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

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.

The dream volunteering team: Stephen, Kenji and I.

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.

My job? Burning waste wood and making the tea…

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

Insulation down, floorboards halfway there…

…so time for lunch.

The best meal yet.

Rice mountain.

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

And a bit of hammering.

Job done. An excellent day.


If you want to donate to ItsNotJustMud and help with the incredible work they are doing in Tohoku, please follow this link

10 Reasons why Japan is so great – 1. Culture

Japan  is special and many of you reading this will probably already know that, but just in case their are any doubters out there, I thought I would just outline a few reasons into words and pictures….which is actually quite hard to do.  I have put together 10 reasons as to why Japan is so great. Everyone has different reasons and experiences as to what makes Japan so great for them, so I would be keen to hear your reasons as to why Japan is so great from you too.

No. 1 – Culture

This is a bit of an all encompassing category really, as just about everything great in Japan stems from the culture, but it is definitely worth highlighting.

Japan is like no other country in the world. As soon as you step off the plane, you feel like you are in a foreign country….a completely foreign country. It is an exciting feeling. Everywhere you go and everything you do in Japan, you will see, hear, taste and feel Japanese culture. You might see old women and young ladies walking about in their kimono, people bowing in the street, young salarymen paying their respects at a local shrine tucked behind their office block, and people taking their shoes off to enter a particular building.

These are just a few things that make Japan different and don’t seem that bigger deal when you read them on their own. When you are in Japan, you will see all of these elements combined together with a million and one other little things that make up Japanese culture and make Japan so different.

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The idea that Japanese culture is so special is hard to grasp for many until you have actually been to the country. People cannot fail to fall in love with it once they have been.  It is one of the reasons as to why Japan is so great.

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 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

Return to Japan- 6 months After the quake

I have been back in Japan for 10 days and it feels good. It is hot, humid and sweaty. Not to everybody’s taste but I love it; an escape from the impending and inevitable drawing in of the nights in the UK and the prospect of a cold damp winter that will inevitably follow.

I have walked the temples of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district at dawn; slept on soft tatami mat flooring; soaked myself in deep, steaming hot baths; traversed 2000 km of the east coast by ‘Bullet’ Train; slurped delicious tingling cold udon and soba noodles; crunched the lightest, crispiest tempura; savoured immaculately cut slices of sashimi adorned with freshly grated wasabi; drunk the freshest, crisp, cold sake; marvelled at the Tokyo skyline; been soaked to the skin under the neon lights of a Shibuya night. This is Japan and I love it.

Happy days with the "hotate" (scallops) - oh, and beer!

However, on this trip I also had the opportunity to travel north-east to Tohoku and to see for myself a small part of the devastation which followed in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami. It was needless to say, a thought provoking trip and one that I am glad I made as part of my efforts to try and understand what happened and what the future holds for those people directly affected by the disaster.

Over the next few days I will be posting my thoughts and impressions of each stage of my journey. I hope that this will provide at least a small insight into my experience and those of the people I met and talked with. But perhaps most of all, writing this down has been my way of processing my thoughts and feelings when confronted first hand with such an enormous human tragedy.

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Sludge shoveling in Ishinomaki

I recently completed seven days volunteer work with the Japan-based non-profit organization Peace Boat.  I was part of an international group of 6 volunteers – British, Japanese, Irish and Vietnamese.  Complete strangers at the start, the nature of our work and life in Ishinomaki brought us together.  We barely lost sight of each other all week.

Our team. Should note this was the muddiest I saw any of the volunteers get during the 7 days I was there. (All photos are courtesy of fellow volunteer Phuong Nguyen)

Our day started outside in the courtyard with rajio taiso, a slightly camp but addictive musical warm-up exercise.  We shoveled sludge from 8-5, then washed our tools and work-clothing before re-entering the base.  Most evenings we cooked and ate together.  For the benefit of others, I helped with eating rather than cooking.

