Uncle Kazuyoshi shakes out a bag of peanuts onto the low table between us, opens four cans of beer, and watches me drink. We sit on the floor and sweat in the midsummer night’s heat. The cold stream of liquid feels good going down. We’re at Kazuyoshi’s house, my friend Masumi’s uncle. A farmer, he has a sun-roughened face and there’s dirt in the deep grooves of his palms. Before the earthquake hit, Kazuyoshi was planting his fields in rice and flowers. He smiles: “I lost everything. Now I feel better.”

He grins, drinks, and empties more peanuts onto the table between us. Masumi, her mother, Kazuko, and I are in his ground-floor apartment donated by the German company BASF. In the tiny garden space outside he’s already planted tomatoes, onions, greens, lettuce, and flowers. He shows me an especially rare kind of gerbera daisy, a spiky miniature red bloom. “I grew these when courting my wife,” he tells me. “I delivered bucketfuls three times a week until she consented to marry me.”

Kazuyoshi squints. In a deep, hoarse voice he says: “Springtime, I used to get in a bad mood. No more. I don’t want to be a bother to anyone; I don’t want to be a big farmer. Just treat plants and flowers very nicely so my wife and I can survive. If others are happy eating what I grow, then I’m happy.” He finishes off a third beer.

The ground begins to shake. Kazuyoshi grabs the edge of the table but doesn’t move. Masumi and I jump to our feet. The tsunami siren sounds. We’re only a mile from the ocean. Masumi fishes for her car keys, and I gather my notebooks. We stand, all except her uncle. He’s scared but calm, or else frozen in place. The shaking subsides.

We sit again. The mood has changed, as well as our heart rates. Kazuyoshi turns serious. He leans forward: “Do you want to hear my story?” Without waiting for an answer, he begins: “On March 11, I was making compost when the jishin [earthquake] came. I couldn’t stand up, so I sat down on the ground and waited until it stopped.”

He drove his tractor to the house and found that the stone lanterns in the garden had fallen, and inside, all the dishes and furniture had broken. He rummaged around and found his money, but when he went outside he saw cars and trucks speeding away. “It must be bad,” he thought, and grabbed his wife’s hand. They ran for the elementary school, the designated evacuation spot.

“It took a while for the tsunami to arrive. It was about 3:30 or 3:35 when it came. I saw a white splash of water, then something black. Someone screamed, ‘Tsunami!’ People were struggling to get up the stairs to the third floor. There were maybe two to three hundred people. My wife and I were the last ones there, a little late because I hadn’t really thought it would come, and sometimes she’s a little slow. Sometimes we both are . . . ”

The water charged at them. It was moving about 20 kilometers per hour. They held hands and made it as far as the second floor, but the water flooded in and engulfed them. They were lifted up. Water came up their legs, their arms, their shoulders and necks. Water rose almost to the ceiling.

Chin, cheeks, mouth, nostrils: underwater. Kazuyoshi and his wife had to tilt their heads back just to breathe. “At times we were completely underwater, inhaling filth and getting cold very quickly. We tried everything—paddling fast and feeling for something to put our feet on. We had to concentrate hard. We had to survive.”

Four inches of air space kept them alive. Water was lapping their ears. Their heads were back, they were holding hands and treading water; they were waiting to drown. Another wave came. “This is the end of our lives,” he told his wife.

He pours another beer and sucks in a deep, vocalized breath as if to assure himself that there is sufficient oxygen in the room. “The wave receded and the next one didn’t come close. The water went down and we could see. The staircase to the next floor appeared, as if inviting us! We ran up to the third floor. We had survived, but when I looked out I saw that water covered everything. I saw cars, and bodies, and pine trees floating, I saw that my rice fields were gone, and the family house. The school we were in was the only place left standing. It was an island out at sea.”

Four inches of air space kept them alive. Water was lapping their ears. Their heads were back, they were holding hands and treading water; they were waiting to drown. 

Another beer and it’s time to leave. As we stand, Kazuyoshi hands us four fresh tomatoes, just picked from his tiny garden. He shows us a single head of lettuce: the one that Masumi and I saw near the entrance to her grandmother’s house. Kazuko takes an outer leaf and lays it on her tongue—a green wafer emblematic of a lost life. She chews and swallows—it’s all that’s left of the farm where she grew up.

