Thinking of Sendai

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A year ago Queens­towner Richard Ryall was loading his family into a borrowed car and bailing from quake-struck Sendai. 

Ryall, 48, his wife Tracey and their two children Cameron, 11, and Hannah, 10, spent two days in a mini driving the 600km across Japanese mountains to the safety of Kyoto. 

At one point they had to siphon petrol to help supply other cars in their convoy which were running low. 

Back then, Ryall told Mount­­ain Scene the uncertainty of the nuclear situation – nearby power plants had ruptured and were leaking – prompted his decision to escape. 

Now based back in Queens­town, Ryall says his thoughts during an anniversary to mark the quake this Saturday will be with those still living in the aftermath back in Sendai. 

“We get caught up in our own day-to-day existence when we’re not there and part of it – but definitely being an anniversary it’s an opportunity to think about what happened that day again and realise it’s a reality that everyone is still going through in their day-to-day lives. 

“They’re still getting quite a lot of aftershocks. It’s definitely a day we should be thinking about them. 

“They’re very conscious of where they’re sourcing their food from. Any food produced in the northern region is very cheap because there is a chance it has been radiated,” Richard says. 

“Whereas any food produced in the south away from Fuk­­u­­­shima is very expensive. People are still buying all their water.” 

Almost 16,000 people died during the quake – one of the five biggest in the world since 1900. More than 6000 people were injured and almost 3300 went missing. Along with the human toll, about 125,000 buildings were wrecked or damaged. Much of the destruction came when huge tsunami waves – at one point 40m high – blasted the Sendai coast and didn’t stop for 10km. 

The Ryalls, based in Sendai on a gap year at an international school, returned to Queens­town a week after the disaster, but Richard bravely went back to Sendai a month later. 

His first priority was returning the car he’d borrowed to escape in. He also sorted out remaining bills, settled things with his landlord and cleaned up all their remaining belongings. 

“I spent five or six days saying goodbye and giving out stuff we had. I was just making everything right which was important for my own mind as well. 

“It was actually a very emotional trip. I said goodbye to a lot of people and that was quite hard.” 

Richard says he’s kept in close contact with many people he met in Sendai – some who’ve since packed up their lives and left, and others who’ve stayed on and rebuilt their lives. 

“Stoicism is an adjective that describes the Japanese mindset very well … you just carry on and do what you can do. There’s very little complaining or outcry about how terrible things are … people are just getting on with it.” 

Meanwhile, back in Queenstown Richard has returned to hosting groups of visitors from Japan via his company Tanken Tours, which he runs with Queens­towner Craig McLachlan and David Joll. 

Richard says he’s probably hosted up to 1000 Japanese tourists in the past six months but not one has been from the area of northern Japan which bore the brunt of the damage. 

“They’re getting on with it – and busy getting on with it doesn’t mean going away on holiday. 

“They’ve got some big things they need to address – where they’re going to go in future with nuclear power? People are starting to question whether relying so much on nuclear power is such a good thing and is there a safer way of creating energy in a country which is so energy hungry. 

“Whenever I say to my clients that in NZ we have no nuclear power, they say ‘Fantastic, we really respect that, you guys are so lucky’. People are questioning the safety.” 

Queenstown’s Japanese Family Society spokeswoman Mitsi Morikawa says people are still suffering back home.
“But it doesn’t make the news any more and that’s another reason why we’re holding this fundraising event. 

“And we want to show we’re a part of the community and it’s a nice opportunity to showcase the culture.” 

Quake anniversary fundraiser
What: Martial arts plus Japanese music and food
When: 10am-2pm, Saturday
Where: Earnslaw Park
Cost: Donation to Japanese Red Cross