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Run With All You Have

The ajisai in full bloom at Meigetsu-in in Kamakura. The less-than-apocalyptic crowds. The ema hanging about, which perfectly matched the bluish-purple hydrangeas. Though I hadn’t taken the time to read any of the prayers people had written—why would I curse them like that?—I can only assume they’d wished for a day like the first one of my June trip to Japan.

Everything about those moments said “yes,” which made it even more jarring when a stranger reached out through the ether to give me a brutal no.

“You can’t use one of those,” the masked, frumpy woman mumbled through her muzzle, in some mix of English and Japanese that might’ve been clearer had she not been wearing a face diaper, pointing to my tripod as she tried to project sound through sweat-soaked layers of fabric. “Put it away.”

Dizzy both from my jet lag (I’d arrived at Haneda from the US not two full hours earlier) and the exhilaration of the moment, I went against my better judgment, which was to ignore her. Instead, I engaged—brutally.

“Do you work here, Karen?” I asked mockingly in my own mix of Japanese and English. “You’d better ask to speak to the manager!”

Now, as you might guess if you know the particular kind of Ka-ren San I’m describing, no-fun Nancy did indeed summon a manager of sorts, who summarily came over and scolded me in a slightly more forceful way. I didn’t care, of course: Dozens of other travelers were violating various equally silly policies; moreover, I’d already gotten the shot I wanted.


Still, as the closing hour approached and I made my way back to Kita-Kamakura Station, something about the smackdown stuck with me.

And not just because I received a similar one from some rent-a-cop riding around the city’s larger Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine later that evening: I was literally in a public area of the shrine, and he still scolded me for using a tripod.

And not just that night, either. As I explored the next day—in the morning around Hase-dera and then within its own “hydrangea walk,” and later back in the vicinity of Kita-Kamakura—a certain malaise weighed down my subconscious, one I concluded after laying in bed but failing to fall asleep was not directly related to my physical fatigue.

I was so off my game, in fact, that I went against my better judgment that second night. I’d planned, you see, to ride the Yokosuka Line to Zushi, and then take a #12 bus to Shin-Nase Beach, where a torii stands ideally positioned in the foreground of Mt. Fuji. As far as I could tell, the sunset was going to be epic; I wanted to situate myself in the best place to capture it.

Unfortunately for me, something about my emotional state kept me stuck in the general vicinity of my Kamakura hotel; the furthest I got was Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu.

I didn’t dare bust out my tripod again, of course, but I can’t lie that a tear or two might’ve fallen as the sky—particularly, the sky in the direction of Fuji-san—faded into a gorgeous pink-peach gradient right at the time I should’ve been disembarking the #12.

Just as the sting of Ms. Thing’s manager call had stuck with me for a full day, so too did the disappointment of missing a shot I’d thought about for months linger for days after the fact.

If I’m honest, it colored the entirety of the 48 hours I subsequently spent in the Kansai region, both the day I spent at Kobe’s Arima Onsen with my dear friend Eriko, as well as my exploration of the Saiho-ji moss garden with Kotaro (whose name you might recognize from my post about the sake tours he runs) the following morning.

It was only that second afternoon, while attending a kintsugi workshop and brushing carmine urushi onto the cracks of a cerulean ceramic cup, that the forced presence of the moment liberated me from the sense of failure (first among first-world problems as such a feeling may be) for long enough for me to re-center myself.

Kamakura was the prologue, I reminded myself, and Fuji was never even on the agenda. Don’t you remember where you’re going tomorrow—and why?

If I’m honest I continued sleepwalking for the subsequent 24 hours, from my journey to Osaka’s Itami Airport by bus, to my subsequent sojourn up to Hanamaki by plane and during the entirety of the two hour drive to Tanohata, my first stop along the tsunami-hit Sanriku Coast.

It wasn’t until the following morning—so, the fourth one I woke up in Japan, almost a full 96 hours after the fact—that I intercepted an exogenous signal.

It was the sun rising over the pine-covered cape I could see out the 9th-floor window of my room at Hotel Ragaso, which in spite of being right along one of the worst-ravaged stretches of the kaigan, had apparently emerged unscathed from the great wave. It was brighter—it was better—than the sky had been the night I opted against following my Fujisan plan.

Light starts coming over the horizon just past 3 AM at this time of year—a week before the summer solstice—in this part of Japan. I would end up waking to see it every day.


I budgeted too much time in Sanriku—there’s no other way to say it. This is not a diss on the region, which—spoiler alert—probably ranks upon my top three regions in Japan.

Case in point: I split four nights between the aforementioned Hotel Ragaso and the (ostensibly) better Jodogahama Park Hotel, though less than 90 minutes of driving time (and relatively few attractions) separated the two.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Having “extra” time, to be sure, allowed me to be precise and intentional about where I went and when.

Having had Kitayamazaki Cape (which is more or less in Tanohata) all to myself the morning after I flew in from Osaka, I spent that afternoon at Jodo-ga-hama, even though it would’ve made more sense to save that for when I was staying mere minutes away from it.

The bad news? Although it did turn out that afternoon light was more flattering to its voluptuous limestone mounds than the morning light (under which I’d previously seen them, when living in Japan in 2021) had been, the “classic” view of the beach was in fact not possible to get. At some point (I assume just after the tsunami), the trail to the viewpoint had been blocked off.

It wasn’t so much that I feared a confrontation with another tattletale—indeed, it seemed impossible in this part of Japan, where local tourists are even fewer in number than the nonexistent foreign ones—but that the disrepair into which the erstwhile trail would make reaching the tenbodai a legitimately dangerous endeavor.


