It’s a windy Sunday morning on Japan’s remote Oshima Island, in Miyagi Prefecture, as Mitsue Murakami stops her car at an empty, modest-sized patch of ground. This was the site of the seaside inn that her family had operated for almost four decades.
But in March 2011, the two-story building was swallowed by a towering tsunami, which also dragged away Murakami’s home and nearly all her possessions.
Today, the petite 50-year-old with shoulder-length black hair and a bright smile owns a new local eatery. She built and runs it – with funding support from NVIDIA through Mercy Corps and PlaNet Finance Japan – not just as a place to grab a bite but also as a gathering place for residents of the devastated town of 6,000.
But for chance, Murakami herself would have died on that fateful day. She was in her car in a nearby town when the tsunami hit. Miraculously, her gray Daihatsu drifted inside a rice warehouse, where she took shelter, surviving for two days on a half-dozen candies in her purse.
A bright spot in Murakami’s ordeal was being able to see the sun – “taiyo” in Japanese – come up while she helplessly awaited her rescue. In tribute to that experience, and the similar-sounding name of her inn, she named her restaurant Taiyo. The staff wear orange shirts, symbolic of the sun.
She resolved to open the new business six months after the disaster, which had destroyed the area’s eight inns. None of their operators intended to restart due to age or high investment costs.
Running a restaurant has meant long days for Murakami, which she does mostly on her own. She works from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. with a break after lunch, six days a week. Often, she doesn’t close until midnight.
Since starting her restaurant in June, Murakami has found a new purpose.
“I am so happy to have a job and to be able to work,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do after I lost the inn. My days were so long.”
Her hope is the restaurant will grow into a community space – someplace where the scarred community can take refuge. With wooden desks and chairs and big windows all around, Murakami did her best to produce an airy, comfy environment.
During my visit, Murakami is filling orders for two big parties. She and three part-time workers busily move around the kitchen to make fried tempura, wash dishes or carefully place food items on plates.
A group of 10 is having their annual neighborhood luncheon at the restaurant. “I like the owner here,” says one customer. “She’s pleasant.”
Murakami smiles. As her eyes well up, she tells me about the island’s residents who choose her place to celebrate birthdays and other special occasions. Tears nearly fall as the topic shifts to difficult memories. Regulars coming for dinner and drinks share the hardships of their lives, their loss of a child or their livelihood in the tsunami.
Another party in the restaurant is a school reunion. Six elderly ladies invited their former elementary teacher for weekend brunch. They linger for hours. “We stayed so long because it’s so comfortable here,” says Tsukimi Murakami, a distant relative of Mitsue and host of the brunch.
Murakami smiles widely. She’s still trying to break even with operating costs to make her business a viable one. But this is the whole point her business exists as far as she is concerned.