On November 25th I got on a bus headed toward Iwate, a coastal prefecture in Northern Japan located half way between the Northernmost part before the Hokkaido island, and Fukushima, where, on March 11th a powerplant encountered many difficulties and became dangerous to the surrounding area. The city we went to was called Rikuzentakata. Rikuzentakata is a unique place, because it is located in a nook of land with the sea accessible on two sides.
Before I go any further into this story, I want to explain why I am bothering at all. Unless you were very young on March 11th, 2011 or have no access to the media, you are fully aware of what happened in Norhern Japan, and realize the destruction it caused. So, why bring it up again? It is true that, by telling you about my experience in Iwate, I will not change what happened. But that is not my purpose. What I ask of you is that you simply never forget what you know. As of now, eight months after the initial disaster, there are 500 people still missing in Rikuzentakata alone, alongside 1,500 casualties and 600 homes destroyed. A city can not be, and has not been, built back up from the ground in eight months. Please remember, just because it has been a little while since the destruction occurred, there are still families missing members, children without homes, and cities that lay in ruins.
But, even this is not what I want you to keep most in mind. The most important thing is for you to remember the people affected by the Tohoku Earthquake and have hope for them. Not everyone will have the opportunity that I have had, to personally go and work on bringing a city back up from its remains, but everyone in the world has the capacity to remember the people who survived and to keep them close to their hearts. The citizens of Iwate, and of the other prefectures in Tohoku, are beginning new lives, and they want to know that they have not been forgotten. Amongst losing their families, their friends, their homes, and their personal posessions, what they have to hold on to is the knowledge that there are people out there who know what they have been through and wish the best for them in their new lives.
And this does not only go for the survivors of the Tohoku Earthquake, but also for those who dealt with the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina, September 11th, and the many other misfortunes that your fellow humans have dealt with. It takes much longer than most people realize to fix these kinds of damages, so please be sure to not forget that there are still people rebuilding their lives in these areas. Even after the long struggle to rebuild homes or cities, they will never forget that they lost their loved ones. If you do not forget about them, you give them strength, and sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference.
So, I will tell you about my experience in Iwate, but please do not be sad. Be hopeful. If you believe in God, pray for them, and if you don’t, hope for them. Just never forget the people who you share a planet with.
I spent a total of four days away, but only two days actually working. Our first day was spent in meetings, traveling, and getting situated. The company I went through is called the Nippon Foundation. Within the Nippon Foundation there are multiple volunteering groups who went to various locations. The group who I went with is called Gakuvo. Gakuvo stands for gakusei volunteer; “gakusei” meaning “student.” All but two people in our group were, in fact, students, excluding our leader, Kentaro, and Paul, who works at my campus. All of the groups organized through the Nippon Foundation met up in Tokyo for an informational session before getting on different busses and heading off.
Once we were on the bus, Kentaro, the leader of Gakuvo, gave his self introduction and then moved around where we were sitting so that we would be next to someone we didn’t already know. This person became our buddy for the trip (like in Summer camp, you are responsible for each other so that everyone can be accounted for). I was next to Risa, who actually goes to ICU. She is in white sitting next to me. Then we all did our own self introductions so that we could be well aquainted. I struggled through mine in Japanese, because I wanted to practice. This trip did, I will admit, have a bit of a Summer Camp-ish feel to it, because Kentaro was very big on group bonding and getting to know each other. This was a good experience for me to get to know the Japanese way of working, though. In Japan, the team is very important and everyone works hard to work well with each other, so this kind of bonding is somewhat normal. By the end of our trip, I was sick of team bonding, though. We slept as a team, ate meals as a team, worked as a team, traveled as a team, discussed the days as a team, stretched as a team, cleaned as a team, and even bathed as a team. I’ll get to that part a bit later.
So anyway, we finally got to the place we were staying at around 10:00 that night. I was not feeling well at all (I had been getting a bit sick but that morning I had woken up with the worst of it: aches, chills, weakness, a sore throat, and a stuffy nose) so I wanted to get right to sleep, but we had to have a meeting first. We had a lot of meetings. Every day. But then I got to go to sleep. Here are some pictures of the place we stayed. It was a community center about an hour and a half away from the place we worked, managed by an old man who was pretty cool. There is a picture of me with some tea that Kim brought me (by the way, I went with Kim, Mariko, Olivia, and Lou; some names you might find familiar) and my stereotypical face mask to prevent getting everyone else sick.