“Everything needs rescuing,” Kazuyoshi says, laughing. There is no mention of the radiation wafting up the coast from Fukushima Daiichi. Reluctantly, Kazuko accepts one of the tomatoes. “This is absurd. You have nothing and you’re giving us food,” she says. He stares hard at her: “The less I have, the happier I am.”

A portrait of a young boy swept by the tsunami several kilometers inland from the sea, where it was exposed to the snow. Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan.
A portrait of a young boy swept by the tsunami several kilometers inland from the sea, where it was exposed to the snow. Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, Japan.

At 2:46 on the afternoon of March 11 the earthquake struck, its epicenter 45 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula at a shallow depth of 19.9 miles, where it damaged the cold-water supply systems at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Fifty-one minutes later, the plant was hit by a 49-foot-high tsunami wave. Within a week, 580 workers from all over Japan, plus 140 US Marines, were on site, working 15 minutes at a time inside the buildings, trying to keep the six nuclear reactors from exploding. They failed. Later, the workers told journalists that the buildings moved and jerked so hard that pipes began coming apart immediately.

Not all waves are made of water. The workers described the earthquake as coming in two intense waves, and by the time the second one started, the pipes inside the Daiichi nuclear power plant that regulate the heat of the reactor and carry coolant to it were bursting open, though TEPCO [the Tokyo Electric Power Company] claimed it was the tsunami that caused the circulatory destruction.

Oxygen tanks exploded, and the wall of the turbine building in reactor 1 cracked. A tangle of overhead pipes buckled. Others jerked away from the walls. Minutes later, but before the tsunami wave hit, the walls of reactor 1 began to collapse. A radiation alarm sounded, and white smoke was seen coming from the top of the reactor.

After the first tsunami wave hit the power plant, all the electrical and cooling systems failed. Six hours after the earthquake, radiation levels rose to 0.8 millisieverts—a measure of radiation exposure—every 10 seconds: more than a 20-minute exposure for a human would be fatal.

Five workers died from internal injuries. The Wave bashed the side of reactors 1 and 2 and flooded the basements of the turbine buildings, cutting off all power, including the emergency diesel generators. Though additional backup generators had been installed in watertight hillside buildings, the switching stations that connected backup power to the cooling systems were not watertight, and they failed.

Temperatures rose. Reactors 1, 2, 3, and 4 experienced meltdowns. Water levels dropped in the fuel rod pools stored precariously on top of the reactor buildings. Overheating occurred. Residents of areas within 12 miles of the plant were evacuated. The workers at the power plant stayed, despite repeated exposure to higher levels of radiation than the Japanese government and TEPCO admitted to.

Workers attempted to open ventilation valves by hand but failed. One worker heard what he called “an eerie, deep popping noise” from a structure at the bottom of the reactor, and when he propped his foot on it to open the valve, his rubber boot melted from the heat.

That evening, Masao Yoshida, the 56-year-old plant manager, made a decision against the wishes of the TEPCO officials. As a last resort he began pumping seawater into the reactor core, but it was already too late to cool the reactor: hydrogen explosions were about to take place.

Aftershocks kept coming. Workers laid cable in an attempt to restore power, all the while wading in knee-deep water. Fires erupted. At 3:36 p.m. on March 12, a day after the earthquake and tsunami, a hydrogen explosion occurred in reactor 1, blowing away the side walls, leaving only the steel frame. Later, there were explosions in reactors 3 and 4.

Four workers were injured, and a fifth was taken to the hospital. Everyone inside and outside of the plant was exposed to extremely high levels of radiation. Daiichi plant chief Masao Yoshida, who kept pouring seawater into the burning heart of the reactors, said: “Many times I thought I was going to die.”

“There has been no meltdown,” Edano Yukio, a government official, famously announced. But the workers inside, later known as the Fukushima 50, knew otherwise. Requesting anonymity, they said that inspections and repairs to the 40-year-old power plant had not been carried out systematically, and two-year-old reports of water pipe deterioration had been ignored. TEPCO officials later blamed the meltdown solely on the tsunami in order not to appear negligent, but the coverups kept coming.

The GE-designed nuclear plant was programmed for a maximum tsunami height of only 21 feet, and even that eventuality was not taken seriously. Even at that wave height, seawater might have flooded to a height of 49 feet. The shaking of the 9.0 earthquake and the wave that followed exceeded every design specification.

