Japan’s disaster island Okushiri, where a winery is helping disaster recovery
The vineyard at the remote Okushiri Winery is keeping elderly residents of the island employed. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
On a picturesque island off the coast of Hokkaido in northern Japan, elderly workers are hand-picking grapes for what is perhaps one of the world’s most remote wineries.
It’s hard work — just four people picking 25 hectares of vineyards — and because it’s close to the sea, salt and wind make life even harder.
This is more than just a business — it’s been a lifeline that’s kept the elderly employed and given this island hope for the future.
The picturesque island is still coming to terms with the devastation of a tsunami 25 years ago. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
Twenty-five years ago a devastating earthquake and tsunami killed hundreds of locals — and now the island is facing a new battle for survival.
The town — once a shining beacon in the recovery effort — is increasingly becoming a case study in how not to recover after a disaster.
The tsunami decimated Okushiri’s fishing industry and wiped out much of the town.
Mitsuo Kudo, 71, still remembers seeing his home island flattened by the tsunami, which killed hundreds of people. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Mitsuo Kudo, 71, remembers the day vividly.
“I got on a helicopter … and when I saw the view from the sky there was nothing left in the town,” he said.
“It was terrible and I got tears in my eyes — it was just so terrible.”
The island received — and spent millions — on building new infrastructure and it jump-started a short-term construction boom.
Once that finished, the island turned to a new industry to keep the ageing residents employed.
The island is on the same latitude as the famed Bordeaux wine-growing region in France. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Because Okushiri is on the same latitude as the Bordeaux wine region in France, growing grapes seemed like a good idea.
The owner liked wine and decided to give it a go, even though many islanders didn’t believe they could actually make it.
Hitoshi Sugakawa is now in charge of the winery and said many of the people involved in rebuilding the island were looking for new jobs.
Chiyoshi Murai has been working at the vineyard on Okushiri Island for the past 20 years. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
“Most of the people who were involved in the reconstruction work were in their 40s and 50s at the time,” he said.
“Ten years later the recovery work finished and most of those people became old.
“It’s difficult for elderly people to find new jobs — so the winery hired them to grow grapes as it was work which elderly people could do and they were able to work until retirement.”
Local government officials come to this island to learn about how it has recovered since its disaster.
It’s information that’s especially pertinent now given Japan’s summer of destruction.
Hundreds of people died in floods, landslides, typhoons and earthquakes this year.
Takumi Shinmura, the Mayor of Okushiri, said the island is a lesson in disaster management and recovery. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
Okushiri’s Mayor Takumi Shinmura is regularly contacted for advice and is happy to share the lessons he’s learnt.
“We are facing financial difficulties, declining birth rate and an ageing population,” he said.
“For disaster management, we built the town 25 years ago with a concept that people could evacuate to a higher ground within five minutes — wherever they are on the island.
“But 25 years later people are ageing and they’re not able to evacuate within five minutes.”
The steep tsunami evacuation stairs are unsuitable for the island’s elderly residents, stopping them from evacuating quickly. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
The island is surrounded by steep stairs for evacuation in the event of another tsunami — but the ageing population means many would struggle to climb them.
Mr Shinmura said the disaster-hit areas which received money from the government or donations should have been more future-focused.
“They should look ahead to the future — five years, 10 years — from restoration and use the money for long-term industries or education,” he said.
“I think it’s necessary to save that money from our experience.”
Young people have left the island in droves — the high wages from the reconstruction did not compare to a hard life at sea.
The main town of Okushiri Island was largely rebuilt after the devastating earthquake and tsunami. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Back at the Okushiri Winery, keeping the island alive is placing an incredible burden on its manager.
Elderly people who worked growing grapes are starting to retire — and Mr Sugakawa says it’s a hard time for the island.
“I think it’s a turning point of how one town can continue to survive like that,” he said.
“I think we can survive longer if we can succeed as a private company.
“Our goal is to have a breakthrough for the region — the work at the winery is farming but I would like to make it more tourism-focused.”
The township is hoping the winery can be a driving force in the recovery of the island. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)