In May of 1997, two years after the massive earthquake in Kobe, I hit upon the idea of taking a leisurely, solitary walk from Nishinomiya to Sannomiya in downtown Kobe. I happened to be staying in Kyoto at the time for work, and continued on to Nishinomiya. On the map it’s about fifteen kilometres west from there to Kobe. Not exactly a stone’s throw away, but not such a gruelling distance, and besides, I’m a pretty confident walker.
I was born in Kyoto, but soon afterwards my family moved to Shukugawa, a neighbourhood in Nishinomiya. And not long after that we moved again, closer to Kobe, to Ashiya, where I spent most of my teenage years. My high school was in the hills above the city, so naturally downtown Kobe was where I headed when I wanted to have a good time, specifically around Sannomiya. I became a typical Hanshin-kan boy, the term referring to the area that lies between Osaka and Kobe. Back then – and probably nowadays as well – this was a great place to grow up. It’s quiet and laid-back, with an open, relaxed feeling about it, and it’s blessed with the ocean, mountains and a large city nearby. I loved going to concerts, hunting for cheap paperbacks in used bookstores, hanging out in jazz cafes, and enjoying Art Theatre Guild new-wave films. My favourite look at the time? VAN jackets, of course.
But then I moved to Tokyo for college, got married and started working, and seldom travelled back to this strip of land between Osaka and Kobe. There were times I’d return, of course, but as soon as I finished what I had to do I’d always hop on the bullet train and head straight back to Tokyo. I had a busy life, and I spent a lot of time abroad. And there were a couple of personal reasons as well. Some people are constantly being pulled back to their home town, while others feel like they can never go back. In most cases it’s as if fate separates the two groups, and it has little to do with how strong your feelings are towards the place. Like it or not, I seem to belong to the second group.
For years my parents lived in Ashiya, but when the Hanshin Earthquake hit in January 1995, their house was too damaged to stay in and they soon moved to Kyoto. So, apart from all the memories I’d stored up for myself (my valuable property), there was no longer any actual connection between me and the Hanshin-kan area. Strictly speaking, it’s not my home town any more. I feel a deep sense of loss at this fact, as if the axis of my memories is faintly, but audibly, creaking within me. It’s a physical sensation.
Maybe it’s exactly because of that that I wanted to take a walk there, alert and attentive to what I might discover. Perhaps I wanted to see for myself how this home town I’d lost all obvious connections with would appear to me now. How much of a shadow (or a shadow of a shadow) of myself I would discover there?
I also wanted to see what effect the Hanshin Earthquake had had on the town I grew up in. I visited Kobe several times after the quake, and was frankly shocked by the extent of damage. But now, some two years later, when the town seemed finally to have righted itself, I wanted to see with my own eyes what transformations had taken place – what this awful violence had stolen from the town, and what it had left behind. There had to be at least some connection, I felt, with who I am now.
Clad in rubber-soled walking shoes, shouldering a backpack with a notebook and small camera, I got off at the train at Nishinomiya station and set off at a leisurely pace towards the west. The weather was so bright and sunny I wore sunglasses. The first place I came to was the shopping area near the south exit of the station. In elementary school I often used to ride my bike over there to buy things. The city library was nearby, too, and whenever I had time I’d hang out there and pore through every young adult book I could lay my hands on. There was also a craft shop close by where I stocked up on plastic models. So this place brought back a rush of memories.
I hadn’t been here for a long time, and the shopping area had changed almost beyond recognition. How much of this was due to the normal changes over time, and how much was because of the physical devastation brought on by the earthquake, I really couldn’t say. Even so, the scars left by the earthquake were plain to see. Where buildings had collapsed, vacant lots now dotted the area like so many missing teeth, with prefab temporary stores in between as if to connect them all. Summer grass grew in the roped-off vacant lots, and the asphalt streets were filled with ominous cracks. Terrible destruction was in evidence all around, as if the area was some ancient ruins. Compared to the downtown shopping district of Kobe, which the world had focused on, and which had rapidly been rebuilt after the quake, the blank spaces here struck me as somehow heavy and dull, with a quiet depth to them. Of course this wasn’t only true of the Nishinomiya shopping district. There must be many places around Kobe that still bear the same sort of wounds, but that are mostly forgotten.
