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Stopped by 2011 east Japan tsunami, temple clock starts ticking again after 2021 temblor

Bunshun Sakano, the 58-year-old head priest at Fumonji temple in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Yamamoto, points to a clock that started working after 10 years following the quake that struck Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures in February. (Mainichi/Hana Fujita)

SENDAI -- A clock at a temple in the northeastern Japan prefecture of Miyagi that stopped working after being submerged in the tsunami following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 has started moving again following a strong earthquake in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures in February 2021.

    Bunshun Sakano, the 58-year-old head priest at Fumonji temple in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Yamamoto, says he has been inspired by the clock's sudden restart.

    "It's like a sign of encouragement that the real restoration is to come," he said, resolved to work hard for the area as Japan heads into its 11th year following the earthquake disaster.

    The Hanakama district of the town, where the temple is located, is designated as a disaster risk zone, and the temple is surrounded by empty plots. Sakano found the clock, which has a diameter of about 80 centimeters, several years before the March 2011 disaster in a shop selling antiques in Fukushima Prefecture. It had a spring driven movement and was made by Seikosha (present-day Seiko Time Creation Inc.) It is thought to have been produced close to 100 years ago, toward the end of the Taisho era (1912-1926) or the beginning of the following Showa period.

    During the late hours of Feb. 13 this year, a quake struck the region, measuring a lower 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale in Yamamoto. The following morning, Sakano went to check the damage at the temple's main hall, and heard a ticking sound. It turned out that the clock, which had remained stopped even after being cleaned, had started working again. He thought it would eventually stop working again, but nearly two months from then, it is still ticking.

    "Maybe it's pushing me to move forward with new determination," Sakano recalls thinking.

    Asked why the clock might have started moving again, a Seiko representative commented, "It's possible that the pendulum, which had stopped, started moving again with the shaking of the earthquake, or that dust which had built up inside came loose."

    The temple, which lies just a few hundred meters from the coast, was hit by tsunami waves that reached nearly to the ceiling of the first floor during the March 2011 disaster. The water smashed through the walls "as if passing through an earthenware pipe," leaving only the pillars and the roof remaining. Debris lay strewn around the temple, and the clock, which had been hung at the entrance, was submerged in water.

    Sakano shed tears in front of the Buddhist statue which barely remained. About a week after the disaster, a female supporter of the temple called, saying that her husband's body had been found and that she wanted him to come and chant a sutra. But his Buddhist garments and altar pieces had been washed away, and without gasoline for his vehicle, he had no means to get there.

    Sakano turned the woman down, telling her he couldn't go, only for her to lash out and say, "What do you mean? And you call yourself a monk!" He came to the self-realization that he was indeed a monk and that if he didn't look after the temple supporters, then "the temple was just a mere decoration on the landscape." He borrowed garments from another temple, and managed to get to the funeral hall by bicycle, where he kneeled down on the ground and apologized to the woman, and read out a sutra.

    The temple, seen in this file photo taken in September 2019, has become a place for locals to sell handmade food and miscellaneous items. (Photo courtesy of Temple Marche)

    "This temple is here because of the local area and its supporters. If there are people facing difficulties in the area, I have to help them," Sakano thought anew.

    In July 2011, a temple volunteer center was set up as base for disaster volunteers from various areas, and they poured their efforts into cleaning up homes in the neighborhood, a job that had been left untouched. Using alcove posts and a home shrine from the house of a former resident who had decided to dismantle the structure and asked Sakano to use their house material to leave their legacy as a member of the community, and a meeting hall connecting to the temple's main hall was reconstructed.

    The year after the earthquake and tsunami disaster, Sakano also started a "temple cafe" so that temple supporters, who were visiting the graves of loved ones while seeing grass growing over the plots of land where their houses had stood, could enjoy even a small amount of time together. Several years later, it was renamed "Temple Marche," and market events in which residents sold handmade food and miscellaneous items were held there once a month.

    One person thanked Sakano, saying, "I was scared of tsunami and was unable to go near the sea, but as I continued to attend the events, I was able to come back to the area."

    The old clock was there watching over Sakano in his efforts. Regarding it as "one of the few keepsakes remaining from the tsunami," he cleaned it and wound the spring, but it didn't move at all. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the market events were suspended from February last year, and Sakano was no longer able to meet volunteers from across the country. The thought of ending the gatherings crossed Sakano's mind when the clock started ticking again. After having been brought to a standstill by the pandemic, he felt if the clock were telling him to "move again."

    Ten years have now passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

    "We have reached a juncture in reconstruction work, and restoration in the real sense of the word begins now," Sakano said. While it seems that he will have to endue a tough situation for some time longer, he continues to look ahead.

    "Planning markets outdoors and gathering volunteers ... I'd like people to think, 'This chief priest is doing something again' so they don't lose hope," Sakano said.

    (Japanese original by Hana Fujita, Sendai Bureau)

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