Tsunami returns island life to a bygone age

Image: The laundry of residents of Oshima island dry on a line as they carry Japanese tatami mats trying to clean their tsunami-damaged home in northeastern Japan
Residents of Oshima island put out laundry to dry on Oshima island, which was hit by six tsunamis after the powerful offshore earthquake on March 11. David Guttenfelder / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

After more than two weeks without a proper bath, some residents on this tsunami-hit island decided to take matters into their own hands.

"My skin is starting to itch," 75-year-old Kumao Nakano said, as his neighbors assembled a makeshift bathhouse. "We're going to use this bathroom, which somehow was left standing. We found this old boiler, so we can heat water and pour it into the bathtub for everyone to use."

Six tsunamis swept onto this island off Japan's devastated northeast coast after the powerful offshore earthquake on March 11.

The disaster severed water supplies and electricity from the mainland, and it may be months before they are restored.

Survivors from this community of 3,500 are banding together and resurrecting bygone practices to get by.

"I go to the river two or three times a day to get water," said Sayuri Nakayama, 25, nodding toward a steep path at the start of a half-mile trek. She rinsed a pot clean of rice, so she could use it to heat water to wash her one-year-old daughter Elena. Her laundry, scrubbed by hand, hung around her.

Televisions, blow dryers, space heaters lay jumbled amid the splintered wreckage around her, the appliances all quiet now without power.

An old wood-burning stove, dragged into a small clearing with a view of the ocean below, has become the meeting place for this part of the island, known as Isokusa.

Residents, many now living on the upper floors of a nearby hotel, sit on logs and feed scraps of their ruined homes into the stove to stay warm.

"The thing I miss most is electricity," said Sadao Komatsu, 61, as he leaned into the heat.

Staples arriving by boat
Residents subsisted for a couple of weeks on bread and canned food, but now rice and other staples have begun to arrive by small boat.

A large crane on a barge is slowly clearing the main bay of debris, including several houses whose roofs stick out of the water.

Reiko Kikuta, 45, stood on the shore and watched as two yellow tractors tried to pull her two-story home out of the sea with thick ropes threaded through holes in the roof.

"The third tsunami carried my house away," she said. Her family sold fish to hotels and restaurants in the area. "We've moved into our warehouse for now."

Many families relied on the ocean for their income, raising seaweed, scallops and oysters.

This year's crop has been ruined, along with most of the boats and equipment. The streets are littered with smashed oysters, and nets and buoys hang from trees along the shore.

"My house and my boat were insured. But you can't insure boiling pots and other equipment," said Akira Sugawara, 46, as he hand pumped water from his well.

The timing of the disaster was especially painful for him and others, as it came a week before they were to harvest this year's crop of "wakame," a seaweed widely used in Japanese salads and soups.

Sugawara, whose family has lived on the island for more than 200 years, estimates he has lost 100 million yen ($1.2 million) in product and supplies.

Most fishermen have some gear left and, by mixing and matching, they may be able to assemble enough to raise a small crop jointly, Yukio Onodera said. "We're going to combine what we have and work together for a year or two. It's impossible to do it alone."