Journey back to Tohoku – Amy Tadehara

Amy is from our US office. Amy also lived in Sendai for several years and has a special love for Tohoku. Exactly two years on from the tsunami, Amy returned to the region to see how her Tohoku was getting on….

When I was invited to go on a business trip to Japan this March and saw that the planned itinerary would take me back to Tohoku, my home for four years, my gut reaction was twofold: I was excited, of course, but also apprehensive. Suddenly, despite the other destinations we would see, all I could think of was that weekend two years ago when the Great East Japan Earthquake changed everything.

Beauty of Hirosaki in the snow

Beauty of Hirosaki in the snow

Still, I wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity to see Japan again, and so I flew into Tokyo Narita Airport with a group of fellow agents to spend a week exploring an area of Japan that is often neglected by foreign visitors. We spent the night in Tokyo before heading off to what the famous haiku master Basho called “the Deep North.”

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We visited the Nebuta Festival Museum in Aomori (the next best thing to the festival itself); saw the beauty of Hirosaki in snowfall; soaked in the hot springs of Hanamaki; and cooked the regional speciality of Akita, kiritanpo.

Kiritanpo

Kiritanpo

But most poignant of all was seeing the areas near Sendai where the 2011 tsunami swept away almost everything in its path. Our local guide was a man who had, in the days and weeks after the tsunami, secured food and other supplies for the people who had taken shelter at his community center. We met a woman who tried to flee with her family—including her month-old grandson—and had her car taken up and deposited on another house; they had to scramble through an upstairs window to safety. But the landscape was the hardest to bear. In most cases, nothing remained of a building but the foundation, or those that had been built solidly like schools—but the two that we saw are understandably slated for demolition later this year. After all, who would want to return to the site of so much grief, terror, and despair?

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And yet some do. Before we headed to the hotel, our guide pointed out a pole with strings of yellow flags fastened to the ground, one of several around us but something of an afterthought amid the barrenness. Then he told us that they were put up by residents who vowed to return even though the government has forbidden rebuilding until further notice. Much has been said about the resilience and fortitude of the Japanese after the triple disaster of 2011, but nothing has convinced me of their strength so much as what those yellow flags represent: a yearning for home, no matter the danger, and the hope that one day, life will be normal again.

However, life in Tohoku, away from the tsunami affected coast is normal. This region is still the most beautiful in Japan as far as I’m concerned. Although we shouldn’t forget those people that are still affected by an ongoing struggle, I urge people to visit this beautiful part of Japan- the hot springs, the countryside and the rich rural culture of “the Deep North”.

The beauty of Tohoku

The beauty of Tohoku

Perhaps one of the most atractive aspects of Tohoku is the strength of its culture and traditions and the all round warmth of the people but as this footage from the ‘A Northern Soul tour from 2012 shows, Tohoku is beautiful. I’m sure that if Bassho were alive today, he would have a few more words to say about the place….well…about 17 syllables worth actually…

Tourism to Japan is virtually back up to pre-tsunami levels, the exchange rate against the yen means that you will get great value for money at the moment and there are a million reasons as to why you should discover Japan for yourself. If you want more reasons as to why you should travel beyond the likes of Tokyo and Kyoto, have a read of a previous post with five excellent reasons as to why you should try a bit of the north.

If you would like to donate to our chosen charity, Its Not Just Mud who are still working hard in Ishinomaki, please follow this link – http://itsnotjustmud.com/donate/

Tohoku: Then & Now – Ester De Roij

Two years on from the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, tourism to Japan is back to pre-tsunami levels and InsideJapan Tours are assisting more people than ever in discovering the beautiful culture, countryside and people of Japan. In this anniversary week, the InsideJapan blog will focus on the region looking at how it has recovered, the charities that have made a difference and why tourists are returning to this area of Japan and indeed other areas of the country. The blog pieces are taken from personal experiences of the InsideJapan Tours team in the UK, US and Japan.

Ester works on the admin and images here at the UK InsideJapan Tours HQ assisting with the design of our Info Packs, helping with the image library and a whole host of other tasks. In fact she is a young woman with all sorts of surprises up her sleeve. As well as being an excellent photographer and a keen filmmaker, Ester has spent a lot of time travelling the length and breadth of Japan which included some time volunteering in the tsunami affected Tohoku region. Ester shares some of her experiences and photos from tsunami affected Ishinomaki town after volunteering in 2011 not long after the disaster struck and later in 2012.

The day we arrived in Ishinomaki it was really warm. Putting up our tents on the University sports field was sweaty business and just 3 days later we had to evacuate our tents because of too much snow! These were the tough conditions in post-tsunami Tohoku. During our volunteer work, the thing I found most poignant were the stories from ordinary local people in extraordinary situations – and they were happy to share.

