Thursday, May 26, 2011


The ocean had charged over a wall built specifically for tsunami-protection, and boats had trespassed onto the land where people were living. It was devastating.
You have probably seen the events captured in Miyako in the following video.
Miyako City on March 11th, 2011

After seeing this footage when arriving at Dominic's house on the night of the quake, I couldn't ignore the silent calls for help which each video induced. During the week after the earthquake and while things were getting crazy in Fukushima, I wished that I could go up there and do something, help in some way. When I had returned from my "escape" to Nagoya, I felt a bit guilty for running away instead of helping and doing something useful. I was embarrassed by my freak out and joined a food drive the next day after coming back to Tokyo.

Below: A link of pictures from volunteering at Second Harvest, as well as the link on how to volunteer with food drives.
Pictures from one day of many in the life of the Second Harvest food collection center

Second Harvest's website

It was an awesome feeling to bring items to the volunteer site, separate them into boxes, load them onto a truck and watch the truck drive away toward the direction of Miyagi-ken. After that, I knew that I wanted to help in other ways, and a few weeks later, a group of Shizuoka JETs sent out a notice calling for volunteers to join them to clean up mud from houses in the worst hit areas. Upon reading the Facebook event page, I called Chu and asked if she'd mind if we spent our Golden Week volunteering this year. I was happy when she jumped on board.

Our group originally intended to volunteer in Ishinomaki City, by Sendai, and soon we all began researching and preparing for the venture. Days before our departure, we received a notification by an organizer reporting that the volunteer expedition for the town of Ishinomaki was overbooked. An organization called Peaceboat had attracted so many volunteers during Golden week, that there was no longer enough room for us to lodge in the campsite area. Though I was initially disappointed, I was extremely happy to hear that there were TOO MANY volunteers. That's awesome.

So instead, our organizer researched for other volunteering options, and finally decided on a mission in a more northern city of Japan, called Miyako in Iwate City, where our services were still needed. The above video shows the events of March 11th, and when we arrived, it wasn't immediately apparent that this was the same town. Unlike what the news was reporting, the town did not seem to be in total upheaval. In fact, across the bridge from the most heavily affected areas, shops, restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses were open and running as usual. In fact, as we drove into town, we wondered if we had really arrived at the same town as the video had described merely 2 months earlier.

Chu, Emiko, and I drove for almost an entire night in order to get the group to the site on time in the morning. I was very impressed, but also a bit scared of Chu's diligence in insisting that she was awake enough to drive. After a while, I realized she wasn't able to make any sense and convinced her to stop off the side of a road and let me drive. Since we drove through the night after a long day of gathering supplies, we were too exhausted to shovel the mud that they had led us too. The others in our group performed like champions, since they were able to sleep throughout the night.

Below: Arriving in Miyako

Once we arrived and put on our gear, gathered our shovels and headed out to the riverbed, where we were assigned to shovel mud off the stifled grass, did we see any hints of the catastrophe.

Above photo taken by Nicholas Austria

Below is a panoramic shot of the river where the ocean flowed upstream. Can you see the car still stuck in the middle of the water?

The waters had not only flooded the town, but also raged upsteam on the river and ruined much of the area. Below are some pictures of what it looked like 2 months later.

Below: A little girl plays as usual on a noticeably broken play structure in the middle of the park, not far from where we were shoveling the mud off of the suffocating grass.

But unfortunately, Chu and I slept through most of the mud clean-up. It was one of the guiltiest sleeps I'd had in a long time. I wanted so much to be out there shoveling to make the grass grow, but after 30 hours of being awake, I couldn't shovel for more than 30 minutes, and had to nap. Later that day, as everyone came in from their manual labor jobs, we had connected with some folks who were staying at one of the local shelters.

Before the trip, I had asked students to bring a piece of fruit to school as a donation for the people in the shelters. Due to an article I had read from other volunteers, the article had mentioned that though many people were eating rice and soup, that they were requesting fresh fruit and vegetables. Because of this article, I made a poster asking for donations from students, and I collected them in 2 boxes and packed them in the car. The students also wrote letters and drew cute pictures of encouragement for the people.

BELOW: The boxes of fruit in the car.

Luckily when I asked about how to donate the fruit to a local shelter, the organizer in Miyako, Owen, introduced me to two Japanese volunteers who had been visiting a local shelter housing 44 people, mostly seniors. James, Chu and I drove to the Miyako Culture center which had been converted into a shelter and we gave them the fruit and letters that the students had donated. The director of the center was out in the town at that time, and we were asked to wait until she returned. During this time, they were setting up the dinner tables, which were composed of donated beef and rice bowls, and homemade miso soup and pickles.

Below: The shelter that we visited


The next day we gathered in front of the volunteer center promptly at 9am in order to await our assigned volunteer positions for the day. They assigned our group to work on setting up the Children's Day (こどもの日) festival which featured semi-famous wrestlers from Northern Japan, food and game booths, as well as various activities for the children. All the food, drinks and entertainment were free for the families who attended, as many of them were people living in shelters.

