11 June 2012

A Trip to Ishinomaki

Last weekend I went to Ishinomaki as a volunteer with the group Nadia for Ishinomaki to help out in Ishinomaki, one of the towns that was affected by the tsunami last year.  A lot of people ask me about the trips, so here's a detailed report of one of our trips.

Nadia was founded just after the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and has been organizing trips to the area for volunteers ever since.  I went for the first time in May 2011 and went twice more last summer, and now I've gone twice this year.

Last year and this year were totally different; last summer the seabed mud that was thrown up all over Ishinomaki still covered everything, the smell from the rotting organic matter in the mud was everywhere, moving around town was incredibly difficult, and the Minato area where we usually work still had no electric power and limited water.

This year is much better.  The roads, electric lines, traffic signals, and convenience stores are all operating, virtually all of the damaged buildings have been torn down, and the city is functional.  Now, the problems are the longer-term and more vexing kind.  The biggest one is clearly repairing the economic and social life of the area.  In Minato, probably 3 or 4 of every 5 lots are empty, and while the remaining buildings are probably mostly either habitable or under renovation, the reality is that the population of those highly damaged areas is a fraction of what it was before the earthquake.   That makes carrying out business, getting investment to rebuild, or getting support for local activities like matsuri and so forth much trickier.

This was a typical weekend trip to Ishinomaki:  we met in Shinjuku at about 10:30 to board the bus, and the bus left at 11pm Friday.  We stopped in Tsukuba to pick up a group from a company that was pitching in to help for the weekend, and drove through the night to arrive at Nadia HQ in Ishinomaki about 7am Saturday.  Nadia works with a local businessman in Ishinomaki who lets us use the 6th floor of his business' building in the Minato area of Ishinomaki.  Because of that, we're able to store tools, spare boots/raingear/masks/etc. there, and we also slept there Saturday night.

After dropping all our luggage, we came out for a briefing from our team leaders Tak and Julie Saturday morning.  For this weekend, our tasks were to prepare for an upcoming festival.  Ishinomaki used to have a children's festival every year in July.   Last year it was cancelled, and this year they were thinking they would have to cancel it for lack of enough people to help out at the fair.  Various groups offered to pitch in, and so the festival is scheduled for the second weekend of July.

This weekend, the work we did was all to help prepare for the festival.  They decided to hold the festival on an open lot next to the Yamagata-ya shoyuu factory.  Unfortunately, both the lot and the factory were still left pretty much as they were after 3/11.  To make the area safe for the festival, we went over the lot carefully, pulling weeds and raking through the dirt to find and cart away all the debris, broken glass, stones, and so forth that had been thrown up there by the tsunami.  In addition, the area around the factory was also in bad shape; the mud thrown up by the tsunami was still sitting there, clogging the waterways.  We collected and disposed of a lot of trash from the area, and shoveled all the nasty mud (the sea mud is very different than normal dirt -- it's very fine and forms a slimy, oozy mud) into bags to be collected later by the city.

The primary objective was to prepare the area for the festival, but we also tried to help out Yamagata-san as much as possible.  We picked up the 20 or so huge plastic tubs used to make Shoyuu (this took a bunch of strong volunteers per tub), dragged them outside, cleaned them up, cleaned the inside of the factory where the tubs had been stored, and put them back inside.  We also cleaned a hundred or so smaller 5 gallon shoyuu containers that were inside the ruined factory.    The factory is still in bad shape; here are some of the larger tubs we couldn't work on this weekend, tossed around by the tsunami:

From Ishinomaki
Saturday after work we went to Yamato no Yu /やまとの湯 , a public bath over on the west side of Ishinomaki.  We have to go to the onsen because we don't have any shower/bath facilities at the Nadia HQ.  Because the west side is slightly elevated, there was almost no damage from the tsunami, and over here the town seems very normal.  We usually take onsen and then eat either at the onsen restaurant, or at a food court building a 10 minute walk down the road.  There's also a supermarket over here for picking up staples.  After dinner Saturday night, we take the bus back to the hotel and either crash out or have an informal evening nomikai in the fourth floor meeting room.

Sunday we continued our work at the Yamagataya.  Yamagata-san talked about how we wants to rebuild the factory, but he needs a fair amount (6千万円) of investment to get production going again (if anything, that seems very conservative to me).  The Japanese government will put in 3/4 of the money, but he still needs to find 1千5百万円 (about $200,000) of private investment and he hasn't been able to raise the money.  This really is a microcosm of the big problem in Ishinomaki:  many of the small businesses that were wiped out by the tsunami were stable beforehand but don't have the capital and depth to finance rebuilding afterwards.

We finished up work about 12:30 Sunday, had a bento lunch, walked back to Nadia HQ to change, and got on the bus back about 2pm.  We arrived at Shinjuku about 10pm.

I really enjoy helping out, while there's only so much we can do people definitely appreciate us being there.  Many of us who go up have been a number of times, but every trip has a number of first-timers as well.   While probably most people speak some English and some Japanese (and a bunch of people speak French!), every trip includes both Japanese-only speakers and English-only speakers, so it's a very friendly group to go with.

If you're interested in going to Touhoku to volunteer, definitely check out the Nadia website.   We're going again on the weekend of June 30th, and we'll have another trip to actually help out at the festival itself.  I hope this article can help encourage some people who haven't been volunteering yet to go, it's a very worthwhile experience!


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