One lady spent two nights in a car park, wondering if her son was still alive. Others spent their days worrying if the bubbling black water was going to drown them alive as it reached the second floor of their houses. One man’s family cried out of gratitude when they saw foreigners helping them and told us that living off tight rations after the tsunami was more difficult than rations during the war.

My favourite though, was Mr. Atsushi Kondo, owner of a fugu shop, who stayed with a different friend each night, borrowing clothes as he went along. We spent two days cleaning his shop, despite his statements of: “I’m 69 already, I don’t know if I can open a new shop!” So grateful for all our help, he rushed upstairs and gave everything he had left – business cards, Chinese lanterns, the lot.

Working on Kondo san's shop

Working on Kondo san’s shop

At the end of the week, we had a belated hanami party (cherry blossom viewing) for the people in Ishinomaki, and he came and greeted us with bottles of coke and orange lemonade he had found from before the tsunami. “Why are you not drinking alcohol?”, he asked us.

Hanami drink with Kondo san

Hanami drink with Kondo san

To which we replied, “We haven’t been drinking all week, out of respect for everyone we are helping out.”
“Oh really? I’ll be back in 5 minutes.”
A little later, he returned with a bag and told us to hide it. It contained a bottle of Japanese Sake that he still had from before the tsunami, and he wanted us to have it. So kind!

Ishinomaki 2011

Ishinomaki 2011

Ishinomaki 2012

Ishinomaki 2012

Fast forward 14 months, and I had the opportunity to visit Ishinomaki again. The place looked nothing like it had looked before – clean street tiles, bustling traffic, and shops open everywhere. I asked about Mr. Kondo, or Mr. Fugu as everyone called him. Much to my surprise, the locals pointed me in the direction of a shop. A seafood shop. As it turns out, Mr. Fugu had enough motivation to open a shop again. Sadly I wasn’t able to meet him that day, but some fellow volunteers did a few months later. I couldn’t have received better news.

A tsunami wrecked house 2011

A tsunami wrecked house 2011

The house in 2012

The house in 2012

Ishinomaki streets 2011

Ishinomaki streets 2011

Ishinomaki streets 2012

Ishinomaki streets 2012

“Ishinomaki is doing well”, some locals told me. “Some people have left, and some people have come back.”

A great personal account of the region from Ester. Two years is a long time and the region has come on a long way. There is still work that needs to be done in the most devastated areas, but generally life is pretty much back to normal in the region with rebuilding programmes moving at lightening pace. The chances are that you will probably not head to Ishinomaki unless you join one of the volunteering groups such as our favourite Its Not Just Mud or Peaceboat but there is plenty to see in this beautiful rural Tohoku area. We will continue to look at the region over the week marking the landmark 2nd anniversary.

2 years on – a personal look back from InsideJapan’s director, Alastair Donnelly

Today, the 11th of March 2013, marks the two year anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake. It is hard to believe that two years have passed since the east coast of Tohoku was devastated by enormous tsunami waves, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and taking tens of thousands of lives.

For me that day is etched permanently in the memory. I remember very distinctly hearing the first reports on the Today programme shortly after 6:30am followed by the more extensive and more horrifying 7am bulletin (listen to the edited bulletin below). And then shortly afterward that receiving an email from our office manager in Japan, Ayako, saying there had been a large earthquake but the situation was not clear. I remember arriving into the office, calling everyone over and discussing together what we could do and how we would look after our customers in Japan and our clients waiting to travel in the upcoming spring season.

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That day our team work was the best it had ever been. We called next of kin to let them know their loved ones were safe; we spoke to clients with imminent departures, reassuring them their money was safe even if they were unable to travel; I was interviewed on local radio and James was interviewed live on BBC World. We did our best to answer the barrage of questions whilst remaining reassuring and professional at all times. I was extremely proud of our team both on that day and during the weeks that followed.

That was my immediate experience of the Tohoku earthquake, from thousands of miles away. That day I asked the team not to watch the news on their computers. To ignore the rolling news headlines, the images of horror and destruction. We are a company made up of people who care very deeply about Japan. For each of us our time spent living in Japan has left an indelible mark on who we are. I knew that if we allowed ourselves to be drawn to that then the emotional strain would be too much and we wouldn’t have the focus needed to keep it together for our clients and for the business.

On the 11th, after everyone had gone home, I sat back and watched my screen, the coastline burning as fires raged out of control in the darkness of the Tohoku night. I cried at my desk and felt utterly useless. I still remeber being surprised at the intesity of the grief I felt for people I had never met. It was heartbreaking.

For the business and for the whole team the weeks that followed were extremely tough as the situation worsened in Japan and it became apparent that this was a disaster on an unprecedented scale. I knew it would be many months before people felt they could travel safely to Japan. I worried about how we could keep everyone in their jobs, about whether the business we had built could survive.

