Making a Comeback
Nov. 22, 2016
Locals in a town in northeastern Japan that suffered severe damage from a major typhoon in August are working together to rebuild a roadside rest stop, hoping to revitalize their community.
The typhoon was the first on record to hit the Tohoku region from the Pacific side. Heavy rain caused rivers throughout Iwate Prefecture to overflow and more than 1,000 buildings were flooded.
The town of Iwaizumi was one of the hardest hit. Nine people housed in a care facility lost their lives. Many businesses were also forced to close. Among them was the local roadside station where visitors took breaks and shopped for regional goods.
Roadside station Iwaizumi is in the heart of the town, which has a population of about 10,000. Owners of shops there thought it wouldn't be able to reopen till next summer.
"Our shop is a key part of Iwaizumi. I hope we can continue to promote the allure of this town," says shop manager Kazuto Motegi.
The station once welcomed as many as 150,000 people a year, from both inside and outside the prefecture. They came to buy local specialties.
Motegi is always on the lookout for unique items that can only be found in Iwaizumi. His stock of prize-winning local sake was covered in a thick layer of mud after the typhoon.
"Most of the products we sell are handmade. Even though these items were covered in dirt, I couldn't just throw everything away. They might be useless now, but I still can't discard them," Motegi says.
In mid-October, Motegi visited a vegetable farm run by Akemi Kamura, who produces Akkaji radishes, a traditional variety that only grows in this village.
Her family has farmed there for generations. They were growing 3,000 radish plants, but only about 300 survived the storm.
The Akkaji radish is a vibrant red and its bitter taste provides a spicy accent to dishes. It has lots of fiber and vitamins and a long shelf life. Kamura and Motegi are working together to develop new dishes using the radish to promote the local food culture.
"The Akkaji must be preserved. We must create a movement," Motegi says.
Tetsuo Aisha was rescued by air ambulance from his livestock farm, which was also heavily damaged in the disaster. A few days after the typhoon, Aisha and his wife left the evacuation center to return home. The bridge was out, so they replaced it with logs. It took them 4 hours to reach their farm.
They were determined to make the trip to attend to a calf born on the morning they were rescued.
"We raise cattle. We couldn't just leave them behind. They're part of the family," Aisha says.
Aisha has 60 head of cattle and many are a short-horned variety with reddish-brown fur. The meat from the animals is known for its low fat content.
Aisha is now struggling to keep his animals fed because all the dried hay was washed away in the typhoon and all he has now is fresh-cut grass.
"Dried grass fills the cows up. But with fresh grass, they must be fed a lot more and it makes their dung softer," he says.
Aisha says he'll run out of fresh grass by the end of the year, and that could force him to make a tough decision.
He might have to sell some adult animals and buy calves to maintain his herd.
"I must maintain a certain number of cattle. It will be difficult to make a living unless I increase the head count," Aisha says.
Others involved with the roadside station business are doing what they can to promote local produce. Kenta Kishioka processes meat and sells it at the roadside station. He's developing new products in collaboration with companies in neighboring towns.
"I plan on selling new products starting at the end of November," he says.
Kishioka is developing curry packed in a cooking pouch that uses meat from Aisha's cattle, hoping to increase demand for local beef.
"Local beef is being used to create products that customers will love, and that should make the people who raise the cattle very proud," Kishioka says.
At the end of October, Kamura took her radishes to a restaurant in Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture. Seven chefs from high-end restaurants in Tokyo and Morioka went to work on them. The menu for the dinner party was built around products from areas damaged in the typhoon.
The chefs sauteed the Akkaji radishes and the resulting dish had a light, dry texture. They also created a bright pink potage. Thirty guests were treated to the top quality cuisine.
"It would be wonderful if someone who tasted the radish here for the first time wanted to have it again next autumn," Kamura says.
At the beginning of November, the roadside station took a new step toward rebuilding -- it began selling products in one corner. Customers soon came rushing back and after 2 months, the roadside station was back in business.
"I'm so happy. I came right after breakfast," says one customer.
Many items Kazuto Motegi had carefully retrieved from the mud lined the shelves alongside a donation box.
"I'm so relieved that we've finally reopened. But lots of people whose land or farm equipment was ruined or washed away are still suffering. By gradually reopening my business, I hope to be able to help them too," Motegi says.
His efforts to rebuild the roadside station are beginning to pay off. Items from more than 30 producers are once again available, providing a tasty break for travelers and a sign of hope for the community.