Yuji Kaneko with his son, Ryan, and wife, Beverly, talk about a Komachi toy train car they found in Huntington Beach and suspect drifted from Japan following the 2011 tsunami. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / July 17, 2012)

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.

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'Like a refugee camp'

March 2011

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.

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Across the Pacific?

July 2012

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.