After the Wave
05 Jan 12
- Wako Hirotoshi
Mountains covered in dense vegetation run along the Sanriku coast, cut through by clear, mineral-rich streams that flow into a fish-filled sea. This Japanese region is rich in marine resources, and enjoys a quality of life not revealed by economic indicators.
But on March 11, 2011, at 2.46 pm, a violent magnitude-9 earthquake struck the coast and caused gigantic tsunamis, some over 37 meters tall, to slam into this coast. The water swallowed up boats, people, ports, whole cities. Everything.
After the earthquake, I received many messages from people asking for news or offering their support. I cannot describe how much encouragement they brought me. I wanted to thank each of them individually and I apologize if I didn’t have the time or the psychological strength to respond to everyone.
On that day, I was driving my car. Suddenly I felt trembling and then a sideways shaking with increasingly strong oscillations. When the movements intensified further, reaching a level I’d never felt before, I thought “this is it.” This area had actually been hit by many earthquakes and tsunamis in the past.
The jolts continued for a few minutes, and when they finally calmed down, the screen in the car was showing a special news bulletin listing the magnitude of the quake in every area. A little later came the images of the tsunami, its terrible force sweeping away people, houses, cars… All this was happening not far from where I was. I was terrified that the waves might reach me. It was impossible to drive further because of the traffic, and I started to look around for somewhere high I could climb in case the waves arrived. I’ll never forget the terror of those moments.
Otsuo Sakaki, his daughter Akiko and her husband made a product included in Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, roasted and smoked goby (yakihaze). The 25-centimeter-long fish has found an ideal habitat in the Nagatsura bay, where it takes on extraordinary sensory characteristics. The family took part in the 2010 Terra Madre gathering in Turin, and they lived close to the mouth of the Kitakami River. The tsunami raced 12 kilometers up the river, and the whole area was completely devastated by the flooding.
I couldn’t reach them on the phone because the lines were down, so two days after the quake I drove to Nagatsura bay, to the town of Ishinomaki, where the Sakaki family had lived. The coast was completely destroyed, and I was only able to reach the town by taking a mountain road. The land around Nagatsura bay was completely submerged.
After two weeks of trying to contact them, I found out that Otsuo’s daughter and son-in-law where in a shelter for evacuees. I went there immediately and finally managed to talk to them. When the earthquake hit, they were visiting a son who lives inland, so they were unhurt. However, Akiko’s father was missing. The house, the boat, the nets and the production workshop had all been swept away and they had nowhere to live except the emergency shelter. “It took everything, even my father. Just looking at the Nagatsura bay causes me grief. I’d like to leave here immediately, but I can’t go until they find his body,” Akiko told me.
Compared to this, the yakihaze production was the least of their problems, and I didn’t even think to ask them about it. I simply decided to visit them regularly. After a month, the situation was the same. After two months, with the first warm days of May, Otsuo’s body had still not been found, but Akiko and her husband were beginning to think about restarting production on a small scale, for their own consumption.
And so, in July, four months after the earthquake, the Sakakis returned to the Nagatsura bay. “The morphology of the land had completely changed, but the fish had returned, and seeing them made us want to resume our business. If it’s possible, we want to start again!” Hearing these words touched me greatly, and I immediately launched an appeal to support their return to yakihaze production.
One of the most beloved dishes in Japan must be zoni, a fish soup traditionally prepared for New Year’s. The whole country is a mosaic of countless different versions of zoni. The soups are made using local ingredients, following recipes passed down from mother to daughter. The roasted and smoked goby made by the Sakakis is an essential ingredient for the soup in the Miyagi area. The family are the last remaining producers who respect the traditional production process. Compared to the goby processed quickly using mechanical procedures, their yakihaze has a much more intense flavor and fragrance.
What the Sakaki family needs now is a basic processing workshop, a small boat and fishing equipment, like nets. These things don’t cost much, but it’s hard for a family who has lost everything to get back on its feet alone. This is why I want to launch an appeal to support these friends of ours. Our help will undoubtedly give them courage and hope they can return to Terra Madre and meet all of you there.
Immediately after the disaster on March 11, Slow Food launched a fundraising appeal on its website and through its international network. Slow Food Japan will use the donations to provide concrete support to the goby fishers and is also evaluating other possible actions, like moving some plant varieties out of the most affected areas.
The fundraising continues. Visit www.slowfood.com/donate to contribute.
For more information on the Roasted and Smoked Goby from Nagatsura Bay Ark of Taste product, visit:
Article by Wako Hirotoshi, published in Slowfood magazine, issue 52.
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