by D Blackwell
Dedicated to the residents of Ishinomaki
The bus pulled up to the curb, and slowly the somnambulant passengers began to rise out of
their seats. We were the first to disembark, followed shortly after by a rabble of old Japanese
locals. Kevin rubbed his eyes and slotted his glasses over his ears as the word ‘feck’ fell out of his
I agreed. It was much colder than the place we had come from. My ears were stinging from
the chill. I looked at Werner, and wished I’d bought a hooded top too.
The bus driver got out to open the boot and pass the passengers their luggage. I was untying
my cap from my belt to cover my freezing head, when I caught sight of my rucksack.
‘Mine,’ I said to the driver, in a clipped early morning utterance—skipping the formal
Japanese verb ending. I re-tied my hat to my belt to free up both hands and take the heavy bag.
In retrospect it would’ve been quicker to just put the cap on, but my brain was still busbeffudled.
The driver tore off the tag and as I tossed the bag on my back, he asked me, ‘All together?’—
motioning to the three girls who had also just exited the bus behind me. It was the first I’d seen
of them. ‘No,’ I said, restraining the urge to take offence at the notion that all foreigners knew
I got out of the way for the girls, now eager to reclaim their backpacks. I nodded towards
them, and left it at that. There was a fair chance we were all going to the same place, but it was
cold, and early, and no caffeine had yet been ingested—meaning I wasn’t in the mood for small
Werner sat down on his suitcase, while Kevin struggled to identify his among the remaining
bags. He finally got it, then dropped it—crushing an old lady’s foot in the process (which, at the
very least, gave him an opportunity to practice his 45-degree bow, complete with a formal
Japanese apology). Kevin had been in Japan less than a year and still enjoyed making cultural
concessions. I felt a pang of longing for a time when I was that eager. Maybe this trip would
remind me what it was like before I hated everything. I finally untied my hat, put it on, and
tugged it down, then turned up the collar of my black denim jacket to protect my neck from the
icy wind. Werner surveyed his surroundings and remarked on how nice it was to be in such a
small town. ‘Yeah.’ I said. ‘Nice to only see two-story buildings. Gives you a feelin’ o space,
‘It does indeed,’ said Werner with his slow, deliberate, ‘Teacher-English’ voice, his South
African accent barely noticeable.
I turned to Kevin who’d righted his suitcase and was looking around him with a crumpled slip
of paper in his hand.
‘So, Kev. What we supposed to do now?’
‘They said they’d meet us by the train station.’ He looked around. ‘Let’s go stand by the
Kevin’s Scottish accent was still strong, fresh, and proud.
I fastened the buckles from my bag across my chest to take some of the weight off. ‘Let’s go
We ambled over to the train station entrance to the tune of suitcase wheels on smooth
The three girls from the bus arrived at the same spot as us and took seats on a bench beneath
a withered, leafless tree. They undid their backpacks and let them slip and clatter to the floor.
Locals walking past eyed the ragged bunch of foreigners with obvious curiosity.
‘Are y’all volunteering too?’ asked the tallest girl of the three.
‘Aye,’ said Kevin. ‘Yerselves?’
‘Yeah,’ she said. Her two friends nodded.
‘I’m Kevin, nice to meet you,’ he said, stretching out his hand.
We all did the habitual handshakes and name exchanges, although I’d wager not one of us
committed any of the names to memory.
‘Where are you from?’ asked Kevin.
‘Well, I’m from Louisiana,’ said the tall one.
Kevin had hoped that by identifying the first girl’s origin he would start a domino effect. But
there was a silence, broken only by gusts of wind through the brittle branches above them. Their
reticence could have been mere tiredness, or simple reluctance to engage in the same old
introductions of always. Kevin pointed to the next in line—a cute girl with short, bobbed hair.
‘How about you?’
‘I’m from Pennsylvania.’
‘I thought that’s where Dracula came from,’ quipped Kevin.
The groans were inwardly contained by all present. I stepped in for the final contendant, the
girl with the long tangled black hair, sleep still coiled amongst its tresses. ‘And you?’
Werner needed more. ‘Where in Canada?’
She named a place none of us had heard of, then added—noticeably irked from years of being
asked to give information that garners blank ignorance—‘Near Ontario.’
