Tsunami Spares Japan's Pine-Covered Islands

The islands off the coast of Matsushima are one of Japan's scenic treasures. They were close to the epicenter of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. But somehow, the breathtaking pine covered islands suffered little damage in the disaster.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Japan the epicenter of last month's earthquake was located just off Matsushima Bay. Its pine-covered islands are considered one of Japan's scenic treasures. The tsunami destroyed nearby cities, but amazingly Matsushima was spared. NPR's John Burnett explains why in this postcard.

JOHN BURNETT: Over the ages, the deep-blue waves of Matsushima Bay have sculpted these rock islands into fantastical shapes, on top of which grow miniature forests of pine trees. Each year, three million people come from around the world to behold the islands of Matsushima. Pleasure-boat skippers make a good living ferrying sightseers out to the islets. Sai'ichi Aizawa should be more upset that the tsunami sunk his cabin cruiser, but when he looks around he feels grateful.

Mr. SAI'ICHI AIZAWA (Boat captain): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: If you go south you see Tagajo and Arahama, and if you go north you see East Matsushima, he says. All of them were demolished by the tsunami. But because of these islands, we were saved.

The tsunami reached frightening heights elsewhere along the coast - 30 feet and higher. But here in Matsushima Bay, they say the sea only rose three to five feet. According to the village website, 13 people died here and in outlying areas. Businesses that face the bay in Matsushima Town took water, to be sure, but the damage is relatively minor. Here, the tsunami was more a gentle flood than an onrushing bulldozer. The islands acted as a buffer.

Mr. AIZAWA: ((Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Look at Matsushima, says Aizawa the boat captain. It's still there -the shape, the form, the beauty. It's still there.

A 60-year-old oyster fisherman named Shigeru Watanabe climbs the stairs to a tall hill that offers a commanding overlook of the islands of Matsushima.

Mr. SHIGERU WATANABE (Fisherman): (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: The climb is steep. And he's not as young as he used to be. Ancient cedars grow on the hilltop. There's a graceful Buddhist shrine and an observation deck.

(Soundbite of gong)

Watanabe squints at the green islands that he's known all of his life. He explored them as a boy, and today he harvests oysters from their azure waters.

Mr. WATANABE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: When you live in the bay, he says, you don't worry as much about tsunamis. We're fishermen and we understand the ways of the sea. We know how tsunamis behave here.

Mr. WATANABE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: The great wave climbed up the sides of the islands, he says, and then it receded.

The tsunami wiped away the small settlements on the outlying, Pacific-facing islands of Katsura-jima and Nono-jima. But the vast majority of the 260 islands in the bay look just as they did before March 11th. Matsushima is one of the only places along the shattered Sanriku coast that is intact.

In fact, the islands probably look much as they did when their splendor inspired the famous haiku in 1689, which is attributed to the great Japanese nature poet, Matsuo Basho, and recited here by the oysterman Shigeru Watanabe.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. WATANABE: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: Matsushima, ah, Matsushima, Matsushima.

John Burnett, NPR News, Tokyo.

(Soundbite of music)

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