Today marks one year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan. In the span of minutes, destruction on a catastrophic scale changed the lives of millions of people. In the aftermath, the world responded to the trauma, sending workers and volunteers on an unprecedented scale. The statistics were staggering. At a 9.0 magnitude, it was the largest earthquake to strike Japan in known history, and one of the 5 worst ever recorded. The resulting tsunami reached heights of over 40 metres, or 133 feet, and in some areas travelled up to six miles inland. Nearly 16,000 were confirmed dead, with over 3000 still missing. The World Bank estimated the economic cost to be $235 million, the most costly natural disaster on record.
A year later, and life in Japan still goes on. Photographs and video show the tremendous achievements in terms of cleanup and rebuilding that have begun, and that still carry on. They reveal the efficiency and the determination on the part of the Japanese people to remain strong, and to keep fighting. What these photographs do not reveal is that the struggle is still very much a part of life in Japan. Families have lost loved ones. Entire communities have seen their industry destroyed. The clash of cultures is thrown into sharp relief: old and traditional fighting to keep the status quo alive, while the young and progressive wish to move forward and look to the future. The Japanese government has no long-term plans or initiatives in place to provide a recovery structure, and the people are left to move ahead in uncertainty. There is still much work to be done. Japan is on the road to recovery, but the journey will last for years to come.
I travelled to Japan in May and again in August of 2011 in order to participate in cleanup and recovery work with All Hands Volunteers, an organisation dedicated to disaster relief all over the world. The trip itself was long and arduous, and when I finally arrived in Ofunato, a fishing town with a population of about 41,000, my mind struggled to take in the scenes. The destruction was beyond comprehension. Over the weeks I spent working in Ofunato, and neighbouring city Rikuzentakata, I witnessed many inspiring moments as well as moments of despair and heartbreak. As volunteers, we lived in the town with the residents and interacted with them daily, worked with them side by side. We shared their joys and sorrows, and became like family.
Reflecting on my two visits to Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, I find that my love and affection for the people and the community is undiminished. If I had the chance to go back today, I wouldn’t hesitate. I was so moved by the experience, and so humbled to share in the recovery efforts, that I hope my heart and soul are profoundly changed for all time. I find that words are such insufficient vessels to convey all that I want to say. I find myself turning memories over and over in my mind, savouring them as deeply as I can. From the hauntingly beautiful lantern ceremony, to the tears shed over recovered photographs of loved ones, I hope to keep all these scenes fresh in my heart for all time.
Japan: I visited your shores to help you in your time of need. I lost my heart to you, and I don’t regret it one bit. Your spirit and your beauty should inspire us all. In your darkest hours, you stood strong and emerged with great dignity. Thank you for allowing me to participate in your journey.
It’s been six months since Japan was devastated by earthquake and tsunami. I count myself privileged to have been involved in part of the recovery efforts based in the cities of Ofunato and Rikuzentakata. To say my two trips there were life-changing is to understate the powerful effect this journey had on my life.
Japan will be recovering for years to come. Nothing I can tell you, show you, explain to you can truly communicate the devastation. And yet, to say that its recovery will be so long is to do a disservice to the heart and spirit of the Japanese people, and those compassionate souls helping them. I was in awe of the way people worked selflessly, tirelessly, happily, and with unimaginable determination. To have seen the communities and volunteers working side by side, and to have seen the shocking amount of work they accomplished is to have been inspired… and humbled.
There are others out there who are working hard to share their experience, and the plight of Japan as well. I want to share one such effort with you. This video was made during the six months All Hands Volunteers has worked in Ofunato, and it is wonderful. Each of the people interviewed, I had the honour of working with. I can’t say enough beautiful things about them. I managed to make a brief appearance in the video, about 0:55. It’s my lovely black overalls and military boots (and an unfortunate view of my backside) that you see working alongside Yukiko-san, digging and sweeping. It’s absurd, but my heart sang that I got to be included (albeit barely) in this video that was able to bring me to tears yet again.
