On March 11, 2011, I woke to a text from a friend alerting me that Japan had been jolted by an earthquake.
At first I dismissed the news; Japan often has earthquakes. I'm originally from California, and it, too, often has earthquakes. But the urgency of the message intrigued me, and I eventually got out of bed and inspected the news on my computer.
This was no routine earthquake. I checked the epicenter. It was 8.9 or 9.0 on the Richter scale and 130 miles off the coast of Sendai. Reports streamed in that the earthquake had triggered a tsunami, and a graphic of Japan showed an increasingly wide area of impact. The coast of Tōhoku, the northeast region on Japan's main island, had been eviscerated. Even though it was morning, my husband poured me a glass of wine from a bottle we'd half drunk the night before, and I sat and watched the Internet, with the radio on in the background.
For thirty-six hours after the earthquake and tsunami, I was unable to get any word from my mother's family, who own and run a Zen Buddhist temple in Iwaki, a city about eighty-five miles from Sendai on the Tōhoku coastline. Thirty-six hours does not seem like a very long time given the distance (around seven thousand miles) from Japan to New York, where I lived, and the time difference (thirteen to fourteen hours, depending on the time of year). But this waiting period felt akin to a week. Friends phoned and sent emails and texts. The attention made me self-conscious. I was not in danger. I called my mother in California and told her not to go to the beach.
Japanese temples, especially older Zen temples like my family's, are often safely located high up on a hill. This is because a temple is supposed to bring you closer to Buddha and to the gods, who almost always live up in the sky, out of mortal reach. Tsunamis usually impact coastlines, but this particular event was so powerful, the water infiltrated rivers, scaling heights previously considered secure. I watched the images as they were updated, looking for any indication of my family's fate. A photo came in from Onahama harbor, the seaside port in Iwaki. I picked up the phone again. Nothing.
Before the tsunami, the great tragedy that everyone skirted in conversation in my Japanese family was World War II. On August 9, 1945, my great-uncle was out fishing in the Pacific, far enough away from Nagasaki, Japan, where he lived, 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 fled the city only a few days earlier 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.
I wondered if my family in Iwaki would also be lucky and smart.
I wanted to know, and I did not want to know. I kept dipping into the world of the Internet, with its videos of water raging over the farmland and crushed ferries, and then quickly backed out. Not looking at the videos kept reality at bay, because the images of the coastline did not match the Japan that I knew and loved from childhood.
In the Japan that I knew, I boarded the Jōban Line train from Ueno station in Tōkyō and traveled up the northeast coast to Iwaki. If it was spring, the bentō stalls in Ueno station sold cherry blossom-themed meals to eat on the train: pink cakes made of mochi rice paste cut into flower shapes. The train would stop at Kairakuen, a park in the city of Mito that is famous for its plum blossoms.
Not long after leaving Kairakuen, the train curved along the tracks and began to hug the coast. Then I knew that I had entered Tōhoku, the northern region of Japan where the goddesses and demons of legend seem alive and seafood is sweet. My Japanese grandfather was particularly fond of mehikari, or "flashing eyes," a succulent fish that is an Iwaki specialty.
Often on this journey, I would switch to a local train to get off at Nakoso, a town famous for its inns and hot springs, and formerly a way station on the footpath connecting Tōhoku to Edo, the old name for Tōkyō. 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 did not see how the spa could have survived the tsunami. Its Web site was eerily still online, with numerous photos of ocean views through the windows of the bathing room and the dining rooms; no status update was posted on its main page.
Now the Jōban train was not running any farther than Mito; past this, the tsunami had battered train tracks and highways, making passage nearly impossible. A section of one train was found on its side just north of Iwaki, the cars abandoned.
As a child traveling through Japan with my mother, I kept an illustrated journal of our adventures. In one entry, I was swimming in the waters off the beach at Ōarai, a town located on the Tōhoku coast whose name means "big washing," which sounded romantic before the tsunami. Now Ōarai was covered with sludge. In another illustration, I was standing under the gigantic, chandelier-like ornaments of Sendai's famed Tanabata star festival. But Sendai had been pummeled, and its airport closed. In yet another diary entry, my mother was knee high in dark blue water and holding an umbrella while I clung to her back. I remember laughing as my mother carried me to the safety of an elevated train platform, but we were also afraid. What if the flooding did not stop?
All these towns had a beach. Whenever we visited the beach, my mother would ask, "What do you do if the water suddenly disappears?"
"Run," I would answer.
"Why?" she would fire back.
As I got older, this questioning became annoying. Born in Japan, my mother had trained to be an opera singer in Europe, where she met my father, an American. Both had a tendency to behave as though they were on a stage. Sometimes I got to be on stage with them. Sometimes I was the audience. It made it tricky to know what to take seriously.
"Come on. Why?" she'd press.
"Because it means a tsunami is coming," I'd sigh.
Whatever that was.
Excerpted from Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Copyright 2015 by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.