The home in Japan where the tsunami finally stopped

Truck driver returns to city five miles inland, where wife couldn’t survive sea’s onslaught

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RIKUZEN-TAKATA, Japan | Dust swirls across the wasteland where Naoki Suzuki goes every day to gaze at the empty space of his home, where his wife tried to ride out last month’s tsunami.

A burly truck driver, Mr. Suzuki can’t stop crying as he stands in the middle of a city where all but 20 buildings were pulverized and scattered amid a setting framed by hills of bamboo, pine and cedar.

As Tokyo and other parts of Japan try to resume normal work schedules, many in the northeast only now are beginning to grasp the full scale of the disaster.

Rikuzen-Takata, which Prime Minister Naoto Kan visited over the weekend, still looks like Hiroshima after the atomic bombing in 1945.

In terms of force and height, the March 11 tsunami was perhaps the greatest in Japanese history: Researchers from the University of Tokyo on Sunday said they found lumber from a port discarded on a hillside about 120 feet above sea level in Miyako, in the Iwate province.

Along a coastal highway in Iwate, the tsunami collapsed concrete seawalls and tossed seaside homes deep into hillside ravines.

Unlike other disaster areas where untouched high ground has become hubs for local aid efforts, the devastation of Rikuzen-Takata spreads far beyond the city of 25,000 and into the river valley — even to the old farmhouse of Mr. Suzuki’s parents in the town of Yahagi.

For centuries, the Suzukis and other farmers of Yahagi thought they were safe from the sea, more than five miles away beyond mountains that shielded their crops from sea salt, wind storms and tsunamis that battered the coast.

On March 11, five miles wasn’t enough.

In a span of about six minutes, a deluge uprooted seaside red pines and carried them over four-story shopping centers and apartment complexes.

Spilling into the Kesen River, the tsunami knocked over bridges and railways, then snaked around the mountains into the rice paddies in Yahagi, where it dropped the pines beside poems carved in ancient stones.

Surging uphill, the tsunami rushed all the way up to the Suzukis’ garden, drowning winter crops of cabbages and broccoli, ripping apart greenhouses, and soiling the inside of their traditional farmhouse.

“We never thought we were living near the sea,” said Mr. Suzuki’s mother, Etsuko. “This was unimaginable.”

Like a mad serpent, it thrashed against a wall of concrete blocks. But there, at the Suzukis’ house, it turned around.

Astonished, Etsuko Suzuki watched it retreat down the valley, around the mountains and eventually into the ocean, depositing vehicles and homes along the way — taking thousands of people with it.

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