Rikuzentakata City, Iwate Prefecture, lost ten percent of its population to the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Even a year and nine months after the disaster, the daunting task of removing the remaining wreckage continues.
In November 2011, an Iwate support group began planting seedlings and flower bulbs in a long flowerbed running along Route 45, which runs through Takata-cho in Rikuzentakata City. The project was reported in local newspapers and on television and is now receiving support from more and more people nationwide. Among those involved is a Tenrikyo minister who lost his wife in the disaster but, having received moral and material support from the people around him, decided to play his part in helping his city recover.
“During happy times and sad times, flowers comfort people’s hearts.” Head Minister Katsui Suzuki of Kisen Branch Church smiles as he looks at the pansies and violas blooming under winter skies.
Rev. Suzuki, locally known as “Mr. Suzuki of Flower Road,” was born in 1932 in Sanriku-cho (now Ofunato City). After graduating from college, he became a teacher. He taught junior high school social studies before his retirement in 1993.
Rev. Suzuki has loved flowers since he was a child. He grew scarlet sage and rose periwinkles in tangerine boxes with his elder brother. He also grew flowers at the school where he taught and won first prize several times in local school contests.
“I grew flowers because, while the school I taught at had the reputation of being a rough one, the students who raised flowers all became wonderful kids.”
In 1994, the year after he retired, he and his former colleagues established Flower Road Rikuzentakata and has been planting flowers in the flowerbed along Route 45 ever since. The weed-strewn flowerbed along the national road had been on his mind when he promised his pupils, “I’m going to plant flowers there,” at his retirement.
He first began with 3,000 marigold and scarlet sage seedlings and planted them in front of the roadside station. He watered them in the early mornings and evenings and spent the days pulling weeds. He even sneaked out of his hospital bed to see how the flowers were faring after he fell ill and was hospitalized.
Some mocked him, asking, “How long are you planning to do this?” Gradually, however, neighbors, local senior citizen club members, and junior high and high school students began helping him. City and prefectural organizations also cooperated by lending a greenhouse and installing sillcocks. The flowerbed stretched a kilometer (0.6 mi.) long and about 15,000 flowers began to bloom there each year.
Rev. Suzuki’s wife, Nobuko, would always see off her husband as he cheerfully headed to the flowerbed. When the city recognized him for his contributions in 2010, no one felt happier for him than Nobuko.
Losing His Beloved Wife
The March 11 disaster struck just as Rev. Suzuki’s activities were helping the flowerbed along Route 45 take root as an institution in the community. Rev. Suzuki at the time was at his church along with Nobuko, his son Noriaki, and grandson Shu.
The earthquake was quite severe, so Rev. Suzuki stepped outside to look. When he did, he saw waves coming.
“It’s a tsunami! Run!”
Grabbing Nobuko by the hand, he started to run to the junior high school located on a hill behind the church. There is a bamboo grove just in front of the school and they had a hard time moving forward. He firmly held a bamboo tree with his right hand and Nobuko’s hand with his left as the waves crashed over them.
“Before I realized what had happened, it was too late.”
Despite how tightly he had held on, Nobuko’s hand slipped away from his. She was nowhere to be seen.
“If only I had been leading grandma by the hand!” Shu, who ran on ahead, kept blaming himself.
“It can’t be helped. It’s no one’s fault.” While Rev. Suzuki said this to console his grandson, he himself strongly felt responsible, thinking to himself: “If only we had started to run even a minute earlier. If only I had gripped her hand more tightly. . . .”
The church was destroyed. Followers, friends, former colleagues and students—many people who were dear to him—were swept away by the tsunami. The Flower Road into which he had poured his heart every day for 18 years was devastated.
Nobuko’s body was found exactly a month later. Rev. Suzuki, who was visiting his daughter in Oshu City, rushed back to Rikuzentakata.
“How thankful I am to be able to find her body when there are still so many people missing!” Yet the grief of losing his beloved wife would not immediately go away.
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Rev. Suzuki married Nobuko, the eldest daughter of a head minister, when he was 29. He married into the family but refused to have anything to do with the church.
Right after he retired, he went through the knot of the church burning to the ground, which motivated him to enroll in Shuyoka, the Spiritual Development Course in Jiba. He became head minister of Kisen Branch Church in October 1994 to coincide with the construction of the new church sanctuary.
