Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.

In 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck eastern Japan. In the city of Kamaishi, buildings were swept away and over a thousand people perished or disappeared, and in its rebuilding, the city chose to prioritize a rugby stadium. Former rugby player Ash Bhardwaj went to find out why.

“We don’t say ‘we survived’,” says Iwasaki Akiko, “We say ‘life is given to us.’”

I’m standing next to Houraikan, Iwasaki’s ryokan or traditional Japanese inn. In front of it, a line of trees sit atop a sea wall, which drops five meters to a narrow beach and into the still water of a Pacific bay.

But I’m looking at a red line on the inn’s second storey. It shows the high water line of the 10-meter tsunami that crashed over the wall and submerged the inn on March 11, 2011. Behind it, a path climbs steeply up the wooded mountain, passing a stone pillar dedicated to a Japanese god of water.

“That was the path we escaped up,” Iwasaki says, smiling all the time, “The building survived the tsunami and, when the water receded, we became a shelter for people who had lost their houses. In times like this, every person has a position, a role to play—just like in rugby.”