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Street market bonds tsunami-hit community in Japan

The irreverent back-and-forth starts almost immediately when sellers arrive at the morning market around 6 a.m.

"You're not supposed to gain weight, we're in a disaster!"

"At least that tsunami finally gave me a bath!"

Sakariki-machi market has survived for more than two centuries in this coastal Japanese town, through natural disaster and war, not to mention the advent of 7-11s and discount chains. Now, in its small but time-tested way, it is helping to keep up morale in an area devastated by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami that flattened a vast swath of Japan's northeast coast.

"This is so important to us," says 71-year-old Chioko Shomoto, sitting behind a small pile of mountain vegetables she and three elderly friends gathered by hand. "It's not really about how much we sell. This is where we relax and talk and trade information."

The market only opens once every five days along a single narrow street, regardless of the weather or what day of the week it is. It is soon filled with a colorful motley of bright flowers in pots, hand-sewn clothing, fresh fish and vegetables, the prices scrawled on small scraps of paper.

The lively scene harkens back to an earlier time, before Facebook and Twitter, before convenience stores with automatic doors and barcode scanners.

It is a real-world social network, a web of friendships forged through decades of early mornings and bad jokes. For some who lost their shops in the tsunami, it also is a place to rent a spot on the pavement for 300 yen ($3.70) and sell a few items to help make ends meet.

"I thought it would be months before people came back. But 20 days later, they just naturally started showing up again," says Yoshihiro Suzuki, 63, whose family has run the market for at least four generations. "The market gives people strength to go on with their lives."

The market opened more than 200 years ago, when Japan was still under shogun rule. It started as a place for fishermen and farmers to barter and trade, says Suzuki, whose great-grandfather registered it as a legal entity in 1912.

The market has lasted through previous calamities, including an 1896 tsunami that wiped out a third of the city's population and the death and destruction of World War II.

The powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11 killed more than 25,000 people and wiped out entire neighborhoods and downtowns.

"I was pretty down after the tsunami, I really thought about giving up and closing the business," says 70 year-old Hiroshi Sato, a fabric seller who lost his home in Kesennuma, about an hour's drive south. "But I heard that people at the market were asking about me, so I started coming again."

He later accepts a gift of fresh potatoes from the vegetable vendor next door.

It's clear from the laughter and banter that many sellers don't take selling very seriously. Sato and others leave their stalls unattended as they wander around and exchange greetings.

For a few, though, the market has become a crucial source of income. Kenji Murakami, who lost his plant shop and his home, stands behind a leafy wall of potted flowers, small trees and other plants in a prime spot where the market borders a larger street.

"It's not enough to live on, but I make 60 to 70 percent of what I need here now," says the 62-year-old, who has been coming for 25 years.

The prices and selection may be better at the large supermarket a block away, but some continue to patronize the market.

"I've been coming here since I was a little girl," says Naoko Nagayama, 40, shopping with her husband and two daughters. "I know the older ladies, and they always take a bit off the price for me."

Most of the vendors are elderly, longtime veterans. Some say the same sense of community that drives the market makes it hard for newcomers to break in.

Tadamasa Yokoda, 57, has been hawking shoes at the market for 35 years. The tsunami destroyed his shop nearby and ruined his home, and he greets his old friends in front of a small truck jammed with sneakers, loafers, and slippers.

"It's great because you don't need to rent a shop or anything, it's very easy to get set up," he says. "But new people don't really come."