The fire that came from the sea – Gallery #03

The fire that came from the sea – Gallery #03

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)

Spam to the Crows

We draw into Ishinomaki City as dusk falls.

On the waterfront, the Statue of Liberty sculpture survived the tsunami, and still stands – but with her flank missing. Behind her, a futuristic flying saucer of a building. A new museum – the Museum of Manga. They want people to know them for their museum.

Everywhere crows circle over head. A couple arrive in a mini-bus and look at the area. They are thinking of buying the land to open a restaurant.

I long for the crows to circle me whilst standing by the statue. Everett says that as a photo journalist what we witness is fact – you must shoot what you see and feel; however with his ‘editorial hat’ on he says if you want crows above you, well you’d bring them food and place it on the ground. Preferably meat. You stage the shot – I call this taking “Spam to the Crows’. This amuses us both hugely. We are both tired & its been a long day. “Spam to the Crows” becomes our new phrase if I come close to ‘misinterpreting’ or staging an image. The use of this phrase makes us giggle hugely.


A boat up a mountain

As we leave the city the next morning, workers congregate and are being lead through regimented morning exercises. Jumping & star fish movements in unison. Some are more enthusiastic than others. A man runs over as I approach with my camera. You can photograph, he says but not close. I am so far away, there is no image to be worked. Once again, order springing from the chaos; and it begins each morning with group exercise for the workers.

We head out for the headland. A remote promontory – the roads are still only patchingly repaired. Large cracks along the tarmac separating ‘good’ road from precarious slices of ‘bad’ road which look ready to fall into the sea below. We are 850ft above sea-level. The height of the Ditchling Beacon I realise. “You might want to hug the inside of the road Everett” I say as nonchantly as I can. Everett smiles & sees through me.

We turn a bend, and there amongst the trees, sits a fisherman’s boat.

It is full of her standard cargo of plastic drums and nets – a boat about to set off for work. The force of the wave, hurling itself into the steep ravines of the headland has casually picked up this 35 foot trawler and placed her high up amongst the cedars. Here she sits, two years later – overgrown and 850 feet above sea level. As if to add to the strangeness of the sight, trapped below the ship’s rudder is a PC screen. A curious and improbable marriage of items, ship and PC screen high up the mountain.


Ghost Town

Continuing South, we head through Shiogama City, then Tagajo City and then the mood changes. You can’t immediately perceive what is different, but there is less traffic suddenly. It is becoming quieter, less busy.

In Natori we see the distant shoreline with the tall trees – a moving image hauntingly captured on YouTube as the wave advanced. Further south, and into the Iwanuma City region. You instinctively know that something is just not right.

Then we enter the ghost towns. These are real ghost towns – noodle bars with cigarette butts in ashtrays, plates on tables, garages selling tyres in racks…rows and rows of homes just frozen in time. The poor people having escaped the earthquake, and then the tsunami were then hit by the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck. They left – never to return. I am standing in a street of relatively undamaged homes, driveways intact, doors locked, hedgerows looking a bit shabby and a helpful sign states “No Ball Games’; a cartoon child figure looks alarmed having realised the perils of playing near a busy road supports the text. There are no cars, no traffic and no children to heed the sign’s well-intentioned advice.

Elsewhere, cars sit up turned in fields, vast concrete buildings (the size of my home) literally sitting on their side. It is at times like surveying a war zone. I am overwhelmed.

I wander into homes (ones hit by the waves) and entire walls are missing, but the beds or chairs are just sitting there – curtains blowing in the wind where the wall, below the curtain rail is no more. For no reason at all, one house remains; and yet surrounding it for a mile in every direction there is nothing – just geese eating the grass.

The dark dark side however is Fukushima. We drive up to the exclusion zone. Men in white suits and masks tell us we can go no further. “Get out and take their picture” says Everett. I am hesitant and make excuses to myself…In the end I get out and wander up. I speak no Japanese. These are but boys in uniform. I show them my camera and say I’m a journalist. Suddenly I believe, possibly I am one. They tell me to wait and radio to HQ. We wait. Yes you can take photos – they are beaming smiles behind their masks. They’re stars today and its the best thing that has happened in days.

Inescapable and invisible the real menace lingers. There can be no regeneration here – this will last 1000 years. Whereas everywhere else, there is hope; man and nature can get back to a new normal. But not here – man has truly screwed the natural order, and this is never going to go away; not for an inconceivable amount of generations.

The affects are still felt daily.


An incidental moment. I am now back in Tokyo. I approach the lift of the Hilton hotel. An impossibly glamorous location to now be located after the last few days. The unreality of it all jars slightly – piped music plays all the time. Why is this played continuously? Are we never to be left to enjoy silence or to be with our own thoughts.

At the familiar ‘ping’ of a lift arriving, I and an hotel employee enter. He is smartly dressed in a dark blue suit, and may be 50 or so. We start to ascend. “Hopefully it will be warmer soon” he says. I agree – I’ve been up North I tell him, where it was snowing. “Skiing?” he enquires. No visiting Kesennuma and Fukishima – the tsunami region. We have reached my floor.

He holds the lift door. “Oh how is it there?”. He his earnestly asking. We have moved beyond anything to do with our respective roles. He is no longer an employee, nor I simply a paying guest. Just fellow men. I tell him briefly – and I assure him what wonderful people the Japanese are. He is thanking me. “We’ve had help from all over the world” he explains “we are so grateful. Thank you. Thank you.” I can take no credit for this – I am simply a travelling photographer; and I am keen for him to know that I am but a no one – albeit one that cares. All the while, the door of the lift is being held open. He has a hunger for information regarding his fellow man.

We part company. I walk to my room door. The key doesn’t work. I keep trying in vain. I am on the wrong floor! How can this be… I know I selected the correct one, and there were only two of us in the lift. I wondered if I wasn’t meant to meet him again and continue our conversation. I return to the lift half expecting him to still be there. He is not. Just the wrong 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