Cherry blossoms have opened on a tree that seems to rise right out of the rubble. Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan.
Cherry blossoms have opened on a tree that seems to rise right out of the rubble. Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, Japan.

We exit the highway and follow a winding coastline of exquisite beauty as breathtaking as California’s Highway 1 in Big Sur. There are almost no other cars. An itinerant priest hugs the side of the road carrying a walking stick, counting the beads of his juzu in his right hand. The hem of his robe is covered in mud. He wears white socks and black tennis shoes—no straw sandals for this pilgrim. He’s been to Ookawa Elementary School and two Buddhist temples, Kannonji and Shounji, where many of the dead were taken. Now he’s walking in the direction of the port town of Ishinomaki, where more than four thousand people died and 80 percent of the houses in the fishing port were destroyed.

The coast is jagged with high rock cliffs. Every cove bears marks of disaster: broken trees, overturned skiffs, and bits of broken houses. Thick forests of cedar and pine come down to the water. Around another corner we see an entire pulverized village. Behind, in the trees, there’s a 30- to 40-foot-high trimline made by the Wave, a brown watermark, a shadow-line of the wave that killed them.

Every cove. Ravaged, clogged, and tangled with rubbish. A woman’s dress hangs from a tree.

We stop to eat a picnic lunch. “How lucky we are,” Masumi says, “to have food.” High cliffs, pine-studded rock islets, crashing surf: “Kanpeki,” I say. Perfect. If we just stood here and didn’t move north or south, we might be able to forget. But each bite means we’re ingesting radioactive food and air.

To sever all this from the mind—how easy it sounds, delicious in fact; then life would be sweet again, wouldn’t it? Or was it ever that way? But it’s too late. We’re alive and death is real. Like the Buddhist priest who is walking the coast, we too are on some sort of path. No getting off now.

North to Minamisanriku, only 80 kilometers west of the quake’s epicenter, a fishermen’s town of 17,000 where over 10,000 people died. A 24-year-old city worker, Miki Ando, voluntarily took over the public announcement post and on the loudspeaker urged people to go to higher ground. She stayed at her post too long. The Wave was coming fast; at the last moment she climbed to the roof of the building, but it washed her away. Her body was not found until April.

We enter the town in silence. Saburo, Masumi’s father, says, “We need to see it because this is one of the towns that was wholly destroyed.” The car transports us, but the body carries the eye. We drop down from the coast to a crenulated sea lane and cross a makeshift one-lane bridge. The lifeless realm before us has a cockeyed look: a boat on top of a house on top of three crushed cars. We almost laugh, but tears leak from our eyes.

We drive down a stark avenue. On either side there is only rubble. Please slow down, I ask. We’re going too fast. It’s too difficult to take all this in. But there is no speed slow enough to comprehend.

Closer to the harbor is a four-story hospital where the Wave blasted through the first-, second-, and third-story windows and doors. An X-ray machine dangles from an opening, as does a nurse’s uniform. Two hundred people were rescued from the roof, but the rest of the patients, doctors, and nurses died. The Wave turned a place of safety into a killing field, squandering needed medicines and erasing all records of what had happened to whom and when and why. A fishing boat is perched on top of the hospital’s second-floor terrace.

We turn from the hospital and look out on a plain of chaos, a monstrous collage that no eye, no painting could truly capture. No one object is whole and no city remains. All is a broken scramble, the sum total of which is an intricate blank. Blank because it no longer carries the constructs of everyday life, of a functioning town.

It’s oddly quiet. Wind pushes radioactive dust into our eyes. The crushed and the silent and the surreal. Two hundred days ago it was a thriving fishing port; one hundred days ago it was a horrific theater of disaster. From north to south, from Hachinohe to Hirano, roughly 365 miles were taken by water; over 200,000 buildings destroyed. Now there are only twisted remnants. No matter how I look at it, there is nothing and everything for the eye.

We make a second stop at Ikoji, the small temple with the kindergarten in Shichigahama. The abbot trained at Daitokuji, Japan’s most famous Rinzai Buddhist monastery, in northern Kyoto. Practice there is very tough, but the results can be like polished silver: its graduates exude a sourceless deep shine.

The abbot bursts through the door, tall and big-boned with a wide smile and large ears. Sometimes a person’s presence can change a room and make it suddenly feel larger. He stands, then sits, and at every moment he radiates without a radiator. He slides his arm around his wife, smiling. With me, he’s brisk, kind, direct, and informal.