After the immediate crisis passed we channelled our efforts into fund raising for disaster relief and on improving our systems and business materials. The whole company went down to a four day week and it felt a little like a period of hibernation; a slowing down whilst we waited for recovery to begin. But at no time did we give up and in our own way were inspired by the Independent’s enduring front cover from Saturday 12th March – “Gambare Nihon, Gambere Tohoku” – “Don’t give up Japan, Don’t give up Tohoku”.  I don’t know who at the Independent came up with that or which editor took the decision to run with that front cover, but it was inspirational and extremely moving. It expressed what we were all feeling and for many months adorned our work notice board, reminding us all that we had to play our own small part.

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The Independent ‘s front cover. Saturday 12th March, 2011

It seems perhaps insignificant when one considers the magnitude of the disaster, but getting visitors over to Japan and showing them what an extraordinary country it is has been an important part of the recovery process. For the Japanese, the return of foreign visitors has helped provide a psychological boost; an affirmation that the nation is back on its feet and foreign visitors again feel it is a safe and exciting destination to visit.

But whilst business at InsideJapan Tours is again strong and visitor numbers to Japan from the UK have almost reached 2010 levels, it is important not to forget those whose lives were changed forever two years ago. There are still over 300,000 people living in temporary accommodation. Whole families living in a space that is little more than a well equipped shipping container. And whereas their basic physical needs have been met by the state, the emotional scars will never heal. Levels of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism are high in the regions affected. Along with the devastating personal loss, many also lost their homes and their jobs. Japanese are extremely proud people and not having paid employment is an extra psychological as well as economic burden. Children struggle to come to terms with the horror of that day and although counselling services are available the numbers affected are just too great for everyone to have access.

InsideJapan's Ruth Hubbard Volunteering at It's Not Just Mud

InsideJapan’s Ruth Hubbard Volunteering at It’s Not Just Mud

It is hard to know what we can do to assist those whose lives are still in limbo. For whom the reality of the Great Tohoku Earthquake is part of their everyday life. We have sent a few volunteers to ‘It’s Not Just Mud’, a small non-profit working near Ishinomaki. Our staff  have been to help out and we have raised a small amount of cash. Small gestures but we hope ones that have made a difference to somebody’s life.

As a tour operator and travel company I still believe that encouraging our clients to visit Tohoku is the best thing we can do to help. Tourism brings jobs and economic recovery will help. We are still focused on recommending Tohoku to our clients. It is a beautiful region of Japan with friendly people and great food. For those who wish to visit the affected areas we always encourage them to do so. Far from shunning visitors, those who travel here receive the warmest of welcomes.

The world moves on and the world forgets. New disasters happen; turn on the television news and suffering is everywhere. But for the people of Tohoku the disaster is still very close at hand. And on this day of remembrance I would like to encourage everyone to stop and spend a few moments to reflect on what happened on that dreadful Friday in 2011. “Gambare Nihon, Gambare Tohoku”. – “Don’t give up Japan, Don’t give up Tohoku” and never forget.

Click to view Alastair’s images from a visit to Tohoku in August 2011

Learning to Love the Ocean

Two years on from the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, tourism to Japan is back to pre-tsunami levels and InsideJapan Tours are assisting more people than ever in discovering the beautiful culture, countryside and people of Japan. In this anniversary week, the InsideJapan blog will focus on the region looking at how it has recovered, the charities that have made a difference and why tourists are returning to this area of Japan and indeed other areas of the country. The blog pieces are taken from personal experiences of the InsideJapan Tours team in the UK, US and Japan.

Jennifer Snow is one of our tour leaders who volunteered with our chosen charity, Its Not Just Mud. Her piece focuses on her time volunteering and appreciation of the scenery that surrounds the region.

This March 11th marks the second year since the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which took over 22,000 lives and led to massive damage in the Tohoku region of Japan. Today I’d like to talk about one of my “lessons learned” volunteering in the region.

When I decided to volunteer in Tohoku’s Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture with It’s Not Just Mud (INJM), I tried to not go in with any expectations to begin with, but one thing that I certainly didn’t expect was to learn to appreciate the ocean more from those affected by the tsunami.

One of It’s Not Just Mud’s major projects is to provide small business support to a small fishing village, Funakoshi, an hour and half drive from INJM’s main base. While in comparison to many other towns, few people passed away in the disaster, the village, including the fishing industry, was completely destroyed. Some of the fishermen and their wives formed a sort of collective to rebuild the fishing industry, both through a business venture to create and sell jewelry, with the profits going into rebuilding the industry, and through sharing resources in order to continue fishing to some extent.

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Funakoshi village

Some weeks I would spend up to 3 days going to Funakoshi to help the fishermen and their wives with these projects, and what I began to notice as I talked to (as much as I could – the older fishermen had a very strong accent called “mumble dialect” that even young people from the area had trouble understanding) and observed the fishermen was that despite everything, they still loved fishing and the ocean, the source of their life’s work. On calm, sunny days when they were able to go out and fish, they were always full of smiles and energetic. When the day was over or they had just finished a task, they would often all stand in a row and look out at the ocean for a while while they talked amongst themselves. I too began enjoying the fantastic views of the ocean on the long drive through the mountains from our base to Funakoshi, and of course the delicious fish and salmon roe that so many people, including the people of Funakoshi, gave us despite us being there to try and help them.

