ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi — A nostalgic hot spring inn famous for its kerosene lamps has been offering accommodation free to evacuees and restoration workers in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Soichi Yokoyama, 54, operator of the inn “Oiwake Onsen” in a mountain area of the Ishinomaki town of Kitakami, is willing to support the quake- and tsunami-ravaged local community, saying, “The entire town is my family.”
Established some 60 years ago, the 38-room inn stocked some 20 kerosene-lit lamps and five oil heaters for emergencies, which played their roles when the inn accommodated some 70 people who had fled from the gushing tsunami on March 11 this year.
“Why are they rushing so deep into the mountains?” wondered Yokoyama when he saw a large crowd fleeing from the foot of the mountain in cars following the massive temblor on March 11. Everyone looked distracted, and Yokoyama invited them into the inn, saying, “It’s warm inside.”
When evacuees told Yokoyama that even the areas that had escaped the 1960 Chilean tsunami were destroyed, he trembled thinking, “Something immeasurable has happened.”
That night, he gathered the 70 or so evacuees in a large hall, provided them with futons from guest rooms, warmed them up with oil heaters and lit the corridor with kerosene lamps. He served 600 rice balls to them and two nearby shelters, boiling stockpiled rice in a cauldron.
“The old stuff that I’ve cherished turned out helpful,” said Yokoyama.
Because of its location on solid bedrock, the inn escaped any damage except for a blackout, with the traditional use of spring water and propane gas helping the inn to recover quickly.
Although the facility is not designated as a shelter by the city, it has since accommodated a peak of 100 evacuees, treating them to comfortable guest rooms and warm meals. One month after the quake, the inn still hosts some 35 evacuees, in addition to doctors, nurses, city officials and construction workers who are engaged in restoration work.
“While evacuees have left here one by one, the operator of the inn says it’s OK for us to keep staying here, and that’s very encouraging,” said Masaaki Oikawa, a 63-year-old company employee who is taking shelter along with four family members.
Yokoyama confesses that he was devastated to find out the extent of damage suffered by his hometown several days after the quake. Even though he is aware of the need to resume commercial operation of the inn, he tearfully said: “For now, I just want to provide relief for disaster victims, rather than reopening our inn. That’s the only role we can play.”