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Yamato-Damashii Diaries - Day 8: The Infamous City of Minamisanriku

In the wake of the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, former Shooto heavyweight champion and Pride and UFC veteran Enson Inoue has been on a one-man charity mission, traveling to northeast Japan to directly help those in need.

For his next visit to the Tohoku region, MMA Fighting joined Inoue to document the journey and bring new light to the ongoing crisis in Japan.

On day eight we travel to small town of Minamisanriku. It was incomprehensible after what we had seen so far, but this once-scenic coastal town accounted for one-third of the deaths and was hit worse than anywhere else.

Minamisanriku was a resort town noted for it's beautiful islands scattered through a bay surrounded by forested mountains. On March 10 the town in Miyagi was home to 17,382 people. On March 11 the population was cut by over 10,000 by a five-story high tsunami. Minamisanriku has the highest death toll from the tsunami and the astonishing damage had dominated the headlines until the severity of the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant became apparent.

As we drove the 100 miles from Morioka, Iwate, Enson and I speculated how anything could possibly be worse than what we had already seen. Taro and Rikuzentakata were literally gone and Kesennuma had enormous ships and ocean liners scattered through ruins that burned for four days. Even after seeing the devastation in those cities, we could not believe it and to imagine something worse was impossible.

As has been the case for most of the other tsunami hit areas, the damage became clear all at once. You turn around one corner and everything is fine. You turn around another corner and it looks like a war zone. The damage in Minamisanriku was a similar scene to Rikuzentakata and Taro. A handful of the large concrete structures remained but houses, cars, parks and everything else was completely mangled and unrecognizable. The difference between here and the places we had visited earlier was there was almost no way out when the tsunami roared through the town. The beautiful, dense pine forests that cover the mountains surrounding Minamisanriku had blocked any escape and the road to higher ground was too far to run for at least 10,000 people.

"This is a wasteland," Enson said in astonishment as we drove through the ruins. "It's a junkyard. It looks like it's been like this for years and years. It's worse than Hiroshima."

Because of Minamisanriku's unfortunate fame following the tsunami, it was the only place we had been to that had any significant number of workers there. Excavators piled the rubble to be burned, the Japanese army searched for bodies in the water and there was a strong media presence. But even though Minamisanriku was getting 100 times the support of any of the other places we visited, it still only getting only a tiny fraction of the help that is needed. Even with teams working there, it would take at least a year to finish clearing the rubble. As Enson had said, Minamisanriku now looks like a decades-old junkyard.

Working our way through the flooded bay area of the city, we found a note on a building that said "Resident on F3" in yellow spray paint. The note was in English and we guessed that it must have been left there by foreign media as the notes for bodies are usually all in Japanese.

The building was completely open on the ground floor, no way to tell where the door was or where the walls were, just a pile of rubble and a sign that indicated that the building was a wedding hall. As we made our way up the stairs for the third floor, a clump of hair could be seen poking out around a corner. I caught my breath as I saw it but soon found that there was no body attached to it – it was just a wig. Enson and Yoshi followed me up the stairs and I heard them react the same way that I did. We had certainly smelled the bodies but we still hadn't seen any on this trip.

The third floor was a formally majestic hall where couples would have exchanged vows. It was hard to tell if there was a service going on when the tsunami hit as the room had been cleaned of the bodies, including the "resident" that had been found by the foreign party before us, but opened bottles, cutlery and serving trays indicated that a party may have just been getting started.

A fireman's jacket lay on the floor of the hall and an emergency fire hose was unraveled just around the corner. A fire must have broken out after the earthquake but been extinguished, along with the emergency serviceman, when the tsunami hit.

On the top of the building we found a drenched and moldy wedding kimono that had been carefully wrapped in silk cloth and blankets were gathered in the corner with evidence that someone must have spent at least a few days sleeping there. When you see these sort of scenes, you start to form stories in your head. Had the kimono belonged to a bride who lost her groom in the tsunami? Did she stay here to be with his body? It's so hard to comprehend what you are seeing that an active imagination is the only way to get your mind to move on.

One of the only other identifiable buildings in the bay area was the central hospital. Flowers and photos were piled in front a police line that blocked the entrance of the building but we crossed it and made our way up the stairs around a car that was somehow lodged behind the reception desk.

We found the an team looking for bodies on the second floor. They glanced at us for a second but then continued their work without saying a word. It feels like there are no laws or rules in these wastelands. We had just crossed a police line and been caught but no one cared to enforce the law or even say anything. We had heard rumors of looting, rape and murder when we were making our way up north and although we were unable to track down the culprits, it's completely believable given the apathy that seems to fill the air and the lack of police and military presence.

All the way up to the fifth floor, hundreds of different types of drugs laid among twisted hospital beds, medical equipment and fish. I had expected to see blood here but none could be seen. I don't know if the blood was washed away by the tsunami or if teams had cleaned it up. We were getting better at emotionally dealing with the scenes inside these buildings. Evidence of death had rattled us when we first arrived here over a week ago but by this stage, it had almost no effect. I'm not sure I like that. I often think about how I'll react when I return home and see loved ones. If I will have the same emotions. Enson had already warned me that this experience will change me.

We had two cars full of supplies for the survivors and after some confusion, finally found an enormous evacuation center that was housing the remainder of the town of Minamisanriku. Out the back of the center there were doctor's offices, approximately 100 military trucks, a center for media and a huge amount of supplies.

The cities we had visited prior were so desperately in need of help, it seemed to be an excess here. It was perhaps slightly cynical of us, but we guessed that Minamisanriku's infamy led to them being the "model" city for the tsunami recovery. We hypothesized that the government would use this city as an example to show how well they responded. Even when we see things like this, it is difficult to see them in a truly positive light.

We inquired about dropping off our meager offerings but we were being forced to jump through a lot of hoops and it didn't seem needed so feeling rather jaded, we decided to take it back to the evacuation center we first visited in Fukushima.

Tomorrow we return to our respective homes and start the planning for our next trip: a journey into the heart of the Fukushima evacuation zone.

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