Saturday, April 30, 2011


In front of the supply depot with the volunteers of the Peace Boat NGO
We arrived in Ishinomaki the late afternoon from Tokyo. Our destination was Ishinomaki Senshu University where various relief groups were staging their supplies and coordinating volunteering efforts. Our contact here had sent us a list of things which were needed by the various shelters and groups assisting the earthquake and tsunami survivors. These items included cooking oil, soy sauce, soup stock, noodles, eggs, broth, as well as hardware for clean up work. Sand bags were one of the most requested items on the list. These were used to contain the mud and sludge which were shoveled from homes. We purchased nearly 2,000 of these. As well as sandbags, garden hoses, crow bars, work gloves, masks, goggles. and ropes were requested and given. These supplies were stored in a warehouse and a large white tent with the UN's WFP (World Food Program) markings on it.

We organized and executed this delivery run on our own as I did not want to wait for some coordinator to decide when and if I could be on a list of volunteers to come to Tohoku. Did not think waiting was a productive option. So with many calls and emails, here we are.  I'm honored to have been able to get 2 friends together to collect the funds and donations for our run. In order to make sure we made a difference, I made sure we contacted and worked with the right people. In Tokyo, I contacted 2nd Harvest who then put me in touch with the teams at the university. One active group was Peace Boat; who had a lot of youth volunteers.

Driving into the campus I was happy to see a lot of cars and a tent city which made up a crowd of volunteers. The license plates and signs showed that many had traveled from all over Japan. As volunteers it's nice to know that we are not alone so that the ones who need us are never alone. The first task was to sign up for the following day's work on a clean up crew. The second task was to drop off the hardware at the warehouse. As we unpacked I never thought I'd see people so excited to see hoses. When we showed them that we brought a few hundred meters of garden hoses a few of the depot workers cheered. Of course the sand bags and other items were also gratefully received.

With the hardware unloaded we drove over to the tent to unload the cooking supplies. Both of the storage facilities were well organized and workers hastily recorded the inventory and marked them for future distribution. Everyone on site looked exhausted but still very motivated. Any donation, effort, contribution, and assurance will definitely contribute greatly to the needy and the rebuilding of the surround area. Once we finished we left for Onagawa. I wanted my friends to see for themselves why were were there. The drive from Ishinomaki to the coastal town of Onagawa took us through a few hills and inlets. The damage had gradients which match the elevation of the places along the way. At some points there could be total devastation, then with a slight incline up a hill the area was untouched. Once back into a valley, it was again filled with wreckage. When the road opened up to a flat plain that stretched to the sea. It became difficult to find anything that was not broken or ripped apart. People's homes were nothing more than splinters and shells. The roadside and blocks were piles torn pieces ranging for cars, clothing, household items, and structures. It was as if everything was put through a shredder. There was an uncomfortable silence then a mix of bewildered words. Why did this happen became a paradoxical question. Why we had come all this way and if we were doing the right thing became clear. When you witness the remains of this type of disaster you know that entire lives were torn to bits. People are physically and emotionally ripped apart. The depth of where the tectonic plates slipped and shifted can be measured as well as the tsunami; but the pain and human cost of it all is unfathomable.

There are many events like these in the world today. I read that in the US there were many tornadoes have ravaged towns in the mid west. It all gives each of us reminder of how fragile life is. It also brings out the best and worse in us. I tend to seek out the good. At times like these anywhere, I fundamentally it's important to do something right and give what you are able. It doesn't matter if it's here or there; it just matters.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Night Walk Continues

Yesterday's typing for the Blog came off the insensitive smooth flatness of my iPad.Words are difficult to conjure when your finger tips are slippery and the analog sensation of keys is gone. Tonight, I'm back to the familiar notches and grooves of my keyboard.

I'm still taken by last night's walk through the narrow streets of Ishinomaki's main shopping and entertainment district.  Low storied buildings with a small town feel and a mom and pop's sense. Now destroyed, the remnants in the shadows still cast the warmth and attention given by small business owners. Without the Japanese writing and some architectural styling, this place could be Mayberry RFD from the Andy Griffith Show. Most of the time there was nobody else there. A few vehicles roared past and left the scene. Once gone there was only the background noises which are normally drowned away by the sounds of nightlife. We are left with the echos of scattering dust and the rattling bits of broken buildings. Doors and hinges swing open and shut with the heavy winds coming in from the ocean. As  I once described before there is still the pounding, scraping, humming, hissing, and clatter of steel which reverberates with the sporadic gusts. As I walked between the buildings I could not help but feel a phantom presence peering out of each doorway or window. Shadows in the darkened interiors trick the mind into seeing shapes and forms. All of which heighten perception. There's a stench of decay, dampness, and rotting fish. Most buildings are either smashed, bashed, collapsed, or pounded by cars, boats, and even ships. Yes, there are boats and ships on main street. If you saw the videos online or on TV which mentioned Ishinomaki and the tsunami. I'm walking where many of the iconic scenes played out. Even now, it's still surreal. I turned down a corner to reach the waterside. The waters slap alarmingly over parts of the seawall onto service road. The seawall now is more or less a street curb. I heard that the coast of Japan sunk by 1 meter during the earthquake. I'm certain that what I'm seeing  is proof as the barrier has shortened. As the cold night air began to sting an old injury of mine, I knew that rains were on their way. By this reason decided to go back. I walked through the ghostly maze to a small business hotel. I chose to stay here in town with the primary intention of supporting local businesses. The hotel was run by an older couple who had recently been able to get it up and running.  It was nothing fancy, but good enough. The pair spent a lot of time sharing with me their experiences during the earthquake, tsunami, damage, cleanup, and related challenges. For this I'll write more later.  Once in my room, recalled my route as I decided to come back in the morning. A few hours later in the early morning light, I went out in the rain to shoot some of the places I ventured past in the darkness of the night. At dawn I went back out and did just that as you can see below.
What I did notice in these early hours is that the ghost town was starting to regain living residents. There were a few people out cleaning and fixing their shops and homes. Slowly but surely the part of Ishinomaki is starting to come back to life. It's hopeful...