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The view on the drive to Funakoshi

Before this, I sort of thought of the ocean as an enemy that I was fighting against by trying to rebuild what it destroyed through the tsunami. What I learned from the people of Funakoshi was that the ocean was and still is an important part of people’s life in the affected area, a source of livelihood and of course nourishment, not just death and destruction. I am incredibly grateful to have been able to learn this lesson.

Recently, thanks to the initiatives of the cooperative, some of the families in Funakoshi have been able to return to their previous jobs and fish independently again. But there is still a lot of work to be done before the people of Funakoshi, and people all over the affected area, can return to a completely normal life. Funakoshi plans to rebuild on higher ground, but this might not be possible until 2014, and many people just can’t afford to rebuild their house.

There is still a lot of work to be done, and I hope everyone remembers the people of Tohoku, those departed and those still with us, this March 11th.

If you would like to donate to INJM, please follow this link http://itsnotjustmud.com/donate/

Photos by Jeremy Schuette, 2012

Otsukare sama deshita! Thanks to Jen for this. Although the 2nd anniversary is an important milestone and a chance to move on, it is important to remember that there are still people in Tohoku that do need help. Whilst unskilled volunteer work is not needed to the same levels, there is still a lot of rebuilding that is needed.

Our next blog piece though comes from Ester who volunteered in April 2011 and visited again in 2012 and she demonstrates the positive change in the region through pictures from ‘then and now’.

The Tsunami Coast

Although my time volunteering with It’s Not Just Mud is drawing to a close, we managed to find time between shifts to venture down to Onagawa Port where the tsunami devastation is most evident.

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This photo was taken from the hospital, 16 metres above sea level.

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The hospital. The waves reached up to the first floor, 18 metres in height. The third wave swirled around the building killing 16 people inside on the ground floor. Other people managed to escape by climbing up the mountain to the temple behind the hospital.

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The view inland from the hospital. There used to be hundreds of buildings here. The tsunami waves filled the entire valley and all the buildings were swept first inland, then dragged back out to sea as the water receded.

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This was the ferry port waiting room, the building now turned completely on it’s side. The shell of this building is going to be kept as a reminder of the tsunami, while the area around it has been flattened and new construction work begun. The plan is to raise the level of this area by 5 metres, then build the shops, banks and port buildings as a new commercial centre. Residential areas will be built further away on higher ground.

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Driving through Onagawa. This area was once full of houses and the train station was here.

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Into the next valley, and we could see the clean up in operation. I have never seen so many diggers in action in one place.

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Hundreds of lorries at work.

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Huge mountains of rubble.

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We drove up to Onagawa school where many people who lost their homes are now living in temporary accommodation. Apparently this is the best housing shelter in Tohoku, designed with communal spaces, container shops and a community centre; a lot less depressing than elsewhere.

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Here you can see the temporary houses have been built on the school’s basketball courts.

Two nights ago a couple who run a local cafe and are living in temporary accommodation came to chat to the volunteers. The lady joked about the thin walls and having to creep around her tiny living space. She was full of high spirits, but it was heartbreaking to think she had lost her home.

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A noticeboard showing drawings of people missing since the tsunami.

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I am most grateful to my fellow volunteers Kenji and Stephen who guided me around Onagawa today. Kenji speaks fantastic English and was our translator as well as driver, stopping whenever we wanted to take pictures. Stephen is a freelance journalist and has made five trips to Onagawa since the tsunami happened. He recounted the tsunami stories of the many locals he has befriended in the last 20 months.

At times it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic to be poking around the tsunami damage. But we were not the only ones; coach loads of Japanese come every day to the town. They say seeing is believing, and visiting Onagawa was a powerful experience I won’t forget in a hurry.

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If you want to donate to ItsNotJustMud and help with the incredible work they are doing in Tohoku, please follow this link http://www.justgiving.com/insidejapantours-ishinomaki

 

Life in the It’s Not Just Mud community

Hello again from Ishinomaki. Today I thought I’d share photos of life in the It’s Not Just Mud volunteer house.

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It’s very much communal living here, with around 20 volunteers staying in two neighbouring Japanese style houses. It’s been amazing to get to know volunteers from Japan, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand and the US in just a few short days.

Some people are short term volunteers like me, while other have been here for a month to a year.

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I had the pleasure of working with two deaf Japanese ladies and their sign language interpreter. My Japanese is pretty basic and involves a lot of gesturing anyway, so it was really fun to learn the official hand signs for the Japanese words I already know. Such lovely, lovely people.

