This gallery contains 10 photos.
Some photos from the Lantern Ceremony:
Today was, sadly, my last day working with Project Tohoku. I leave in an hour on the overnight bus, and I really don’t want to go.
Today’s work was again based in nearby Rikuzentakata. It was a cloudy day, with some bleak and depressing weather… but quite an eventful day in terms of the Photo Project! NHK, the national news service, came to shoot video and do interviews. Wynne was interviewed multiple times, because a local group also stopped in to see what was going on. It was a little nerve-wracking to be so cautious and meticulous with photo cleaning whilst having video cams stuck in your face! So our photo team will be featured on Japanese news; no idea when, where, or how to find it though.
Today I took a lot of photos and some video. When I get to a place with better internet connection, expect quite a deluge!
At the dinner meeting last night, Chris Turner, our project director, announced the Project Tohoku has officially been extended until mid-November! This is news we’ve all been waiting and hoping for, so the mood last night on base was fairly celebratory despite the fact that the rumour has been circulating since before I even arrived. Volunteers have been given the opportunity to return or extend their stay.
It’s welcome news, because it still feels like there is so much left to do. Even though we finish jobs on a daily basis, there is no shortage of opportunities.
To give you an example of what work we’re doing presently, here is the job list for this week:
~Ceilings for Honma: this job entails a gutting team going to work for a woman in the local community. They will be tearing out old drywall and a ceiling in a building where the tsunami floodwaters reached the second floor. There is mould and mildew in these old walls and ceiling, so it poses a health concern. This team needs to work carefully to preserve the beam structure whilst removing the mouldy/mildewy materials.
~Highways: I’ve talked about highways in earlier blogs. This job will go on for as long as the city gives All Hands new areas to clear. The team will work to clear drainage ditches on either side of the highways as well as beautifying the sidewalks and the areas alongside the road.
~Massaki Canals: this is another job similar to the old ditch bitch brigade. Originally, the team for canals and ditches worked on both drainage ditches and drainage canals. Now a team has been dedicated to clearing a canal system that runs through rice fields in Massaki, a nearby community. The canals are still filled with debris from the tsunami, and no water can flow through until they’re cleared.
~Food Distribution: now that temporary housing has been built, people are slowly being moved from evacuation facilities to temporary housing. They will stay there until they can rebuild their homes. The downside to this (or at least one of the MAJOR downsides) is that government assistance ends when they move into the housing. Food is one of the things included in the benefits ceased, so many times the people face shortages. All Hands goes to their emergency housing facilities and distributes food to families in need.
~Rikuzentakata “Mould Appreciation Society”: This team goes into a warehouse where valuables and belongings are kept. When people find things they think should be turned into authorities, they give it to them, and the authorities in turn stuff it all into various warehouse in the communites near where they are found. The team has found THOUSANDS of photo albums, items like yukatas, family scrolls, cameras, books, and so much more. The problems? Everything was turned in immediately after the tsunami, and is still damp. The place is so incredibly full of mould and mildew that the team has to take a mandatory break every 20-30 minutes to breathe fresh air. It’s truly awful. The people working this job have dubbed their task “Mould Appreciation” because everything is covered in it. They are the ones who sort through the photo albums for the photo cleaning team.
~Rikuzentakata Photo Cleaning: this job entails careful cleaning of photos recovered after the tsunami. They clean the mud and bacteria from the photos and dispose of the mildewed albums so photos can be put into new albums, provided by the community. When the new albums are put together, Mari-san, a local woman, takes them to a building where they are displayed on shelves for the people in the community to come and find their pictures.
~Gutting for Sano: another gutting job, similar to the first.
~Kessenuma Satellite Project: This job is based in Kessenuma, another nearby community. The team here is dedicated for at least a one-week-per-time basis: if you sign up for it, you live on site (not at our base or at the Fukushino Sato Centre) for a period of at least one week. They are working on completely gutting two apartment buildings.
~Society for a Foamless Society: this is an off-and-on project, possibly finished now. An old fish factory had to remove its refrigeration insulation, which was HORRIFICALLY smelly and full of mould and mildew. In order to dispose of it, the foam had to be broken into fist-sized or so pieces. Since it came in sheets the size of a car or truck, this took some time and effort.
