27. The Hotel

April 13, 2021Roger W. Lowther

In the city of Minami Sanriku, on the northeastern coast of Japan, the Kanyo Hotel sits on a high cliff overlooking the ocean. This is a really nice hotel, which usually costs well over $300 a night to stay there. The food is amazing, and there is a really cool cave-like hot spring built into the side of the cliff, so you relax outside in hot spring waters while feeling cool sea wind blow in your face, and watch the sunset over the ocean.

However, I didn’t get to experience any of these things. This is because I visited the hotel one month after the March 11, 2011 earthquake. The parking lot was full of military and relief trucks. The large lobby was like a dark cave that constantly echoed the voices of people talking on cellphones. Whiteboards and tables with lists and maps plastered every surface. Noisy generators lit lanterns. And on top of that, there was no electricity and no running water.

The night I spent at that hotel was one of the most unpleasant of my life. The toilet in my room was full of human refuse, where it had been for weeks. Someone tried to use duct tape to seal it shut, but the smell leaked through anyway, and it was unbearable. I stayed there with two other guys, in this really tiny room built for one. There were no sheets or any way to keep the room clean. The following nights we decided to sleep outside in a tent just for the sake of the fresh air.

Because the Kanyo Hotel is high on that cliff, it was one of the only buildings left standing after the tsunami. It was also by far the largest, so it immediately became the headquarters for relief efforts throughout that region. 95% of that city was destroyed by the tsunami, which was 68-feet high in that region.

Most buildings in Minami Sanriku are at sea level, but the schools, to protect the children, are on high ground. This meant that when that wave came, quite a few children were orphaned. The Japanese news showed survivors spelling out S.O.S. with debris in school yards and on rooftops. Miki Endo, a 25-year-old employee of the city’s Crisis Management Department, was hailed as a hero on the news for broadcasting live over the loudspeakers pleading with people to reach high ground, right up until the moment she drowned. Of the 130 people working in her building, only 10 survived, including the mayor, by clinging to the very top of the rooftop antenna. I saw this building. All that was left was a steel structure and a memorial for those who were lost.

I came to this hotel to give a concert. They asked me to set up my portable pipe organ in the lobby, which I connected to a generator we brought and placed outside to keep the noise away. Couches and chairs lined up to face the organ. I’ll post pictures of this in the show notes for this episode.

You know, looking back at this concert, I’m a little embarrassed. You see, I made a huge mistake. I completely misread the audience, starting with a long, meditative, and actually rather heavy piece by Duruflé. By the end of it, almost everyone was asleep. It was 7:30 at night, and the audience was made up completely of relief workers. They had had a VERY long day and were incredibly exhausted and stressed. They needed something light and happy. Not the organ music I had planned.

I had to do something quickly to change up the program, so I went up the Japanese singer Nozomi who came with our team from Tokyo. She too was almost asleep, as we also had already had a really long day of travel and delivering supplies.

“Would you like to sing the next piece,” I asked. “I can accompany you on the lobby piano.”

She agreed and started to sing. Her unaccompanied voice echoed through that lobby. Little by little, people stopped talking on cell phones. The relief workers sitting near us began to wake up. I quietly joined on piano, not wanting to disturb the scene, and within a few minutes Nozomi had everyone laughing and clapping. I spent the rest of that concert accompanying her on the piano, completely forgetting about the organ. The atmosphere was amazing. Everyone was so relaxed and happy. It was amazing how quickly Nozomi was able to change the mood of that room.

After the concert, people came up to us. They thanked me for bringing Nozomi, which by the way, her name means hope, so maybe it had a double meaning. The other team members said it was the best concert yet. So much for all that effort bringing the organ from Tokyo! Although, it wasn’t a complete waste. I did get a lot of time interacting with people afterwards showing them how the organ worked.

It’s funny how in situations like this, you come with a plan, but you have to be ready to change that plan immediately. You really never know what’s best until the moment, and what we needed in that moment was the crystal-clear voice of a soprano.

The next day, our team delivered milk and supplies to families throughout the mountain region. Milk was really hard to get at that time since the Fukushima nuclear power plants decimated the milk industry in Fukushima, and all regular supply lines were cut off. People in that region had absolutely no access to groceries or supplies of any kind. Only people in shelters were being taken care of. Gas stations were closed to everyone except relief vehicles with permits. As we delivered the supplies, Nozomi sang for people at each stop. Of course, it would take way too much time to set up the organ, although I did think about setting it up in the back of that 2-ton truck and just sliding the door open at each stop. Nozomi just sang by herself. And the people loved it. And I’m glad I was able to be a part of it.

Once again, music showed itself to be useful, one of those “necessary” things we needed after the disaster. The aroma of beauty wiped away the stench of that hotel toilet. It helped us relax and drew us together. It gave us strength and encouragement to go on with the next day and the next, and do what needed to be done, and not be overwhelmed by so much suffering and loss. 3.11 is not the first disaster people have faced in Japan, and it certainly won’t be the last. As we continue to face the darkness and challenges of the corona virus and the next disaster, whatever that may be, may this aroma of beauty continue to find its way to many.

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