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.

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’.

My favourite place in Japan – Jen Snow

We have some pretty good talent on the ground in Japan in our Nagoya office and leading tours around the country.One of our new tour leaders is Bostonian, Jen Snow. I would give you a little of Jen’s Japan background, but I will let her tell you herself.

Hello readers! My name is Jen, and I’m a new Tour Leader here at IJT. A little about myself – I first came to Japan during university through a study abroad program based in Kyoto, which is still my favourite city in the country, and one that I appreciate more and more each time I visit.

Not only can you appreciate the best of traditional culture in Kyoto, but as a college town, it is still a youthful and contemporary city – yet more laid back than the hustle-and-bustle atmosphere of Tokyo (although Tokyo is fun too for that very reason!).

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Dragon stairs at Eikan-do Temple – one of my favourite temples in Kyoto

In fact, along with discovering new aspects of temples and shrines and taking excursions to Nara to visit the adorable deer, sometimes my favourite things to do in Kyoto are searching for good deals in the shopping arcades and relaxing with friends along the riverbank that runs near the centre of town.

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Deer grazing in front of an art museum in Nara

I decided to continue pursuing my interest in Japanese culture in graduate school, where I received Masters degree in East Asian studies with a focus on Japanese cultural studies. As part of my degree, I participated in an intensive Japanese language and home stay program in Hakodate, Hokkaido, famous as the second city opened to the West in the 19th century and a great place to experience the fusion of Japanese and Western architecture that emerged in the late 19thcentury.

Following the disasters in Tohoku, I was eager to help my second-home in any way that I could, having volunteered in disaster areas in my own country quite a few times, and after completing my Masters , I went to the affected are to stay as a long-term volunteer at It’s Not Just Mud. I was inspired by locals who worked so diligently to rebuild their lives in the face of such devastating events and came to appreciate the natural beauty of the Northern Japanese countryside.

 

Like all our tour leaders, Jen is obviously passionate about Japan which comes across when you speak to her. Jen is keen to introduce the magic of Japan and the culture to anyone on her tour.

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

 

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

 

 

 

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