If I can get to a better internet connection later today, I will try to upload photos of differnt work. It’s been difficult to do lately, with uploading a single photo taking about 45 minutes. Hoping it goes better this afternoon!
And on my day off? I’ll be taking lessons on how to properly put on a yukata! Not much point in having one if I can’t wear it!
Today marked my fifth day at the Rikuzentakata Photo cleaning project, as well as my first day as team leader. Wynne, the regular team lead, needed a mental/physical break from doing photos. Terri and I volunteered to each work a day for her so she could do something different for the first time in three weeks.
Usually, photo cleaning is a 3-day commitment, since it involves training the volunteers how to safely clean photos, and the more damaged photos require some experience. Wynne usually gave the more heavily damaged albums to the longest-term volunteer there; newbies got the least damaged and therefore easiest ones.
This is significant to explain, because today I had a team comprised of newbies, with one repeater. We have been joined at Project Tohoku by a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers from Tokyo. They come down once a month, and only stay for two days. This was the situation for Terri yesterday and myself today. What this meant is that all the people working there the last two days have done only easy albums… but they did a LOT of them.
Terri started off the morning with me, sorting the albums they had cleaned yesterday. There were piles and piles of them. After we got a handle on them, Terri rejoined her group next door (who were sorting through valuables stored in a warehouse). The day before, one of our bus drivers, Sato-san, had looked at the photos and got very excited. He recognised friends of his in some of the photos the volunteers were cleaning. Terri mentioned this to me, but we both reckoned it would figure in much later down the road.
During our morning break, a car pulled up and a couple got out. They didn’t speak any English, and most of the volunteers working on photos didn’t speak much English either. They seemed to be asking where to get photos, so we were trying to explain how the Rikuzentakata community centre holds a photo library each weekend for people to look through and reclaim their pictures. The language barrier was quite frustrating, to all of us. As we were speaking, Terri and another HFH volunteer emerged from the warehouse and wandered over to us. As she got closer, Terri gasped and pointed to the man. “It’s Poser!” she told me.
“Poser” was the nickname the volunteers had given a man who appeared in almost every album they had cleaned yesterday, and a few we had cleaned this morning. She had seen his picture so many times that she recognised him. She ran into the photo room and came back out with one of the albums. She opened it and pointed to his photo, pointed to him in photos of a baseball team, and showed him. His surprise and pleasure were immediate. His wife, however, did not share his enthusiasm. She turned to the volunteer who came with Terri (the only Asian in our little cluster besides the couple) and spoke rapidly. He turned to us and asked if we had any more albums, and explained that they were Sato-san’s friends. We most definitely did. I got the ones I knew of, and brought them out. The woman reached for them with trembling hands and held them a moment before opening them. When she opened up to a photo of a little girl of about 6 flashing a peace sign, she gave a cry and held her hand over her mouth. Her eyes filled with tears, and she literally could not speak. Her husband laid a hand on her shoulder (an extremely rare gesture of emotion for Japanese people) and whispered to her. She cried there for a few moments, then turned to the HFH volunteer and slowly, gulping a lot of air, began to speak in broken sentences. His eyes widened, and he turned to us and quietly told us that the couple had lost their daughter in the tsunami, along with all their photos. They had been praying that some of their photos of her had survived, so they could have some memories of her. Not only had we found HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of them, but they were all perfect. Most photos are damaged, some badly. It’s rare to find some in excellent condition, but these were like new. They both were so overcome that they could barely say thank you.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
They returned in the afternoon to see if we had found any more of their photos (we had) and they took a look at the photos we were working on. They studied all the wet photos hanging, and looked through the finished albums. They found some photos of friends and some of theirs we hadn’t recognised as belonging to them. They were much more expressive this time, and thanked us profusely.
It was very moving, and above all, it was a reiteration that this work is important and meaningful to the people here.
