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JapanFriday, March 4

A Special Homecoming in Aomori

The 2011 tsunami swept an untold number of objects across the Pacific. But some have made their way back, including part of a "Torii," or shrine gate, that's now been restored.

The shrine gate stands in the port of Okuki in Aomori Prefecture. The horizontal beam is the most important part of the structure. It had been washed away by the tsunami. Four years later, it arrived back home.

Suetaro Takekoma, a carpenter, restored the gate.

"I'm feeling quite happy that we have been able to restore the Torii here today after many, many months," he says.

Takekoma built the gate in 1988. Local fishermen prayed there for safety before going out to sea. But in 2011, the 5-meter high tsunami engulfed the port and the gate was lost.

Two years after the disaster, part of it turned up on the other side of the Pacific, in the U.S. state of Oregon.

Sadafumi Uchiyama works at a Japanese garden there. He tried to figure out where the beam had come from. Characters carved on the Torii provided a clue -- the name of a person who seemed to have donated the gate.

Uchiyama visited the disaster area in Japan, and he found that the Torii could have come from a port in Aomori.

To return it, he gathered donations from individuals and businesses in the US and Japan.

"Torii have special meaning for Japanese people," Uchiyama says. "Once the lost part was found, I wanted it returned to its original place."

Newspapers picked up on the story. Takekoma was among those who read of the long journey.

"When I saw the newspaper, I knew right away that it was the Torii I had built," Takekoma said.

In October last year, the beam came back to the place it once stood, after traveling 14,000 kilometers across the ocean and back.

People in Okuki thought they would never see it again. But there it was, along with Uchiyama, who had traveled from the US to share the joy of the homecoming with Takekoma.

"The characters I carved here allowed it to return home. I'm overcome with happiness. Thank you very much," Takekoma told Uchiyama.

For his part, Uchiyama said the sight of children around the Torii made everything worthwhile. Their generation, and others to come, will learn the story of the gate.

"I am very happy. The gate belongs to the children. I hope they will always treasure it," Uchiyama says. "I did this for them."

Takekoma says he hopes the gate will help the community to recover.

"I put up the Torii, hoping that all people in the area will be able to re-establish their lives as they were before the disaster," he says.

The community plans to hold a celebration in May, and has invited people from the United States who helped with the project. The rebuilding of the gate has also built friendships across the ocean.