On a side note, I didn't have any "outdoor work" clothing, so one of the shirts I packed was a comfy tee which I had "borrowed" from my dad many years ago. It's his old communication worker's union shirt. I hadn't realized at the time, and not until I saw the pictures of myself taken by Chu when I was working the free drink booth, that I realized how extremely frightening I appeared. I ought to take you back to the morning when the winds were blowing, and the white powder used to clean and disinfect the park's cement was blowing into my mouth and eyes. So I put on one of the paper masks that had been suggested for us to pack for this volunteer trip. In order to make the mask appear cute, I attempted to draw upon it the face of Rilakuma. Regardless of my attempts to cheer up the children, I later realized after seeing my photo, that the reason children were hesitant to take free juice and tea from me wasn't because I was a "gaijin" (which I had thought at the time), but that I looked like mad surgical metalhead. What was I thinking?!?

Below: What was I thinking?!?!

Below: Chu in her workman's clothes and the infamous white powder on the ground.


Nicholas Austria, Michael J. Davis, Owen Cunningham, Adam Kennedy, Toby Siguenza, Emi(ko) Suzuki, Karen J. Smith
Photo provided by Nicholas Austria

BELOW: No words

Photo taken by Nicholas Austria

As I mentioned before, a bridge separates two areas of town. On one side, business are running as usual, streets are clear, buildings are standing. And on the other, wreckage has been cleared from the streets and line their periphery. The wall still stands from where the water invaded this port town.

Below: The tsunami barrier withstood

In the center of the port lies a pile of rubbish which has been moved from the streets and walkways. The pile stands higher than the initial waves that rolled inland.

Below: The wall of rubbish and a lone vending machine

Everybody who lives on the coast of Japan knows that this could happen at any time. In all coastal villages and cities, there are tsunami preparations and warning signs to remind people to constantly be prepared for catastrophe. I will admit that it frightens me to see tsunami warnings in my own neighborhood, as my apartment stands 2 km away from the shore, and the port (about 30 minutes away on foot) closely resembles the one in these pictures. In fact, so much seems similar that I have begun to wonder if ports have a single building construction template.

Below: a tsunami warning

Below: A sign that has been eerily whipped around, now pointing toward the sea rather than the hills where it was originally placed.

My intentions in mentioning the following is to remind the readers that we are not separated from the people still suffering from this calamity. My friends in Japan are all susceptible to these events, and my family and loved ones in California also live in an earthquake prone environment, by the ocean. This event could have easily happened to most of the people reading this entry. So please consider this message when you are reminded about these tragedies in Northern Japan. People are still suffering, cleaning, and needing of help. And whether it be money, supplies or volunteering time, your help is still very much needed even now.

Below: Video of driving through the disaster area, where the streets have been cleared.

On the drive home, because of our departure timing, our needing to arrive home on time for work the next day, and our need of a rest break for the 3 people driving 2 cars, we found ourselves at a overnight bathhouse in Fukushima prefecture. The people on our trip were real troopers, and nobody objected to the fact that we were staying the night around 50 km away from the afflicted Daiichi nuclear reactor site. I'll admit that despite feeling a little uncomfortable, I was easily calmed by the state of normalcy in the area. Everything was going on the same as in any other part of Japan.

While waiting in the lobby for Chu's car to catch up to us, two older women started a conversation with me asking where I was from. It's the most common ice-breaker. I told them America, but that I live in Shizuoka ken. They asked, "so what are you doing here in Morioka, Fukushima?" I was hesitant to answer because first of all, I didn't want to bring up the topic of the earthquake, current events, or volunteering. And secondly, I didn't know the proper vocabulary to explain our trip. [ボランテアをしました] just didn't feel like a proper explanation, for some reason.

Well, luckily, she answered her own question before my response had taken on a voice. "桜を見たかったの。” or "did you come to see the cherry blossoms?

You see, Shizuoka and Tokyo had already finished the short-lived cherry blossom season. Because these towns are further north, their cherry blossom season arrives a little later. In fact, during the drive through the beautiful countryside to Iwate, I did indeed partake in cherry blossom viewing from behind the van's windshield.
The morning drive was beautiful, and I was surprised that it took so long for cherry blossoms to bloom in the north. Two weeks had already passed from when I hanami-ed in Tokyo.

The smile on her face and cheerful sound in her voice when asking me if my group of foreigner friends had come to Morioka, the capital of Fukushima prefecture, in order to see some cherry blossoms, made an impression on me. It was a mixed impression, on one hand my heart melted from her innocence to think that was the case. On the other hand, I was surprised that she could still maintain that innocence after an incident of such a wide-scale, internationally-known disaster.
Either way, I ignored my thoughts, smiled and said, "はい、本当にきれいでした."
Yes, they were really beautiful.

Below: A lone sakura fallen on the mud soon to be shoveled off the suffocated grass.

No comments:

Post a Comment