Volunteering in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, Tohoku

Ishinomaki 2011

On April 15th I departed to volunteer in a town called Ishinomaki, just north of Sendai, in Tohoku area of Japan – the region worst hit by the March 11th tsunami – with an organisation called Peace Boat. I was in a team of (initially) 7 – 2 Canadians (Carla and Allyn), 1 Irish (Paddy), 1 Chilean (German), 1 American (Mike) and 1 Japanese (our team leader, Ai). There were 2 international volunteer groups in total, the other having 9 members.
Ishinomaki is one of the worst affected by the tsunami that came after the earthquake. As of April 16th, 2,750 deaths have been reported and at least 2,463 unaccounted for.

April 15th, 9.30PM departure. The bus up to Ishinomaki is an overnight one, with long rest stops, one even being 3 hours long. Everything still looked normal until we got very close, but even then the signs of destruction seemed to be scant & scattered.

April 16th, sunny. We arrived at our campsite at 09:00, being the senshu university of Ishinomaki. It was so sunny that we were all very sceptical of ever having to use our Hokkaido pads (these pads that you stick to your clothes that heat up with your body temperature and keep warm for a long time). We got ready for departure pretty quick, and went to join a group of 5 volunteers with a different organisation who would be our co-team for 2 days. The place we were volunteering (as part of the ‘clean team’) was called Chuo-ku, the central part of Ishinomaki, close to the station, and therefore mainly consists of shops. This area is known as the ‘partially-destroyed’ part of the town, and my first impressions of it were that it was a lot cleaner than I’d expected and a few cars here and there driving around. The co-ordination of volunteer assignments was still a little rough, and we were moved around a little, which didn’t matter too much as the day finishes at 16:00, and it was a late start. It felt very good to be useful, though I would like to be more so.
Back at camp, the wind had been howling (the university is located on high ground). As a result, about 20% of tents had been blown away/down, including mine, and I was hardly as optimistic as I was when we arrived. I finally moved my tent to somewhere somewhat sheltered from the wind, but safe to say I didn’t sleep much that night. The weather is very deceiving – the temperature and the work keep you very warm during the day but at night my feet were cold enough to keep me from any solid sleep.

April 17th, windy. I managed to survive the night with my tent still standing. 07:30 meeting. Just a quick brief of departure times etc – basic schedule being 08:30 departure, 1 hour lunch break around 12:00 and then work until 16:00. After cleaning and everything we should expect to get back around 17:00 and due to the weather as well as darkness we never stayed up too much longer after that. The best part of the morning, however, was the RADIO TAISO! This is a set of ‘stretching’ exercises (though they don’t do much) that are done as a group along to music, done in most schools and companies too! People started them in 1928, and it’s hilarious to see a bunch of people do stretches to some recorded voice shouting – ichi, ni, san, shi! (1, 2, 3, 4!). See the video.
Today we were assigned a great plot of land where a house used to stand. It’s crazy because the houses next to it are still standing and the outer shape is quite well preserved but then you have these houses in between that are just gone, and it’s so clear how much better newer building technologies are. There was a bunch of rubbish and a car at the back, so I’m thinking it was maybe flung through the house. Amongst the rubble we found some interesting things – a hardly-mouldy orange (after 1 month!), 2 live crabs, photos, a dead fish and a dead eel. The stench was horrible.
At lunch there was free food for the volunteers – I was very surprised. I think in general during this trip I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the camping conditions. The porta-loos are really clean, whereas I though we’d be getting music festival-style stench toilets without toilet paper, and most days we were able to get free food either at the work site or at camp. There was even a water truck every morning, meaning I carried about 18L of water from Tokyo for nothing. Apart from the weather conditions I couldn’t really complain!
After lunch we got good & dirty cleaning out some sewers, it felt really good to do some hard work like that. I still don’t really feel any big shock yet. The Japanese part of our group are leaving, though we’ve already set up a reunion for Sunday! There seems to be a great group dynamic in our team, even with the Japanese crew we all work together really well .
We spoke to a lady living around the plot of land we cleaned up today, and she told us that she was on the 2nd floor when the tsunami hit, and that the water came in about 4 waves, and that the water was black water. The earthquake hit at 14:46, but water started coming into the first floor 10 minutes or so after, and the next wave took it up to the 2nd floor around midnight, with the water bubbling slightly. This is one of the many stories we were able to hear.
At the end of the day we were assigned to doing some gardening, which none of us were too pleased about as we much preferred the dirty work of the sewers we were doing before.
Got a little more sleep, only until about 1ish, after which I couldn’t sleep well due to the cold and the noise of the tarp hitting the tent.

