On the evening of March 28,
Harada Roshi, Domyo and Ekei took
the Shinkansen to Kyoto and then embarked on a night bus towards the city
of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, one of the severely damaged prefectures by the earthquake and tsunami
flood wave of March 11. Bread has been baked before at Sogenji by Raine
and others and during the day Mazakosan, Kumitomisan and Chisan prepared
and packed food, water and other supplies for us and the people in the
damaged area in our backpacks. In
Kyoto, while waiting for the bus, the Yamaguchis joined us and
gave us a big box full of hot packs
and some sushi bento for our trip. We had nine pieces of luggage for three
persons and twelve hours of bus ride before us till
Sendai. The bus arrived next
morning quiet in the center of the city amidst high elegant office
buildings, clean quiet roads, the morning sun was shining from a clear sky
and nothing could be seen here of any disaster.
While we were waiting
for the priest of Zenoji temple, a young
man approached, asking were we wanted to go while pointing to a minibus
with the logo of the local University which was offering volunteer
service. Roshi thanked the student and told him that we would be picked
up. Soon after Zenojisan and his son arrived, we packed everything in the
van and drove out of downtown. Roshi mentioned that there was no damage
from the earthquake to be seen on the big buildings we passed by. The
priest said, “Well,
who knows how they look inside.”
There was a gasoline shortage and we could see on our way long waiting
lines of cars before the gas stations, most of them not even supplying.
Also there was no gas for cooking and heating in the houses and the temple
where we would be lodging for the next two days and nights, but we were
told that they had meanwhile learned to cook good rice on the kerosene
We saw the first real earthquake damage when we approached a bridge of the
Shinkansen line where the poles carrying power lines were tumbled and it
would take quiet a time till it would be repaired we heard.
Leaving the Shinkansen line behind,
we drove through an area of the city which
was reached by the tsunami wave.
The big road was already cleared but the side way was full of
destroyed and toppled cars, some hanging hood pointing
to the sky in fences, big shipping containers and trucks washed off the
road, a devastated gasoline station. The
wave destroyed most first floors of the houses and we could
see through and wherever we looked there
was all kind of debris scattered around, from fridges, sofas, vending
machines, clothes in the trees, to a lonesome
teddy bear someone had set up
straight in a gesture. On the front side of a closed store we could see
the line the water level had left; it was not much more than one and a
half meter above floor but the impact of the wave was strong enough to
cause all this mess. Nevertheless this was still kind of
mild compared with what we should
see later on this day. The whole area felt evidently depressed and was
more or less abandoned. Between eight and nine o'clock in the morning
there was little traffic. Some military vehicles passed by as we drove on.
We saw some convenience stores on the way. They were closed but with some
side door open where people were lined up, most probably for water or some
Shortly after, we reached a residential quarter of the city with a higher
location and untouched by the tsunami, but damage by the earthquake was
Many of the houses had wrapped blue vinyl
tarps on the roof, strapped with strings and stabilized with sandbags to
prevent more damage.
Arriving at Zenoji temple, we first went to the hondo to chant a sutra and
offer our reverence and prostrations together with the priests, then
unpacked and presented the supplies
we had brought and finally had breakfast together. There was rice balls
wrapped in nori, seaweed, and instant miso soup. Since there were no
vegetables available in town, we gladly shared some of the vegetable
dishes we had brought from Sogenji. Our hosts told us that the rice we ate
was already cooked with electricity, which had returned two days ago.
After breakfast, without loosing much time, the hot packs, bread, sweets
and other food we brought with us were distributed in several bags and we
started out to visit a row of Rinzai Zen temples scattered in the city
area. Most of them, except one, had not suffered mayor damage, but some
were lodging still some homeless people and gratefully received our
supplies. Roshi also offered some donation of money at every place.
At some point on our way we drove straight into the most affected zone,
closer by the seaside. Since some of the roads were already cleared out,
we could partially
enter this area and what we saw was just
total devastation of what was formerly some residential area. Over
hundreds of meters, as far as we could look, most houses were just washed
away, leaving only the bare basements surrounded and covered with debris;
again many cars crashed and scattered like wrinkled paper or hanging on
halfway toppled electricity poles; some of them were broken on the top and
lay with the cables mixed up among other garbage. Some structures of
were as a whole carried away and laying on
places they were not built, in the midst of what was formerly a pond, or
stuck in a group of trees. Further on we drove by a structure of what was
formerly a railway station. The cars of the train were pulled hundreds
meters from the railway into some houses and the front of the station was
blocked with several stems of big coastal pine trees with the great stems
of the roots still on them.
