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Single pine tree a sign of hope amid devastation in Japanese city

By Brian Walker, CNN
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Lone tree withstands Japan tsunami
  • It's the last surviving pine in what was once a sprawling grove of more than 70,000
  • The trees towered above the white sandy shore and made it a popular tourist destination
  • They were planted along the shore about 300 years ago by villagers

Rikuzentakata, Japan (CNN) -- More than a month after Japan's killer tsunami struck, there's not much standing in Rikuzentakata, and even fewer things still alive.

But across a shattered bridge and among the scattered concrete shells and piles of debris, there's a surprising sight along the tsunami-battered coast -- a single towering pine tree.

It's the last surviving one in what was once a sprawling grove of more than 70,000 that towered above the white sandy shore and made it a popular tourist destination.

They were planted along the shore some 300 years ago by villagers to shelter them from winds, waves and erosion from Pacific storms that regularly crash to shore.

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But they were no protection from the March 11 tsunami waves, which reached more than 10-meters high and washed several kilometers inland.

At least 10% of the 23,000 people who once called the town home are dead or missing, says the town's mayor, Futoshi Toba.

There are huge logs now piled up along the shore, while tree trunks litter the coast, many snapped in half by the waves.

Those trees that once protected the city instead added to the destruction.

Residents in a crowded local shelter recall seeing the giant trees cracking off and sweeping like battering rams through the town.

Now the people of the town see the last pine as a symbol of hope and renewal.

But first they have to save it.

Salt water, oil and chemicals have soaked into the earth all around its roots.

Its lower branches have all been torn off, and it is oozing sap but still holding on to the pine needles and cones some 40 feet up.

The town leaders have begun to plan for keeping it alive. They are monitoring its health and even considering digging up the soil surrounding it and replacing it with fresh dirt.

There's talk in the government of making it a sort of living monument to the disaster's incredible toll.

For now, though, the "tree of hope" is a daily reminder for the people picking among the ruins for water-logged photo albums or other reminders of their past that there is still a future for Rikuzentakata and maybe a return of the trees and people there.

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