From May 9 to May 17, 2012, I traveled 600km north to the town of Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, to volunteer at Otsuchi Caritas base. Caritas is a Catholic organization dedicated to helping those in need, and Otsuchi is one of several "bases" it has in the tsunami-ravaged areas in Iwate. A typical day consisted of waking up at 7, eating at 7:30, leaving for volunteer work by 9:30, lunch between noon and 1, and working again from about 1 to 3pm. Read the recap here.
I arrived this morning around 7 after taking the all-nighter from Akihabara. It was a fairly fitful sleep on the bus, but it was okay. The scene in Otsuchi is fairly chilling - there is still a lot of destruction that feels raw and unattended to. We're set to leave in half an hour to help fishermen, apparently, so we'll see how that goes.
I just finished dinner in the company of strangers who have now become somewhat more familiar because of our common goal of helping out. The morning and afternoon went by pretty quickly as we helped the local fishermen cut and separate "wakame" (seaweed). It's fairly tedious, but it's not too labor intensive. You basically have to find where the wakame's best parts start and end and then cut off the rest. After ending at around 3pm I decided to walk around town for a bit - the town looks even more war-like - the space between the tsunami wall (levee) and the waterfront is filled with garbage and remnants of buildings, almost as though it were trying to remind the wall that it had utterly failed. There's also a water gate that consists of three [sic]
I look a bit devilish in this photo.
I woke up at 8 to attend morning mass which I felt was the right thing to do. Caritas is a Catholic organization and the base's leader is a pastor. The chapel is pretty bare but there were a couple folks in attendance.
After a really hearty breakfast I asked the pastor if there was anything I could do in the area of translating. He told me about how folks in the area were at least initially very reluctant to entertain volunteers especially since
It's fairly obvious that you need to have the municipal/town's support, instead of saying "we're volunteers, give us work". Also, somewhat interestingly people living in the prefab homes were very reluctant to have professionals like doctors or psychologists come in to talk to because they didn't think of themselves as ill.
So according to the pastor it's a lot more helpful to have "normal" people come to talk to the folks (and for them to come back several times to become somewhat of a familiar face).
Another interesting bit is that the folks in the prefab homes were initially fairly rude (and sometimes violent) when it came to minor squabbles. The pastor said this was largely due to the fact that folks weren't used to having to interact with so many people in close quarters.
It's evening and I'm whiling my time away in the room trying to read a little. We went to work on the seaweed again today, and we managed to make progress with six people altogether. The fishermen told us that the seaweed would be put into a pressure box that would squeeze out all the water inside, and, in doing so reduce the weight of the seaweed to 1/10 the original! It's tedious work but satisfying nonetheless.
I learned that I'm staying at what used to be a business hotel - one of the few buildings that still stands in town. I walked up the hill behind the cemetery and saw even more of the town.
There are quite a few interesting folks here - there's a guy who arrived yesterday who took 2 whole days to arrive, taking the bus from Miyazaki, Kyushu. There's an older man who is taking his bike some 200km to Minami-souma, the outer edge of the nuclear restriction zone. There's another younger guy who recently stopped working at a kindergarten. Everyone has something interesting to share and if this journal entry is anything to go by, it will be an interesting couple of days!
It's almost seven and I'm already tired as a dog. We went to clean up debris today and it was quite the back-breaking work. The lady who owned the plot told us her house survived the tsunami but burned down in the ensuing fire. Her garden has a lot of rocks and we sort of carved out a path from the rubble. The lady is actually the mother of the man who lead us through the seaweed task yesterday and the day before. She's an incredibly strong person and I'm amazed at how she can relate to the vivid events of last year without being too emotional. After all, all that remains of her home is an empty shell. I kept on trying to imagine what her house must have looked last year, what with a view to the ocean.
Mrs. Ogawara, on the left, helps remove rubble from Mrs. Owada (right)'s home.
I also found out that the shrine closest to her was saved by a bucket brigade - half of the post on the main gate is singed.
We had lunch at the Recovery Center spot, which was really good but I felt really bad being paid for by the lady, who mentioned how the government was only giving her 200,000 yen as support.
I was excited for a bit of change of pace by doing something related to "hotate" (scallops) instead of seaweed but it turned out otherwise as the tides on the northern shores didn't deliver. It was okay though, as we stayed in a tent, away from the wind.
Taking a short break on the wharf.
After work I headed up the hill to the observatory for the second time and then made my way to the destroyed hospital, where I managed to make my way inside.
