A ray of hope for Japan's tsunami-hit businesses

In the cold of a Japanese winter, just before dawn, a 100-year-old factory rumbles to the sounds of rice being washed, polished and steamed.

Set on a hill above the coastal town of Kesennuma in the north-eastern prefecture of Miyagi, its machines gurgle, clunk, hiss and rattle as they get tonnes of rice ready to be made into sake.

Brewing the clear, strong spirit is a long process that was brought to a sudden halt last year when the deadly tsunami smashed into and over the city below.

In a small city of just over 70,000 people, 1,032 were killed, 326 more are missing and more than 15,000 homes were destroyed.

As we drive up the hill, it is still evident how far the wave came a year ago.

"It stopped just a few metres before reaching the factory," says Kaichiro Saito, whose family built the sake factory in 1906.

The Kakuboshi factory was untouched, but Mr Saito saw his company's historic shop in the city washed away.

Since then, much like the rest of the Miyagi, Mr Saito has been trying to rebuild as quickly as he can.

Despite numerous challenges including power failure, within a month, he managed to produce sake - and named it tomoshibi.

"It means a ray of hope for the city known for its fishing industry," explains the fifth generation sake-maker.

The first batch of this specially made sake sold out immediately.

One year on, Mr Saito says his business is busier than ever.

"Not only people in this area, but people in Tokyo and other big cities have been supporting us so we are getting a lot more orders."

Resilient spirit

Half of the city, however, is still in ruins. Soon, all the collapsed buildings will be bulldozed.

While it is much cleaner compared with a few months after the tsunami, it will take many more years to rebuild the city.

But in the middle of a vast field, there is a small restaurant which serves Japanese noodle ramen.

With just over 20 customers, the place is full.

"I am 69, you see, I thought maybe I should just retire," says Tomohiko Takahashi, who reopened the restaurant at the end of December.

"The water came up to the second floor where we live so the entire ground floor was totally destroyed," he recalls.

"But at least the building was still here and people encouraged us to reopen.

"I thought there'd be no customers because the city feels so empty but we've been very busy and people tell me how happy they are to see us reopen which makes me happy, too."

Step by step, local businesses are getting back on their feet.

Red tape

Bureaucracy from the government, however, is slowing the recovery, says Takahira Ogawa of Standard and Poor's.

"The government has been very slow in deciding about the budget and where to spend the money," he says.

"Once the rebuilding begins, it will boost Japan's overall economic growth, too.

"However, because of the red tape, different ministries are having a turf war," he adds.

Image caption Half of Kesennuma in Miyagi prefecture is still covered in rubble from the tsunami

The Reconstruction Agency was finally set up in February. Mr Ogawa says the authorities need to speed up the reconstruction efforts to ensure a stable recovery of the country's economy and businesses.

But support is coming from elsewhere, including some office workers 300 miles (480km) south of Kesennuma.

In Tokyo, they are ending their day with a few glasses of sake from the north-east of Japan.

The special restaurant in Ginza is called Reconstruction Support Bar and everything on the menu is from the affected region.

"Sake from the north-east is delicious," says one of the customers, Shuhei Ichino.

"We have to be careful not to drink too much," he laughs as he pours more sake into his friends' cups.

All the money that they spend will be donated to the three prefectures - Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima.

And their cheer is felt far in the north.

"We are forever grateful for all the support that we've been getting," says sake-maker Mr Saito.

"But I hope people will continue to help us even after the one-year mark."