Posted by: The Trails Less Traveled | March 18, 2012

Japan Tsunami Relief Volunteer Trip March 6 – March 16, 2012

Rikuzen Takata & Ofunato

Just returned today from a seemingly short but exciting and memorable two week trip to Japan.  The trip was mainly arranged around a one week tsunami relief volunteer program called “Kizuna,” that was organized by Kintetsu Travel Agency’s Akira-san.  But my girlfriend and I decided to extend our trip an extra week to get some sightseeing in and of course, good food in our stomachs.  Although the cherry blossoms weren’t yet blooming in early March, the beautiful winter scenic shots of snow capped mountains and rivers in Iwate Prefecture certainly made up for it.  Not many tourists go up north this far, but we were fortunate enough to travel through this rural and relatively untouched part of Japan.  The people there are friendly and strong, we were deeply humbled by their strong will to keep moving forward despite the tragic events that unfolded on March 11, 2011.

We started our trip in Tokyo, a true definition of a metropolis.  We arrived to Haneda via DL637 at around 5AM.  We spent one night in Tokyo at Ours Inn Hankyu Hotel in Oimachi, couple stations down from Shinagawa.  We had one day in Tokyo before heading out so we decided to go to the usual spots around the Tokyo Core.  By nightfall, we found ourselves at Shibuya walking around for good food when we came upon a Mos Burger…if you’ve never tried this place before you’re missing out.

The following day we boarded a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hanamaki.  From there we took a local train to Tono City, a city rooted in traditional folklore such as the water creature called the kappa. In Tono City, the volunteer group we worked under was Magokoro Net.  This was an impressive organization of highly dedicated volunteers.  Their base of operations and living quarters seem to have sprung up overnight in response to the tsunami disaster.  And yet it has turned into a permanent living quarters for the many volunteers who come and stay for days, weeks, and even months at a time.  I heard that the living quarters hover around freezing temps during the cold winters there due to lack of insulation and heating in the temporary buildings!  And yet, they were full of volunteers willing to endure a little hardship for the chance to volunteer.  The volunteer centers are full of camaraderie among those who stay there, and I was surprised at the number of foreigners who were there, from America to New Zealand.  Akira-san arranged for us to stay at the Tono City train station hotel Folklorio, however, which was a short walk away from the volunteer center.  On our first day of volunteering we woke up early and reported to the volunteer center for morning roll call and “radio taiso-” to start the day.  For that day we were assigned to Kamaishi, a small coastal town that was hit by the tsunami.  Our mission for the day was to clean up an elderly home that was flooded and to remove rust from the steel beams of the structure in preparation for rust prevention coating.  During lunch, we went further inland to the relocation area where temporary structures house convenience stores and restaurants.  The people here were very friendly and hospitable.  After our day was finished we headed back to the volunteer center, but due to time constraints we couldn’t stay for the end of the day meetings they have on a daily basis.  From Tono City, we traveled to Morioka by local train.  Morioka is the capital of Iwate Prefecture, definitely more urban and more populous than Tono City.  The city lies at the base of the impressive Mount Iwate (perhaps a peak I can conquer one day?).  Anyways, for the next 3 days this would be our base.

The first two days were spent waking up early to report to the Kawai Camp.  This volunteer center was set up inside a school and living conditions were seemingly better.  The road to this tiny village of Kawai follows a beautiful river that takes you all the way to Miyako.  During our two days here, we helped set up for the one year memorial event for the victims as well as a photo returning event where photos that were salvaged during the cleanup were on display so people could at least retrieve some small memory of the past that was all lost.  It was nice to see some people returning with pictures they found that belonged to them, but it was also sad to see those who came back empty handed.  Although it was definitely nice to help set up this event, two days of being indoors all day led to a little boredom.  Luckily, on our last volunteer day we met with another volunteer group led by Akira-san’s friend.  The final day of the trip would be spent doing manual labor in Ofunato cleaning up an oyster hatchery that was ruined by the tsunami.  One of the priorities of the reconstruction process is to jump start the local aquaculture businesses that was destroyed.  The people of Iwate are proud people, and although they seem to sincerely appreciate the outpouring of support from all over the world, what they really want is to rebuild and start working again.  The final day was laborious but gratifying because we could actually see the results of our work which was hundreds of sand bags filled with debris that was removed from the canals.  Our final day of volunteering also happened to fall on the one year anniversary of the tsunami disaster.  After lunch, we participated in a brief moment of silence to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Tohoku Earhquake and Tsunami disaster.  This was the most emotional moment of the trip for everyone, and a bit surreal…to think that such a devastating force of nature could come from such a beautiful and tranquil sea I saw that day while looking out towards the ocean during the moment of silence.  On our way back, we passed through Rikuzentakata which was one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve personally witnessed in my life.  Even a year after the disaster, the town looked like ground zero with huge mountains of debris everywhere.  Only a handful of buildings were able to sustain the tsunami’s power, only to become just an empty shell of a thing.  This town was essentially wiped off the map, and it is hard to imagine how it can ever return to its former self.  But the will of the people there are strong here, I have seen it with my own eyes.  I hope that over time they will be able to gradually overcome this great tragedy to move forward in the only way they can…one day at a time.

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