Sunday, April 15, 2012

がんばれ日本 Volunteering in Tohoku

Over spring break I was able to volunteer in the Tohoku area to help with rebuilding. A friend and I volunteered for almost a week with Tono Magokoro net based in Tono-shi, Iwate prefecture. I can honestly say that this is the most unforgettable experience I've had in Japan,  on par with climbing Mt. Fuji.

For us peaches, Iwate is pretty darn far. We took a night bus Saturday night, spent the day in Tokyo, then another night bus to Tono-shi. Luckily Mondays are a day off for Magokoro net so on our first day we were able to get our bearings, shop for food and supplies, etc before actually volunteering. And also get used to the fact that we went back in time to winter again. I was enjoying the warmer weather too. Damnit.

Day 2 April 3

We were sort of recruited for "communication support" for the Otsuchi community. It's just a fancy way of saying to hang out with the obaa-chan. So Kelsey and I made scrunchies and served some tea for them. What amazed me was how...genki they were. The only complaints I heard were how their leaf pattern looked funky. There was also a cute 5th year elementary student who came and terrorized the male volunteer (he works for Magokoro so he's been there often). She said she wanted to become a shinkansen driver so she can get scouted for the AKB48 group. The drive to Otsuchi was my first look at a disaster hit area. No matter how many times you see the photos floating around the interwebs, it really pales in comparison to seeing it right before your eyes. 

In the distance, you can see a car rammed through the 3rd floor of the junior high school

Day 3 April 4

All activities cancelled due to snow storm. Never really been in one until that day. This trip was a first for me in a lot of things....but I'll get to that later.

Day 4 April 5

After all the equipment we bought, Kelsey and I swore we were going to do 瓦礫, or rubble clean-up at least once for our volunteer trip. A big group was sent out to the Hakozaki area in Kamaishi, one of the hard hit towns on the coast of Iwate. We were dropped off at an elementary school (not in use anymore, the majority of the building was still standing but the walls were torn down) and from there the head volunteers split us into groups and we picked up trash, building rubble and stuff and set them with the other big piles of garbage. I'm so glad I'm used to the garbage separating system in Japan because it really came in handy when sorting stuff out. Near the start of the clean-up I found a torn photo of a little boy smiling. I couldn't help but stare at it for a while, but eventually I gave it to one of the head volunteers. I hope that boy is alright. Despite the craziness of seeing the aftermath of the tsunami there was a silver lining: over lunch the group took us to the small port where there was a ceremony for the maiden voyage of a fishing boat. This boat is the first boat built in Hakozaki since the tsunami. A priest blessed the ship and later the crew threw red and white mochi at the small crowd. Word of advice: do *not* cross an obaa-chan and her mochi. No lie.

The Hakozaki Maru 10

Day 5 April 6

Our last day of volunteering was spent tearing and packing wakame, or seaweed, which is one of the products Iwate is known for. No joke. A couple of months back my school received wakame as a thank you gift from Tohoku for their donations and my teachers FLIPPED out and whipped out bags to take some home. Anyway, we were split into 2 groups. One group had to take apart wakame (they were formed in a wheel shape, kind of like cheese and weighed about 200 kg a pop!) while the other group organized them in the crates to be shipped (after being heavily salted). By the end of the day my clothes were stained white with the salt. I never wanted to look at wakame and salt ever again, but of course this being Japan....

That's a loooot of seaweed

The end to end all trips

You know that dream/nightmare moment where something crazy big happens then you realize that you're naked? Well it happened, but this time *everyone's* naked.

Lucky for us on Friday the nice onsen was half-off so Kelsey and I joined in. Nothing like a nice soak before heading back right? Oh how little did I, I've been into sento/onsen plenty of times, and I know when to call it quits, but I guess I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was. After the onsen the girls and I went into the sauna, but I felt that familiar, dizzy, better-drink-some-water feeling, so I got up to leave. That's when things started getting fuzzy. Literally. I think I remember the girls snickering that I barely just got in. I remember touching the door to get out. Next thing I know they're waking me up and told me I fell. Then I realized my head and mouth were bleeding a bit. Long story short, after the longest bus ride ever back to the volunteer center I was taken to Tono Hospital by ambulance (first time in an ambulance!), got a CT Scan (first CT scan!) then stayed the night to be observed. The next day everything besides my face felt much better (seriously I cringed when I saw my face, which I shouldn't have done because that hurt) and I was able to leave in the afternoon. Kelsey and I left in time to catch the night bus from Tokyo to Kurashiki that night. I hated leaving in such a rush because I couldn't thank the volunteer group properly, especially the ladies who helped me, but I made do with a thank you letter and a promise to myself I'd send something really nice to repay the kindness. It was Kelsey and 2 other volunteer girls that pretty much stuck with me the whole time. I can't thank them enough. Thinking back on it now though, I found it odd that one of them went with me in the ambulance since she didn't speak a word of English when they wanted a "translator" for me. Despite the fact that there was Magokoro net employee who was from New York and spoke Japanese perfectly. So in the end I still had to communicate what I was going through and listen to the hospital jargon all in Japanese despite the feeling that my head was going to split open.

ANYWAY, in the end, I got back to Ibara safely (more or less) and was rewarded with the sight of sunny spring weather and sakura. Plus it was my town's sakura festival that day too. Sweet.

I think I've seen enough of the disaster photos that I wasn't too surprised when going to Iwate. I think what amazed me was how much was done. Businesses are more or less up and running, kids are going to school (though they have to commute and join a school that wasn't affected); it was amazing to see. One volunteer who visited me in the hospital said that possibly by next year Magokoro net will stop operations. Of course there is still a lot to be done. What really struck me was the mountains of debris from the clean-up. Where is all that going to go? There have been articles about some prefectures sending the garbage throughout Japan and burning it and stuff like that. Regardless my mind just boggles when thinking of where to put all that debris.

For anyone in Japan, I encourage to volunteer in Tohoku. It was such an amazing experience and really shows you the determined spirit of Japan. Just don't forget to drink lots of water.


I'm also interested in volunteering in Touhoku. How do I go about getting involved?

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