We sit facing each other. My note-taking hand shakes—that’s what his presence does to me. He waits patiently until I can talk. For his wife it’s the end of a long day taking care of children, and she leans affectionately against him.

“Usually people don’t come here,” he begins. “This place is hard to find,” he says, and laughs. He gives the child who is waiting for his mother a kind look. “Once a tsunami comes, you should never run back to get something. You have to give it all up on the spot,” he says. His wife passes a box of chocolates. They take turns picking out a sweet. The boy sits quietly, shyly, chewing candy and holding a ball.

The abbot continues: “We thought we were safe from the tsunami. See, there are mountains all around protecting us from the ocean. But it came right through that gap.” He points to a notch in the hills.

“I had to face it. I had to face the Wave coming when we didn’t expect it, and in that moment I knew I had to survive so I could help others. I was very concerned about the woman who had gone back to her house. I was yelling over and over, ‘Come back, come to the mountain with us.’ I waited until the last moment when everyone had to leave. I prayed aloud for her to go to the nikai, the second floor of her house. Then one of her neighbors informed me that her house had only one floor!” He laughs.

“We had already gone up to the top of the hill with the children and the staff, but I kept hearing noises and not understanding what it was. I heard stones being thrown and something banging. I yelled out, ‘Who is it?’ A wavering voice came back: ‘It’s me!’

“I knew it was her—the woman we couldn’t find. She had climbed to the temple roof and was banging on it with rocks and tree branches. I ran down the mountain. I rescued her from the wall behind the temple, put her on my back, and carried her up to the top of the hill. Finally we were all safe. Later, hours after the last wave had receded, we became very cold and hungry. Our clothes were wet and it was below freezing, so I went back down the hill and got some food. This whole room, here in the kindergarten, was mostly underwater. But I knew there were some snacks and juices here on the uppermost shelves, so I waded through—the water was up to my neck—and got them, and carried them back up to the others. We shared the food. There wasn’t much, but it helped.

“It was snowing, and we were getting hypothermic. I thought a long time about how to get warm. There are traditions in Japan about one’s ancestors. They are thought to live inside these tall pieces of wood calledihai with the names of the dead written on them. It’s very important for families to have these memorial sticks. They are sacred. But we had to survive. I ran down the hill again and waded through the water to the cemetery by our temple. I had made the decision to take the ihai from the graves and break them up to use for firewood! This is considered a sacrilege, but I’d thought very hard about it and decided it was the best thing to do.”

A long silence. His wife muffles a raspy in-breath. “We’ve been laughing a lot . . . I don’t know why,” she says. The abbot looks at her, his eyebrows raised, and he smiles. She whispers again: “My husband was upset because his golf clubs got ruined when the water came into our house!” We all laugh out loud. “The tatami in the temple has been replaced for the second time in six months,” she continues. “But the autumn flowers that line the stone paths still bloom.”

I get up and look out the window. Darkness is coming on, and just as the sun vanishes, it begins raining very hard. The rice field in front of the temple is still waterlogged from the typhoon, and the ruined car is lying in it, nose up, as if trying to suck in oxygen. Rain turns to snow. A Daitokuji practitioner sits in meditation with eyes cast downward. Facing emptiness and then no emptiness. The box of candy is passed again, as if each brown square stood for the present, and by eating them we could face whatever comes.

The abbot speaks, his voice solemn now. “Since the disaster, some older people have committed suicide. But there’s no reason to do that. We just start from where we are, from whatever the day brings to us.” He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and looks straight at me: “The tsunami is past. We must think about the future. What we will do next. Up on the mountain, my wife and I decided to restart the kindergarten as soon as possible. The children may say that they lost their house, or their lunch box, or someone they loved, but it’s always followed with laughter. It’s hard for adults to hear these things, but we try to remain energetic and happy. It helps us. In disasters, children show us the way to laughter. They are our special treasures.”

As he glances at the scalloped hills, at the smooth notches where the waves burst through and rushed toward the temple, his eyelids flicker as thoughts skitter through. He turns to me. When he smiles his ears move and his teeth shine. He speaks slowly: “The tsunami isn’t important. There was no Wave.”

Adapted from the book Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Face of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich. Copyright © Gretel Ehrlich. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.