Watch it, and be moved. <3
As I settle back into life here in Ohio, I still have enough material for a few more blog posts about Japan. One of the most comic elements of my Japanese adventures was trying to use the bathroom. I don’t think people realise how much about toilets one can take for granted. I’ve been to restroom facilities in other countries where you pay to use them; fair enough. Some places I’ve visited have fairly open facilities (more uncomfortable and awkward than you realise until that very moment you’ve settled in to do your business). In Japan, toilets can be magical, space-age high-tech, and very cool. They can also be tricky, strange, and uncomfortable. How so? you ask. Let’s see…..
There are two kinds of toilets you find in Japan: Japanese style toilets, at which you squat, and western style toilets, upon which you sit. Most facilities in large cities and heavily travelled areas offer both. Some places, like restaurants in smaller towns, homes, and traditional stores will have only one kind of facility. So westerners tend to look for signs such as these:
I admit, I felt a huge sense of relief at the sight of such a sign! In airports and posh shopping areas, you would sometimes find fancy western toilets. What’s fancy? This is fancy: bum wash (or a bidet), music, waterfall noises, heated and padded seats, and more!
You might be wondering why I wasn’t up to the task of trying a Japanese style toilet. I thought to myself, on my first visit to Japan, that if I was going to visit a country, I would make every effort to adapt to whatever aspects of their culture I could. So I tried. It’s actually very tricky, especially to someone who is accustomed to sitting down and sort of relaxing on a toilet seat. This is what Japanese toilets look like:
Unless you’re a baseball catcher by profession, any lengthy bathroom visit is a challenge to the thighs. Also, you have to be REALLY careful with your clothing. “Not quite clear” can mean a necessary change of clothes. And if you are one of those poor souls not blessed with good balance? You should best steer clear.
Many of the places I stayed or travelled to offered both kinds of facilities. This was great, so long as there wasn’t a queue for the western style toilet. I became especially fond of the toilets in Narita airport. You could choose your music while you did your business! Also, because Japanese are very particular about shoes, there are guidelines for footwear inside buildings and yes, inside restroom facilities. When you enter a building or a home, you are often expected to remove your shoes outside or in a designated area just inside the entrance. Most places provide you with house slippers or another similar kind of footwear, and in some places, you will have your own. These are to be worn indoors. The bathrooms and restrooms will have their own specially designated slippers. House slippers are removed at the bathroom/restroom entrances and you then slip on the special slippers. It can be several swappings of footwear for just one necessity, but it is expected, and therefore honoured.
Our toilets at Sakari base were Port-a-potties… Japanese style. When I mentioned in an earlier blog that they were guarded by monster spiders, I meant that giant horrible spiders spun massive webs around the area every day, and the unwary late-night bathroom trip could result in making close personal acquaintance with not-so-little buggies that looked like this:
Not so much fun.
Another issue that might cause problems is that many public toilets do not provide toilet paper. Yes. You read that correctly. No toilet paper. So it is a brilliant plan to have a pack of tissues, baby wipes, or something else to use should you find yourself without the proper equipment. I was given a purse pack of toilet tissue when I bought my first shinkansen ticket. I couldn’t read a word on the packet, and the drawing on the pack showed, of all things, a car stopped at train tracks with the signal lit up and crossing bar lowered. If I hadn’t read up about what to expect as a traveller in Japan, I might not have been able to guess based on the drawings. The travel guide was definitely a plus in this instance, and I definitely got a chance to use that little pack!
In my efforts to find a good tutorial to share with you about how exactly to use Japanese toilets, I came across this gem of a website. Please take a few moments to check it out, because it’s a great laugh! (PS: There is a bit of offensive language – fair warning to those who wish to avoid such things!)
When it came to food, I found my comfort zone stretched quite a bit. My first trip to Japan, I ate a lot of things I couldn’t identify. I quickly learned not to ask, just to try it and see if I enjoyed it. Meal times were always a sort of random potlock. At base, for dinner, everyone gathered together in a communal area and served themselves, buffet-style. A sample plate would be made so that portion size was preset, and volunteers were expected to abide by that as they served themselves. Vegetarians had a separate allotment of food, and only vegetarians were allowed to partake of it.
Once you had your food, you would sit on the floor (tatami mats – no shoes!) at one of the low tables and start eating. Our evening meeting started up about the time everyone was finishing up their meal.
