5 years after the Great East Japan Earthquake: 'Drinkers alley' stands at crossroads

KAMAISHI - A dozen bars from a district that was washed away by tsunami following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake are currently running in a temporary building in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture.

The Kamaishi city government intends to move the establishments that were part of the bar district - called Nombee Yokocho (drinkers street) - to a different location. However, many bar owners are hesitant to continue their businesses due to worries such as the costs of starting again and their own age.

The history of Nombee Yokocho began in the mid-1950s when women started running bars along the waterway in the centre of the city to earn their living after they lost their husbands in World War II. During this period of rapid growth, more than 30 bars lined the streets, which bustled with employees of the steelworks in Kamaishi, dubbed the "Town of Iron."

The tsunami, however, washed away all 26 bars in the district on March 11, 2011. In December that year, the bar district was reconstituted in a prefabricated building near JR Kamaishi Station where 12 bars are currently running. The charms of the bars have not changed; you can still enjoy sake and the taste of mom's home cooking for just a couple of ¥1,000 bills.

As the prefabricated buildings are expected to be demolished in March 2018, the Kamaishi city government plans to lend a piece of city-owned land in the central area to a major leasing company where it will construct three buildings to be shared by stores. The city plans to make one of these buildings the new Nombee Yokocho.

The leasing company explained to bar owners that it requires tenants to pay ¥1.8 million as facility and construction costs in addition to a deposit equal to three month's rent. Subsequently, it proposed a plan to let bar owners continue by using the facilities of temporary housing units for an initial fee of ¥980,000 as the initial plan was said to be "too expensive."

However, 10 out of the 12 bars are run by women in their late 60s to 70s, some of whom even lost their houses in the tsunami. Six bar owners said they would be forced to close their bars, in recent interviews with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Tsueko Takahashi, 74, who runs the izakaya bar Tombo, gave up on continuing her business, which she has run for 30 years. "Thinking about my age, I don't know how many years I can continue," Takahashi said. "We have fewer people living here after the disaster, and even if I borrow money I can't pay it back."

Yuko Kikuchi, 77, the owner of Okei, the oldest bar with a history of more than 50 years, feels disturbed by the changes. She began to say, "This district has been created with the efforts of many people, so ...," but couldn't finish her sentence.

The construction of the new buildings will start in June, with an opening date set for November.