On Aug. 9, 1945, my great-uncle was out fishing in the Pacific, far enough away from Nagasaki, Japan, that he missed the immediate impact of the atomic bomb dropped by the Americans that day. My great-aunt was in their new house outside Nagasaki; the entire family had only a few days earlier fled the city because my great-uncle feared a repeat of the bombing of Hiroshima.
I heard this story many times during my childhood. Back then, it made me feel that my great-uncle was a clever man. As an adult, I realized he was also very lucky, because cleverness alone cannot keep you safe.
For 36 hours after the earthquake and tsunami that eviscerated1) the east coast of Japan on March 11th, 2011, I was unable to get any word from my relatives who oversee and live in our family’s Buddhist temple in Iwaki City, south of Sendai, the biggest city near the epicenter2). I wondered if they too were lucky and smart.
I wanted to know, and I did not want to know. I dipped into3) the world of the Internet, with its videos of water raging over the farmland and crushed ferries4), and then quickly backed out5). Not looking at the videos kept reality at bay6), because the images of the coastline do not match the Japan that I know.
In the Japan that I know, I board the Joban Line train from Ueno station in Tokyo, and travel up the northeast coast to Iwaki City. If it’s spring, the bento7) stalls in the station sell cherry blossom-themed meals to eat on the train: pink cakes made of mochi rice paste are cut into flower shapes. The train will stop at Kairakuen, a park in Mito City that is famous for its plum blossoms. In the evening, the trees are illuminated from below, making neon pink froth against an indigo8) sky.
Not long after Kairakuen, the train curves and begins to hug the coast9). Then I know that I have entered Tohoku, the northern region of Japan where the goddesses and demons of legend seem to be alive and seafood is sweet.
Often on this journey, I will switch to a local train to get off at Nakoso, a town famous for its inns and hot springs. My favorite spa, Sekinoyu, is just yards off the beach, a vegetation-thick cliff at its back. The waves of the North Pacific crash right outside the windows.
I do not see how the spa could have survived the tsunami. Its web site is eerily10) still online, with numerous photos of ocean views through the windows of baths and dining rooms; no status update is posted on its main page.
The Joban train now does not run any further than Mito City; past this, the tsunami has battered train tracks and highways, making passage nearly impossible. A section of one train was found on its side just north of Iwaki City, the cars abandoned.
The beach where I used to play at Oarai, a town whose name means “big washing” and which sounded romantic in happier times, is covered with sludge11). Sendai is home to the most famous and romantic summer festival, Tanabata, when the stars Vega and Altair, who are in love but separated by the Milky Way, are reunited for one night. Sendai, site of many happy pilgrimages for me, has also been pummeled12).
All this has happened even though Japan is arguably better prepared than any other country when it comes to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
When I was a child growing up in California, my Japanese mother would ask me, “How do you know a tsunami is coming?”
“When the ocean starts to disappear,” I would say.
“And then what do you do?”
“Drop everything and run up a hill.”
The residents of Fukushima Prefecture would have been taught this as well, and yet most would have had only 15 minutes to understand they had just experienced an earthquake, to notice the sea was retreating, and escape.
After 36 hours, I get through to my family at the temple in Iwaki. My relatives are unharmed, but there are new fears of a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, just 30 miles away. One of the family cars is full of gas, and they assure me that they can escape at a moment’s notice. Fuel is in short supply, so in this, they are lucky.
I would like them to leave right away, but they refuse to flee. The job of the keepers of a Buddhist temple, after all, is to help shepherd souls into and through the afterlife. Since they were children, my cousins have held wakes13), chanted sutras14) over dead bodies, and anticipated the needs of those in mourning. Nuclear fallout or no nuclear fallout, their neighbors will need them.
After 48 hours, the phone lines are not working again. I sit and wait.
1. eviscerate [ɪˈvɪsəreɪt] vt. 除去主要部分
2. epicenter [ˈepɪˌsentə(r)] n. 震中
3. dip into：浏览
4. ferry [ˈferi] n. 渡船
5. back out：退回
6. keep … at bay：不让……逼近，使……无法近身
7. bento [ˈbentəʊ] n. 盒饭
8. indigo [ˈɪndɪɡəʊ] n. 靛蓝色
9. hug the coast：沿海岸航行
10. eerily [ˈɪərili] adv. 怪异地，奇异地
11. sludge [slʌdʒ] n. 淤泥，软泥
12. pummel [ˈpʌm(ə)l] vt. 击，打
13. wake [weɪk] n. 守灵
14. sutra [ˈsuːtrə] n. [佛教]经文，尤指释迦牟尼讲道的文本