Today, I’d like to take some time to tell you about one of the places in Kesennuma that I keep coming back to, my home away from home: Guesthouse Kakehashi.
Guesthouse Kakehashi began in 2014, as a project of my friend Atsu who first came to volunteer in Kesennuma during his third year of college. In the years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, Kesennuma, and other tsunami-stricken towns were met with an influx of support from all over Japan and around the world. Many college students like Atsu came to Kesennuma as part of large volunteer groups who would work with the locals in small reconstruction projects across the city.
These young volunteers however, were coming to a town in the midst of a housing crisis. More than 15,000 homes were destroyed in Kesennuma alone, and over the third of residents were displaced. Many residents were forced to live in makeshift, prefabricated shelters, organized into blocks on publicly-owned lands, such as school grounds.
As a port town famous for beautiful beaches and a local food culture to rival the best in Japan, Kesennuma has welcomed visitors from all over the world even before the disaster. However, many of the budget accommodations in the city, mishuku (Japanese-style family-run B&B) were destroyed in the tsunami, and many of the those that were still operational were at full capacity, serving long-stay construction workers who were working to rebuild Kesennuma’s roads and other infrastructure. Lacking any better options for lodging, volunteer groups would often camp in tents or sleep in their vehicles.
In addition to issues that were created by the disaster, however, Kesennuma also grapples with many of the same challenges that face rural communities across Japan. One of these challenges is the excess of “akiya,” or vacant houses. Kesennuma too, is plagued with tens, if not hundreds, of vacant houses.
In these two independent problems: a lack of adequate accommodation for volunteer groups, and an excess of vacant housing falling into constant disrepair, Atsu recognized an opportunity. Why not combine the problems and develop a solution which tackles both? Atsu was able to acquire one of these vacant houses, and with some help from volunteer groups, he was able to repair it and restore it to a state in which was livable. Over the course of two years, he hosted thousands of cash-strapped students from all over Japan, in the original Guesthouse Kakehashi.
In 2016, however, Atsu began to realize that as the recovery of the city progressed, there would be less work for volunteer groups to come and help out with. If there was no longer a need for volunteers, did this mean that the thousands of young people who had come to Kesennuma every year in support of the town’s recovery would no longer have a reason to visit? Faced with uncertainty about whether he would be able to host enough people to stay in business, Atsu considered closing Kakehashi altogether. However, an outpouring of support from many of the students who had been repeat visitors to the guesthouse made him realize once again, that the work he was doing was meaningful. Those students asked him to continue to serve as a bridge between Kesennuma and the world, because as long as Kakehashi existed, they would have a reason to come back to the city. Thus, the road to the next stage for was paved; Kakehashi would evolve from a home for volunteer groups to a hostel to connect young people from around the world to Tohoku.
In order to re-open as a proper traveler’s hostel, Atsu acquired another vacant house in a more accessible location. He again, called on his network of student volunteers to help renovate this home, which would become the new Guesthouse Kakehashi.
And in January of 2017, Kakehashi re-opened! The new Kakehashi serves as an izakaya and traveler’s hostel at night and a café where local moms can bring their young children and read picture books together during the day.
Now you might be wondering where exactly my connection with Kakehashi begins. As I’ve mentioned before, I worked in Kesennuma from 2014 to 2016 as a JET Program ALT. But in my first stint here, I had never once heard the name “Guesthouse Kakehashi.” Last spring, when I was given the chance to come back and work in Kesennuma again, one of the first things I did was ask my new boss if he could help me start looking for an inexpensive place to live. As I mentioned before, the complicated housing situation in Kesennuma can make this a bit difficult. My boss had heard rumors of a bunch of young people living together at Kakehashi, so he recommend that I reach out to the staff there. A quick Google search and a look through the guesthouse’s website was enough to tell me that this place was a hostel, not a long-term housing solution. But without any other leads for housing options, I shot the staff an email and asked if it might be possible to live there.
I got a response from a girl named Momoko, who told me that Kakehashi was (as I had suspected), a traveler’s hostel without any options for long-term residence. She told me however, that as an extension of the Kakehashi project, they would soon start renovating a different house, which would serve as a home for young people who had moved to Kesennuma to work. She asked me if I’d like to join them. I would be helping renovate a 100 year-old Japanese house to live in with a bunch of people that I had never met before. That sounded just crazy enough to be really good fun, so I said yes!
For my first few weeks back in Kesennuma, I was shacking up at Kakehashi, and helping renovate the ancient house that would become our new home. After dinner each night, we’d stay up and talk about the kind of community we wanted to build together.
Weekends would be spent at the Guesthouse, eating and drinking with the local fishermen and whatever travelers happened to be stopping by. Before I realized it, the people at Kakehashi had become family for me.
A couple of weeks later, when we deemed our reclamation project good enough to move into, we started living at our new old house, which is just a 10 minute walk away from Kakehashi.
I lived in Kesennuma for two years working on the JET Program, but thanks to my friends at Kakehashi, I felt, for the first time that I was not only a resident of the city, but part of a community, too.
I think it’s hard to say you’ve traveled to a place if you haven’t had a chance to get to know the locals. Kakehashi is the kind of place where those interactions thrive.
Here, you’ll meet fishermen, construction workers, teachers, housewives and young people who have moved to Kesennuma from all over the world. And maybe spending a night eating, drinking and laughing together with some of these people will give you an idea of what makes this town so special.