These are the view from my work site yesterday. Highways are physical labour in the strictest sense. You are either on ditch clearing (shovelling dirt, mud and debris from drainage ditches and cleaning them out) or beautification (sweeping up after the ditchers and cleaning up the edges of the sidewalks and road). I was on beautification team.
I don’t have time to complete the stories from yesterday, so check back for an update and more photos in about 12 hours. I’m off to Rikuzentakata again!
Okay, so let me flesh out this post!
Highways are the evolution of my old “Ditch Bitch” job. The mayor of Ofunato was so pleased with the work All Hands did in the city of Ofunato on the drain and canal system that he passed along a new job, highway ditches. Now the volunteers are cleaning out the drain system along the main highway. It runs along the coast, and since Ofunato is situated like a cove, there are a lot of neighbourhoods through which it passes. There are sidewalks along one side, and we also helped clean up the sidewalks as well. There is a slope on the other side of the sidewalk, so there have been a lot of mud and debris and plants dumped on the sidewalk. It’s out in the open, but since the cars are always moving along the highway, volunteers have to be cautious. It’s the longest ongoing project of All Hands’ Project Tohoku, and they usually send out large teams each day.
The group has attracted the attention of the residents of the local communities. The women have sort of adopted the group, and every day during the afternoon break, they shower the volunteers with drinks and snacks. In fact, this particular day, they had so many snacks that my hands were full and I had to keep saying no thank you again and again. The women all behave like grandmothers, fussing over everyone and commenting about new volunteers. They’re absolutely lovely, and they check in on us several times throughout the day and offer their bathrooms for breaks.
I was reunited with an old friend from last trip here to Ofunato, Mikado. She is from Ofunato, and works with the volunteers every Saturday. I’m SO glad I chose Saturday to work on highways! She has been working with Devin on highways since ditch bitch days. We saw each other on the bus and hugged and laughed. I had the complete pleasure of working side by side with her for the whole day. I love this, because she tells me about the city and points out things of interest. She shows me little details I would otherwise never know, like that the large boats in the harbour are cleaning debris (including bodies) from the ocean floor. She remembered my two girls, Kourtney and Mirina, and even surprised me with gifts to bring back home to them. We had talked at length my last visit, and I was really touched that she remembered so much, and that she did something so thoughtful.
Bah! Internet connection here isn’t working well, so I can’t load more photos right now. I’ll try to update (again) with a few more photos so that you can see the highway group and some more shots of the lovely view we had.
Today marked my fourth day working on Photo Cleaning in Rikuzentakata. Sunday I’ll be back, team leading for a day so Wynne, the regular team leader, can have a much-needed break. Tomorrow I’ll be back at Highways (formerly known as Ditch Bitches, a la Sara Bereilles!) for a good muddy physical challenge.
Today when we took our lunch break, five of the ladies working at the Rikuzentakata project headed down to the restrooms. It’s a five-minute walk, but totally worth it, since they have Western-style toilets! While we were starting back to site, we were stopped by a small group of Japanese people sitting outside the community centre. They asked what work we were doing, and how long we each were staying in Japan. They were very appreciative of all the work All Hands is doing, and expressed their gratitude most beautifully. It turns out that they work for an organisation called Befrienders Worldwide. They go to disaster areas and offer emotional support to the victims. This is NOT easy work, as Japanese people do not express emotions comfortably. Their culture does not encourage opening up and sharing emotionally. These people definitely have their work cut out for them. They said they have to find ways to encourage the people to open up, like activities, games, and gifts. The work they do is vitally important, and we tried to express our appreciation and admiration to them.
They waved us off and thanked us again, and then they brought out a small assortment of gifts and gave them to us. Gift-giving is a very integral part of Japanese culture, and to refuse a gift is exceedingly rude. To them, the work we do is a gift. So in return, they gave us beautiful hand-painted fans. We chatted to them for quite a while, and asked to have our photo taken with them.
Tonight, one of our bus drivers requested the company of a few female volunteers for a special favour. (Hahaha, it’s nothing risque!) One of his friends has a daughter, Reika, who is in sixth grade and wanted to do karaoke with some of the volunteers from other countries. So Grace, Hadley, and I packed into their van and headed over to the karaoke place the volunteers refer to as “Big Cat’s”.
