It is always terrible to hear of a natural disaster hitting some part of the world, but it becomes even more potently awful when you have been to the place which has been affected by such shocking tragedy. Last month it was the New Zealand earthquake that hit Christchurch. Having spent nearly ten months cycling all around New Zealand in 2004 including camping for two weeks in the centre of Christchurch and cycling all around the city and locking my bike up at the base of the cathedral (which has now partially collapsed) I can picture the whole place so clearly and the people I met and the grocery stores I shopped in and the park benches I sat on. And all this makes the disaster so much more real.
The massive earthquake and tsunami that has just struck the northeast coast of Japan is on an entirely different scale. A few years ago I spent eight months cycling 6000 miles all over Japan, from the sub-tropical islands of Okinawa in the south, up through the large mainland islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido. My final month I spent riding down the coast that has been so devastated by the tsunami – a 30ft high monstrous muddy morass of racing water that seems to have destroyed virtually everything and everyone in its path. Had I not been to Japan I would have heard the news and seen the pictures and been shocked by it. Now it seems even worse because I was there and can visualize so clearly the homes of the Japanese who welcomed me into them, the meals and baths they gave me, the shrines I camped in, the foodstores I shopped in, the children’s playgrounds I picnicked in, the beaches I slept on and the touching and amusing encounters I had with so many fun and generous people. And now I wonder what has happened to them and their homes. Like the old man I met the day I was cycling out of Oma-cho in torrential wind and rain (the tail-end of a typhoon) and took shelter in the foyer of a small hospital. The man who beckoned me in had one leg, a glass eye, a glass of sake and a banana which he offered me along with the use of his bed. I said yes please to the banana but no thanks to the bed and sat with the patient as he puffed his way through a pack of Mildo Sevens and watched some typically mind-numbingly awful Japanese games show with him on television.
I think of the spectacular rocky and mountainous coast of this northernmost region of Honshu, of the fishing villages I passed through consisting of low clumps of mostly wooden houses huddled around small harbours with fishermen and women sorting through tangles of nets. I think of the elderly couple in the village of Kazamaura-mura who invited me into their home to have a rest from the rain and to feed me, wash me, dry me and give me a tiny tatami sea-view room. A room from where that night I could just make out the distant beams of the oscillating squid boats out to sea, burning brilliant lamps to attract the ink-blooded ika.
South of Yokohama-machi I remember well my first encounter with a Japanese flasher who tried to proffer me his unimpressive goods out of the window of a car. Unlike other flashers I’ve come across in other countries around the world, he was unthreatening and polite and seemed almost a little apologetic. A flasher with a bow.
Further down this coast where the land flattened out, now totally destroyed by the tsunami, I got caught up in a carnival – mad masks, mad music, mad noise. Somehow I found myself hoisted up by a cascade of eager arms on to a chaotic-drumming garish-dragon float and given beer, a bandanna, a fan and some food. Later on, back on my bike, I got caught in a thick torpid cloud of dragonflies that collided into my face and flapped horribly down my shirt.
I remember the boy I met along here who was smoking a Hope and wearing a T-shirt that said ‘ Cheer up! Dream of success. Let’s go right on! Let’s chance it! We’re mover’
And I wonder, where is he now, is he alright?
I also wonder where is Mr Kato right now, the young senior managing director of Hotel Boyo – a fairly sizeable place in the major fishing port of Kesennuma – the ‘World Tuna Capital’, just north of Sendai. Mr Kato had invited me to stay at his hotel free of charge as he seemed to be very amazed that I should be cycling around Japan alone. ‘This is so fine example of foreign woman bicycle muscle strength!’ he exclaimed. By the time I arrived home a month or so later, there was a letter waiting for me from Mr Kato in which among other things he had written:
‘I like travel like you do, so there are many things came up in my mind when I talked with you. I’m chaseing the time everyday as a typical Japanese busines man now so I had feel envy for your free lifestyle I know there are many difficulties to be free but you are doing it. It is wonderful. Please write me.
And all I can hope is that Mr Kato is now alright.
I have tried contacting a few of the people I stayed with or met in this region, but so far nothing.