‘I’m gonna get a tea from that vending machine over there,’ I said, ‘anyone want anything?’
No one wanted anything.
As the spare change rattled out I noticed a square stone block beside me with the town
emblem engraved in it—a circle inside a circle. The Japanese symbols, written below, finally
made something clear to me: Ishinomaki, the town name, translated as ‘Stone Wrap.’ Now I’d
seen the symbol it would be easier to commit to memory.
Just then another member turned up to join the group. It was Hashish, the Indian.
Werner introduced him. We’d met him when boarding the bus in Tokyo. His name had been
easy to remember for obvious reasons. The girls, working on the assumption that us boys had all
travelled down together, asked if Hashish worked as an ALT too. Hashish looked confused, so
Werner stepped in and reminded Hashish, ‘ALT is what Kevin was telling you about earlier.
Remember? Assistant Language Teachers.’
‘Oh, no. I work with computers.’
There was a lull. I cradled the warm bottle of green tea in my hands. Kevin filled the awkward
silence by offering our nationalities. ‘Well, I’m from Scotland.’
He pointed to Werner. ‘South Africa.’
He pointed to me. ‘And England.’
He scrunched his nose and shifted his glasses up with his index finger. ‘We all work in
Shikoku. How about yerselves? What part of Japan are you working in?’
They said the name of a place none of us had ever heard of, which meant the tall girl from
Louisiana had to draw a map of Japan in the air with her long fingers, closing her description by
naming a local fruit that was famous there.
Werner and Kevin began talking and I switched off because I already knew their stories.
Hashish just stood and played ping-pong with his head, from the boy’s comments to the girl’s
reactions, which were, for the most part, wordless—grunts—made during the pitstops the boys
took to necessitate breathing between sentences.
‘…I adore udon,’ said Kevin, closing a long spiel about the intricacies of the noodles of
Shikoku where we’d been placed to teach.
The Canadian wiped her glasses with her T-shirt and put them back on.
From out of nowhere came a tall, skinny man with a pencil moustache, and introduced
himself with a strong accent that I guessed was French. He showed us a clipboard with a list of
names. We were all on it, except the little girl from Pennsylvania. Louisiana insisted she’d put all
her friends’ names down on the online form. The girl from Pennsylvania gave her an askew
glance that suggested there could be some tension between them. The man introduced himself
and shook all our hands. I was forgetting his name in the same instant the warmth of his hand
left mine. His nationality would stick, however, because it complied with his accent: French.
‘The jeep is over ’ere,’ he said, leading us away.
We followed the skinny man towards the side of the train station where the jeep was parked,
‘I hope there’s space,’ said our guide. ‘We thought there would only be six of you coming
There weren’t enough seats. I volunteered to sit on the floor, but somehow ended up with a
seat while Kevin sat between my legs. On the floor.
‘How was the trip down?’ asked the driver.
Kevin explained how much fun we’d had in Akihabara and how we’d visited Tokyo’s biggest
manga store, and sipped whiskey in the same bar as Bill Murray, and…
Then we crossed the bridge.
We fell silent.
The metal girders that once formed the railing of the bridge had been twisted and splayed like
psychedelic origami from the force of the tsunami. Plastic warning cones lined the precipice
where parts of the bridge fell away to reveal the murky water flowing deep below. I could sense
everyone in the jeep, except perhaps the driver, swallow hard as they caught the shock and it all
suddenly all became a reality.
The village on the other side of the bridge, where we were headed, had been decimated. The
hum of the engine became more prominent as we changed gear to traverse the bridge’s shattered
asphalt; wheels beginning to rattle; our bags jerked on our laps.
Still we were silent.
There were remnants of civilization, but they were being mocked by foreign symbols, things
that didn’t belong. One large, crumbling, concrete edifice stood out, the shell of its thick walls
punctuated by dark empty doorways.
Perched atop the hospital was a mangled car.
It was surreal to see a car—shipwrecked—on the roof of a building.
No one took out their phone to snap pictures. We were too engrossed, for once, in the
A whole village—all its people, all their lives—gone. Demolished.
I decided I wanted to learn the names of everyone else in the jeep—and to remember them
for as long as I could.
I’d start with France.
—the tsunami’s graffiti—
© Danny Blackwell