I think some of the most powerful parts of volunteering is hearing the offhand stories of losing equipment and material to the sea. No one is emotional about it, just very frank and straightforward. I think it has something to do with the strong-willed nature of the people here. They don't really show it on their faces, but they must be some of the strongest people I know.
It's scary how everything still looks like it hasn't been touched since last year. I found out that the mayor passed away in one of the municipal buildings as he was planning a response to the earthquake. The hospital looks ghastly, very very eerie.
Later, some college kids from Meiji Gakuin Daigaku arrived - they apparently have their own coordinated efforts, but they seem nice enough.
I'm also finally getting a hang of this daily mass thing. It think there's an English church in Roppongi that I'm going to try and visit when I get back.
These fine folks who had taken the day trip in from Morioka (2.5 hour bus ride) were getting creative with their sand sifting.
Today we headed out to the nearby town of Kirikiri to clean the sand on the beach. It's an exceedingly tedious affair, what with having to sift through mounds of sand using crates that have holes in them. There were about 70 or so volunteers - the two largest were from Shiga and Morioka, and it was heartwarming to see older folks - people who are my parents age, really, who take time out of their weekend, to do backbreaking work. We got pleasantly sunburned in the process and people got pretty creative with how to maximize their efforts. I couldn't help but wonder if there was a more efficient method like using a machine.
Audio of the Otsuchi Volunteer coordinator explaining procedures for the cleaning
I'm getting along more and more with the folks here at Caritas (which apparently means Charity in Latin) - this is turning out to be a really great experience in the oddest of all places.
Ramen at "Cafe/Bar Ape" at Kirikiri, operating out of a tent, serves up excellent ramen.
Today was a sort of break day so I ended up putzing around the base this morning, cleaning up the parking area and helping moving things around. It's quite the view, seeing how the business hotel, having survived the tsunami, is now rigged with piping outside the walls. The water rose all the way to the 2nd floor.
In the afternoon I tagged along Nagaaki, the 20 year-old quiet, oddball character who somehow has an amazing knack for fishing. He brought along 4 fishing rods and the associated tools and equipment - I didn't know how the rods could extend and retract like an antenna! We traipsed along the river, and while I never managed to catch a fish, Nagaaki caught several - we kept one and fried it for dinner. Fishing does seem like his kind of thing - requiring a lot of patience, careful thinking, and perhaps a healthy desire of solitude.
I was surprised this morning to find that William (from St. Mary's), whom I almost didn't recognize, had arrived from Tokyo to join Caritas. I had emailed him a couple days ago about what I was doing, not really expecting him to do much, but it turned out to work out pretty nicely. Regardless, we headed out in the rain out to the wharf to continue separating seaweed. I think one of the most impressive bits of talking to the fishermen as he was treating us to coffee was the fact that, according to him, that
In the evening William, Kou and Naoto played Othello and a card game called Daifugo, which I summarily got beat at. I need to step up my ante just a bit tonight!
It's my second to last day at Caritas and it has been nothing short of a blast being here amongst amazing folks doing relatively amazing things. Granted, we finished the day cutting up seaweed again, but it looks like the job is finally done! Towards the end we were really gunning it and putting all our focus into finishing the last batch - what at least we hope to be the last batch - and we managed to get it all done! The lady who we were working for, Mrs. Oguni, was kind enough to bring shochu in the evening. It never ceases to amaze how resilient the folks here can be and how selfless they are, despite everything they've been through.
This is all that remains of the JR Otsuchi station
In the evening, after a slide deck presentation of the earthquake, tsunami, and aftermath, a bunch of us headed to Kamaishi to an onsen inside the Seagaria Hotel. It was my first time in a public bath in a long time, and though the water was really, really hot, it's giving me a good reason to want to head to bed right now.
We spent the morning at one of the prefab homes at the Kanazawa area into the mountains following the Otsuchi river. We talked to two older ladies, one of their daughters, and a helper. They were all fairly kind and talkative, although talk did turn to the earthquake and tsunami. The helper, who makes sure everyone is okay by checking in occasionally to each home, had a lots of vivid stories to share. One of the most powerful things I remember hearing is that
Audio of the mobile farm stand jingle that makes its way around the prefab homes in Otsuchi, selling vegetables and fruits.
William needs to learn to listen, that's for sure. I was ready to give him a swift kick in the butt when he went into preacher mode while in front of the lady. Hopefully he'll have an opportunity to listen (or be humbled) before he leaves.
Anyhow as I get ready to leave I have many, many things to be thankful for - the amazing people whose inner strength shines through every part of their personality.