After a night of tossing and turning (not much sleep included) we all got up and suited up for our first day of work. There is a picture of me bundled up, not wanting to get sicker. I’m looking very attractive. We ate breakfast together on two rows of tables that we set up in the boys’ room and then went outside to get on the bus. The area around the community center is just gorgeous, especially at 7:00 in the morning, when it’s freezing and quiet. The bus that we had for our time there, that drove us to and from the work site, to the supermarket, and to the ofuro, had the absolute most attractive apholstery I had ever seen.
Before we went to Rikuzentakata, we stopped at the local volunteering center along with all of the other volunteers from various other places. Here we had a meeting (of course; we had also had one before we left the community center) and did this strange warm-up exercise routine to a song that sounded like a nursery rhyme. To my surprise, nobody was leading this routine (stretches, jumping jacks, etc.) but rather everyone had it memorized. I later found out that this was a routine that Japanese children learn in kindergarten and do every morning in order to get ready for the day. In work places and other team gatherings it is also done by adults. It may have seemed a bit less strange if the song that accompanies the routine wasn’t so happy, cutesy, child-like.
But, anyway, I was very impressed to see the number of people who were there to volunteer that day. After our meeting we got back on our busses and continued toward Rikuzentakata, where we all parked our busses and got out to start our work. We lined up and had (you guessed it) another meeting, where we learned about the place we would be working in, how to react should there be an earthquake, how to treat our work, and what we would be doing that way. The leader of our area, the man you can see speaking to the lines we were in, was a very good leader. He was passionate about what we were doing, realistic about the situation, and had a presence that made you want to be a part of his team.
We learned the statistics that I mentioned before about the number of casualties, missing, etc. We also learned that, even now, there are still only ten street lights in the whole city, because they had all been wiped away by the tsunami water, and that there is only one stop light. For this reason, we would have to wrap up our work by 2:30 and head back to assure that we were home by 5:00 when it got dark. He also explained that, because there are still 500 missing people, there was a chance we would find one while working. We did not find anyone. And, should there have been an earthquake, anyone who felt it was to tell everyone else. This is because it is easy to not notice an earthquake, but if there is one, a tsunami warning is the automatic response, and we were all to run to higher ground, looking out for ourselves and nobody else. These harsh realities were a bit of a shock to me, but of course they are all understandable. We were lucky enough to not encounter any of these difficulties.
Before explaining the work we did that day, I will show you pictures of the area. Some were of the land we were working on, and some were of the areas right next door, that we passed to get to and from our area.
This is the land we were on, directly.
These are some of the workers from the first day, and the area we worked on, directly. You can see a home they have been working on rebuilding.
This arch used to hold up overhead railroad tracks. This was the area we worked in.
Here is a closer view of what used to be a railroad.
You can see how much of the tsunami water still has not drained from the area, even eight months later.
I am not sure what this is, but it is certainly not supposed to be there. By the sheer size of this object, you can see how strong the tsunami was, to lift this and wash it over here.
I can not say for sure, but I believe this used to be a gas station. This is on the side of the hill next to our work area. While walking up the hill to get to our bus at lunchtime I spotted what looked like a gun laying on the ground. I realized that it was actually a gas pump, and suddenly it clicked that this unidentifiable structure must have been a gas station.
I can not create a caption for this picture.
This is heading out of the small town we worked in into the rest of the city.
The tall tree you see on the right is the miracle tree of this area. You will see why in the next picture. This picture was taken before the tsunami.
This picture was taken after the tsunami. The tree still stands, though it is not doing very well. There is still so much swampy area around it from the undrained tsunami aftermath that it is suffoccating.
One of the biggest tasks is pulling all of the small, broken parts of homes, belongings, cars, other buildings, etc. from the ground and separating it into piles according to what it is. These are piles of various items.
There are countless peices of homes to clean up. This is a pile of wood from various things that have been destroyed.
Tires from the cars that have been destroyed.
Another pile of what seems to be pieces of homes.
You can see how high the tsunami water was; four stories high, and strong enough to smash every window.
This is not a lake. This is leftover tsunami water.
Only buildings 3 or more stories high were left standing. But their insides were washed away.
Again, you can see how much water there was by how high up the destruction is and how much water is still here.
This was a gym, and is pretty far in from the seaside. Three hundred people were evacuated here, with the assumption that the water would not reach it. Only two survived after the tsunami flooded it.