In this case, to be sure, the “no” reality was sticking in my craw liberated me. With knowledge that the “perfect” shot of this particular place was off the table, I faced the thrilling prospect of free agency.

While I did spend some time the next afternoon gawking at the unbelievable view from my room (which, it turned out, was the best room in the house) the next morning, I spent most of the 48 hours I called the place home far away from its namesake beach. Well, with the exception of a morning boat trip into a “Blue Cave” that was neither blue in color nor really a complete cave.

I passed the first half of the following day along the Goishi Coast where, just moments after happening upon a meadow of aubergine-hued wild irises beneath a stand of twisted pines, I had to flee: A bear, according to the announcement that rung out over the loudspeaker in the makeshift town built up near the park entrance, was on the loose.

This was fine; I was hungry and ready to get back “home”—which, as you’ll remember, was almost two hours away by car. It was back in Miyako, at a made-for-Instagram sushi restaurant that was nonetheless deserted at 7 PM, that the inevitable, dark curiosity came over me.

How many people know someone who died in the tsunami? I wondered, thinking most immediately about the portly man executing the omakase I’d ordered, but more broadly about everyone else I’d encountered.

I felt disappointed—a graver, more profound disappointment than the one my Fuji sunset failure had invoked—that I hadn’t been more curious, given that the legacy of the disaster had been a deciding factor of me wanting to come to Sanriku in the first place.

Having seen firsthand the consequence of intransigence at the earlier fork in the road, you’d think I would’ve at least asked this person—who was quite literally a captive audience—even a superficial question about the massive elephant in the very small sushi bar.

But instead I ate in silence, paid my bill within a minute of wiping my fingers off and was out the door less than an hour after I stepped through it.


So, on Tuesday (the Tuesday after the Monday I arrived—I feel like I owe you less vagueness at this point), I leveraged the overcast sky (and the decent outdoor pictures it precluded) and leaned heavily into tsunami tourism.

I started at Rikuzentakata’s Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum, whose opening just months before the pandemic (and the years-long border closure that followed it) blunted a momentum that likely never wouldn’t have amounted to much, even under ideal circumstances.

Prior to entering the museum—which, modest crowds notwithstanding, is an architectural marvel—I visited the “Miracle Pine” next-door. Well, a replica of said pine.

You see, this particular specimen—known in Japanese at ichi-no-matsu—had been the only member of the thousands-strong pine forest, which had been planted prior to the Meiji restoration, to survive the wave. It had since died (which is why it’s now a replica), but the reality of which it serves as a reminder is no less sobering.

(Even if it is ironic, given that the people who planted the forest centuries ago hoped it might protect against future disasters, which I learned within the museum have occurred with alarming frequency along this particular coast.)

Before I left I sat down for lunch in the attached cafe, whose signature item (a tempura replica of ichi-no-matsu made with an entire fried fish propped up on a skewer, and crowned by shiso leaf “branches”) embodied a particularly Japanese sense of humor I’ve never previously seen crystallized so succinctly.


Of course, there was nothing funny about the reality of the situation, which even 13 years later saw the alluvial plain where Rikuzentaka and neighboring Minamisanriku once stood reduced to little more than empty, emerald rice fields with purpose-built retail establishments peppered in every half-mile or so to make it seem like it wasn’t some kind of graveyard.

Towns big and small, never mind relatively large cities like Miyako and Kesennuma, cordoned off behind massive seawalls, like the ones more apocalyptic Americans than me believe may one be necessary to protect all coastal settlements from rising water.

The Kamaishi Daikannon gazing out at the horizon from her perched, resolutely but knowingly. I will continue standing; this will happen again.

Nor was this the case down the coast at Okawa Elementary School, where a confluence of geography (it sits at one of the widest portions of the Kitakami River, right where it spills into the Pacific) and uncharacteristic negligence (teachers hadn’t heeded the warnings of authorities, and had keep students in the classroom instead of rushing up the hill behind the school) had resulted in a 100 per cent fatality rate.

Both that overcast afternoon as I drove along the glassy river toward Ishinomaki, and the following day out on Tashirojima (aka “Cat Island”) under a totally clear sky, I found myself more distrusting of the sea the more serene it looked just sitting there idle in the distance, the way a viper seems to be little more than a leathery bamboo shoot until the moment it sinks its fangs into you.

As I sat in a cafe starting out at the island’s towers of hollyhocks, one of the resident felines pissing in my direction (though, thankfully, with a pane of glass between us) as I did, the testimony of someone who had been eight at the time of the disaster stuck with me.

“Even if you’ve run a hundred times and the wave never came,” the child had expressed with the wisdom of a centenarian, “run the hundred-and-first time. Run with all you have!”


As you might imagine, returning to the Kanto region after a week in a place of such profound pathos had put things into perspective. Everything I’d stressed and toiled and cried about in the wake of the Kamakura Karen incident seemed frivolous and foolish; I wondered why I had even thought twice about it.

And so I did decide to spend my second-to-last afternoon in Japan in transit to Shin-Nase Beach, in spite of conditions overhead seeming much less likely to lead to a show-stopping sunset.

I arrived to the stretch of sand, at least, to see the mountain in looming in the distance, albeit behind layers of sand and haze that made me squint to see it.

They blocked most of the light that would’ve been needed to produce any notable color, certainly any like the epic sunrises and sunsets I’d seen in Sanriku, let alone the one in Kamakura I should’ve seen from right where I ended up 10 days later under a hydrangea-colored sky.

Fearing this as I began my journey from Tokyo, and watching the conditions as I walked from Zushi Station onto the #12 bus confirm it, I ran with all I had toward my second-chance saloon, and savored the disappointment of watching the clouds overhead cool to blue without so much as a tease of pink or peach.


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