For years, northeastern Japan has been known for its quality candy, sake, and seafood, but many businesses in these industries came close to collapse after the massive earthquake and tsunami that followed five years ago.
Back in 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck the Tohoku coast, triggering a devastating tsunami that claimed the lives of 17,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. It also triggered the core meltdown of the nuclear reactors at Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima.
I am currently exploring Japan and documenting the social impact of nuclear technology. However, on the fifth anniversary of the tsunami, I wanted to explore a place far from the broken reactors of Fukushima. So I decided to go to the Sanriku Coast, a region renowned for its stunning azure coastline, and at one time, its incomparable cuisine.
When the swell of waves struck Ofunato Bay, they washed away the headquarters of Saito Seika, makers of kamome no tamago. Kamome no tamago, which literally translates to “seagull eggs,” is a candy in which a sweet white bean paste makes up the “yolk,” vanilla cake is the “egg white,” and white chocolate icing is the “shell.” These treats are a favorite in the Tohoku region.
“We have been making candy since 1950, but after the tsunami, we weren’t sure we could stay in production,” says company president Toshiaki Saito. “But thankfully with the help of volunteers who helped clean our city of the debris, allowing a normal pace of life to return, and support from the local community, who lent us equipment and working space, we were able to.”
Now, the seagull-egg candy has become an emblem of Japan’s reconstruction from the tsunami. “I’m grateful that it’s seen as such a symbol,” says Saito, “But I’m just a candymaker, and I’m happy to be able to keep doing what I love.”
Ofunato’s neighboring town, Rikuzentakata, was known for its rice, which locals had grown and fermented into sake for the past 300 years. After World War II, a number of small local breweries merged into the Suisen sake plant.
Because Rikuzentakata rests on a small peninsula, 80 percent of the town was destroyed by the tsunami because it hit on both sides. The Suisen factory was destroyed and seven workers were killed.
“Instead of giving up, we were encouraged by our community to stay in business,” says Suisen President Tsurane Konno.
“We were able to buy rice from Iwate Prefecture Rice Company, and quickly ferment it in our flagship brew Yukiko (which translates to “snow child” in English), an unfiltered Nigori (cloudy) sake.”
They continued production by renting a factory 37 miles (60 kilometers) away in Ichinoseki. Now, they’ve opened a new factory in Ofunato.
“We’ve been able to bring back all of our former sakes, and have added a new one called Kibo that we sell abroad,” Konno says. Previously, resellers have imported Suisen sake into international markets, but kibo, which means hope in Japanese, is the first that Suisen sells directly.
Suisen uses a highly guarded, small-scale “handmade” fermentation process in which workers monitor the barrels for 24 hours a day, keeping constant levels of humidity and temperature for each grain of rice.
“People helped us because our process was unique. They told us that if we lose you, we also lose your traditions. Only a few breweries make sake like we do,” says Konno.
The Sanriku region’s main source of economic value comes from the sea, and nearly every port along the northeastern coastline was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami.
“I was out at sea fishing for scallops when the earthquake hit,” says Jun Sasaki, a fisherman from Koishihama, a small inlet on the Sanriku Coast. While we ate a meal that almost wasn’t, a fresh catch of sweet succulent scallops grilled over a fire, he told me about his survival.
“We felt the water shake from the quake, so I knew there was going to be a tsunami. I could have gone further out to sea to be safe from the waves, but I had to check on my family so I went back. The water receded so far before the tsunami hit, you could see the coast for half a mile. Rather than worrying about where the water went, we worried about the water that would come. We waited on the higher ground the whole night as wave after wave came in and destroyed our town.”
When the government started reconstruction of the costal docks in Tohoku, they made it a priority to reconstruct the biggest cities first.
“The ports of smaller towns like Koishihama wouldn’t have been rebuilt until 2015,” says local fisherman Jun Sasaki, “If a private donor didn’t step in we would all have been out of business by then.”
Through my time in Japan, I’ve found that food is a soothing antidote to the often-serious tone of my experiences, offering me a unique way of getting to know the places I’ve lived.
Each of Japan’s 47 prefectures has a culinary tradition, some ancient, some more recent.
For the last hundred years, Hiroshima residents have baked maple leaf-shaped momiji manju cakes and cleverly mixed postwar rations given by the Americans to popularize the Okonomiyaki savory cabbage pancake.
Kyoto’s finest restaurants prepare a melody of ornately designed small plates of kaiseki cuisine in the tradition of the ancient aristocracy.
In Nagasaki, locals slurp down steaming bowls of Chinese influenced champon noodles mixed in with local seafood.
And on the Sanriku Coast, the local specialties are now symbols of the region’s resilience.
“It’s been five years since the tsunami,” says Sasaki the fisherman. “We can’t always be survivors, eventually we have to go on and live our lives.”
While many in Tohoku still live in temporary housing, and the radiation stalls clean up efforts in Fukushima, many people just want to get back to doing what they love doing, and making the food that people love to eat.
Ari Beser is a Fulbright-National Geographic digital storyteller, currently eating and living in Japan. He is the author of Nuclear Family, a part-memoir, part-history book about nuclear survivors. He tweets @AriBeser.