April 18th, sunny. Today, instead of radio taiso we had ‘mouth taiso’. From Oita prefecture, down in Kyushu, these people claimed that doing these mouth exercises every day prevented your mouth from drying out and developing a cough. It was a little ridiculous, we sounded like a bunch of goats. Radio taiso was much more fun.
After the morning meeting a new member rocked up, seemingly out the of the middle of nowhere. A Norwegian military, who came to Japan to help out, not really knowing where to go and got put in with our group. Extra muscle always comes in handy!
We were assigned to gardening again. First we were a little disappointed but we worked hard and it felt like we did get a lot done. The lady was very nice and gave us snacks and coffee. It’s so hard accepting these donations from people who have lost everything. But they just want to say thank you.
The lady told us her story too (they loosen up after a day usually). Her husband, daughter and herself were at work when the tsunami hit, but her 18 year-old son was at home. Their son was trapped in the house for 4 days, after which he waded in the water (which was waist-high) to the evacuation place. The other 3 sought refuge in their car by parking on the 2nd floor of a pachinko parlour (Japanese gambling), but they were trapped in their car for 2 days. The 2nd day they were about to wade out and find somewhere to go when the Japanese self-defence force saved them. 2 weeks after they returned to find their son, who they found around town, at which point the lady started crying (she’d kept back before that as she felt it would’ve meant he was dead she thought).
I also spoke to some younger locals – 2 girls (22 and 27 years old) who told me their house was fine but they’d lost their grandparents (it seems the older generation were the main victims). They didn’t really seem to want to talk to much about the earthquake though, and wanted to talk about travelling and everything else good in life.
At night I felt a little aftershock in my tent. These aftershocks are not big, but it feels a little strange because you’re lying on the floor. All in all, I felt relatively few in my time up here.