Driving through all this and with the kind help of a clean up worker, we
finally found our way to one temple in the area which had suffered some
Luckily, between the site of the temple
and the seashore there was a group of hills , which took away most of the
impact, but even so the flood reached the brand new building and destroyed
nearly completely the first floor. Repair work was already going on and
the young monk who received us told us that he was still training at
Daitokuji sodo in Kyoto and had received permission from the monastery to
come and help out with the work.
Looking through the entrance into the first floor, again there was a line
on the wall, about two meters above the floor, marking the level the flood
water had reached.
In the tokonoma niche there was
still hanging a big scroll with the calligraphy
by Mumon Roshi
and the line went straight through the
upper part of the calligraphy – the message however was clearly there.
After offering our support and a while of talk we climbed again in our
vehicle to continue on our way.
The road we followed went around the hills and brought us again in one of
the most affected areas, partially still covered with water and mud and as
good as nearly completely flattened. On the slope of a small hill we could
see some remnants of a destroyed temple of another sect. The big heavy
tile roof of the hondo had been swept as a whole over the hill and lay
several hundred meters away in a channel. Soldiers were patrolling still.
Sadly we heard that the priest of the site had died together with so many
others in the incident.
Slowly we drove our way out of the area, still passing by some kind of
surrealistic scenes, an empty structure of a house by the shore side of
the road with a fishing boat on top of it. The further we drove out of the
region, the lesser the damage that surrounded us.
Our next goal on this morning was Zuiganji temple in nearby Matsushima.
Zuiganji is quiet close to the shore side, but the many islands in the bay
formed an efficient protection, so that only some flood waters came to the
front gardens and damaged some of the tourist shops at the entrance.
13 years ago, late Hirano Roshi, then abbot of Zuiganji allowed me to sit
for a while in the zendo and then signaled my way to Sogenji. Today I was
grateful for the chance of coming back and together with Roshi, Domyosan
and Zenojisan we offered prayers and homage at his altar.
We had lunch at Zuiganji and on our way back, we visited one more last
temple. It had lodged up to five hundred people during the first days of
calamity and actually there were still ninety persons living there.
Children were chasing and joyfully
playing around, we gave them the sweets we brought for them and they were
just happy, a little boy all smiles showing his gift in his hand. Fresh
life, innocent and without concern. Every place we went, people were very
grateful for our visit and some supplies.
Back at Zenoji we got some time to rest. There was a light earthquake in
afternoon scaled at around three points
and then a stronger one in the evening of 6.5 points. Zenojisan brought us
the evening newspaper and it said that in the prefecture of
Miyagi a hundred and forty-six thousand cars had been destroyed, eleven
thousand six hundred people had died, and another ten thousand were
missing, probably drawn into the ocean when the wave pulled back never to
be found. The tsunami had a height of twenty meters, at some places even
thirty meters and had reached up to 4km into the land. After what we had
seen during the day, this sounded credible. On the front page of the
newspaper there was a big picture of a brand new family house, not even
yet in use, on its way of being pushed down the slope of a hill by the
earthquake and completely unusable. Amidst the tremendous human suffering
and loss, brand new houses completely destroyed and years of paying
mortgage ahead, was a common drama among some of the surviving people we
During the afternoon we had some time to look around the grounds of Zenoji
temple, which had a big graveyard along the hillside. Many of the grave
stones were toppled, stone lanterns brought down and some damage in the
hondo wall, all in all not so unfortunate a situation. In front of the
hondo at a side stand the big bell and Zenojisan told us that during the
earthquake it was ringing by itself. In the second floor of a building,
there was a room where the traditional memorial tablets (Ihai), each with
the name of
a deceased person, were kept. In all there
were thirteen hundred of them, arranged in order and kept in vitrines
along the walls and all were toppled over and laying stray one upon the
Next morning, March 30, we got up early, had choka including a sutra for
the victims which we have been chanting since the first day of the
disaster in Sogenji, did the daily cleaning of our quarters, the hondo and
some of the gardens, and after
breakfast started to work on the
toppled memory tablets. They had to be taken out carefully one by one,
dusted and then rearranged in the vitrines according to the established
order. Two helpers from the community had arrived and were working all
day. Among six persons we had put in order nearly half of them at the end
of the day.
Next day, the 31st, we took the bus back in the early rainy morning to
Tokyo where Shogen was waiting for us. We had a short meeting, Roshi took
the Shinkansen to Okayama to be in time for Shukushin, and Domyo and me
waited for the night bus. In Tokyo all shops closed at 6pm
because of the electricity shortage. Next morning we were back at Sogenji,
where the cherry blossoms by the pond were just in full bloom.
Ekei Zenji, Sogenji, April 3, 2011