A sushi master’s temporary restaurant in Kesennuma, Japan

A sushi master’s temporary restaurant in Kesennuma, Japan

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To get to Kesennuma these days, Japan’s biggest port town about two hours by bullet train northwest of Tokyo, I had to take a taxi yesterday an hour to the coast.

It’s cold and snowing here, with only a few inches on the ground, but a total whiteout. There used to be a local train that connected, the driver said, but sections of track are missing, washed away by the tsunami triggered by 3/11, as the earthquake is known among the Japanese. The missing tracks show up as dotted lines on the GPS that guides driver-san on the two-lane twisty mountain road, but he knows it well, having ferried volunteers in for the past year or so.

He asks if he can ask me where I’m from, and when I tell him Chicago, he says, “Chicago Cubs!” He’s been a lifelong fan of the “Major Leagues” and closely follows all the Japanese players. I ask him what they eat here at games and he says he’s not sure, maybe “American-style” popcorn.

When we arrive, I finally see crumpled storefronts missing all their windows, filled with debris. I ask driver-san to wait while I dig into my duffel, then give him one the small cans of Garrett’s popcorn I’ve brought as customary gifts. I explain it’s filled with Chicago Mix, cheese and caramel. He made the characteristic Japanese sound that registers surprise, like Scooby-Doo, then smiled broadly and bowed deeply before heading the hour back.

I had a few minutes before heading out to dinner, at my first sushi restaurant in Japan. But it wasn’t at the original famous Asahi, but their brand new temporary restaurant opened Christmas Eve 2011.

the exterior of the 'pop-up' restaurant

Fifty-one local shopkeepers are finally back in business, in rows of pre-fab buildings. They’re rent free for two years, which is how long officials say it will take to rebuild the town. The shopkeepers think five years.

The sushi master starts with mild, silky local flounder and over two hours we chat about the food. One course is the fabled “grape shrimp” which is so rare it’s called “the phantom ship”, and never makes it down to Tsukiji. I was just there yesterday morning but that seems like a long time ago already. It’s the finest sushi we serve in this shop, he said. It’s incredibly sweet, crisp, and creamy. In two small bites, as he’s sliced it in half, it captures the depth of the sea.

anago sauce

With the anago he describes how the thick brown salty-sweet sauce is made by adding ingredients over the remaining sauce in the pot every time. His original base was 45 years old, but the pot washed out to sea. Luckily he has another restaurant in the train station town, so he borrowed some base from there.

Kesennuma was hit not only by the earthquake and tsunami, but a huge fire too. Wrecked fishing vessels spilled fuel in the harbor, burning for four days. The water is still now, but at only a sidewalk width away and nearly level with the road, it’s feels ominously close.

The chef was at the dentist when the quake hit. He’d just finished and was waiting to pay. They said he could leave; there was no need to pay. His house is on high land and all of his family and staff were safe. He chose his house for its view, as he’s a painter too. Two salvaged paintings hang in the temporary space. He says his hobby saved their lives.

the found knife

Kesennuma counts about 1,000 dead and 400 missing from 74,000 residents. During clean up the chef said he saw something shiny under the dirt. It was his knife, buried where he normally stood. He says it was an order from heaven to continue working. He said with the dentist, his high house, and the knife, “I think I’m a very lucky guy.”