The fire that came from the sea – Gallery #01

The fire that came from the sea – Gallery #01

A journey through the tsunami hit region of Japan March 2013. The images shown were part of a larger photographic project concerning Love & Loss (The Day After This Night : Love and Loss in the Orient - Further information, including exhibition review and book link under the gallery below)


Amongst the wasteland that once was the city centre sits a lone ship. Vast and immoveable. Well, immoveable now – but previously lifted by the tsunami wave as if of no consequence and placed in the heart of the city. A shrine sits at its base. Underneath a car flattened as the retreating wave deposited the ship. A power cable reconnected to a house that is no longer there, serves a vending machine offering drinks and snacks to the workers.

The footprints of homes are everywhere. Row after row; full of reeds strangled by the frozen water. Strangely, elegant tiled steps rise up to these little frozen swimming pools. Mosaic tiled entrances leading to homes that no longer exist.

The People are busy. Reconstruction. Piles of debris created. These piles are removed day after day, by truck after truck load. Another year they say and it will be cleared. Where does this detritus go to, I wonder. Maybe where memories live.

With me is Everett Kennedy Brown. He is my guide and is incredibly knowledgeable about the area and the events of 2011. However he seems so much more than this – the guiding is almost incidental at times. A notable photographer, combined with the mind of a poet and at times a philosopher; he seamlessly switches through the three ‘Ps’ as he determines my needs. He interrogates my work – always digging; Its what I need. Whilst he also always respects the journey, he has faith in the instinctive too. “Go with your gut”. Great company. My very good fortune indeed.


Oshima Island

I meet a man on the island of Oshima. A beautiful, picturesque island outcrop that shelters Kesennuma City. It is a holiday resort – pine forests, pristine beaches and offers a chance to escape the city.

Marc is in his early forties, two children and works on the island at the Government run hostel resort. He had been a tuna fisherman, but gave up twenty years ago as the market was dying.

The tsunami struck in the afternoon. It was his day off.

The wave is 50ft high and rips across the shoreline – but unbeknownst to the islanders the wave, having circled the island and torn through Kesennuma city on the mainland starts to withdraw at huge speed. On the top of the retreating wave now sits 100s of houses with their roofs on fire. 50 ft up they collide with the north of the island and due to the increased water level height, the debris hits the pine forest and set fire to it. As the locals fight the damage at shore level, they send everyone to high ground, but suddenly the forest above them is on fire – there is no where to go. Now they have to fight the fire above and ignore the tsunami damage below. I say “the fire that came from the sea”. The man nods and agrees.

We are staring at the epicentre of the earthquake, not 30 Kms from  our position. Its reach was to extend over 200kms in all directions.

Marc knows that I am from England. It reminds him of a story of a local boy who was studying in England at the time. His mother climbed up onto her roof, and is surrounded by rising water. She tweets her son. He contacts a company in Tokyo and gives them his mother’s grid. They send a helicopter and she is rescued.

We talk about being parents.He is fortunate, he says. His children are young and they had recently returned from the Junior School which is on the island, as the wave struck. However as there is no High School on the island, unfortunately the older local children were on the mainland as the tsunami occurred. Many did not get home or have contact with their family for up to two weeks. Neither party knowing for sure what had become of them.

I can’t imagine such fear and anxiety.

Within a day of the disaster, American military forces in the area arrive on the island; sending in ships and helicoptered supplies. They set up a base camp and remain for two months. Erecting temporary housing villages for the locals who have lost everything. These hamlets, each of 25 pre-fabricated homes are still occupied, and are scattered about the island. Marc tells me that a real bond was formed between the Americans and Japanese; so much so, that the local children even went to the USA military camps for ‘sleepovers’.

As we return to the mainland, the incongruous sound of a brass band. A new ship has been topped out. Small cedar tree tied to the highest ‘mast’ on the vessel. She is being newly commissioned and a large group stand on the quay as she is welcomed into the fishing community.

The base of the trees are pale brown; damaged by the height of the salt water.


South of the City

South of the city, beyond the devastated industrial estate, and as the sun sets I arrive at an isolated graveyard. The headstones face the sea – out of respect to their master and provider for generations of fishermen and their families. Unfortunately the master, on the day of the tsunami simply swept through the graveyard as it did the industrial estate, taking everything in it’s path. Vast marble headstones, obelisks, family catacombs were devastated – the graves ruthlessly torn apart with the debris deposited across the area.

Over time, some of the fragments have been recovered. The survivors have placed the odd patchwork of marble back in place as best they can. Some graves have not been reconstituted at all. Maybe in this instance, there were no survivors from the family to help rescue their forefathers graves. Possibly the pieces have never been found.

I look at a headless Buddha.

There is an ashtray with cigarette butts on one of the graves. It could be the family come here to smoke and talk with their dead elders; or possibly the deceased enjoyed a smoke, and the family light one above the grave for him. Certainly it doesn’t feel disrespectful. It feels considered.

The sea waves suddenly smack against the sea wall behind. It makes me jump. It’s getting dark and I want to go inland.


Fine wines

Everywhere there is regeneration. People putting their lives back together.

Incredibly on the top on a hill, at Cape Tatsumaizaki on the coast road sits a wine merchant. So improbable it is difficult to explain. Everett loves wine, so we go in – a second generation wine merchant, thrilled at our arrival, greets us warmly. He has a cooler full of exotic and very rare French wines. This alone is incongruous.

Then we learn that the fridge has not been opened since the tsunami. It was his late fathers passion (French wine) whereas his is rare saki. His father died the year before tsunami – we ask if we can see the wine. With the wine cooler having not been opened for 2 years, he gets very anxious because he can’t find the key. Cross words with wife – she frantically looking for keys, and trying every set in the house. Then, as a last desperate measure he pulls the door and it just opens. It is not locked. The silence is palpable.

Slowly he pulls out these incredible wines – it is emotional for everyone. This is a rebirth of possibility on so many levels for the merchant.

We buy a rare 1985 burgandy – and drink it that night. If we had drunk wine from the cellar of the Titanic, it would not have tasted better.

Driving south we pass devastation and regeneration in equal measure. There is real energy and a sense of ‘can do’. Nothing is going to stop the rebuild. I feel that I can actually see and am witnessing the meaning of the word Industry. But there is no escaping the reality of the task – a little group of men are gathered, wearing hard hats and with plans in their hands blowing in the wind, as they survey a vast five storey concrete factory building. It is lying on its side intact. They are staring at the underside of the basement floor.

The images shown were part of a larger, three year photographic project:

The Day After This Night: Love and Loss in the Orient

Further information:

Exhibition Review – Please Visit>

To view extracts from the book – Please Visit>


All images & text Copyright Michael C Hughes