Amongst all of this destruction, what we were able to do in our short time there was seemingly nothing, but I am still proud to say that I was able to make some impact. As the leader of this area told us, if all you do is pick one piece of wood off the ground, it is one step closer to rebuilding this city. Our main project was to dig up a waterway that had been burried, clear it out so that water could start to flow into the ravine and out of the land, and help clear the path for the marshy areas to drain through this path. On one hand, we simply shoveled mud from a ditch, but on another, we cleared the way for this eight month old tsunami water to start leaving the area, allowing the people who would come after us to clean those areas, now free from water, and to start solidifying the foundations for a new town. There really was a sense of hope, at least that I could feel, in what we did. I have shown you the destruction, but it is important to realize that, at least in the area we worked in, a lot has already been done. There is still much, much more to do, but those piles of various things have been created, which is a big step, and though most of the area was destroyed, there is still so much that is in tact. Where, on one side of the hill was the structure I believe to have been a gas station, directly across the street going up that hill was this view. I can not explain the feeling I had when I saw this beauty and this destruction juxtaposed like this, but I do know there was hope in there.
Also, the town’s temple survived. Temples are generally built on high ground, out of tradition, and so many of the temples survived. If this doesn’t show that there is always hope and happiness to be found, then I don’t know what will. I could not get a good picture of it from where we were working at the bottom of the hills, but this temple was fully in tact.
On the first day, we all worked together digging up a waterway that, if we hadn’t been told was there, we never would have noticed. Mud, rock, and roots create a very heavy mixture, especially when you are trying to shovel it out of ground that is flooded with water. I worked muscles I didn’t even know I had.
This is what we began with. Would you believe there is a whole drainage system under all that dirt?
Digging up the dirt. I’m in the middle, throwing the mud and rocks onto the side.
This was our progress by lunchtime on the first day. You can see the walls of the waterway starting to peek out.
My work station.
This was our progress by the end of the first day. We had uncovered the drainage system and were just working on getting the mud and rock out from inside of it.
This was during the second day. We you can’t see much difference, but we had shoveled quite a bit of mud and rock from inside there.
Finally, during the beginning of the second day, the guys who were working up at the top of the line managed to clear away a path to let the marshy areas start to drain into our waterway. If you look closely you can see that the water is moving. We took a break to let it drain for a bit. I have never been so excited to see water move. I just sat there on the side for a while watching it.
This is the ravine area where the water ran into. You can see it coming in on the side.
This was another project we worked on the first day: pulling objects and wood from mounds of dirt and mud. The piles of dirt don’t look that big, but we pulled a lot of things from it. Other people worked on gathering things from other areas. This was one of the most devastating jobs I did. When I walked over to the pile and started digging through it, one of the very first things I came across was the wing of what seemed to have been a dinosaur or dragon toy. I also pulled large chunks of roofing and walls from the pile, a remote control, a towel, dishes, magazine pages, and more. It is really difficult to comprehend the fact that the items I was pulling from the ground were personal, and probably valuable, belongings to families who no longer have a home, and possibly do not have each other. When we first arrived at the town we were told to be careful about how we refered to the things we cleaned up, because it is not rubble, trash, or wreckage; it is the homes and belongings of families. But I can’t see how anyone could look at these items and consider them to be trash or rubble.
This picture was taken after I had worked for a good twenty minutes to dig up a peice of roofing and a remote control.
Some things we found. This is not trash.
This is also not trash. Nor are the many, many things not pictured, including shoes (both adult and child shoes), clothing, tea pots, toys, electronics, and more.
By the end of the first day, we had created this pile. When we began there was nothing on the ground here. These are all personal belongings and peices of buildings. Essentially anything that was not dirt or natural rock, we pulled from the ground and created a pile from.
On day two Mariko, Lou, Olivia, Sylvia (a girl from Spain), and I worked in the ravine up a ways from where we had been working on the water path. This area was too narrow for any machinery to dig out the things that had been washed into it, so we went in and pulled it out by hand. This task was so incredibly large that we hardly made a dent in it, even though we pulled out hundreds of pieces of roofing and walls, objects that we couldn’t identify, personal belongings, and even a peice of metal-enforced cement wall that was larger than my whole body. We also worked to shovel toxic mud and rusty mud from the water so that, eventually, the area could be useable again.
This piece of cement took five of us to drag down the ravine, under water, and hoist out.
Most of the items on the side are what we pulled from the water, but some was there already. It is hard to see from this picture, but further up where we didn’t get the chance to work there are still mounds of things to pull from the water. Also, since this was a water area, it was strange to see the many shells that had been brought in by the tsunami mixed in with all the destruction. It was a strange sort of reminder of what had really happened here.
