A passionate student of Japanese poetry, theater, and art for much of her life, Gretel Ehrlich felt compelled to return to the earthquake-and-tsunami-devastated Tohoku coast to bear witness, listen to survivors, and experience their terror and exhilaration in villages and towns where all shelter and hope seemed lost. In an eloquent narrative that blends strong reportage, poetic observation, and deeply felt reflection, she takes us into the upside-down world of northeastern Japan, where nothing is certain and where the boundaries between living and dying have been erased by water.
The stories of rice farmers, monks, and wanderers; of fishermen who drove their boats up the steep wall of the wave; and of an eighty-four-year-old geisha who survived the tsunami to hand down a song that only she still remembered are both harrowing and inspirational. Facing death, facing life, and coming to terms with impermanence are equally compelling in a landscape of surreal desolation, as the ghostly specter of Fukushima Daiichi, the nuclear power complex, spews radiation into the ocean and air. Facing the Wave is a testament to the buoyancy, spirit, humor, and strong-mindedness of those who must find their way in a suddenly shattered world.
Mizu no michi. The Path of Water. How one swims in it and what it teaches along the way. A wave rises from a seismic rip in the seafloor. It spreads out low and travels at jet speed, mounding up as it hits shore. In Kamaishi, Japan, a forty-year-old fisherman is caught by the first thirty-foot-high tsunami wave to enter the narrow harbor after the 9.0 earthquake that hit northeastern Japan that March 11 day.
Kikuchi-san was driving when his car was almost shaken off the road. Six minutes later, he turned toward his parents’ house to rescue them, knowing that a tsunami would come, but his father was going the other way, bicycling toward the harbor.
“Don’t go there,” Kikuchi-san yelled out, but the elderly man didn’t hear. By the time Kikuchi-san caught up with him, his father had climbed the seawall and was clutching a steel ladder, facing the sea.
Kikuchi-san remembers a roar. Water was receding, surging backwards until the ocean floor lay exposed. “We’ve got to get out of here,” Kikuchi-san yelled, but his father didn’t move.
The roar intensified. A white line appeared at the horizon. The wave was coming fast. As Kikuchi-san climbed up to get to his father, water came at him. His father shook his head, refusing to budge. One last look, then the young fisherman jumped off the wall. When he turned back, his father was gone. “My father chose to stay, and in that second I accepted it, and thought it would be the same for me too.”
Water towered over him. He saw a nine-ton squid boat teetering on the wave’s crest, its glass attractor lamps swinging and shattering. The Wave swept him into the river that splits the town of Kamaishi in half. He climbed onto a metal roof, but the water caught him there too, sucking him backwards, pulling him out to sea. The water roiled. It was black with diesel and gas, sewage, dirt, and blood, and Kikuchi-san rolled and thrashed inside its debris-marbled night.
The collapsed wave took the fisherman all over the place. Heavy house beams and pieces of boats slammed into him. He grabbed a breath, went down, and shot up again. Shattered roof tiles skittered by. Water surged and retreated. Another wave drove him deeper, then tossed him sideways and up. He remembers seeing two concrete pillars zoom by as he was pulled under the bridge. His head broke water: he could breathe.
A piece of plastic buoy appeared and he grabbed it. “Retreating water took me back out and another wave carried me in again,” he told me. Dead bodies were floating, parts of houses catapulted, cars tumbled, a floating roof banged into a bridge and flipped on its side. The present was splintered. He was lost in a lost world.
“The wave came into the river behind the station. I must have been swept up from the ocean into it, past the petrol station.” As the first wave flattened out, the roaring stopped. He remembers silence. Because he could hear, he knew he was alive, not dreaming. “I was stranded in the debris. I couldn’t go anywhere. It was so quiet, I heard a dog whimpering somewhere, but couldn’t see it. It was so sad.” He was brokenhearted, and like the dog, thought he would die.
There was a roar. He looked: a wave was coming back again. Water covered him and he was driven toward one of the bridge pillars. He saw a rope dangling. “I barely got to the pillar before the ocean began dragging me back, so I reached for the rope and grabbed it. My lower half was submerged. Debris was being pulled out, but I kept holding on. As the water drew away, my legs were pulled out in front of me. I was holding tight, floating on my back with my head up. At first I wasn’t worried about losing my grip, but then, my hands got very cold.”
Water came in false tidal sequences. Between waves, he remembers another period of stillness. “The sea was a lagoon. A log floated past. I climbed onto it.” Sitting astride the dead tree he could see the extent of the destruction for the first time. The entire port had been demolished. Fishing boats had been hurled onto the tops of buildings. He lost his boat. Almost every house was gone, including his own. A beam floated by: he was swimming in the remnants of his past.
As the water retreated, he lay on top of the log and paddled toward land. With mud and debris under his feet, he stood, and realized the wave had taken his pants: he was naked. “There was nothing I could do,” he said. He saw people standing on a huge mountain of coal and climbed up to join them. A woman yelled, “There’s another wave coming.” He thought he would die this time, but the water never reached them. He remembers standing there, shivering, for a long time.
Finally he saw that the Kamaishi Port office building was still standing. “The third floor looked okay, so I went that way. I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. I saw another sweater sticking out of the window of a wrecked car, so I tied it around my backside.”
Kikuchi-san swam and stumbled through rubble. He doesn’t remember how long it took. In a town of more than 39,000 people, 935 had already died. He crawled into the third-story window. There were 40 people inside. They tried to warm him. He was hypothermic and bleeding; they administered first aid and pulled a pair of gloves over his feet.
A woman he knew came to his side. They didn’t speak. Together they watched the sky grow dark. With no city lights on they saw bright stars. Someone lit candles. Desks were pushed together so he could lie on them. The night seemed peaceful; the tsunami, a dream. But the continuous aftershocks jolted him into an understanding of what had happened, and he wondered if his family was alive. When he woke, it was morning.
Up on the roof he looked out on a flattened city. He knew he had to join the throngs wandering through the debris. It was hard to move but he found a stick to use as a cane. Back across the rough plain of wreckage, he climbed up to the bridge. His wife passed him and their eyes met, but she only nodded. When she spoke it was to tell him that their sixteen-year-old daughter was still missing.
They set off to look for her. A few hours later, a fisherman stopped them, and said he’d seen the girl, that she was working with the city firemen who were giving first aid to tsunami victims. For the first time since the disaster, Kikuchi-san cried.
Later, he found his mother at an evacuation center. He kneeled in front of her and quietly told her that her husband had been washed off the seawall. She shook her head and said nothing.
In the next two days, Kikuchi-san went to find his father’s body. Fierce aftershocks continued. He dragged his aching body across the ruins of the town. His house was gone; he had seen only a few other fishermen. Many had taken their boats out to sea. He didn’t know who was dead and who was alive.
A temporary morgue had been set up in a school gym for unidentified bodies. Kikuchi-san found body #59, and a written description of his father. He unzipped the body bag. His father’s watch was still ticking but the man’s lungs had filled with seawater, and his heart had stopped. He was sixty-nine years old.
“He spent his whole life on the water,” Kikuchi-san said. “And even though it took him, I love the sea; it’s all I have.”
Excerpted from Facing the Wave by Gretel Ehrlich. Copyright © 2013 by Gretel Ehrlich. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Gretel Ehrlich is the author of This Cold Heaven, The Future of Ice, and The Solace of Open Spaces, among other works of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. She lives in Wyoming.