Weathered stone markers recalling the deadly tsunamis of centuries past dot the sawtooth coastline of northeast Japan, serving as silent warnings from the ancestors.

One of the monuments on a wooded hillside marks the limit of the tiny village of Aneyoshi, whose residents now credit it with saving them on March 11 when a giant ocean wave smashed into the fishing cove below them.

“A house on high ground will lead to peace and happiness for posterity,” reads the inscription on the stone, which was erected after a massive tsunami in 1933 killed thousands along the rugged Pacific coast.

“Remember the calamity of the great tsunami. Never build houses from this point down.... No matter how many years pass, keep vigilance high,” says the ominous warning carved into the one-metre tall stone.

Before the 1933 disaster struck in the Japanese year of Showa 8, the small coastal community had also been obliterated in Meiji 29 (1896). The first tsunami left just two survivors, and the second only four.

After the Showa disaster, Aneyoshi was rebuilt on higher ground, above where the stone now stands, and the villagers, who have traditionally made a living by growing seaweed and bearded clams, have stayed there ever since.

Both past tsunamis were triggered by offshore quakes stronger than magnitude eight – massive tremors, but still smaller than the magnitude nine quake that struck below the seabed just over eight weeks ago.

The latest tectonic disaster sent water racing to a height of almost 39 metres here – the highest level ever recorded in Japan, according to a university study – as water was funnelled up between steep cliffsides.

While the population pressures of modern Japan make it inevitable that millions live in exposed coastal areas, the village of just 11 households has been able to follow the warnings from the past.

“To follow such a rule and live together like this is probably only possible in a small-size community,” said Kei Maekawa, 40, whose family comes from the Iwate prefecture village.

Elsewhere along the shattered coast, however, the wave reached unimagined heights that ripped away the old stone markers.

Isao Sasaki, 73, from Otsuchi, also in Iwate prefecture, said two stone monuments marking the 1896 and 1933 tsunamis used to stand outside his Japanese-style ryotei restaurant, now a pile of rubble.

“They were both as tall as myself,” said Mr Sasaki, who is about 1.7 metres tall, looking sadly at the debris.

“On the one from the Meiji tsunami, a poem was engraved in the rock, warning that we must run immediately after a quake.”

“Since childhood, we have been told horrifying stories about how people tried to survive tsunamis by tying themselves to wooden pillars with kimono obi belts. Dead bodies then piled up in a pond near here.”

Mr Sasaki’s sister Setsuko Koyama, 63, said that every time an earthquake hit, they would run outside to check the water inside a nearby well, because a falling water level is a precursor to a tsunami.

Despite the oral traditions and ancient wisdom, the fishing town of Otsuchi still lost more than 10 percent of its 15,000 people.

Even the tiny Aneyoshi community, where the hillside houses remain standing above the now calm sea, was not spared tragedy.

On the day of the calamity, a mother in her mid-30s rushed to pick up her three children from school and drive them to safety, following a seaside route – only for all of them to be swept away by the giant wave.

“The stone is becoming widely known as what saved our community from the tremendous tsunami, but there is a bright side and a dark side to it,” Mr Maekawa, the brother-in-law of one of the dead women, said.

“We lost four out of about 30 people. We cannot be that happy to talk about the wisdom from the stone.”

Meanwhile volunteers who have spent weekends shovelling it out of survivors’ half-wrecked homes have developed an intimate relationship with the muck that soils their overalls, gloves and workboots.

“It looks like layered chocolate cake, but it smells like a mix of saltwater and oil,” said Masato Arima, 35, a Tokyo project manager with a financial services firm, wearing a yellow hardhat and industrial facemask.

Joji Hiratsuka, a volunteer working in the devastated port town of Ishinomaki with aid group Nadia, has a different take on the stuff.

“It’s like rancid Jell-O. It’s black. You can’t describe the smell – oil, dead fish, everything. There’s petroleum from cars, boats and oil tanks. It’s not organic. It’s like the ocean, but in a bad way.”

Ishinomaki is littered with dramatic evidence of the March 11 quake and the monster wave it spawned that erased entire neighbourhoods here and left almost 25,000 people dead or missing along the shattered Pacific coast. Cars now stick out at odd angles from a graveyard, watched over silently by stone Buddhas. Fishing boats lie scattered amid broken houses. And a Statue of Liberty figure towers oddly over a debris-strewn river island.

But while bulldozers and cranes will eventually remove the large-scale wreckage of Japan’s epic catastrophe, clearing the mud from thousands of homes is a job that must be done by hand, one scoop at a time.

“Someone has to do it,” said Christine Lavoie-Gagnon, whose volunteer group Nadia (a name that means “Hope”) took more than 100 people by bus to the town in the just-ended “Golden Week” of public holidays.

“People here have had the shock of their lives, something that only happens once every 1,000 years,” she said. “They’re left with their sorrow and fatigue – and lots of mud in their houses.

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