Four years on from the Tsunami

Lets go Ishinomaki

With the fourth anniversary of the great tsunami here and the disaster hit areas recently highlighted by Prince Williams royal visit, we thought you might want to read our Steve’s account of his recent Ishinomaki visit…

Recently, I led our A Northern Soul Tour through the wonderful Tohoku region of Japan, following in the footsteps of arguably its greatest poet, Matsuo Basho, who took 6 months of life to hike what became known as Oku No Hosoi Michi, the Narrow Road to the Deep North. The 1200-mile odyssey spawned prolific travel writing and poetry and highlighted this truly wondrous region of Japan.

Although the Japanese themselves are well aware of the region’s many appealing attractions, the (undiscerning) majority of foreign travel companies and travelers overlook it. That was to our advantage recently – it was our own adventure, exclusive in that we met just one Taiwanese group in 2 weeks after leaving Tokyo and heading north!

However, herein lies the sad legacy of the 2011 Great Northeastern Earthquake, which still deeply affects the golden people of Tohoku, both emotionally, economically and in their daily lives. Unfortunately, in an industry where awards are collected like pin badges, somehow validating the quality and trustworthiness of a company, the responsible tourism bandwagon is a crowded bus that every travel firm seems to claim a seat on. Some firms hold, however, suspect credentials.

Therefore, at InsideJapan Tours, we felt it crucial that during a 2 week trip of World Heritage Sites, Nature Trails, zen gardens, sumptuous Japanese feasts and traditional Japanese accommodation with its immaculate service, that we should drop in on one of the afflicted towns of the ensuing tsunami.

Ishinomaki is one such place – a fishing town that, for a while at least, became known to the world. Youtube satiated the voyeuristic lust for the devastating – a disaster unwinding before our very eyes, was satiated as the earth’s assertiveness over humanity was. It was hard-hitting, for some maybe even entertaining, and then it was forgotten. For the people of Ishinomaki, every day touches on that fateful event in some way, for all who survived. 4761 perished, and some 420 people are to this day unaccounted for. The eternal pain and grief that this lack of closure must cause is unimaginable. The sense of loss that this town has had to endure is immense, yet, as perhaps you can imagine, you will not meet a finer community of smiling, warm, welcoming people who can claim to have a clearer perspective on life than someone like myself.

My first visit with the group was a non-scheduled side excursion. We arrived late afternoon so the sun had already set. Although dark, I believe my group understood the reasons to be there. We grabbed 2 taxis and I asked  both drivers, who were on duty on that day, to take us where they felt we should see. One driver relayed how he had been parked in the station- front taxi rank at 2:46pm, March 11, 2011, when the huge 8.9 temblor struck off the Tohoku coast. An hour later and the station area, some 3km away from the seafront was inundated with waist high water.

Perhaps the fate of this lucky driver was sealed by falling debris in the station due to the quake. He and other taxi drivers offered comfort and warmth by allowing the injured to sit in the cab until the shaking stopped. He was then involved in helping those (numbers unknown) and so was off duty, away from the coast, and therefore relatively safe.

We were driven to the seafront, peered out into the still darkness which permeated a chillingly menacing presence in the cold darkness. Then onto the famous memorial and logo board, painted just after the disaster. An eternal lantern remains lit, and flowers are regularly laid. The words Ganbarou Ishinomaki (Let’s Go Ishinomaki) are emblazoned upon timber panelling as a motivator and a 6.9metre wave height marker gives context in an area that had 1800 buildings – the majority completely destroyed.

After wracking up 60 pounds in taxi fares, we asked to be dropped in the restaurant area of town. I wanted to put a little money into the pockets of a locally-run business. A little disappointing, yet ironically of course immensely heartening was the fact that I could not find anywhere for my group on a Saturday night – all fully booked. Good to see people are eating out, socializing and enjoying each others’ company – moving on and up. Hence, with the cold and time running out, it was time to leave and head back to the city of Sendai.

For me that encounter was not enough though, and so the week after my tour finished, I made the trip back to the town to spend a day interacting and exploring, in order to put more context to everything. Partly for personal reasons, partly for work, I needed to return to talk to more people, spend a little more money and see the town in the light of day. I rented a cycle and took most of the afflicted areas in.

Next year, I hope to have InsideJapan Tours groups and individual travelers staying in Ishinomaki for a night – the local community will warm to you, you will bring a smile to faces, perspective on life will be gleaned, and hey, if you feel a little good about yourself – well great! Please go to Ishinomaki when you get the chance!

Here are some of the photos that I took on that moving day:

Left to Die

This former shop, right on the Kitakami River remains derelict and contorted, untouched since the disaster.

Lost Home, Lost Hope

House and garden in ruins. On the Kitakami RIver, a mile from the seafront.

Deleted Edo House 2

Some buildings received more renovation and maintenance than others. In the background, the manga artist, Ishinomori Shotaro-inspired Manga Museum is open for visitors, and is one of the tourist attractions of the town.

The Hill that saved lives - Hiroriyama

This charming little girl was playing in the park on Hiroriyama Hill with her grandparents. The sign designates the hill as an official disaster evacuation point. It saved 100s of lives as many climbed the hill to avoid the incoming mass of seawater.

Hand Written Daily Paper - post tsunami

For days, the local Hibi Newspaper could only inform the community by handwriting 6 large sheets of headline news and posting them at city hall and at convenience stores in the afflicted area.

Ishinomaki High School Baseball team - playing for lost schoolmates

I happened across Ishinomaki High School baseball team members. They were running up and down the steps of the shrine complex. These students are truly playing the game in memory of lost friends and family.

6.9 Metre Tsunami Wave Marker

A young woman peers up to the top of the wave marker, just 500 metres from the shore. The tsunami reached 6.9 metres at this point. Kadonowaki District had pretty much all of its 1800 houses and businesses completely destroyed.

Kashima Mikou Shrine

The abandoned Kashima Mikou Temple, 500metres from the shoreline

Wasteland Where 5000 once Lived

Wasteland where once was…

A Business Grows

Heartening to see the young folks of Ishinomaki starting their own businesses. This cafe was remodeled and a new venture started after the original went out of business.

Ganbaro!

The same slogan of encouragement, 4 years on. The surrounding area remains a barren wasteland of grass and weeds.

Shoreline 2014

High on Hiyoriyama Hill – this was the point from where extended footage of the disaster was shot.

Sunset on Kitakami River, Ishinomaki

The calm of the Kitakami RIver at sunset – the chaos of the disaster seems impossible to fathom on such a beautiful evening.

SONY DSC

A Tohoku smile to touch the heart of the most hardened. This is the welcome you get in Ishinomaki!

Steve and his band will be playing a charity gig in Tokyo to raise money for victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. If you are in Tokyo this weekend why not support a good cause and get a taste for the local indie scene..

Chrity fundraiser

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.

Image

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.

Image

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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