We joined her and her mum and little brother (age 6) in a room, and the music flowed. She had the most amazing voice! And she definitely knew more Celine Dion songs than I knew existed… as well as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and more of the like. Everyone sang except the driver, who came with us, but he joined in ever so briefly when I sang a really really old song from pre-WWII. When his friend noticed him singing, he promptly stopped. It was a fun time, and I was surprised to learn that karaoke here is considered something families can go do together. Even Reika’s little brother did some songs!
We’re heading into the weekend, and we’re about to be joined by 36 more volunteers from Habitat for Humanity. Things are about to get a lot more cozy….
Because today has been a pretty low-key day, and everyone’s run-down and tired, there aren’t a lot of interesting anecdotes to share. Photo Rescue today found a few naked photos of a baseball team, but we had a fairly quiet day. So instead of giving you a new story, I’ll share an old one.
My last trip to Japan was full of little adventures. Travelling in a foreign country can be hazardous and entertaining, but occasionally it can be very stressful, especially if connections are missed and language barriers exist. The return journey from Ofunato back home turned out to be all of the above.
Shinkansen, or bullet trains, are slowly returning to normal services. They are fast and comfortable, but they’re expensive compared to the other options. One of the Japanese staff at All Hands, Masa, found out about a special deal going on: 1/2 price shinkansen tickets from a nearby hub! Naturally, I took advantage of the much faster route back to Tokyo, and it was blissfully quick and comfortable. The only problem was that I got back to Tokyo 5 minutes after the last train for the Narita airport left. My flight back to the States departed from Narita in the morning, and it’s an hour and a half journey from Tokyo to Narita. I sighed and figured I would check on hotels, and if I couldn’t find one, I’d just stay the night in Tokyo station.
After calling around and wandering into a few nearby hotels, I reached the conclusion that I did not want to pay upwards of $300 for a few hours’ sleep in a hotel, so finding a comfy quiet spot in the station seemed the best plan. I wandered with my backpack and bag for a while, then settled in a designated meeting point area. Traffic through the station started to slow, and I was nodding off, when the station guards came through and started nudging people out.
Apparently, the station CLOSES at night.
As you can see, this foiled my crafty plan. So I let myself be herded out to the steps of the station and took a look at the options.
The night was chilly, but not cold, and there was a fairly brisk breeze. So, priority number 1: shelter. Also, the sky was threatening to rain. Make that COVERED shelter. And the streets stayed busy despite everything else shutting down, so trying to find someplace on the quiet side was also necessary. After checking the different station entrances, I found one that fit all my criteria. The steps were freezing cold granite, but they were protected and out of the elements. I claimed my spot.
It wasn’t long before a Japanese man carrying a bundle tied with string joined me. I watched in fascination as he untied his bundle, which turned out to be newspapers and broken-down cardboard boxes, and started fashioning a sheltered little bed. The boxes became little walls, and a sort of covered canopy. The newspapers, he made into mattress and blankets. He removed his shoes, in typical Japanese tradition, and climbed into his makeshift sleeping tent. Awed at his ingenuity and innovation, I turned back to reading my kindle. Minutes later, he was joined by another man with a similar bundle. Then a polished-looking businessman approached with his wheeled suitcase. He had his bed packed inside the suitcase. More and more men followed, camping out on the steps there, until over a dozen men were sleeping all around me.
I felt really out of place. I was foreign, not homeless, and simply waiting to move along to my next destination. I kept awake, slightly nervous at being surrounded by homeless people. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and my experience thus far had been that theft is rare in Japan, but that didn’t really stop me from feeling ill at ease in this situation. I kept my eyes on everyone.
A little while later, a white-haired, stooping woman walked up. She moved slowly, and stood around surveying the area before she came down the stairs. To my complete surprise, she walked right up to ME. She had a small shopping bag filled with magazines, and she held out a magazine to me. Thinking she had noticed me reading my kindle and was offering me more reading material, I tried to decline. She shook her head and again offered it, pantomiming sitting down on the magazine. Then it struck me that she was concerned about me sitting on the cold steps all night, and she was offering me part of all she had. I had been feeling sorry for myself, and here she was, selflessly giving of the little she possessed. It was a very humbling moment. I accepted the magazine with as much grace and humility as I could and thanked her. She nodded and found a spot among the others, huddled up, and went to sleep.
