The Osaka region was struck by a 6.1 earthquake this week. Born in Kyoto, novelist Haruki Murakami grew up in the smaller cities between Kobe and Osaka, a strip of land people call Hanshin-kan. In 1997, two years after the great Hanshin Earthquake decimated Kobe, Murakami decided to walk from the town of Nishinomiya to Kobe’s center, where he spent so much of his teenage leisure time. Murakami wrote about his walk at Granta.
Murakami enjoyed growing up in the Hanshin region, though he also loved spending time in downtown Kobe and eventually moving to bustling, sophisticated Tokyo. To him, there are two types of people: those who feel drawn back to their childhood home, and those who know they’ll never live there again. “Like it or not,” he says, “I seem to belong to the second group.” He took this walk to see how time and the earthquake had changed his childhood home, and to see how his old home looked now that he had so little connection to it. What he found was a sort of average, in-between place haunted by a sense of violence. Although Murakami has published a lot of nonfiction in Japan, little of it has been translated into English, which makes this journey a rare treat for his millions of fans.
I strode on from Nishinomiya to Shukugawa. It was not yet noon, but sunny enough that, walking briskly, I started to perspire. I didn’t need a map to tell me roughly where I was, but I had no memory of the individual streets. I must have walked down these streets hundreds of times, but now I was drawing a complete blank. Why couldn’t I recall them? It was strange. I felt bewildered, as if I’d come home to find all the furniture replaced.
The reason was soon clear to me. Places that used to be empty lots weren’t empty any more, and places that hadn’t been empty now were – like photo negatives and positives replacing each other. In most cases the former were empty lots that were now residences, the latter where old houses had been destroyed in the earthquake. These before-and-after images had a synergistic effect, adding a fictitious wash to my memories of how the town used to be.
The old house I had lived in near Shukugawa was gone, replaced by a row of town houses. And the grounds of the nearby high school were filled with temporary housing put up for survivors of the quake. Where my friends and I used to play baseball, the people who lived in these prefab shelters had hung their laundry and futons out to air, in what now seemed like a tight, cramped space. Try as I might to find vestiges of the past, there were almost none. The water in the river still flowed as clean and pure as before, but it gave me an odd sensation to see how the riverbed was now neatly lined with concrete.