KUMANO,. In the devastated Japanese town of Kumano, Kosuke Kiyohara sat quietly, watching rescue workers push through the debris of battered homes and waiting for news of his missing sister and nephews.
“I have asked my family to prepare for the worst,” the 38-year-old said quietly, sitting across from a house that had been ripped apart and tossed on its side by a huge landslide.
“I haven’t been able to reach her phone since Friday night.”
Dozens of people remain missing across parts of central and western Japan ravaged by days of record rainfall that has caused flooding and landslides and killed at least 100 people.
Kiyohara’s 44-year-old sister and her two young sons were still missing beneath the wreckage of what was once a modern neighbourhood in Kumano, a town in Hiroshima known for brushmaking.
Her husband had already been rescued and taken to hospital, but there was no sign of the woman and their children.
Kiyohara, who looked exhausted, had trekked to the area from his nearby home in a neighbouring area that was relatively untouched by the disaster.
“I first came here on Saturday, and I immediately thought about the worst case scenario,” he said.
“I just have to wait,” he added, as his father milled around restlessly, watching rescue workers including police, firemen and troops.
“I wish she could have fled sooner.”
This morning, days of rain finally eased, and the bright sunlight laid bare the destruction caused by the rains.
In Kumano, the downpours loosened earth on the surrounding hillsides, and sent multiple waves of mud crashing down onto the homes below.
The road to the affected area remained impassable, but handfuls of residents made it back, escorted by rescue workers or troops.
Slim chances for survivors
Some burst into tears, cradling their faces in their hands as they saw the remains of their district.
The sounds of diggers and chainsaws being used to break up fallen trees cut through the air, and a dog barked from inside a house.
Around 100 people were working to move downed power poles and break up larger pieces of debris, including entire homes that had been ripped up and tossed around.
Rescue workers said it was still possible that survivors could be found, but acknowledged the odds were getting longer.
“It has been three days… It’s possible that survivors will be found, but as the days pass the likelihood becomes slimmer,” a soldier at the scene told AFP.
“We are removing debris and destroyed houses because there is a possibility that remains might be trapped underneath them,” added the soldier, who declined to give his name.
“We have no idea how long it is going to take. We are also digging manually. If it rains again, another disaster could occur.”
A terrifying escape
Naoaki Ogawa, 69, was among the luckier residents returning Monday, his home still standing and apparently undamaged.
But he described a terrifying last-minute escape on Friday night, as the landslide hit.
He was at home with his wife, adult daughter and nine-year-old grandson when they saw a wave of mud rush down towards the neighbouring house, carrying vehicles and trees along with it.
“Right before the first wave, I heard a very loud, rumbling sound from the mountains,” he said.
“We immediately jumped in the car.”
But the sole road out of the neighbourhood was already clogged with people trying to flee, and flying rocks began to hit the car.
“I turned the car to the right, and saw another wave of mud bulldoze down right where we were and sweep away three cars that were in front of me.”
“I have lived here for more than 20 years, but there has never been something like this. Never. I was so scared. We were all scared.”
With no way out, the family stayed in the car until rescuers arrived later that night, and moved them to a shelter.
On Saturday, Ogawa’s birthday, they moved to a relative’s house.
“It was the best birthday ever. I could have died at 68 years old and 364 days,” he said.
Seeing his home, the laundry still hanging from a line on the balcony, Ogawa said he had mixed feelings.
“My house was okay. But I can’t be just happy. What about my neighbours?” he said.
“I want to go back to my home and live a normal life, but I’m also afraid that this could happen again.”
When he returned to his home on Monday, he found his mobile phone inside, full of missed calls from friends and family worried about his whereabouts.
“I forgot to bring it with me,” he said.
“So many people called. I want to tell them that I am okay. I am well.”