I sat there on those steps and had a few epiphanies that night. That little homeless woman taught me and reminded me of so much that night. I remembered why I had come to Japan in the first place. I also realised that even being uncomfortable and displaced, I still had so much to be thankful for. The chance to work in Ofunato was indeed life-changing, and I was ashamed of myself for losing sight of the original purpose I had in joining up with All Hands. It was a good lesson to help me keep the memory and the experience fresh in my mind and heart.
I’ve been talking a little bit about getting here and about what we are doing on the individual job sites, but I realised I haven’t said much about what it’s like day to day here in Ofunato.
We have two separate bases here for All Hands. Together, they house about eighty volunteers. Sakari base holds the headquarters and full-time staff office. Accommodations are more primitive here. Running water is a fairly new development (last trip, there was no HOT running water), and there are now bucket showers available. Bucket showers consist of a couple small stalls with a plastic curtain, a large bucket you can fill with water, a small stool, and a little ladle you can use to pour water over your head. Toilets are port-a-johns outside, guarded by monster spiders. The sleeping quarters are communal, both sexes. Makes things interesting! Everyone gets a bunkbed, and you’re expected to keep your stuff relatively contained. There is a small washing machine, but no dryer, so bunks and anything that hangs across or has a sort of pokey end becomes a hanging line for clothing to dry. The downstairs open area is where people can hang out, where everyone eats, and where you can access internet. The internet signal can only accommodate so many people at a time, so when someone tries streaming a movie, there’s lots of grumbling.
The Fukushino Sato Centre is up the hill, roughly a half hour walk (or a five minute drive). It’s a centre for handicapped and disabled adults, but with so many people displaced by the tsunami, it has become temporary housing for evacuees… and overflow All Hands Volunteers! In some ways, it’s much nicer in terms of luxuries. They have both Japanese and Western toilets (with heated seats and bum washer!), as well as a traditional style Japanese bath. The building is airconditioned and has a little park beside it. The volunteers there share the amenities with the evacuees, so their rules are a little more strict. No alcohol, lights out and all quiet by 10 pm. Baths are also regulated, with All Hands Volunteers restricted to use of baths between 9 and 10 pm. No kitchen for use there, so eating is limited to snacks, coffee, and non-perishable breakfast food.
We all meet at the Sakari base at 8 am to travel to job sites. By 8.30, the two buses will have distributed volunteers to the sites, usually making two trips each. From the time we arrive on site, we start work. One 15-minute break at 10.30, then lunch is delivered to site at noon. Lunch is served in bento boxes. Bentos are basically like little compartmentalised boxes, with a specific variety of foods in each compartment. Rice, pickled veg, some meat, a curry or noodles, and usually something else. It can be kind of random, and you never know what to expect. Today’s lunch had rice, flaky-battered deep fried fish, pickled stuff, bacon-wrapped carrots and (a single) green bean, some sort of boiled mushrooms, and a bit of pork with paper noodles. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what things are; I’ve learnt it’s best not to ask. Another short break at 2.30, then start cleanup at 4 pm. Tools get cleaned, supplies get packed, work areas get tidied up. Buses pick us up, then it’s back to Sakari base. There, we unload tools and equipment we took to job sites and head in for dinner. Dinner is usually a hodge-podge of Japanese food and American food, with rice and fruit always making an apppearance. Once everyone’s queued for food and is sat down eating, we have nightly meeting. Here, we cover what was done during the day’s work, introduce new arrivals and say goodbye to departing volunteers, sign up for the next day’s jobs, and cover announcements. After meeting is wrapped, the FS Centre residents take a bus back to their base, and everyone is free to use their time for showers (if they’re at Sakari), internet, shopping, visiting, or sleeping. Bedtime is 10 pm for the FS folks, and whenever you like for Sakari folks. You’re on your own for a wakeup call and breakfast.
