Japan tsunami: Sushi chef finds his true calling

For 15 years, Mr Takahiro Chiba was a sushi chef at one of the most popular restaurants in Ishinomaki. The restaurant, Sukeroku, was owned by his father. As an only child, Mr Chiba, 41, knew the restaurant would be his one day and "there was no running away from it". But he secretly disliked the restaurant life.

"It didn't interest me. I could guess what I was going to talk about with customers each day. I knew everything that was expected of me every day," he said. "Year after year, the same things were going to happen. I could predict my life for the next 20 years."

It was a routine he never expected to escape.

And then the tsunami came.

"My father's restaurant was severely damaged. Although the building was intact, the facilities were damaged. There was even an overturned car that landed in front of the shop," Mr Chiba recalled.

His home was a mess too. The first floor of his two-storey house was destroyed. Mr Chiba, his wife and three children, now aged between seven and 14, lived out of their bedrooms on the second floor. He spent six months repairing his house, helping his neighbours clean up debris and picking up odd jobs to make ends meet.

Then, a job offer came up. An American couple who owned a Japanese restaurant in Rockland, Maine, needed a sushi chef and wanted to hire someone from the tsunami-stricken area. Everything would be paid for - the visa and the air tickets - and there would be a house for the whole family.

Mr Chiba got the job and saw it as a chance to start life anew, but his visa application was rejected.

Although he was disappointed, he now says it was destiny, because in the meantime he discovered his passion in life - working with wood, making crafts and furniture to sell. Today, he toils away happily at a workshop called The Ishinomaki Laboratory, on a small street in the downtown area.

Located about 100m away from the Ishinomori Manga Museum, it is one of many business start-ups aimed at reviving the town.

Mr Chiba, who is now designated chief of laboratory, makes wood furniture, picnic stools, slingshots and bird cages, and loves every minute of it.

"I love seeing my designs come to life and take shape," he said. "The disaster was a good opportunity for me to restart, to change myself for the better. "How I put energy in my work is different. In the past, I was confined to a five-day week and I kept wishing that Saturday would come faster."

Now, he works seven days a week, and does not feel the need for a day off.

The 200,000 yen (S$2,590) a month he earns at the Lab is less than his pay as a chef.

"I am not rich, but if I have enough money every day, I don't need luxuries or a car to be happy."

As for his father's restaurant, it is scheduled to reopen this month. And Mr Chiba does not intend to return there, something his father knows and accepts.

He said: "I know I cannot make everyone happy and it can be difficult. But I believe that this new life I have is working out and I'm changing for the better."

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