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The main entrance to the first volunteer house. In the next few weeks the volunteers will be moving to another building.

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The communal kitchen.

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The volunteers take it in turns to cook and the food so far has been gooooooood…

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My room – not always this messy! I’m sharing with two girls from Germany and the US. They’ve both been here a month so are showing me the ropes.

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This is the main room where everyone gathers to eat and socialise in the evenings.

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The all important noticeboard assigning tasks, teams and start times for the next day.

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For short term volunteers there’s plenty of equipment that can be borrowed, from overalls to boots…

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…to very useful gloves.

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Finally, this is the loo! Very nice and clean. I’ve been so impressed by the lack of hierarchy here. Everyone simply pulls their weight to pitch in with chores, keep the house clean and work hard and with enthusiasm on all volunteering jobs.

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Every good house has a cat, of course :)

If you would like to donate to ItsNotJustMud and their great work, please follow this link - http://www.justgiving.com/insidejapantours-ishinomaki

 

 

 

Five reasons to visit the north of Japan

The beauty of Tohoku

Just fifteen minutes ago, before sitting down to write this, I was plunging into an outdoor hot-spring on the roof of my ryokan (Japanese Inn) watching the sun set over Sado Island, a lesser known destination off Japan’s north-west coast. With steam pouring into the cool air around me, I watched as the clouds and verdant hillside of Mount Kinpoku turned orange and then pink and purple as the sun dipped ever lower on the horizon, before finally disappearing into the distant Japan Sea. I was thoroughly lost in the moment, and I would have happily stayed that way had I not remembered that I was sharing this ‘magical moment’ with the four naked Japanese men who were also in the hot-spring. Strangely, and not necessarily for the better, I have grown all too accustomed to jumping into baths with naked strangers. Indeed, every night on my two week trip around Tohoku (northern Japan excluding Hokkaido) my companion and I have done as the locals do and finished off a long day of sightseeing with a dip in the onsen (hot-springs).

Yet this experience, as undeniably special as it was, has been only one among many. Which got me to thinking about what I like best about Tohoku.

A sample of what our nightly fare consisted of

Food! Food, food, food…. and food. At times it felt like we simply sightseeing in order to fill time until the next meal. Sure enough, delicious food can be found all over Japan but there is a plethora of local specialities in the north that make it different and exotic, even to a Japanese ‘foodie’ like myself. Staying in temples, hotels, and ryokans, every night has been a feast as artfully presented and as delicious as the one before. Fresh sashimi, whole crabs staring me in the face, tender slabs of marbled wagyu beef, oysters, nabe stews, noodles, tofu, black skinned pork, fried chicken, sushi… just to name a few.

A few shots from our time in the Ishinomaki area, still recovering and rebuilding from last year’s tsunami

A visit to one of the tsunami stricken areas is a harrowing experience but, for me, it was also one which inspired hope, reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of communities and their ability to come together in the face of disaster, and reminded me of just how many selfless organisations and individuals are working to rebuild the cities, houses, and neighbourhoods that were completely and utterly destroyed 19 months ago. The very short time that I spent volunteering in Ishinomaki is an experience that money simply can’t buy, and one that I would recommend to anyone with the desire to make a difference.

The nature of Nikko

Just a few short hours north of Tokyo is one of my favourite places to visit in all of Japan. Aside from the architectural masterpieces for which the area has become famous for, Nikko has great hiking, postcard perfect waterfalls, colourful foliage in autumn, wild monkeys and serrows, hot-springs, and cool summers. By all accounts, this is a “must-see” destination. Of course, as with most “must-see” spots, there is rarely a quiet day when you can get the best sights to yourself, which is all the more reason to make sure you spend the night at a traditional inn near the temples and go for a wander at night once all the crowds gone home to Tokyo.

Sado Island’s rugged coast

I ride on the comfortable Tokkaido shinkansen (the bullet train running between Tokyo and Fukuoka) weekly and spend much of that time gazing out the window watching as neat rows of exquisitely manicured green tea plantations and the many rice paddies squeezed between houses and cities whiz by. Some days even Mount Fuji makes an appearance. Yet every time I make this journey I am simply amazed at how developed this densely populated corridor of Japan is.

In northern Honshu (Japan’s main island) life moves at a slower pace, nature still reigns supreme, and small towns outnumber big cities. For anyone who has only been west of Tokyo, a trip up north will reveal a different side of Japan; and if you’ve never been to Japan at all, this might just be the Japan you’ve always imagined.

The natural and historic beauty of Haguro San is truly exquisite

The last on my list is most certainly not least; Haguro San is the smallest of three sacred peaks in Yamagata prefecture but it is far more than just another hill.