Tuesdays are the volunteers’ day off. The laundrymat and the karaoke bars are common destinations. This week, we hit a karaoke bar Monday night with a group of 30 and squeezed into a tiny private room. Smoking is permitted, and drinks are paid for by the hour. Tuesday night, we held a BBQ of sorts. Chris #3 ran the grill, and volunteers made kebabs, salads, and many other delicious things for everyone to enjoy.
Satoshi, Mark, and Chris, who run the show here, joined us late into the evening. We don’t get to see them dressed up often, but they were GQ’d up for a meeting with US Vice President Joe Biden.
Photo of the BBQ and karaoke are forthcoming… they aren’t great, but at least you get to see some of the amazing people I get to work with.
This gallery contains 10 photos.
Some photos from the Lantern Ceremony:
Some work is satisfying in the sense that afterward, you stretch your aching muscles, look back over the job you’ve just completed, and see how much you’ve accomplished. Other jobs you can’t measure by what you can see. Yet others, it’s all about what you see…
Yesterday was such a day. One of the jobs here in Project Tohoku is a Photo Restoration/Photo Rescue. Becci and Tree work with photo retouchers all over the world to repair and restore precious photographs. The work is nothing short of amazing. But they and their contacts can only manage so much. It’s left to others to do some of the basic “rescuing” of the piles and piles of photo albums, baby books, and random pictures turned in as the communities clean up from the tsunami.
What the teams do is go through the piles, try to dry them out as much as possible, determine what is salvageable, and set about cleaning them. Different photos require different methods of cleaning, and each task has to be undertaken with the most delicate of touches, the most careful of hands.
Most of the photos I worked with were RC prints. They can be submersed in cold water to be cleaned, and so long as they are just covered in mud, it’s really easy to manage. Some of them are damaged as well, and if you remove the mud, they start to lose colours. Once the colours are gone, the damage is irreparable. It didn’t take long to see how even the barest of touches could remove everything if the photos are even slightly damaged. It’s painstaking work. We wear latex gloves, masks, and work with precision tools.
I got two albums; the first was a family album, the second a baby album. The first was more damaged. It was heartbreaking to see some of the photos lose colours and disintegrate in your hands. I think the worst of it was that the parents taking the photos had taken each others’ pictures with their children, and every photo of the mother and the son were ruined. I think I could handle seeing a few shots here and there of my own pictures, or a few of my girls, not survive, but the ones of us together? I think it would be like losing the memory itself. Thankfully, there were a lot of photos in the album, and the family has many memories they can once again relive through pictures.
The second album had been made into a sort of baby book. It chronicled a little girl from birth til about age 9 months. The photos were accompanied by little handmade captions, drawings, and postcards. Seeing how much love and time had gone into the album was moving. It drove me to take even more meticulous care than the last. The photos themselves weren’t good ones. The parents weren’t especially skilled with a camera. But the love for their little girl shone through in every shot. Even the blurred ones.
Even though we didn’t see the fruits of our labours from that day’s work, one of the drivers for All Hands, a local resident, glanced through an album we had finished. He gave an excited exclamation, and told Wynne, our project leader, that he knew someone in the photos.
The reason that’s something to note is that we had no idea whose photos we were cleaning. The albums were turned into a community centre, and they just stored them in a building. The citizens will have to come to the centre and look through them to see if they can find anything that belongs to them. Can you imagine having lost everything you own, only to find a few precious family photos, cleaned up and repaired by anonymous people from all over the world, who cared enough to take the time, never knowing if you would be able to find them or reclaim them? But as word spreads, more and more people are coming to see if they can find their treasured memories.
The lady in Rikuzentakata in charge of the photo “warehouse” came to see us yesterday. She showed Wynne pictures of the photo library they set up, where local citizens could walk through shelves of finished albums to try to find some of their own. Wynne teared up to see that what her investment has borne. It’s little things like that which make every aching muscle, every crick in the neck, every hour spent doubled over in painstaking effort worthwhile. Each of us would do it all over again, day after day.