April 10th, 2011
01:00 AM ET
By Paula Hancocks, CNN
Otsuchi, Japan (CNN) - The Otsuchi shrine looks out of place.
Beautifully intact, the ornate Shinto place of worship watches over kilometers of scorched devastation. It is almost the only building still standing in a sea of carnage.
Unscathed by an earthquake, a tsunami and a ferocious fire, some residents believe the shrine, set on a small hill, is blessed and was spared by the gods.
Caretaker Tomoyuki Matsuhashi sweeps the path in front of the buildings, one of them now being used as a shelter for 22 people who lost their homes. He becomes animated as he describes the moments after last month's earthquake.
“I saw the tsunami coming from a distance," he says. "I didn’t know what it was at first and then I saw buildings collapse. A few seconds later the wave was here.”
Eyewitnesses say the second wave reached to the bottom step of the shrine. Many of those sheltering there ran to higher ground and stayed in the hills behind the town.
"Several were injured and had blood pouring from their heads and they were soaked," Matsuhashi says of survivors who just escaped the waters. “So we gave them blankets to try and warm them up. But then we saw the fire raging on the other side of the shrine.”
A gas explosion started a raging fire that reduced the already destroyed town to charred wreckage. Blackened forest around the shrine is clear showing the deadly path the fire took.
Koishi Teruko saw the smoke from the direction of the shrine while hiding in the hills and assumed it had been burnt down. “When I returned,” she tells CNN, “I was surprised it was untouched. God must have protected it, although some people also helped to put the fire out, so it was not just divine intervention.”
Three men stop by to ring the bell at the door of the shrine and bow their respects to the gods. Countless survivors have performed the same ritual over the past month.
The prayers on this day are heart breaking. Residents ask for help in finding missing relatives before continuing the grim task of searching for their bodies. Others ask for strength in the face of the horrific post-tsunami reality.
But to one side of the shrine is a poignant reminder that life was once normal here. There are small plaques with flowers and animals painted on one side. On the other is a simple prayer from much simpler times. One youngster asks for help in being accepted to his school of choice. Another asks for a new baby girl to be blessed. The majority pray for a long and healthy life.
They are prayers that have not always been answered in recent weeks.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.