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Foreign Volunteers Japan – Rebuilding Local Businesses – Kotobukiya

Rebuilding Local Businesses – Kotobukiya

This article is much belated, but I wanted look back on some of the local businesses that we’ve helped rebuild alongside the It’s Not Just Mud and On the Road NPOs.

Mr and Mrs Sato at the renovated Kotobukiya Sake Shop, Ishinomaki City

The following photo is one I took on March 22nd, during the third FVJ delivery of goods to Ishinomaki. The brown building behind the overturned van is the Kotobukiya sake shop.  This shop is located only 1 block away from the Kitakami river, and only 1km inland from the ocean.

Kotobukiya Sake Shop on March 22nd 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Sato are now 74 and 71 years old, and the shop itself is 85 years old, started by Mr. Sato’s father. Mr. Sato told us that he started working at the shop when he was 15, so he’s invested just over 60 years of his life into this business.

Being so close to the river, the tsunami easily overwhelmed the small shop. Ripping through the first story, ripping off wall-panels, destroying their wares, damaging the walls, and leaving the building covered in bacteria-infested tsunami mud.

The Sato’s managed to escape the tsunami, by running across the street to the top of a 6-story car park, where they saw the tsunami not only rip through their small shop, but also overwhelm most of the downtown area of their beloved Ishinomaki.

Kotobukiya on the right, and the car park where the Sato's escaped on the left.

Following the disaster, they were moved into a refugee shelter for the first few months, and then into Temporary Housing starting in July. With their business serving not only as their main source of income, but also as their social hub and hobbies as well, Mr. and Mrs. Sato were determined to get Kotobukiya up and running again as soon as possible.  Being 75 years old already, they were planning to retire by 80, so with a 5-year countdown, there wasn’t a moment to lose.

It’s Not Just Mud sent in a team in September to assist with the gutting and clearing of the shop premises. This involved tearing down the tsunami soaked walls, stripping out the insulation, as well as removing the floorboards and the tsunami sludge below. In October, the team returned to replace the insulation and put up new walls. In November, On the Road joined the project to paint the new premises, and rebuild some of the furniture.

Yannick from INJM surveying the gutting of Kotobukiya

Not to make this entry personal, but I received a call from my family in Canada in October while working on the Kotobukiya restoration that my own grandfather had passed away suddenly.  As a full-time volunteer, I couldn’t afford to fly back for the funeral, and had a difficult time emotionally dealing with the news.

We were still working on the clean-out phase of the shop, and decided to focus on the scrubbing and cleaning of furniture that could potentially be re-used. Shortly after the call from Canada, I focused on cleaning off the caked mud from the mahogany Butsudan private family shrine that the Sato’s had originally set-up to honor their own parents. During this time, Mrs. Sato expressed a bit of surprise that I was cleaning the Butsudan, especially after pointing out that her parents and my grandparents would have been fighting on different sides of WWII.I didn’t mention the phone call, but somehow working on the shop, helping fix up the butsudan, and hearing her tales of WWII (during which my grandfather was a fighter pilot) provided some consolation.

She pointed out however, that unfortunately the Butsudan would have to be scrapped, since the wood was warped, and may contain bacterial traces. As a result, the local temple was scheduled to come by that afternoon to pick up wooden shrines from the neighborhood for a respectful burning ceremony.  As a gesture of respect, I decided to continue to clean off the mud from the shrine, and I believe that Mrs. Sato appreciated that gesture.

Following the completion of Kotobukiya’s restoration, I’ve made sure to bring visitors to Ishinomaki to the shop for picking up locally produced sake. They have both surviving bottles from sake brewers that lost their factories in the tsunami, as well as newer first-run bottles from some of those same sake brewers that decided to rebuild new factories in Ichinonoseki.

If you visit Ishinomaki, please stop by Kotobukiya, and pick up a bottle or two from the Sato family.


Kotobukiya Liquor Shop is located in the Chuo District of Ishinomaki and is open daily from 7am to 8pm. The address is as follows:

986-0822    石巻市中央2丁目11-5

986-0822     Ishinomaki-shi, Chuo-ku, 2-chome 11-5

They can be reached by phone at:



The following photo is a thank-you letter written by the Sato’s to It’s Not Just Mud, with the translation posted below:

Thank You letter from the Satos

We were deeply moved and very happy that we managed to reopen our shop on 20th December after 9months. We cannot put into words how much the volunteers helped us and how much hope they gave us.

After the disaster on 11th March, we stayed in the evacuee centre for three months and in temporary housing for another three months. Through this depressing experience, we started to strongly feel that we wanted something to live for and would like to live life to the fullest while developing relationships with other people even if it would take many years.  But we, as a couple of 74 and 71 years old weren’t sure what to do. At that time the volunteers warmly extended a helping hand.

While we were working towards a goal together with the young people, we realised that everything was turning in a good direction and our spirits lifted. We laughed a lot every day and the cheerful laughter started to echo throughout the empty town. We laughed a lot, talked a lot and had a lot of fun.

Young people and foreigners gave us warm hugs calling us “father” and “mother” (and “grandpa” and “grandma”). We didn’t have this custom before, but it was very natural.

We almost gave up restarting our liqueur shop which had been open for 85 years, but we managed to revive it thanks to the heartfelt support from the volunteers and we deeply appreciate it.

After we lost everything in the disaster, the young volunteers showed us people’s kindness and the importance of personal relationships. They suggested we put a table and chairs as a tea drinking corner so that volunteers could come and have a rest when they had time or when they were tired and showed us to help and support with other local people.

Thank you so much for your warm support. Thank you for giving an old couple hope. We wish every volunteer a happy and peaceful life from the bottom of our heart.


Finally, here is a video produced by Paul Johannessen, Ivan Kovac and Jeffrey Jousan during their Jan 21st visit to Ishinomaki, also featuring a visit to Kotobukiya.



Mrs. Sato checking out the progress on Kotobukiya repairs.

Please visit the Satos when you are in Ishinomaki and support their business. Tell them how you came to know of them.. they will love to hear from you!



  1. David Slater says:

    This is great! The stories about businesses needs to be told. They are complex, like all businesses, but once people understand the situation, and how much one can do to rebuild, some positive changes can be made.

    Nice work on the relief and the video. Thanks.


  2. sita says:

    hi, i really want to know further information how to join/participate on this event ? please send me email,thankyou so much