From what felt like a very ordinary road running through the middle of a small town, I stepped off the bus and walked no more than 20 metres through an old Buddhist gate and found myself in another world altogether. A bit like Narnia but without the talking animals. 2446 stone steps cut through giant cedars, lead me over an arched red wooden bridge, past a 1000 year old cedar tree, around a 600 year old ornate wooden five-storied pagoda, into a teahouse for a well deserved rest, and finally on to my accommodation, a Buddhist temple turned Japanese inn at the peak’s summit.

The quiet air and reverent atmosphere at the top of this pilgrimage destination left me forgetting completely about the cares and worries of my daily life in Tokyo. Instead of opening up my computer or flipping on the TV once the sun went down, I changed into my yukata (a light cotton kimono), had a boil in the temple’s bath and then sat down to a delicious almost-vegetarian feast and a large ice cold beer. This was surely the closest I was going to come to having a religious experience.

Family festival fun and remembering the tsunami

This is the final instalment from Uday and the Kanitkar family who travelled to the Tohoku region for the ‘Big Three’ festivals in August this year. By the way, we haven’t mentioned that before the family had headed north for the large dose of festival action, they had already been in the cultural capital of  Kyoto for the massive Gion festival. These guys wanted festivals and they got festivals and much more.

For anyone wanting to experience Japanese culture at its best, amazing Japanese hospitality and something you won’t find anywhere else in the world, then this is the way to do it. Having partied at the Kanto festival in Akita, enjoyed the fun and hospitality of the Neputa festival in Hirosaki, they headed to Aomori for the huge Nebuta festival and then on to Sendai for Tanabata. Along with the festivals, they also discovered some of the harsh realities of the Tohoku tsunami which hit the region in March 2011.

The Nebuta festival in Aomori was massive! Words will not do it justice, so it is better described in pictures.

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Having had another fantastic time in Aomori, we headed to Sendai for the most famous Tanabata festival in Japan. There were lanterns everywhere beginning at the Railway Station and just a ten minutes walk away was a covered arcade where at least a thousand colourful lanterns were hanging off the ceiling creating a very festive atmosphere.

People were out shopping and partying dressed in all kinds of colourful clothing. Food stalls were everywhere and we wondered around not finding any trace of the disaster that I had seen on the news four months ago.We had lunch at the Date-no-gutan restaurant at the mall above the train station in Sendai which offers the local delicacy, Beef Tongue, in different recipes. After we took our first bite all the reluctance and hesitation was gone -We were quite happy to have tried something new and tasty.


We checked in at the Tenryu-Kaku Ryokan for yet another delightful experience in Japanese style living and amazing variety of food. The room was well appointed, spacious and offered some beautiful views of the river below and amazing views of the sunset.

 

 

On our second day we decided to do a day trip to the Matsushima Bay Area and I am glad we did. As soon as we got out of the train station on our way to the ferry terminal at Shiogama evidence of Tsunami damage was all around. Heaps of cars and debris was noticeable, boats washed inland lay where the tsunami had carried them.

Matsushima bay offered some very picturesque views from the ferry as we lazed through all the little island outcrops with scenic vegetation while snacks, sake and beer kept flowing. By the time we got to Matsushima I stood on the jetty feeling nice and tipsy for a few minutes trying to figure out the controls on my camera.

 

We walked down Matsushima Kaigan Street enjoying all the delicious sea food at the stalls along the road.  GodaidoTemple and ZuiganjiTemple are very beautiful places to visit with a relaxing atmosphere and beautiful landscape.

 

After taking in enough of pretty Matsushima, we walked up to the Tourist Information office to see what else we could do. We asked the very friendly and helpful lady there if we could visit the Tsunami hit areas. For 6000 yen, she arranged a taxi to take us there, show us around and bring us back in abut 90 minutes. We had not really witnessed any of the huge tsunami damage that had filled our TV screens in the west until now.

We got into the taxi and half an hour later we were in Okumatsushima smack in the middle of the disaster zone. The taxi driver took us to what was his little township of 90 houses along the beach and listened in horror as he narrated how he managed to grab his two children, wife and run up the hill behind their house, seconds before the Tsunami washed away all 90 houses, some as far as half a kilometre away inland from where they stood.

Clearing crews were busy trucking away debris. Only the foundations of houses remained in place with Asian style toilets open to the sky. Large trees lay snapped like twigs, Steel poles lay bent like match sticks, the clock at the train station had stopped at 3.48pm when the Tsunami struck, ghostly houses damaged and empty with owners dead stood along the roads. Schools, Hospitals, factories lay wrecked and deserted.

We stood there contemplating a twenty foot tall wave of water many miles long and many miles deep approaching us at 300 km/hr. I still shiver with the thought of its savage force and my heart goes out to the thousands of victims who are still struggling in Tsunami Shelters trying to bring some sense back into their lives having lost everything and loved ones in a blink of an eye. With a stoical approach they go about their business rebuilding whole towns.

