SENDAI, Japan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Even before a tsunami swamped fields east of the Japanese city of Sendai in March 2011, Chikako Sasaki and her husband, a rice farmer, had dreamed of starting a business selling food made from their own produce.
The tsunami was sparked by the biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began, killing nearly 16,000 people and wiping out villages and towns in what was described as the country’s worst crisis since World War Two.
But just two years after the disaster, thanks to government subsidies and the enterprising spirit of the Sasakis and other farming families, Chika-chan’s Riceball Teahouse began serving lunches made by local women in its open kitchen.
“There was nowhere to work after the tsunami,” explained Sasaki, standing in the first-floor dining room. “So we decided to open this cafe, and now we all enjoy working here together.”
The restaurant is just one example of many innovative approaches taken to help eastern Sendai’s farmers bounce back from the tsunami, modernize the region’s agriculture and increase farming output.
The rice used in Chika-chan’s “nigiri” balls and curry dishes, also sold in the shop downstairs, is grown by the women’s husbands. The vegetables come from their own plots, and the “miso” - a fermented soya-bean paste - is made by hand.
The company in Wakabayashi ward also has a processing facility nearby, and is planning to expand its other activity of making boxed lunches for convenience stores and public events.
Sasaki said her husband managed to get his rice output back up to pre-disaster levels three years after the tsunami hit.
Recovery from the disaster has been a tough process for farmers, whose land was strewn with debris and contaminated with seawater. In eastern Sendai, along the coast, some 1,800 hectares of farmland were damaged, most of it rice paddies.
Efforts to pump out the salt water began just nine days after the tsunami, and the removal of twisted piles of metal, concrete, wood and plastic was completed by the end of 2011, so that farmers could plant on some of the land the next spring.
By the spring of 2014, farming had resumed on almost all the land, turning a higher profit than even before the tsunami.
City statistics show that sales of crops - including rice, wheat, soy and vegetables - exceeded 2010 levels in eastern Sendai’s three affected districts in 2013.
Noboru Iki, director of the agriculture and forest department in the Sendai Economic Affairs Bureau, said local authorities decided to consolidate small plots of land into 1-hectare fields after they were desalinated.
“The idea was that it would lead to better profitability and more efficiency, and encourage people to return to farming,” he said.
The city also organized individual farmers into co-operative businesses, lending them machinery and equipment like tractors and greenhouses, as well as offering financial help.
“This was a good measure to cope with the aging of local farmers and their lack of successors,” Iki said.
In the wake of the disaster, the city’s agriculture experts have also encouraged a shift into vegetable-growing from the local staple crop, rice. According to Iki, rice consumption in Japan is falling fast as the population eats more bread.
Vegetables are more profitable as they are usually grown close to where they are consumed and so cost less to distribute, Iki added.
That is the case for Mamoru Kikuchi’s company, Michisaki Corporation, which cultivates leaf vegetables, tomatoes and strawberries in four big greenhouses, using hydroponic methods.
The mildly spicy “mizuna” plant, or Japanese mustard, grown there is sold to the convenience store giant 7-Eleven Japan for use in salads across the northeastern Tohoku region, and the strawberries are also marketed locally.
Kikuchi is hoping consumers will get a taste for raw spinach, grown using a technology that ensures nutrient-rich water flows over the plants’ roots. It yields 20 harvests a year, allowing the company to ship an average of 320 kg a day.
The company, which began operating almost two years ago in Miyagino ward with capital from five young local farmers and disaster relief grants and loans, employs around 40 people and is branching out into organic vegetables too.
“With this indoor hydroponics cultivation, it wasn’t necessary to desalinate the land, and with Japan’s four seasons, you can’t grow vegetables outside all year round,” Kikuchi said, surveying his tables of bright green plants with pride.
The method used here of growing mizuna in styrofoam boxes allows it to be harvested 11 times a year, instead of three under normal field conditions.
Michisaki may be thriving, and eastern Sendai’s farmland largely rehabilitated. But the signs of the destruction wrought by the tsunami, up to 7 meters high, that crashed 4 km inland in this part of Japan remain painfully clear.
The coast road runs past the forlorn foundations of houses that were completely swept away in the 2011 disaster. The occasional abandoned house and few tall trees that survived jut from the monochrome landscape.
Heavy machinery and massive mounds of earth are dotted across the fields - testament to the work being carried out to raise the road and build dykes and embankments topped with triangular wooden barriers and saplings, to protect the area better from any future giant waves.
Drainage pumping stations were quickly restored after the disaster with new ones now being built to double capacity needed to cope with the 50 cm of ground subsidence caused by the quake.
To cover the extra cost of the new pumping stations, the Sendai city government has installed solar panels near its agriculture and horticulture center in Wakabayashi ward.
With a capacity to generate power for 150 households, the solar plant has recently begun producing electricity, which is sold to the grid.
Yet despite the rebound in local agricultural sales and the innovations spurred by the 2011 disaster, many of eastern Sendai’s farmers are unlikely to get back their previous lives.
Yashushi Endo of the Tohoku Agricultural Administration Office said people whose homes near the coast were destroyed are still living in temporary housing elsewhere in the city. “The community was broken,” he said.
And at the Chika-chan riceball cafe further inland, a visit from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the women’s high-quality dishes have yet to ensure financial success.
The business is still not making a profit due to loans that must be repaid, admitted Sasaki, her smile temporarily giving way to a frown. “It’s hard,” she said.
Reporting by Megan Rowling; Editing by Katie Nguyen