Past the shopping district and across the main street is Ebisu Shrine. It’s a very large shrine, with thick woods within its precincts. When I was a small child, my friends and I loved to play here, and it hurt to see the visible scars there now. Most of the large stone lights lining the Hanshin highway were missing the topmost lantern part. These were scattered on the ground below, like heads lopped off by a sharp sword. The remaining bases had become a row of senseless, purposeless stone statues, solemnly silent, like symbols from a dream.
The old stone bridge across the pond where I used to catch shrimp as a child (using a simple technique: I would tie a string around an empty bottle, put in noodle powder as bait, lower it into the water and the shrimp would go into the bottle and then I would pull it up) had collapsed and remained that way. The water in the pond was dark and muddy and turtles of indiscriminate ages lay sprawled on dry rocks, basking in the sun, their minds no doubt bereft of any thoughts. Terrible destruction was in evidence all around, as if the area was some ancient ruins. Only the deep woods were the same as I remembered from childhood, dark and still, beyond time.
I sat down in the shrine grounds under the early-summer sun, and gazed around again at the surroundings, trying to get used to what I was seeing. Absorbing and accepting this scenery as naturally as I could, mentally and viscerally. Trying to remember how I was back then. But this was all going to take a long time, as you might imagine.
I strode on from Nishinomiya to Shukugawa. It was not yet noon, but sunny enough that, walking briskly, I started to perspire. I didn’t need a map to tell me roughly where I was, but I had no memory of the individual streets. I must have walked down these streets hundreds of times, but now I was drawing a complete blank. Why couldn’t I recall them? It was strange. I felt bewildered, as if I’d come home to find all the furniture replaced.
The reason was soon clear to me. Places that used to be empty lots weren’t empty any more, and places that hadn’t been empty now were – like photo negatives and positives replacing each other. In most cases the former were empty lots that were now residences, the latter where old houses had been destroyed in the earthquake. These before-and-after images had a synergistic effect, adding a fictitious wash to my memories of how the town used to be.
The old house I had lived in near Shukugawa was gone, replaced by a row of town houses. And the grounds of the nearby high school were filled with temporary housing put up for survivors of the quake. Where my friends and I used to play baseball, the people who lived in these prefab shelters had hung their laundry and futons out to air, in what now seemed like a tight, cramped space. Try as I might to find vestiges of the past, there were almost none. The water in the river still flowed as clean and pure as before, but it gave me an odd sensation to see how the riverbed was now neatly lined with concrete.
I walked on for a while in the direction of the sea and stopped by a local sushi shop. It was a Sunday afternoon, and they were busy with takeout orders. The young assistant who’d gone out on deliveries didn’t come back for a long time, and the owner was hard-pressed to keep up with the phone calls. A typical scene you’d find anywhere in Japan. I waited for my order to come, sipping a beer and half watching the TV. The governor of Hyogo prefecture was talking with someone on a show about how post-quake reconstruction was going. I’m trying to remember now exactly what he said, but for the life of me can’t recall a single word.
As a child, when I climbed the banks of the river, the sea was spread out right in front of me, with nothing blocking the view. I used to go swimming there in the summer. I loved the ocean and loved to swim. I went fishing, too, and took my dog for a walk there every day. Sometimes I just liked to sit down and do nothing. And sometimes I’d sneak out of the house at night, go to the sea with my friends and gather driftwood and light a bonfire. I loved the smell of the sea, its far-off roar, and all that it brought with it.
But now the sea isn’t there any more. They cut down the mountains, hauled all the dirt off to the sea with trucks and conveyor belts and filled it in. With both the mountains and sea so close by, this area is perfect for that kind of construction work. Neat little residential communities have sprung up where the mountains used to be, and similarly neat little residential communities have popped up on the landfill. All this happened after I moved to Tokyo, during the era of high growth in Japan, when the country was in the throes of a nationwide construction boom.
I own a house now in a town on the seashore in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo, and travel back and forth between there and Tokyo. Unfortunately, or very unfortunately, I should say, this seaside town reminds me more of my home town than my home town does. The area has green mountains, and a wonderful swimming beach. I want to preserve these as best I can, because once natural scenery is gone, it’s gone forever. Once violence caused by humans is unleashed, it can never be reversed.