The small, plastic train, poking out between the rocks, looked like any toy lost on the beach. It measured a few inches long, small enough to tumble out of a pocket or purse, with four thin wheels and rear-end contours hinting at where other cars should go.
As soon as Yuji Kaneko saw it up close at Huntington Dog Beach, though, he quickly motioned for his son, Ryan, to come take a look. When they realized what they held in their hands, they felt startled, then saddened, then hopeful that somehow they could return the train to its rightful owner.
Before long, they realized that it would be impossible; the train had no name tag or other identification. Ryan and his father only had a general idea of where it came from, and if they could deliver it to someone there in need, that might be close enough.
'Like a refugee camp'
Kaneko and his wife, Beverly Findlay-Kaneko, were spending a quiet afternoon at home in Yokohama, Japan, when they felt the ground begin to shake. At first, it felt like a typical earthquake — a little rattling inside the kitchen where Findlay-Kaneko was sitting, and no more than a slight pulse in the yard where her husband worked on landscaping.
Within a minute or so, the shaking turned violent. Light poles swayed in the street. Neighbors ran out of their homes to wait for the shaking to stop, which it finally did after several minutes.
The Kanekos drove to their son's school to bring him home and ended up spending six hours on the blacked-out, pedestrian-heavy roads. It wasn't until the evening news that they learned they had felt the distant effects of a massive earthquake and tsunami that had hit northeast Japan; their hometown, south of Tokyo, missed the worst of the disaster.
The next day, Findlay-Kaneko got another jolting piece of news: Her mother, who lives in Southern California, had taken ill with a heart ailment. Since Ryan's school had temporarily closed after the earthquake, he and his mother flew back to help care for her.
As Findlay-Kaneko waited for her flight in Tokyo, she realized she was among the lucky ones. People — mostly foreigners, from what she could tell, awaiting the safety of a plane home — crowded the terminals around her. Some slept on the seating areas, clad in Red Cross blankets.
"The airport there was like a refugee camp," she said.
Since that day a year and a half ago, the Kanekos have spent most of their time split on two sides of the world. While Ryan attended Huntington Seacliff Elementary School in Huntington Beach and his mother taught university classes online, his father stayed in Japan to hold onto his two jobs as a professional artist and co-head of his family's property management company.
Every couple of months, Kaneko flies back to Huntington, which has been his family's summer home for years. Findlay-Kaneko and her son hadn't packed many things when they boarded the plane from Japan, but a reminder of their home country soon found them.
Across the Pacific?
Ryan and his father had gone to Huntington Dog Beach for a low-key outing — walking along the sand, catching crabs to play with them. Then, Kaneko spotted the train, and he and Ryan recognized it almost instantly.
The plastic toy, which features a gray exterior, four wheels and two yellow lights in the front that slant like pensive eyes, is the front of an electric train set from the Japanese company Takara Tomy. Ryan had the exact same train, known as a Komachi model, growing up and still keeps it stored in his bedroom at home.
Ryan's room had been spared in the tsunami, so the train clearly wasn't his. But he could speculate about its owner — another Japanese boy whose toy chest had been torn apart by the waves and had its contents scattered wide.
Had the train washed across the ocean from Japan to Huntington? Was the room where it once stayed now reduced to rubble? The Kanekos couldn't rule out the possibility.
"I kind of felt sad because the person might have missed their toy," Ryan, 11, said. "They might have missed their home. They probably lost everything they owned."
If the train can be proven to come from Japan, it won't be the first case of its kind; last month, NPR reported that a 65-foot floating dock washed up in Oregon.
The electric trains, part of a collection called Plarail, are popular in Japan, Ryan said. When he was younger, he built elaborate tracks for them and watched them maneuver around the floor. By now, he's more or less outgrown them.
Kaneko contacted executives at Takara Tomy, who encouraged him to bring the train the next time he returns to Japan. In a letter that Findlay-Kaneko translated from the Japanese, the executives said they hadn't heard before of one of their products making it to North America.
"When Mr. Kaneko returns to Japan, we would like to meet him and see the engine," the letter read. "We are not sure what we will do about it yet."
Two ends of the world
At the end of July, Kaneko plans to fly back to Japan while his wife and son stay in Huntington. Even on opposing sides of the planet, though, they will pursue a common cause.
The earthquake and tsunami not only ripped through cities and left more than 15,000 dead, but also caused nuclear meltdowns, which led Ryan's parents to keep him in Huntington for fear of radiation in the food supply back home, not to mention the threat of another earthquake in the Yokohama area.
When the family reunited in Japan at Christmastime, Kaneko made sure to purchase food grown in areas far from the meltdown site; a school lunch or dinner at a friend's house wouldn't be as foolproof, Findlay-Kaneko said. Her husband has volunteered with Greenpeace in Japan to check food for radiation poisoning, and when he returns, he plans to join the ongoing protests against nuclear power.
Meanwhile, back in Southern California, Findlay-Kaneko has joined a similar campaign — her target being the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station that shut down in January due to wear on its steam generator tubes. Last week, she, her husband and son gave an anti-nuclear presentation at Leisure World, and she's approached city councils, including Huntington Beach's, to ask them to write to government agencies urging safety and financial accountability in nuclear plants.
When Kaneko stays in Japan, he has another daunting item on his agenda: preparing for the next natural disaster if it hits. According to news reports, University of Tokyo scientists have predicted a 70% chance of Tokyo being hit by a massive earthquake in the next few years.
For Kaneko, that means stocking enough food, water and medicine at home to last for a long time indoors. Shortly before the tsunami, he and his wife bought equipment for a planned ski holiday; now, he has the ski helmet handy in case of falling debris.
"Sometimes, we still have earthquakes," he said. "Pretty big ones."
'A real human connection'
While Kaneko said the house in Yokohama often gets lonely without his wife and son, he has one advantage: Unlike the average small child, he has the patience to stay inside for long periods of time.
In early August, according to the letter, Takara Tomy plans to join other toy companies and university students to run a children's expo in Fukushima, near where the nuclear disaster hit. The event is intended to give children, who have restrictions on outdoor play due to the radiation, a chance to play freely indoors. About 10,000 are expected to attend, the company spokesman said.
Even if the train the Kanekos found doesn't end up factoring in any games, it may serve as a symbol of perseverance, according to a note the family received from the manager of Takara Tomy's Plarail Planning Department.
"Hearing about the train found in California struck a chord in my heart," the message read, according to Findlay-Kaneko's translation. "I feel a real human connection. If it were an American who had found this train, he or she would not have known what it was.
"The fact that a family that has experience playing with Plarail in Japan found this Komachi train is serendipitous. Just as the train brought memories for the Kaneko family, it brought forth all kinds of feelings for me about the disaster and aftermath.
"I hope that Japan can be like this Komachi train and be strong, so we can rebuild and heal."