May you live a thousand years.

Written by

Andrew Millar


May 17, 2011

18 months ago, my wife and I visited Japan for the 4th time in 10 years. (Do you get the impression we like it there?) We’ve travelled over 3 of the major island and only have the lower land of Kyushu to see before we can spread ourselves out to the smaller islands of Sodo and so on… But on an oppressively hot summer’s day on Honshu, we took the 3 hour Shinkansen ride from Shinjuku, north to Sendai. It’s a pleasant trip that, once your done with seemingly endless suburbs emerges to occasionally touch the coast. However most of the time the train pelts you thorough flat rice paddies that lie in orderly fashion from the mountains and ridges on the left to the sea on your right.

At Sendai we changed to a local train that rattled us to fishing docks, where we boarded an old grey ferry to wander around Matsushima Bay for a few hours. This is a large shallow bay studded with small, rocky islands, each covered with twisted pine trees that had been tortured by salt laden winds. It was like touring a huge aquatic bonsai garden. Each little island appeared sculptured by an unseen hand into perfect displays. Between them, regular lines of bamboo poles gave the impression the bay was one giant flooded market garden. And in a way it was as these poles marked the rows and racks of oyster farms.

The ship seemed to cut a path that lead you to believe someone was following us and we were trying to lose them. But after an hour and a half of playing hide and seek with ourselves amongst the outcrops we arrived at the tiny holiday resort town of Riuzenitsuka. The summer crowds had gone but you could see from the number of signs promising Lotto ice cream and Asahi beer, this little village existed for the pleasure of those wanting to escape the terrors of the crowded Tokyo for a while. Beyond the low sea wall rows of souvenir shops stood quietly facing the sea. My wife added to her small collection of Kikimmi dolls in one before an old lady lured us into her cafe for a lunch of baked fresh fish, miso, rice and Asahi. She would not let us past.

Riuzenitsuka was the ideal spot to relax. But as with all of Japan, fear lies just under the surface. These islands are constantly trying to shake, blow or wash everyone off. And if that’s not enough there’s the odd volcanic eruption. A sign on the foreshore made it pain that a tsunami was expected. There was no time or date, just a very plain warning that as with death and taxes, a big wave was coming. ‘Run’ it said in words and graphics. Run for your life. Run.

It said ‘not if… but when’.

I suppose that what the old lady did when the deadly wave came. She would have run.

She and her fellow shop owners would have made their way to the sandstone cliffs just two or three streets behind them. Probably carrying nothing of their lives or possessions with them. They would have been able to climb past the meditation hollows the monks from the local temple had carved centuries ago. They would have been able to reach the safety of the wooded sandstone ridge and from there have a panoramic view of the breaking wall of seawater as it crashed over the lawns and playgrounds. They would have seen their shops and cafes resist for a moment and then be reduced to splinters and swept along in this churning, deadly king tide. The old lady would have seen her humble red wooden rice blows mix with the sisters of my wife’s kikimmi doll as the wave enveloped the ‘May peace reign on earth’ post at the foot of the cliff.

They would have seen their livelihoods being swept away in a tide of mud and debris and the bodies of those less quick… as though their whole existence had been put through a paper shredder and reduced to confetti… but they would have been safe.

I can imagine their expressionless faces whispering ‘Bansai’ into the snowy wind – ‘May you live a thousand years.’

Should their wish be granted I expect they may never want to see such a terrible sight again.