Despite the huge devastation and size of this disaster, the people that we have met up and down the Tohoku region have shown little sign of misery and despair. In fact these wonderful people have been more generous and kinder than we could have ever imagined and shown us an amazing region in a very special country. Arigato!

Having spoken with Uday since his trip, it certainly sounds as though this trip was one which will live in their memories for ever and for all the right reasons. Uday’s blog pieces have focused on the family’s time in Tohoku, but they visited many other stunning places in Japan. It is obvious though that it was their experiences in this rural region, the positivity from the festivals and the warmth of the people that they met that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

6 months on – Part 4: Kinoya and the cans of hope

Look around you” begins Ito-san, a manager from Kinoya fish processing company as he gestures to the devastated buildings on either side . “Before the tsunami there were twenty companies here – only two have started up again and are trying to get back on their feet”. We are standing next to a shell of indeterminate industrial purpose. But this is Ishinomaki so without a doubt this building must have been dedicated to fish. Inside the barren shell, seated on piled up blue and white plastic crates are around 40 people of varying ages. Some look like fresh faced students, others are older. All are wearing rubber gloves in assorted colours – blue, pink, cream, yellow – and are diligently engaged in rinsing an endless number of glinting gold cans.

Ito-san tells his story of the tsunami

Ito-san tells his story of the tsunami and the Kinoya fish processing company

The workers are volunteers from Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO that has served projects across the globe but has for the past five months, supplied tens of thousands of hands to assist with the clean up operation in Tohoku.

Volunteers in Ishinomaki

Volunteers from Peace Boat are busy assisting Kinoya with their clean up operation

On the day of the earthquake,” continues Ito-san, “we got early warning of what was coming. We had radio contact from the fishing boats at sea. They warned us to get out, to run to the high ground”. Kinoya employed approximately 1300 people before the tsunami and all those working that day were evacuated at pace to the hillsides above the town. “I watched the waves come in,” says Ito. “I have lived here for over 50 years; I had seen tsunami, two or three metres, perhaps five. But never like this. It was ten, maybe fifteen metres high.” Ito-san’s reportage is clearly delivered. He is softly spoken but does not falter once or hesitate.

We were on the hillside for three days. We had nothing to eat. The waves continued for that whole time. Every 30 minutes a wave would arrive and then pull back to the ocean. Only after three days did the waters recede and we felt it was safe to send some people down to the town.”

There they found our cans, everywhere, thousands of them. They opened one and found it was good to eat so this is what we all ate. Kinoya cans of fish. However, since many people knew that the cans were from our factory, nobody tried to pick them up because they felt it was inappropriate to eat them without permission. So, after few days, some people living in the shelter came to our CEO – who was also staying at the shelter like the others – and asked for permission to pick up and distribute the cans to the people in the shelter. Our CEO accepted their request, and then 50 or 100 people started picking the cans up, to share with the thousand people waiting at the shelter. Afterward the newspapers heard about it and began calling them the ‘cans of hope.”

It is a catchy marketing slogan and Ito-san goes on to explain how they are trying to restart the business, little by little, recovering as many cans as possible with the help of volunteer workers before distributing to stores in the local area.

Kinoya Headquarters

The headquarters of Kinoya, the sign over the entrance newly restored to an otherwise battered building

I admire Ito-san’s fortitude and resolute determination. He sees Kinoya as pioneers, showing the way to recovery for the people of Ishinomaki; taking small but definite steps, sending the message that they will not be broken. Yet there is also a tinge of despair. “These workers have to leave by 4pm” he says. “Since the earthquake, when the tide comes in it covers this land.” The land here has dropped over one metre. “The government should raise this up again so we can work again and rebuild our factories. It is our job to raise capital from banks and investors. But we can not raise the land. The government has to do it.

And it is this final statement that makes me feel the hopelessness of the situation: This land is no longer suitable for people to live and work on. It has been claimed back by the ocean.  As I look around at the empty concrete shells, piles of debris and vast areas of wasteland, I can not see a day when Ishinomaki will again be a vibrant industrial fishing town and the houses and factories will be rebuilt.

But perhaps I am wrong. We leave, each with our own shiny gold can of hope wrapped in newspaper, a small symbol of the road to a brighter future.

Cans of Hope!

A crate full of 'cans of hope' - this picture is taken from the Peace Boat blog

6 months on – Part 3: Kadonowaki elementary school

The tunnel that cuts through the mountain to the coastal area of Ishinomaki is around 500 metres long; a short distance yet one that divides two different worlds. On the west side, is the city, largely charmless in its proliferation of concrete buildings and prefabricated houses, roadside diners and over-head electricity cables. A first time visitor might describe it as shabby, or depressed, or “in need of investment”. In short it is like much of the rest of urban Japan outside of the shiny glass skyscrapers of the major metropolises. Dotted across the landscape is the occasional half fallen down building, perhaps you might think the victim of decades of neglect and lack of the funds or inclination to repair.

