Saturday, April 2, 2011


Okay, be honest. Before March 11, did you know there was a Japanese city called Sendai?

Me neither, up until 23 years ago, when I received an invitation from my church to learn Japanese, then live and work as a missionary in that area for 18 months.

I spent two weeks after the disaster shouting at the computer: “Which city? Which town? Where, where, where?” On the theory that you might might not know any more than the news media do about the area, here’s a random Sendai intro.

You know about Tokyo, the Japanese equivalent of L.A., D.C., and N.Y.C., rolled into one. You’ve probably heard of Sapporo, which might fill the roles of Alaska (snow and cold), Wisconsin (dairy product capital of the country), and San Francisco (cosmopolitan and chic). Osaka is more or less the gritty and hip Chicago of Japan. Okinawa is a Hawaii-like place, tropical and laid-back. So what’s Sendai?

Sendai is the largest city in Tohoku, or northeastern Japan. Traditionally, it produced most of the country’s rice, and it’s recently become a center for manufacturing.

Tohoku is the flyover Midwest of Japan: maybe Detroit in industrialization, and Des Moines in attitude: countrified, conservative, and not so cool. The Tohoku dialect (“zu-zu-speak”) is also not cool. While I was there, an executive for the Asahi beer company made insulting remarks about the way people in Tohoku talk. The entire area boycotted his product until he apologized. Wikipedia asserts that young people are leaving Tohoku in droves, presumably for more happening spots.

They grow wonderful apples in Tohoku, with typical Japanese care: each growing apple is first encased in a protective wrapping. Then, I don’t know how, they affix the sign of the apple-grower somehow so that the skin doesn’t change color in that spot, like spelling a sunscreen message on yourself before tanning.

Everyone got the day off on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. We spent one autumnal equinox in the park, where police officers were giving away free pumpkins, with skins scarred to spell anti-drunk-driving slogans.

Sendai is on approximately the same line of latitude as Montreal, Canada. Farther north, on Hokkaido, they have adopted central heating. But bitterly cold Tohoku has not. Instead, they are experts at space heating. Space heaters for the bedrooms, covered, heated tables for the dining room, electric toilet seats for the bathroom, hot ramen for the stomach, hand warmers for pockets, sock warmers for feet.

Twenty-three years ago, many, many people on the street felt compelled to comment on my blonde hair—sometimes at the tops of their lungs, across the street. Maybe the reaction would have been the same on the streets of Tokyo. But I kind of think that was the Tohoku view of life—not too many jet-set cosmopolitans up there.

Toward the end of my time in Tohoku, I looked in the mirror. And stared: "Wow. That chick has blonde hair."

I've never been quite the same since Tohoku.

So. They're cold right now. You've seen the snow. They're sharing vegetables and blankets, and doing radiation checks, and wondering what happens next. And I stare, and yell, and cheer, and pray.

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Lee Ann Setzer's blog about books, writing, and life in general.