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.

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’.

Photos from It’s Not Just Mud

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

This is my final blog post from Ishinomaki where I have been very privileged to spend a week volunteering with It’s Not Just Mud.

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The dream volunteering team: Stephen, Kenji and I.

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Our mission: to lay a new floor in Nakada-San’s office. It’s Not Just Mud are helping to renovate this building which will be the headquarters for a fishing company. The business will buy seafood from local fisherman and sell it on to buyers across Japan.

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My job? Burning waste wood and making the tea…

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…except somehow I managed to melt the lid to the kettle spout?!

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Insulation down, floorboards halfway there…

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…so time for lunch.

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The best meal yet.

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Rice mountain.

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In the afternoon they let me loose with the rotary saw, hahaha!

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And a bit of hammering.

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Job done. An excellent day.

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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

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

 

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