Our home for the week was a square of small plastic-covered tatami mats in the corner of Kasuka Fashion, a two storey building which is a base for Peace Boat relief operations in Ishinomaki.  The base is just 1km from the sea, on the edge of a vulnerable flat bed of land that the tsunami swallowed up three months ago.

The homes around Kasuka have been affected in one of three ways: those completely washed away, those damaged but still standing, and those structurally unhurt but with hedoro (sludge washed in by the tsunami) piled up inside.

Cycling to work at the Endo`s home.

Our group specialized in removing this hedoro.  Handling hedoro is a curious experience.  It smells like seawater, can be toxic, and looks like dark chocolate mousse.  Carefully avoiding the temptation to taste some, we shoveled it into sandbags which we took onto the road to await collection.

It was not always straightforward work.  Hedoro is a stubborn elusive foe that lurks in every nook and cranny.  We needed support.  Peace Boat provided us with weapons to evict the unwelcome lodger.  We used a koatsu hosu (high pressure hose), neko (wheelbarrows), baketsu (buckets), chiritori (dustpans), joren (a cross between a shovel and a scythe) and sukopu (shovels).  In awkward areas, where none of these tools were suitable, we used our rubber-gloved hands.

In the house of the Endo family, hedoro had made a home amongst the pipes in a narrow culvert under the bathroom floor.  Wearing a head torch, helmet, facemask, goggles and taped-up rain suit we took turns to wriggle in and clear it out.  Nicknamed the SWAT job, it wasn`t a pleasant task, but it made for good photos and banter afterwards.

Hiro, a Japanese volunteer home for a holiday from Texas, takes on the SWAT job at the Endo family home.

The six of us took us 5 full days to clear beneath the floor of two homes and from the garden of another.  Our role was just one stage in the rehabilitation of these houses – professionals will have to complete the job.  When you consider more than a 100,000 houses were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami, both professionals and volunteers will be needed for a long time.

Three months after the event, many parts of Ishinomaki still resemble a war-zone.  It`s almost as if the tsunami happened just yesterday.  In some areas, apart from the roads, little seems to have improved since March 11th.  In no-go zones, the Self-Defence Force are still searching wreckage for bodies.

This snail-paced recovery is not down to tardiness, but because of the scale of the devastation.  Estimates suggest that the earthquake moved the east coast of Japan 8 feet, while parts of Ishinomaki sank by over one metre.  In a seaside town, this shift has serious consequences.  At high tide, roads now become rivers, and some coastal residential areas may be declared uninhabitable.

Ishinomaki seafront.

Our contribution felt tiny, inches of progress when there are miles to be travelled.  But tiny contributions are all that one person can make. When all these tiny contributions are added together you can see a difference.

The Endo family were gentle and kind to us, even though we were stomping around their home in filthy safety boots.  They have been stuck on the 2nd floor for almost three months, effectively living above a bog.

The father works while the mother looks after their young children, any free moments are spent cleaning their home.  Removing the toxic hedoro in a relatively short space of time, we were able to make a real difference to their quality of life.  It felt like we had helped them take a step back up a ladder they had been pushed off.

To show their gratitude, Mrs Endo regularly handed out sweet snacks.  This was appreciated.  It confirmed we were welcome guests, and more importantly, it took away the nauseating aftertaste of my cheese-filled fish sausage packed lunch.

On my final morning, before I boarded the bus back to Tokyo, a leading volunteer shook my hand and said “Hope to see you again”.  He`s not going home for a while, and neither is Peace Boat.  Manpower is still desperately needed in Ishinomaki, so much so that Peace Boat is now accepting volunteers for two-days.  The job has only just started.

Earthquake-damaged garden reopens

Ibaraki is the ninja prefecture; it is right next to Tokyo but nobody seems to have noticed it. On the rare occasions people are familiar with Ibaraki, it`s usually because of natto, a stinky sticky soy bean concotion that drives diners wild. Loved or hated, usually the latter, eating natto is an obligation for all Ibaraki visitors; as is a visit to Kairakuen garden, in the prefectural capital, Mito.   

Kairakuen garden.


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