April 19th, rainy. I don’t feel like I’m getting a whole lot of sleep, yet I wake up really genki (active, and motivated). Maybe it’s the change of scenery, the people or the fact that I feel like I’m really doing something useful, but I feel more in place than I’ve felt for a while.
Today we cleaned out a Fugu restaurant. This place didn’t have much electricity working, so we had to use our head torches. The town has water back, and since the 14th also electricity but no gas yet. Most people trying to live in the area are still surviving off rations. The man who’s restaurant we cleaned told us the 1st floor of his house is flooded and the restaurant is all he has left. He stays with friends in different places and doesn’t own any of his own clothes. But this man was one of my favourites from the whole trip! He was so sweet! He’d done a lot of cleaning up in his restaurant, meaning we didn’t have to worry about stumbling across any dangerous sharp objects, and he didn’t just watch us clean, but he helped us too. He saw the tsunami coming and rushed to the hill to flee, meaning he was able to see the tsunami take over the whole town.
Ishinomaki is famous for Shotaro Ishinomori’s manga talents of eg. kamen rider. In celebration of his legacy, they have this mushroom-shaped museum on this island on the river running through the town. This whole island was heavily effected by the tsunami and our fugu man, Toriko-san, said there were people in this museum trying to pull up people being dragged away by the water – only 40 people were able to be saved this way.
During the lunch break we went up the hill to see a view of the completely-destroyed part of town. It was the first time everyone in the group shut up, and made our part of town seem like a luxury resort. Everything, apart from a few houses here and there, was turned to rubble. For miles and miles. It was kind of surreal. Wasteland. All there really was to do there was for a truck to push everything to the side and to rebuild, because there was nothing left to be saved. Cars, crushed and on top and houses and other trucks, strewn around as weeds growing in a clean garden. It’s difficult to describe it, and it’s just so sad because it was clearly a prospering place. There must still be hundreds of bodies there. As I write this, the lack of mud in the area does come to mind. It also made me enjoy our work even more, because working in the fully destroyed area is destruction work, whereas we can save something, and give people the energy and motivation to not give up, and make them smile.
We were happy to be coming back to the fugu restaurant tomorrow (a max of 2 days per house), and tried even harder to gambare (the japanese word for do your best, also meaning good luck – we learned the Miyagi & Fukushima dialect word for it – GAMBAPE!). We had to finish early though because it was still raining outside. After a super early dinner (around 16:45 I think!) we all retreated to our tents – our bed time was around 20:00 most days anyway. Trying to get to sleep, though I heard the rain turn very lightweight (snow?), at around 22:00 I heard this scratching on my tarp. My first instinct was that it was a drunken person stumbling across my tarp, and the next moment I thought someone was coming to steal it. I freaked out, and, trying to rush out of my tent, found it very difficult as the snow had made the blue sheet tarp very heavy & blocking the entrance of the tent. I felt claustrophobic, and using all my energy to rush out, found a Japanese girl trying to clear the snow off my tarp, and I immediately felt bad. But the whole campus was covered in snow. Then I heard people from peace boat on speaker phones saying: something something hinan shite kudasai (meaning please evacuate) and I was really worried (in the end it turned out they said if you want to, please evacuate to the university). I grabbed my sleeping bag and headed into the building with someone else, in good spirits of rumours about heating. I didn’t get heating, only heavy snorers. I was not amused! Safe to say, I didn’t sleep well that night.

April 20th, cloudy. Due to the snow (a lot of tents were enveloped) we had a late start, and as my tent was still standing I was a little bored. I’d managed to get hold of a blanket at the university, which I borrowed for the rest of the time and kept me warm enough to give me lots of sleep the subsequent nights. I also got hold of some cardboard boxes to elevate my bed off the floor, what a bum I looked like!!
We finished off at the fugu restaurant for the rest of the day, and Toriko-san, wanting to give us something, brought down what was probably the last of his possessions, some traditional Japanese laterns and matches with the restaurant’s address. I couldn’t take a lantern due to lack of space, but I got his business card and if he decides to open his restaurant again (he’s 67) I will definitely be going back there. What a sweetheart.
We got another temporary new volunteer (though only for a night), from the UK. He was quickly welcomed into the team.
I managed to get a full night’s sleep for the first time.

