3.History from the ground up

Audio guide

Under the modern paving stones of the annex lies the original doma of the main building before it was moved, a dirt floor pounded solid by generations of busy feet. But there’s more underfoot here than just a kitchen floor. We are standing on landfill laid down in the 18th century. Layer upon layer of earth has been hauled into this area over the years to create dry land, extend the shoreline, and shape it to human needs. The inner harbor area is called the Naiwan district, and most of it is a landfill site, a feature unique to this part of the city. 


It’s a distinctive district, with both residential neighborhoods and a trading port. In earlier times it knotted three threads of commerce: the old east-west road, the north-south coastal route, and the sea lane. Goods flowed in and out by boats, wagons, draft animals, and the strong backs of porters. Exports of seafoods, timber, tobacco, and silk; imports of furniture, tools, and machinery – such was the commerce with faraway markets such as Edo, known today as Tokyo. The Naiwan district was the crossroads, and it grew and prospered.  


Look at a map of Kesennuma’s waterfront, and you’ll see a zigzag of straight lines. Only the little Cape Shinmeisaki with its ancient shrine keeps a remnant of the water’s edge as it was in olden times, a rocky reminder of what our shoreline looked like before we drew a new one better suited to our shipping and commerce. 


From the inner harbor, run your finger westward on your map for about a mile. There’s our railroad station and the name Furumachi, meaning “old town,” which tells you it’s the site of the first village built here many generations ago. Back then it stood near the water; your finger passed over landfill built up gradually since then. 


There are three keys to the prosperity we have built here, and landfill is one of them. Why landfill?  Because of the wind, the second key. Wind filled the sails and drove the watercraft of the Edo period, when sailboats were mainstream. In Kesennuma, the northwest winds blow down from the Mount Murone heights, so filling the land and moving the shoreline helped to position the port to take better advantage of these prevailing winds. 


The terrain around the inner harbor seemed to channel the wind and give an outbound sailing vessel a boost. In fact, the Minami-machi district was once called Naraigama, meaning “the mouth of a purse in the west wind.” Sails are seldom seen now, but the inner harbor by Cape Shinmeisaki is still a calm haven for boats to anchor or dock. Some call the harbor our “windy waiting area.”  


The wind isn’t always our friend. In 1914 and again in 1929 it whipped massive fires into raging infernos that left the land bare and blackened. But the people of those desperate times did not give up. In 1929, workers from all over Japan joined with determined townsfolk to saw and hammer and rebuild, and together they completed most of the restoration in about a year. They even mixed Japanese and Western styles, creating a “living museum” of architectural design.  


So the third key is “the spirit of enterprise,” and it’s by far the most powerful. The survivors of those fires looked at their blackened landscape and saw opportunity, a chance to create new neighborhoods beyond the bounds of tradition.  


The people of the harbor area again saw opportunity amid the wreckage of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Here and there, sturdy old landmarks like this one are being restored. And where there was nothing left to restore, people have cleared away the rubble and rebuilt. Again, the past meets the future as we reinvent our hometown.