night before. But my mind was now full of questions with no answers and answers to questions I had never asked, and these were swimming around with the rest of the mental refuse that while I may have been going through the motions of conversation, I have no recollection of what we spoke of.
To be continued…