A local who was walking his dog came by and spoke with us. He was surprised to see foreigners working and expressedc his gratitude. He let us pet his dog and then returned later with apples from his own garden. That night we added a few more apples and ate them for dinner with the rest of Gakuvo. Again, I am impressed by how attractive I look in this picture.
This was our team. Sylvia, me, Lou, Olivia, Mariko, and Paul (who helped wheelbarrow away the items we took from the water, since he did not have appropriate shoes to be in the water).
This is just another picture of me suited up for the days’ work. You can see I’m wearing a lot of clothing. At the beginning it was cold, but once we started working I realized I only needed one long sleeved shirt and my orange water resistant jacket to keep me warm.
We did enjoy ourselves quite a lot. It was a good feeling to be helping out, and the exercise was great. Because we ate so much and exercised so much, along with sleeping on all of the bus rides, I was 100% better by the time we returned to Tokyo, so I was only sick for four days!
I ate a very large bowl of yakisoba (a sort of specially flavored ramen) to keep my energy up. I didn’t have any chopsticks so I had to make due with a knife. You know you’re a pro ramen eater when you can eat it with a knife.
As I said before, Gakuvo did everything as a team. We not only ate as a team, but we cooked our own meal as a team.
Night number two we made curry and rice with half-hard boiled eggs (when your hard boiled eggs are cooked so they still have liquid yolks they are VERY hard to peel; you can tell by how bad our eggs all look). We also had the apples I mentioned before, miso soup, and fried, caramelized sweet potato.
This was dinner from night number one. We cooked this one together, too, but I don’t have any pictures of that. We had miso soup, rice, some sort of strange stew, miniature hot dogs, and daikon (a Japanese vegetable that I think is like raddish).
This is what breakfast looked like. It generally consisted of whatever we personally had plus leftovers. So, rice, miso soup, and the onigiri we made with the leftover rice.
Each day after we worked we got on the bus and headed back to the community center. Then the bus dropped us off so that we could run inside and grab a change of clothes and get back on the bus. Then we were taken to an ofuro, which is a public bath. I have always known about ofuro in Japan, but I never really thought I would experience one, and it was certainly a difficult experience.
The way that ofuro work is you go into a changing room, get undressed, and then go into a bathing room, where there are shower heads, soap, shampoo, and stools lining the walls. There are no walls between the shower heads; all you do is go up to one, sit down, and wash your body and hair. It was very uncomfortable for me to be completely naked in front of everyone, but it is so completely normal to Japanese people that I quickly warmed up to the experience and didn’t feel so strange. Besides, after drowning in my own sweat, dripping with mud, and aching all over my body, a warm shower and soap was too good to pass up. After you’re all clean, you then submerge yourself into a big, very, very warm tub, which is also completely public. Again, sitting in a bath tub with all your friends is a strange experience, but it is sort of like sitting in a jaccuzzi, but without a bathing suit. The second night was easier, and I’ve decided that ofuro aren’t bad at all.
Each day, when we were done with our bath we got back on the bus and headed to the grocery store to buy food for the next day.
On our last day we woke up and cleaned the whole place. And when I say we cleaned it, I mean we scrubbed every centimeter of that building. But we did it as a team. This, too, is a very Japanese way of going about things. In schools, especially, at the end of the day, everyone cleans together.
So, we had some more meetings, and then we headed home. There was a lot of sleeping on this bus ride, just like on the way up, and we stopped at a few rest stops, just like we did on the way up. One of the rest stops had a little secret garden behind it that was just overflowing with Autumn colors. I had a lot of fun seeing real Autumn.
We got back to the Nippon Foundation and had another meeting, where we each recieved a certificate for volunteering. Then we went back home, got a gingerbread latte from Starbucks, and went to bed.
Overall, the experience was impossible to fully describe. People asked me “so, how was it?” and I still can not figure out how to answer that question simply. It was an amazing experience, it was eye opening, it was depressing, it was fun, and it was educational. My Japanese certainly improved a bit because I communicated primarily in Japanese. I learned a lot while I was there; about what has happened, about many aspects of Japanese culture, about the language, and about myself. I definitely plan to return once, maybe twice again before my time in Japan is over.
Ganbappe, Tohoku! That means “good luck, Tohoku,” but in the native dialect. “Ganbappe” is their way of saying “ganbatte,” which is the Tokyo way to say “good luck.” And arigatou, for teaching me so much.