One day in early March, Kiku found Miko-chan sitting on the front step to the Bamboo Bathhouse, lost in thought. Not wanting to disturb her, he sat quietly next to her, watching the street, until finally, she said softly “Kiku-kun, I need to tell you all something…”
Kiku nodded solemnly. The friends had met first in 2014, shortly after Kiku’s arrival in Tokyo from England. He had spent weeks travelling on trains, exploring the city, when one day whilst wandering through a part of Tokyo station, he had noticed the little shrine maiden doll sitting under the sign to the Lost and Found office.
The area around the JR East Lost and Found office in Tokyo Station was where Miko-chan had been living for three years, after her owner had left her behind on a Tokyo train. Tokyo has one of the most efficient lost property systems, with station specific offices keeping items for a week before sending them on to the four-storey warehouse of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Lost and Found Centre. Miko-chan had run away whilst being transported to the warehouse and decided to stick around in Tokyo Station.
After visiting her regularly at the station for a few months, and sensing that she might be ready to move on, Kiku had asked if she would accompany him on his travels, and the pair had then explored the city together looking for a home, until they met Mama Kōjin at Oji Shrine on New Year’s eve 2014, and after this found a home at the Bamboo Bathhouse, where they had lived ever since.
As they sat there on the front step, Miko-chan continued, “I remembered her clearly this morning – the little girl who owned me.” Kiku had never asked Miko-chan about her former owner before worrying that he would upset her, but suspecting she knew more. He waited for her to continue. “This morning Mama Kōjin was watching a programme about a famous shrine in Kyoto and seeing the shrine maidens brought back memories. My owner was eight years old, and wanted to be a shrine maiden when she grew up. That’s why she had me – I remember she would tell me all about the duties of a miko and the ceremonial dances they perform. Her name was Rie.”
Kiku could see she was shaking slightly with the emotion of the memories. “When I saw the date on today’s calendar, I knew I had to tell you all why she never came back for me.”
Later that day, the pair sat with Boss Panda and Mama Kōjin whilst Miko-chan talked about what had happened. “I had lived with Rie in a town in Miyagi Prefecture, in the north east of the main island of Japan. She had come south to Tokyo for a weekend in early March with her parents when I was accidentally left on a busy train. I was taken to the Lost & Found centre after being found on the train seat, and I remember that the big calendar on the wall of the office said Monday 7th March 2011.”
At the mention of this date, Boss Panda glanced at Mama Kōjin, fearing what might come next. “I was put on a shelf whilst I waited to be reclaimed. On Thursday of the same week, I heard one of the human workers talking on the telephone with someone who was asking about a doll left on a train. He asked for some details and said he would wait for an email with a photo. I was happy, thinking I would soon be reunited with Rie. The very next day however, Tokyo felt the tremors of a huge earthquake to the east of Japan, and many of the workers in the lost property office were put to work on other duties in the days that followed.”
Miko swallowed hard, and Boss Panda put his arm around her, telling her she didn’t need to continue if she wasn’t ready, but after a pause she began again. “When life in Tokyo went back to normal there was no more news from my owners and I was taken in a truck to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Lost and Found Center, but escaped on the way there. I wanted to try to find my owners myself so came back to Tokyo Station and one night snuck into the lost and found office to use a computer when the workers had gone home. I knew that Rie would have been at school on the day of the earthquake. I found out from an online newspaper article that Rie’s school had destroyed by a tsunami wave, and that she had been killed along with her mother, who had tried to collect her from school and get her to safety. That’s why I was never returned.”
The four friends sat quietly thinking of the little girl and her mother and all those lost on that sad day. Miko-chan felt so lucky to have found her new family and said “I wanted you all to know, so that we can remember Rie and all of those who lost their lives, and I will continue to do my best to become a real shrine maiden somehow…”
That evening, on the sixth anniversary of the disaster, the residents of the Bamboo Bathhouse said their prayers for Rie, the little girl who was lost, and her doll who was found.
The story of what happened to Miko-chan’s owner is fictional, but inspired by real events. The Great East Japan earthquake struck on Friday March 11, 2011 at 2.46pm local time with a magnitude of 9.0. It was the most powerful earthquake to affect Japan and the fourth largest since modern record keeping began. The epicentre was on the seabed approximately 70km off the eastern coast of the main island of Japan and caused tsunami waves reaching heights of 40.5 metres (133ft), some of which reached as far as 10km inland. The tsunami caused the meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant and the nuclear complex remains an issue to this day. As of 2015, 15,984 deaths were confirmed, with around 2500 still missing and over 200,000 people relocated.
Many schools in the town of Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture were completely destroyed, with tsunamis reaching 10 metres in height sweeping almost 5km (3 miles) inland from the coast. The Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, which is 4km inland lost 74 of 108 students and 10 of 13 staff, as they evacuated too late and were crossing a bridge over a river near the school when the tsunami reached them at 3.36pm. The tragedy has been the subject of court proceedings by families who blame the school for not evacuating when the earthquake information was received – other towns similarly affected lost no students because they had emergency procedures in place. The school has been preserved by the city as a memorial, and as a site for disaster education.
(information gathered from Japan Today, The Japan Times and Wikipedia)
Japan’s lost and found culture has led to projects reuniting people with the objects they lost during the 2011 tsunami. One initiative called ‘Memory Salvage’ recovered photographs swept away by the water, restored and returned them to their owners. This led to ‘The Lost and Found Project” (http://lostandfound311.jp/en/), where badly damaged photos are used to tell the story of what happened around the world.