One such meal we enjoyed:
Onion broth with tofu (or miso soup) was a staple, as was rice. We often had fruit and veg donated to us, and here you see watermelon. This particular meal featured a salad and some sort of bean dish, which was yummy.
On work sites, we had to eat wherever we could find room to sit down. Sometimes we had little makeshift tables, and sometimes we didn’t have tables at all. Here was our “break area” for the foam party worksite:
(I should point out that it started raining during lunchtime, and we had moved to a covered area by then so as to enjoy our meal in a little drier environment!)
Bento boxes are common in Japan. The name comes from a word meaning “convenience”. They’re almost like fast food, except healthier! Many shops will make the boxes up and deliver them. We had ours delivered to us on the work sites by our bus drivers.
Here is one of the bento boxes we had for lunch:
This one featured a potato cake and piece of fish. The pink stuff in the upper left corner was pickled vegetables of some sort. Rice came in every bento, usually with a pickled plum and seeds for a garnish. You were given chopsticks (hashi) to eat with – no forks or knives!
This one was a little more interesting, as we could only hazard a guess to what some of the items were. The normal rice and pickled veg were present; opinions differed as to the breaded item, and the round little pink rolls. The pasta was in a sort of creamy sauce like alfredo sauce. Most of it was tasty, although occasionally we’d have a day where everyone was swapping out parts of their lunches. The braver souls would eat everything, and the finicky types would give everything away.
We also enjoyed Japanese beer from time to time – Yebisu and Asahi were common in the area. One night, we got to try a local sake that was AMAZING. Unfortunately, most of the sake distilleries were destroyed in the tsunami. It’s a great loss, because the local sake was the best I’ve ever had.
Snacks are a little different in Japan. You still find the typical crisps/candy/snacks in convenience stores (my girls would be over the moon seeing pocky everwhere!), but most Japanese snacks I got to try were really different to what typical westerners enjoy. Our snacks here tend to be far more sugary. In convenience stores here in the States, you might find hot dogs, pizza, and sandwiches sitting under warming lamps. Japanese stores feature sushi rolls, pastas, and typical Japanese fare. Everything is wrapped in neat little packages; sometimes even packages-within-packages! But overall, the impression I got was that they eat far healthier than westerners, even when picking up a fast snack.
So, every trip overseas I take, my propensity for winding up where I never intended to go takes me to some really strange places.
In England, a trip to Salisbury landed me in Portsmouth. Trains and I just can’t seem to reconcile. I’d like to THINK I can read a timetable as well as the next person, but I suppose I’m being slightly delusional. I did meet a charming old gentleman who happily texted his son to find out the score of the Liverpool-Manchester United match for me, though. Extra charming when you consider that 1) he was a Pompey supporter, and 2) he made the offer based solely on the observation that I had a Liverpool button on my coat lapel. No initials, no words; just a gold liver bird on a field of red. At least that journey wasn’t a difficult one, and it was easy enough to get back on mark, if a couple of hours out of my way. Thankfully, Will and Sheila didn’t mind swapping out lunch plans for dinner plans! I made a friend, saw a new part of England, and utterly wasted half my day, just in time to share a lovely dinner.
In Japan, I always seem to find the roundabout way to get where I’m headed. The first trip went smoothly enough, but if you’ve read past blogs, you know about my sleep on the steps of Tokyo station with a dozen or so homeless people. That little adventure was one of the highlights of my journey. This most recent trip had LOTS of those moments.
Take for instance, my introduction to love motels. In Japan, they have motel rooms couples can rent by the hour. After 10 pm, rooms can be purchased for overnight stays. It isn’t uncommon for prostitutes to make use of these facilities as well. How did I end up in one? Well, let’s see…
Thanks be to United Airlines for putting its Narita-bound passengers on a broken airplane. That was the start. When we were backing away from the gate, the airplane totally shut down. Whining engine, lights out, power failure. And then they told us, “Sit tight, we want to find out what’s wrong.”
