Photo/IllutrationTwo motorcycles that survived the 2011 tsunami are on display at the Tsunami Harley Museum in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture. (Eiji Shimura)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

YAMAMOTO, Miyagi Prefecture--When Masataka Naruke saw a vehicle buried among the debris left by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, he immediately recognized it.

It was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, although the right handlebar was missing and a part of the automaker’s logo was peeled off.

Naruke, an automobile dealer and repair shop owner here, knew the battered Harley belonged to a man in Yamamoto who had come to his shop to have it overhauled.

It was too painful for Naruke to see his client’s beloved vehicle scrapped, so he decided to keep it with the owner’s permission.

Today, that motorcycle along with another Harley-Davidson dug out of the debris have found a second life here at the Tsunami Harley Museum, which opened to the public on April 21.

The choppers stand tall as a moving tribute to the loss and miracle that local residents experienced after the tragedy.

It was back-breaking work for Naruke, 65, to remove the rubble of collapsed houses and trees piled up on top of each other in the coastal area of Miyagi Prefecture. He toiled hard so that his hometown could move forward with rehabilitation and reconstruction in the aftermath of a deadly tsunami triggered by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011.

Naruke worked with heavy equipment to haul up vehicles from the debris that accumulated in Yamamoto, a small town facing the Pacific Ocean.

Together with others in the same business, Naruke removed a total of 2,150 automobiles and 250 motorcycles, one by one, from the ground.

BIKE DRIFTED 6,500 KM TO CANADA

During that time, news involving another motorcycle belonging to a resident of Yamamoto grabbed headlines and revved up the hearts of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts around the world.

In April 2012, locals found a container washed up on the shores of British Columbia in western Canada.

Inside was a Harley-Davidson Night Train model with a Miyagi license plate. The motorcycle was apparently swept up by the tsunami and drifted across the Pacific Ocean to Canada over a little more than a year.

The container’s door was missing, but the motorcycle retained its distinctive features.

News of the “miracle” rapidly spread across the world, and soon the owner was identified; Ikuo Yokoyama, an employee of the Yamamoto town office.

Yokoyama bought the Night Train in 2008 and used the container as the motorcycle’s garage.

The distance between Yokoyama’s home in Yamamoto and the Canadian shore was about 6,500 kilometers.

Touched by the story, Harley-Davidson Motor Co.’s U.S. headquarters in Wisconsin offered to repair the bike and return it to Yokoyama free of charge.

But Yokoyama had a better idea.

“I’d rather have motorcycle enthusiasts around the world to know about the tragedy of the 2011 disaster,” he told the company.

Yokoyama donated the motorcycle to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, where it has been on display as a special exhibit since October 2012 among other famous historic motorcycles.

The museum decided not to “clean” the scars and bruises that Yokoyama’s Night Train bears and leave them as a constant reminder of the deadly tsunami.

LIFE IS A MIRACLE

Naruke paid attention to the sequence of events surrounding his fellow Yamamoto resident’s beloved motorcycle and how the world positively responded to the story.

The fact that Yamamoto is the birthplace of the “miracle” inspired Naruke, who had been concerned about the future of the small town.

It occurred to Naruke that the Harley-Davidson motorcycle he dug out of the debris could also become a tribute to the disaster and potentially help revitalize the town, which suffered a sharp population decline.

Yamamoto at the time had about 12,000 residents, which was 4,000 less than its pre-disaster population.

Naruke launched an organization planning for economic development in Yamamoto and started knocking on the doors of local businesses to call for contributions.

Soon he collected about 3 million yen ($27,700), enough to build a museum for the motorcycle.

The Tsunami Harley Museum features two motorcycles, one that Naruke’s client owned, and another Harley-Davidson with a sidecar that was dug out of the tsunami debris by his peer in the neighboring town of Watari.

Like the museum in Milwaukee did, Naruke decided to keep the motorcycles as they were when they were retrieved from the rubble, except removing the sand and dust.

As time passes, the scratched-up motorcycles’ bodies will continue to rust.

Outside the museum, Naruke set up a signboard with the message: “Life is miracle.”

Naruke dreamed about the day when bikers across the nation would take a road trip to visit the museum and feel the progress toward recovery that the small coastal town had made.

SHOWING UP ON 200 BIKES

His dream came true on the museum’s opening day.

Fellow riders from all over the country, including Tokyo, Fukushima Prefecture and as far as Kumamoto Prefecture, came to attend the ceremonial opening event.

The museum’s parking lot was packed with about 200 Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

“I have always wanted to visit Yamamoto,” one biker said.

“I’d love to go on a motorcycle tour through the disaster-stricken area,” another attendee said.

The museum is located along Route 6, which connects central Tokyo all the way to Sendai via Chiba, Ibaraki and Fukushima prefectures.

Adjacent to the museum is a facility that sells farm and marine products of Yamamoto, such as strawberries and surf clams, attracting visitors and local shoppers as well.

Yokoyama passed along a special message for the museum, which was read on his behalf at the opening ceremony.

“I lost my father, older brother and younger brother in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster,” Yokoyama said in the message. “But I got married the following year, and I was just blessed with my third child last year. When my children grow up, I want to lead a life on my motorcycle like I used to.”

Eight years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami, but scars and damage are still visible and scattered around the Tohoku region.

“Objects can make a powerful statement and stand as a legacy to show the force of the tsunami,” said Tamotsu Higuchi, a vice mayor of Yamamoto, who attended the museum’s opening ceremony.

Higuchi, 48, lost his 88-year-old grandmother and 65-year-old mother in the tsunami. Both were in Natori, a coastal city just north of Yamamoto in Miyagi Prefecture.

Higuchi has been worried that the memories of the disaster and the lessons learned may eventually fade.

“ 'Run, by all means, when an earthquake comes!’ It is our responsibility to have more people who can pass that message on,” Higuchi said. “The museum can play an important role in it.”