April 21st, cloudy with some sun. Having finished up at the fugu restaurant, today we were assigned to a seaweed restaurant. Today I really noticed that slowly but surely, a change in happening in the town, a positive change. We were told that a man who owned a Chinese restaurant had given it up for good, but after volunteers went in for 2 days he decided to give it a go anyway. Day by day the amount of cars in town are increasing (there are now even traffic control people), and more and more younger people are found in town. There is even the occasional group of ‘youngsters’ (mid-20’s I mean) cleaning their own shop, or an acquaintance’s shop, with music playing in the background! 3 or 4 shops have re-opened, selling fruits and veg, often the result of aid received from peace boat. The positivity is so encouraging, and it’s a positive feedback loop between the volunteers and the locals. It’s amazing to be part of this reconstruction.
At the back of the nori restaurant there was an elderly couple living on the 3rd floor, the man being about 69 and had lost most of his eyesight, yet he was the nicest man ever, trying as much to talk to all of us. After we’d done some cleaning he told us – I can’t see very well, but I can smell it and I can hear it, and I know it’s much cleaner, thank you. How adorable!
Also, just before our lunch break, the seaweed shop owner’s relatives came by to take a group photo of us, and when the lady found out where we were all from she started crying a little. It melts your heart. We worked as hard as possible, and were able to finish our work in a day.
During lunch, some of us ran off, without official permission, to go into the fully affected area of town. After clambering over some cars, and smiling politely at the self-defence force, we were in the heart of the destruction, and it really brings it all home. Photographs and other important documents here and there, an intact bottle of wine next to a destroyed car, a ventilation pipe with a dent in it at about 3 stories high. It’s difficult to describe it, because it’s almost like there’s nothing to describe. Nothing standing. I found a clock, and it had stopped at 14:48. I don’t know if it fell and broke as a result of the earthquake, or if that was any indication of what time water started coming in. Talking to people in the area, many of them have learned, about the lack of importance of material possessions, but many people not too far away don’t seem to be taking to many lessons away from this tragedy. Unless you see the destruction for yourself, TV images don’t do much justice, really. But it was quite a contrast, with all this destruction and the cherry blossoms blooming on the hill right behind.
The trip ended up taking longer than we’d hoped, but none of our team members seemed to take it too much to heart, and we finished off at the seaweed store that day.

April 22nd, cloudy. Our last day of work has come around, and it’s so sad. We’re all quite tired, but if I wasn’t leaving Japan in a few days I would have no problem sticking around for another week (they were asking people to stay). Soon Golden Week is coming, however (the almost full week of holidays in Japan) and they have 500 volunteers coming up, compared to our 130. I wouldn’t like to be part of that group, it’ll be quite chaotic I imagine.
Our Norwegian member, Kenneth, had to leave us, but he’s joining us at our reunion on Sunday before he goes home. Back to the original 7.
Today we were assigned a kimono shop to clean, and I went crazy on the toilet, it felt really good!! The owners were the cutest couple, very friendly and laughing. It was the comedy show, because we accidently broke a water pipe, and water was leaking into the shop. The owner laughed it out, and a man cleaning up outside helped us with his tools. He was the funniest guy – ‘made in korea’ (of Korean decent), he took a great liking to Paddy, and called him for the tiniest thing, even though we were all standing around. He said in life, men only use their heads and their penises and provided us all with some hilarious comedy (ok open, STOP STOP STOP!). Maybe one of our favourite houses so far.
The lady was in love with turtles (after all, the shop was called kameshichi – the 7 turtles), and she gaves us towels with turtles on them as a thank you. We had to finish off early because there was a hanami (though obviously alcohol-less) arranged (the cherry blossoms were in beautiful bloom) and the locals provided us with delicious food – some gobo (a Japanese root vegetable), pork soup and grilled chicken. They had made a beautiful sign in Japanese – Together we will take a step, our sincere gratitude, thank you – and the picture appeared in the Asahi newspaper (see below). Our kimono shop owners came, and our fugu man came too. He was so cute: he’d brought a bag with bottles of coke and orange lemonade he’d found from before the tsunami that had survived, and he wanted us to drink them. We took them home as souvenirs. He also noted that no one was drinking, and we said, well no. He was so shocked we hadn’t had any alcohol all week he rushed back to his shop and gave us a big bottle of sake (secretly, in a bag), which we drank heartily that evening. Could he be any nicer??
We went to bed at 22:00 on the last night, probably the latest we’ve stayed up all week! We’re all very sad to leave, though we’re really looking forward to that shower!!

April 23rd, raining. Packing up our tents in the rain, NOT COOL! It put a damper on our spirits, and our morning meeting was in a big tent. We had to hang around until about 13:00, at which point we were all ready to get out of the rain. All in all, it’s been such an amazing week, I’ve learned so much from these people, and I have so much respect for them. I’m determined to come back in a year’s time, and to see how the town is coming along, and I know that I too can gambape.


(printed on the Asahi newspaper website, from the hanami)

See all of the Ishinomaki volunteering photos on picasa.

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