An hour later, they tow us back to the gate. No power means no air conditioning, by the way. In San Francisco, in summertime. 300+ people in tight quarters. Yes, imagine it. Lovely. And then the two hour delay, and then the boarding of an entirely different aircraft… not that any of us were desperate for the original, you understand. But the three and a half hour delay was the genesis of this adventure. We arrived at Narita three and a half hours late. From Narita, it’s an hour and a half to Tokyo station. This is where I was supposed to meet my overnight bus. This bus would have taken me to Morioka, which was the next stop on my journey. Had I arrived at the original time, I would have had about two hours to get to my bus stop. Since my time was now deficit by an hour and a half, needless to say, I didn’t make that bus.
I called the base for All Hands, and was told about another overnight bus. This one went straight to Ofunato, my final destination. EVEN BETTER! However, I had to travel via underground to Ikebukuro, and I had a backpack and a 50-lb bag to haul. It’s no mean feat to struggle with such luggage through a subway station, and I think I reached epic levels of fail. I did finally arrive at Ikebukuru, but I’m pretty sure I pissed off several dozen Japanese people.
At Ikebukuro, I was given these instructions by the staff at base: go to a 7-11 and buy an overnight bus ticket. Sounds easy, right?
First of all, finding the damn place was a Herculean task. It ended up being down some back alley street, about four blocks from the station. Four blocks with a giant 50-lb bag after 2 days of travel might as well be four miles. But I made it, with about $75 worth of data usage (thanks, google maps!) and umpteen phone calls, worth more than twice that(I hate you, roaming charges!). I find the bloody 7-11, walk in, and ask if anyone speaks English. The blank stares were answer enough, so in halting, pitiful Japanese, I ask, “Bus ticket?” Heads nodded, but then we were at a hopeless impasse. I said, “Morioka? Ofunato?” Nothing. Finally, the worried-looking teenage girl gave the bored-looking teenage boy a firm command in Japanese, and he motioned me to follow.
Out the door we went, me having resorted to dragging the bag behind me. The boy gave me a weird look, but I really didn’t care at that point. Down the street and around the corner we go, and then he SHOVED me into a little doorway… and there I was in the police station. He practically ran from me.
The policemen looked a little curious, and asked me something in Japanese. I repeated my woeful request for bus ticket, and they asked me so many questions, I just about cried. Out came trusty mobile phone, and yet another call to All Hands base. They got me a Japanese speaking volunteer, and then things began to get slightly better. The wonderful policemen made phone calls, bike rides, and inquiries only to find out that the bus was leaving RIGHTTHATMINUTE and I would have to wait til the next day to catch one.
Wearily, I asked the volunteer on the other end to ask the nice policemen to find me a cheap, clean place to sleep for the night. After hearing this request, the policemen pulled out this gigantic book that I believe might have been some sort of hotel directory. They discussed a few places, made a phone call, and then motioned me to follow.
Around a couple of blocks, we find ourselves in a narrow alley with dodgy-looking doors. He opened one of them, and motioned me in. Believing that this was a genteel gesture, I shoved and pulled my horrible bag through the door, and paused once through. He remained firmly outside the door and gestured that I should go in. I must have looked slightly panicky at that point, because he nodded and gestured again. I sort of froze, because the place did NOT look like any hotel I’d ever seen. He took one step inside, careful to leave his other foot outside, and got the attention of the clerk sitting behind a strange little window. They had a brief conversation, with lots of pointing at me, and then the policeman left. The man behind the window looked pretty annoyed with me, and tapped out some numbers on a calculator, then turned it to face me. It was a number much less than other hotels I’d checked before, so I breathed a sigh of relief, passed the money through the little receptacle, and accepted the key he sent out.
Seventh floor. I made my way to the end of the hall and opened the door.
The room was small and cozy, with a window that had sliding screens and barely opened. There was a western-style shower and toilet, to my complete delight, a vanity sink, a bed, a desk, and a television. It was tiny, though. No matter. I shoved my monster bag into the room, kicked it clear of the door, and locked myself in.
As I sat on the bed, taking off my shoes, I got a good look at everything and noticed this sitting on the little nightstand:
And next to it? A roll of toilet paper. Classy.
Even better? Another copy of the brochure AND another roll of toilet paper on the table where the television was.
