- - Monday, May 30, 2011

YAMADA, Japan — In many parts of the tsunami disaster zone, the first Japanese shops to reopen have been pubs and grocery stores.

In one seaside village in the town of Yamada in Iwate province, the only place where dozens of seniors can buy food is a little grocery store that has opened in the wreckage of a warehouse.

Amid the debris of upended ships and pulverized buildings, seniors push little carts to stock up on supplies and gather the latest information from the shop’s owner, Katsunori Buto.

“People here are sick of staying in shelters, so many are coming back to live in their damaged houses,” Mr. Buto said. “They have no other way of getting food, so I have to help them.”

Mr. Buto’s grocery store used to front the area’s main street, tucked behind a 20-foot-high wall designed to keep out tsunamis and storm surges.

But the March 11 tsunami surmounted the wall and obliterated Mr. Buto’s grocery store and adjacent home. Like many other residents of this fishing village, he thought he might never return to his ancestral home.

A few days later, when Mr. Buto returned to search for photos and other mementos, he was shocked to see that his storage house, built by his father after the 1960 tsunami, was still intact, despite the wall of water that leveled most of Yamada.

With 80 percent of Yamada’s homes destroyed, Mr. Buto thought about moving elsewhere. Some locals, who returned to live in damaged homes on high ground to get away from the crowded, noisy shelters, needed somewhere to buy food. Many were seniors who couldn’t go very far.

They persuaded him not to abandon the hometown of his ancestors, who had been running the store selling rice and fish back in the 19th century. He owed a favor to his neighbors, who had discovered an urn of his ancestor’s ashes and returned it to him.

With the help of some of the younger customers, he spent weeks shoveling out sand and decontaminating the walls and floors.

“I ran away from the tsunami so fast, I didn’t have time to close the warehouse door,” he said. “I wish I did. It would have saved us weeks of working cleaning out the place.”

Now, with the recent addition of electricity, “the Buto grocery store” is loaded with fresh vegetables in trays and frozen fish in small refrigerators, all of which he gets from a supplier in Miyako city, about 20 miles north.

Local survivors, mostly seniors with hunched backs from a lifetime of farm work, flock to the shop, which has become a community center for survivors.

Other shops are opening across the northeastern coast as people gain courage to leave shelters and live in damaged houses near the sea that attacked them more than two months ago.

Many people are tired of waiting for the government to provide temporary shelters.

On Monday, Akihiro Ohata, the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, told a parliament session that the government has fallen about 3,000 units short of its goal of supplying 30,000 temporary houses by the end of May, though the government still aims to build 70,000 by August.

In Miyako city, more than a dozen little, family-run restaurants and pubs have reopened to serve relief workers and locals.

After the tsunami filled his yakitori (grilled chicken served on skewers) shop with garbage and mud, Tetsumi Yoshino, 68, figured he would retire at long last. But his loyal customers wouldn’t let him.

They needed a place to eat and drink, and Mr. Yoshino’s shop, called Daruma, was their favorite. So for one month, they took turns shoveling out sand and garbage. They cleaned it so thoroughly that many visitors are surprised to hear that a tsunami washed over the place.

“I had no choice then. I had to come back to work,” said Mr. Yoshino, who has run the shop for 20 years.

Two months of downtime made him appreciate how much he loves serving drinks and grilling local delicacies over hot coals in his little shop, which seats no more than 20 at a time.

“We are strong people,” Mr. Yoshino said. “We believe we can recover from anything, even this disaster.”

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