Crossing to the east side is a journey into the surreal. I try and imagine what an unknowing visitor would make of this vast open space, where unnatural mountains of twisted metal and concrete rubble rise up from a wasteland that stretches as far as the ocean in one direction and the tree covered hillsides in the other. Shells of buildings, their timbers splintered and roofs torn from their anchoring walls appear at intervals along the road; eerie, ghostlike scars on the skyline.

Half destroyed building

The Ishinomaki landscape is dotted with these barely standing shells of buildings

Piles of scrap cars

This image of scrap cars piled up was taken from the overhead road that crosses Ishinomaki and is still standing following the tsunami

This is my first look at the destruction wrought on 11th March. It is impressive, awe inspiring and horrific. I am struck by the emptiness of the landscape – what is not here is far more disturbing to me than what remains. No houses, no offices, no trees, no gardens, no washing lines, no cars, no convenience stores, no shops and of course, no people. It is a holocaust, but one wrought by the power of the earth and the ocean not the misguided hand of man and an atomic bomb – the only other scene of destruction that seems to anyway parallel this.

This view of the effects of the tsunami on Ishinomaki is very different to the television pictures that immediately followed in the aftermath of the earthquake. The clean up operation has been in full swing for 5 months now and vast amounts have been accomplished: The sea of debris has been maneuvered by force of muscle and a small army of ‘Komatsu’ heavy plant machinery – Japan’s answer to the JCB digger – into enormous piles, something like a Japanese ‘gomi’ (rubbish/trash) day for giants.

Komatsu diggers get to work in Ishinomaki

Komatsu diggers working in Ishinomaki

Just a few short months ago, in this coastal area stood thousands of houses; now there are row upon row of neat, concrete rectangles that were the platforms on which the prefabricated housing that forms the bulk of modern Japanese homes, were built.  In fact it seems an almost tidy picture of destruction. The powerful late summer sun beats down from a clear blue sky, baking the exposed foundations. It makes me wonder whether late afternoon on 11th March was a bright sunny day, befitting of the end of winter and the start of spring. It seems a rather inane thought yet this town was swept away on a perfectly normal day, just like any other.

The next scheduled stop of my visit to Ishinomaki is the Kadonowaki elementary school. All Japanese schools look pretty much the same: three or four stories of concrete, with evenly spaced windows stretching across a frontage of perhaps 100 metres. A dirt playing field sits in front or behind for baseball, softball, football and other sports. Here though, the windows are black holes. No light emanates from within; no glass remains and the exterior walls of the building are charred black from the fires that raged here for three days following the onslaught of the waves.

Kado no Maki elementary school

The charred shell of Kado no Maki elementary school

The school is located as far from the ocean as you can be in this area of Ishinomaki, built up against the hillside. This place was a designated emergency zone, where students and local residents alike convene at the time of a major earthquake. The sports field provides an ideal space, free from the dangers of falling debris – one of the biggest risks when an earthquake strikes. On this occasion the presence of mind of the teaching staff took the children to mountain behind the school. We were taken up the hillside to behind the building where the children and staff took shelter. Our informative driver-guide, Kikuta-san pointed out where later in the day, locals who had fled to the upper floors of the school had smashed the windows to escape to the hillside behind and up to higher ground.

As the last point of resistance before the land rises, the school building took the full force of the 10 metre wall of water, thick with debris and as witnessed on television screens across the world, cars; hundreds of them picked up and swept away. As metal crashed into and crumpled against the concrete structure the tanks of gasoline ignited and the building was gutted by fire.

We are informed that no students who were present at school when the earthquake struck died. It is a welcome and seemingly remarkable piece of news. However, tragically, amongst those young children who were at home sick or had left early for the day, several perished in the tsunami. Those locals unable to climb to the top of the school, primarily the elderly and disabled, were also taken by the waves. This is a sobering tale and casts me back to the adorable elementary school children I taught when working as an ALT in Toyota-city over ten years ago. The reality is that thousands of children lost their lives on 11th March. It is heartbreaking.

I find it hard to comprehend lives thrust from afternoon lessons, cleaning time, P.E. class into the heart of a disaster biblical in scale. I wonder how these kids must feel. What do they think about now? Some have lost a parent, or both parents. Most are now housed with their families in temporary accommodation, porta-cabins that offer many conveniences of modern living but in a tiny space perhaps smaller than my bedroom at home.

Teddy Bear memorial at Kado no Maki

These children's toys were left by the school swimming pool

There is little time to stand and contemplate. I are beckoned to the car and my macabre tour continues as we drive half a mile or so towards the ocean.

Sunflowers at Kado no Maki Elementary

Sunflowers have been widely planted across the affected region as they are known to be effective in absorbing radiation from the soil although Ishinomaki has not really been affected in this way

A destroyed building

No buildings remain intact in what was once a very crowded urban landscape

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