While in Shuyoka, the following passages from The Doctrine of Tenrikyo made a deep impression on his mind: “Hinokishin is not something we do just for a time, but is a daily expression of our continuing joy. Furthermore, the joy expressed in the effort does not remain confined to us alone but spreads its influence, inducing others to join in, and thus comes to be joyousness that is shared” (chapter 8, “On the Way to the Final Goal”).
He felt that these words applied to his efforts toward the Flower Road. It was as if the scales fell from his eyes as he realized, “My implementation of the faith is in itself an expression of the spirit of hinokishin.”
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For up to two months volunteers from Kisen’s parent church, Koto Grand Church, among others came to offer their hinokishin cooking at the evacuation center where the Suzuki family relocated to. One day, a follower who went to survey the area returned excitedly to the evacuation center.
“Look! I found a happi!”
In his hand was a muddy happi coat bearing the name of Koto Grand Church. He said he had chanced upon it about a kilometer away from Kisen Branch Church.
“It’s a miracle to find this several months after everything in the church was swept away.”
The happi was cleaned at Koto Grand Church and returned to Rev. Suzuki. “I’ll ask our grand church head minister to wear this happi and give a sermon when the new church sanctuary is built. I won’t allow the lights of the church to go out”—Rev. Suzuki made a firm resolve to rebuild Kisen Branch Church.
Support from People Around Him
“Won’t you plant flowers again along Flower Road?” After Rev. Suzuki moved into a temporary housing complex, a woman named Izumi Yoshiike—a member of a volunteer organization named Kibo no Hana (Flowers of Hope) Iwate 3/11 and a plant seedling distributor in Hanamaki City—visited him in July 2011 and posed this question.
Ms. Yoshiike had lived in Rikuzentakata between fourth grade and junior high school and attended the school where Rev. Suzuki once taught social studies. She learned of his activities when she visited the city after the disaster.
She said: “As someone who is in a business that deals with flowers, Mr. Suzuki, I have the utmost respect for your steady efforts to beautify the city over many years. I’d like to offer you my support for Flower Road and help the city recover.”
Ms. Yoshiike appealed to other alumni to pledge financial aid through the Internet.
Rev. Suzuki recalls, “I was truly happy to see her make all kinds of efforts for Flower Road.” However, the loss of his beloved Nobuko and the church building still greatly pained him. He had not yet found the motivation to once again head in the direction of the flowerbed.
In September, a social event called “Exchange Meeting for Recovery through Garden and Greenery” was held in Morioka City. Support groups gave reports on their relief activities in affected areas. Rev. Suzuki was invited as a representative of Flower Road.
When he arrived at the event site, he saw beautiful arrangements of flowers and large picture panels. He was struck at pictures featuring smiling survivors surrounded by flowers. There were many support groups represented at the event from prefectures such as Hokkaido, Hyogo, and Tokyo.
Rev. Suzuki recalls, “To be honest, I had no intention of reviving Flower Road until I went to the event.” As he heard the many participants voice their passionate desire to support survivors in affected areas, he thought to himself: “This many people from across the country have come to cheer us on. How can we in the community continue to sit still?” Before he knew it, he found himself declaring in front of everyone that Flower Road would be revived.
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An event to revive the former Flower Road as the Takata-Matsubara Memorial Road was planned for November 3, 2011. Local landscapers were placed in charge of preparing the flowerbed that had been covered with wreckage from the disaster and improving the quality of the soil. Rev. Suzuki contributed behind the scenes by coordinating and negotiating with the city.
Flowers of Hope Iwate sent over 10,000 flower bulbs and 3,500 pansy and viola seedlings. The volunteer organzation also provided letters of encouragement and gardening gloves.
On the day of the event, 150 volunteers from across the country came to plant tulip bulbs and flower seedlings. Among them were Rev. Suzuki’s former students and their families. The revived flowerbed amounted to only one-tenth of the size before the disaster. Yet Flower Road was revived due to the help of many people.
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Rev. Suzuki says: “I have not completely bounced back from the sorrow of that day. Yet as long as I’m being kept alive like this and I’m able to move my body, I’d like to do all that I can to have flowers bloom to bring joy to everyone. Even though Nobuko would probably tell me not to overexert myself. . . .”