Last month I went to the seaside. There were no sandy beaches, or bikinis, which was lucky – I hate sand and I haven`t worn a bikini in years. My destination was Kesennuma, a port on the tsunami-hit Pacific coast.
It was not my first visit. But after an 18 month absence, with only recent TV footage as a guide, it might as well have been: the port resembled a bombsite.
But it was not all doom and gloom. Reconstruction work has begun, and amongst the bleak rubble, a lovely lady was waiting to serve me a plate of juicy sea pineapple.
The sea pineapple was served in a special place. A news story had alerted me to a suitable day-trip destination: Fukko Yataimura, a cluster of temporary eateries near the shoreline. They opened last November with the aim of helping accelerate the port’s mammoth reconstruction task.
They have a big job. Half the city was eaten by the tsunami. Inside the tsunami’s bitemark, buildings just above sea level around the harbour were all swallowed up. Above the waves, buildings on the hillside were left untouched. The bottom half of the city is missing.
I hired a bicycle from the tourist information, a small building on the hill outside the train station. A friendly girl inside gave me a map and simple directions to Yataimura: go straight down the hill.
It was easy to find. A square enclosure of pre-fab buildings, Yataimura stands amongst rubble. Run by locals, the stalls sell local products. Inside, the staff are welcoming, the seating simple and orderly – cocoons of comfort.
I visited three stalls, staying a total of three hours. Three hours?! Well, I felt obliged to eat and drink to help Kesennuma’s reconstruction. Eating helps the homeless. This maybe a difficult argument to make, but I did not have anything better to do.
This was my first encounter with hoya on a plate, but I had seen its submerged sister a few days before at Aquamarine Fukushima. A hoya farm damaged by the tsunami appears in this BBC video on a British-led volunteer group.
Attitudes to hoya vary. In the UK, this marine vomit has become a sinister invader, a plague stalking the Kent coastline, unloved and uneaten. But for Kesennuma, hoya is a cute, grinning mascot and a tasty and popular souvenir.
Sitting on the plate, hoya looks nice: orange, tender and moist. I tried some. Too rubbery for biting, it needed chewing. The flavour was bland – until soaked in vinegar, when it mysteriously took on the flavour of er……..vinegar.
While not the nicest food I have eaten, hoya is one of the more interesting – in one mouthful three foods: sea pineapple, sea squirt and marine vomit – all of which are the symbol of a troubled but inspiring town.