But by that point, I would’ve slept on a park bench with a blanket. The shower? Possibly one of the best in my life. After travelling for two days straight and sleeping in airports, it felt heavenly. Did I sleep well? You betcha. If I ever see those wonderful policemen again, I will be sure to thank them, because I was grateful to finally STOP and REST. I didn’t really care WHERE at that point. All Hands makes a point in their volunteer information that a sense of humour will get you through just about any situation, and as I sat there on the bed chuckling tiredly, I had to agree.
The Tuesday before I left Ofunato, we had one of the local women teach a yukata class for us. Putting on a yukata is like a very complicated ritualistic dance. Of course, anyone can just throw one on and be done with it, but to wear it properly takes a lot of careful attention to detail. Sato-sensei was our yukata teacher, and she was amazing. So here are some photos of our class, with the embarrassing photos left completely out to salvage the self-respect of those of us who were a little more yukata-challenged than others.
*special thanks to Tree for the hard copy of the last photo!!
Some of you remember when I returned from Ofunato in June, and I showed you photos and video of the damaged landscape. This trip to Japan, I spent a fair amount of my time in neighbouring Rikuzentakata. Ofunato fared a little better in the tsunami than did Rikuzentakata, although both were devastated.
Returning to Ofunato, it’s clear to see the work that’s been done to clean up the destruction. There are still piles of debris, although they’re neat and orderly, and there are still damaged, hollowed out buildings. Outward damage remains evident; the scrape mark along the side of a building where a car was dragged through water, the twisted railing where a balcony once hung, the pale scar where a building once stood. However, the rubble piles are fewer and they are orderly now. Instead of heaps of random debris, there are tidy heaps of twisted metal, of siding, of concrete and cement. The sights of June are not the sights of August.
Rikuzentakata is a slightly different story. The town sat between two higher points of land. When the tsunami hit, the wave was channeled right through the harbour, and the town itself. This is where it once stood.
Now, in its place, is an empty plain with massive piles of debris.
The highway that ran along the town, between the two hills, is pitted and pockmarked with holes. The worst have been filled in with gravel to make travel accessible. Guards line the roads, and phototaking is discouraged. As our bus passed the site each day, the normal cheerful chatter seemed to quiet to a murmur. I couldn’t say if it was intentional or even conscious, but it was palpable to anyone paying attention.
That’s not to say that everything is hopeless. The people are strong and determined to overcome. There is emergency housing to shelter the displaced victims. The rebuilding has begun. Slowly, slowly, people are moving along and starting to reshape their lives. For Rikuzentakata, it will be one step at a time, one day after another. But that’s how a journey happens.
I spent a lot of my time working for All Hands in the photo rescue project. Becci and Tree, two long-term volunteers, make the REAL magic happen. They send out the clean and damaged photos to a network of volunteer photo retouchers all over the world, where the photos are retouched and restored, then sent back to be returned to the owners.
Before the photos reach their hands, however, they have to be found, cleaned up, packaged, and labelled. (I should, for accuracy’s sake, mention that many are given directly to Becci and Tree. Not all are done by other volunteers. Ahem. Now carrying on!)
So Wynne and her dedicated group of workers head into Rikuzentakata each day and assess the work. Wynne goes through the photos that Dhaniella and her warehouse team set out to dry, and she selects albums ready to be salvaged. This is pretty much what she has to go through:
Once she chooses the albums, she hands them over to her team of photo cleaners (which was my job). Some of them are in great condition and just need a little cleaning. Here are a few before and after photos, so you can see what sort of things we worked on.
Here’s one I don’t have a before pic for, but it turned out so beautifully that I wanted to include it:
Some photos are not only dirty, but damaged as well. Great care must be taken to not remove any of the colour still left. Dirt removal can be difficult, because dirt can act like a scouring agent. Even the lightest and most delicate of touches can damage the photo further. Here is an example of a photo that I was afraid to even wash:
And after an entire day’s worth of cleaning, drying, cleaning some more:
Some photos were damaged beyond our help. Others, it was hard to tell, but we did what we could.
Once we finished our part, and the cleaned photos were dried, Wynne placed them into albums, which were donated by Fujifilm. From there, they went to the facility where residents could browse and claim their photographs. Tree visited the facility and passed out flyers offering the photo retouching service, and anyone who wanted their photos repaired could take advantage.
I did a quick video tour, so that everyone could see what the worksite was like:
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!