Reconnecting with survivors of Japan's deadly tsunami
"DO you recognise any of these people?" I asked.
The shopkeeper carefully scrutinised the photo of a group of young runners on the front page of the newspaper.
"No," he replied.
I was in northern Japan in a demountable souvenir shop set amongst the rubble from the notorious '3-11' tsunami and I was holding a two-year old front page from Tweed's Daily News.
Two years earlier, I was a newspaper reporter hounding Gold Coast Marathon organisers for details on any Japanese entrants from tsunami-affected areas.
It looked like a fizzer for a while but eventually an email arrived saying three young men from Minami Sanriku - one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami - would be running and I would have a chance to talk with them before the race.
I had an advantage over other journalists interviewing the trio in that I could converse with them in their native tongue.
When I met Taito, Soma and Shota at the Gold Coast Convention Centre - the day before the marathon - they were exhausted after spending most of the day talking to a hungry media.
They were surprised when I addressed them in Japanese and looked relieved that they did not have to go through the hassle of talking via the interpreter.
The most talkative of the trio was the oldest, Taito a quietly-spoken high school student.
This young man, who saw his house destroyed before his eyes, shared some heart wrenching stories and told me that three months after the tsunami, they still did not know what happened to his grandfather.
Despite their lethargy and indifference to the attention, I managed to build up some rapport and they found my language ability and shorthand somewhat of a novelty.
They still grumbled when I asked them to jog for a photo in our newspaper.
That was the last time I saw them.
Two years later and I was in Osaka, Japan. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to track them down.
Other than knowing their names and hometown I had no contact details or real leads.
I did have my video camera, a modest supply of clothing and the front page of the newspaper with the photo of them jogging.
That is how I found myself at an Osaka railway station booking trains to Minami Sanriku.
"Are you sure there is a station there?" the station clerk asked me as he tapped on his keyboard looking at his monitor quite confused.
I suggested that maybe the station was on one of the lines that was destroyed by the tsunami.
"That could be the case," he said, "I'll book you tickets to Furukawa and from there you'll have to ask how to get to Minami Sanriku."
From Osaka it was an all-day trip that involved two bullet trains, four local trains and a bus.
It should not have involved a bus, but the tsunami destroyed the train line.
Minamisanriku is to 3-11 what ground zero is to 9-11.
Almost 10,000 people of the town's population of 17,000 were reported missing after the tsunami.
Videos of the mass of seawater dragging Minami Sanriku homes inland have flashed on screens across the world.
The scars are fresh and deep.
As I sat on the bus and started to see more and more of the tsunami's destruction, my mind raced through how I was going to find these young men.
I had no contact details. I could not even say for certain if they would still be there.
Eventually the bus rolled into Minami Sanriku and I saw a lot of familiar scenes.
The entire town was bare and flat except for mountains of concrete chunks and the odd building skeleton standing up defiantly.
Leveled debris crunched under my feet as I walked around what left of the town looking for leads.
It took almost a day but with the assistance of Mr Yonemori, a sympathetic stranger who offered to be my chauffeur, I eventually found the youngest of the three, Soma, at archery practice at the local high school.
Thankfully he remembered me and after a quick chat, he told me where he lived.
Thus I found myself knocking at the door of a temporary house in a tidy makeshift village near the junior high school asking for his older brother, Taito.
The door creaked open slightly to reveal part of a middle-aged man's face eyeing me suspiciously.
I explained who I was and why I was there before passing him the front page of the newspaper.
It was Taito's father and he eventually invited us inside.
After removing my shoes and walking inside I noticed the house had all the features of other Japanese homes I had been in: a kotatsu (heated Japanese coffee table), a flat screen television, a 'pod' coffee maker and flat cushions on the floor.
Proudly posted in the middle of the main the wall were pieces of memorabilia from the marathon.
A slightly-older Taito sat on one of the square cushions warming his legs under the kotatsu.
Now a trainee mechanic, he too had not forgotten the Japanese-speaking Australian journalist.
Over the next couple of hours as I sipped on bitter coffee as Taito's father walked me through the hardships he faced in the wake of the tsunami.
He was not happy that his sons were focused on a marathon in Australia while their hometown lay in ruins.
He did not know what they were thinking.
"Your boys were fine ambassadors in for Minami Sanriku," I told him.
"Many people were inspired by their determination."
He nodded slowly.
It was after his boys returned that his confusion turned to pride.
"They did well," he said simply before revealing that Taito's quick thinking kept an older relative alive.
"When I heard that Taito had pulled his grandmother to safety, that's when I realised that he had grown up into a responsible adult," he said with tears in his eyes.
Taito's father knew better than most about the sheer force of the wave.
He credited his own experience as a scuba diver for being alive today.
He was at work when the tsunami hit and found himself clinging onto a tree for his life.
Ultimately his arms gave way and he was dragged underwater for about three minutes.
"I saw cars above me. I really thought it was the end," he said.
Somehow he managed hold his breath and eventually surface.
Over the afternoon I heard a number of stories that made my jaw drop.
Shota, the third runner, also dropped around and the trio showed me the evacuation centre they stayed in, the hills where they trained and the land where their homes once stood.
I am not sure when or if I will ever visit them again in Minami Sanriku, but I like to think that the front page of the Daily News is now also posted on the living room wall.