In my next excerpts, I'll write more about the aid delivery, volunteering, and my second trip back to to Onagawa...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sleeping in a ghost town

Early morning, long day. Left Tokyo and arrived in Ishinomaki by 3:00 PM. Delivered a large van full of food and hardware. People here need things such as sand bags, masks, hoses, crow bars, ropes, etc... We fulfilled a large portion of these requirements. Afterwards we went to explore the debris fields along the coastline. Tomorrow morning we are signed up for clean up crews. Teams work with locals to clean up houses and businesses. Tonight I am sleeping in Ishinimaki just a few hundred feet from tsunami ruined buildings. It is literally a ghost town. Post apocalyptic as empty dark streets are littered with wreckage, boats, ships, and completely abandoned homes/stores. The howling winds hiss with the clanging of steel. It's eerie. Walking past darkened store fronts with opened doorways and windows I often got surprised by the flapping sounds of tarps, cloths, and plastic bags. It's dark out, it's really dark here. We are very close to the sea.

Do you think you make a difference?

In a few hours I'm leaving with 2 friends and the 3 of us are going up and making deliveries. As I've written before, I feel that I owe it to this place and to the good people in Japan to do something positive. It'll be 2 months in a few weeks and things have steadily improved but there's a long way to go is ahead. What struck me was that a few foreigners that I know had asked me the same question. "Do you think you make a difference by going up there...?" It's an honest question and a perhaps the right one to ask. What gets me however is that I'm confident in saying the ones asking me have done nothing. Other than leaving Japan and returning, talking about it from afar, or telling me how it's good that I did what I did; they've done very little. In the life of each of us when the time to do the right thing comes, the voice you hear does not come from people.  As for that question, my answer to all of you is "Yes." My answer to those few who "asked me in that manner is "Ask yourself the same question..." Well, I just wanted to put those words down as they somehow lingered and bothered me today. I'm not a disaster tourist. If I wanted to thrill seek; trust me I can name a lot of other things I have done and would prefer doing. What I'm doing comes from the heart. Now it's getting late and I'm packed. You never know what to expect so I'm packing well and making sure I'm prepared. Plenty of food, water, MRE(s), and harsh condition gear. You never know if an earthquake may make us stranded up there. Last time I went up a 7.1 magnitude quake hit. So, you never know, you just never know. I'll put the same words down as I did prior to going up. Nothing can go wrong if you do what's right.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Round 2

Round 2. I'm well rested, recovered, heard a few good pointers, and going back into the fight. This time I'm organizing things myself with a few friends. We've made good connections at 2nd Harvest Japan and Peace Boat. Reputable organizations that have established a strong presence regarding support for the shelters and locals. We arranged for our own trucks and drivers. Then received a long list items needed. What's interesting is that a lot of what's on the list are tools, hardware, and clean up materials. With the warm weather and the flow food normalizing. People are focused on cleaning up and rebuilding. Well, I have a long day ahead in making preparations so my writing has to be brief. But I'm going back tomorrow morning and will stay for a few days. This time we'll likely be either camping or sleeping right near the shelters and disaster area. What I can say is doing it yourself may be more difficult. But it's well worth it as I feel I can exert and control more of the necessary focus on the objective of helping people. I'd like to spend as much time as possible doing the work rather than having meetings and waiting. There's a Buddhist saying which I often like to reflect upon.
"When one comes upon 2 paths, take the more difficult one..."  Well, hear we go, let's take in what we learn and give more than we receive.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Kawagoe 川越町

Perfectly clear day to escape from Tokyo for a while. About and hour out of town and I've found a whole new world to myself. I traveled northwest to the outskirts to a town called Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture. It's well known for many preserved buildings, temples, and shrines. A few places here date back 1,200 years. The city was also known as a castle town as during the 17 century in the Edo era it was commanded by the lord of nearby Kawagoe Castle. Many of the lanes and avenues in this city are time capsules.
One of the most iconic symbols of this place is the bell tower which tolls 3 times a day. Always something interesting to explore around every corner. Of the places I wandered to, one of the most tranquil was Kitain Temple. This place was built in 830. Within it I found a stone statue garden that has the Buddha and his 500 followers. Serene carvings rest under the shade of trees and low lined wall.
Kitain (北院) or north temple was the home to the Buddhist Priest Tenkai who was an adviser to the first 3 Shoguns of the Tokugawa Shogunate. He was so well respected that when Kitain Temple was severely damaged by fire the third Shogun Itemitsu sent parts of his castle (Edo) castle to this site to replace some of the lost buildings.
For a day's escape, this town is well worth it. I needed today and a day like this one. It was a great day.


Saturday the rainy day continued. The coffee weather was indeed welcoming. It lasted until night and kept me inside with the doors and windows cracked opened just a bit in order to hear the sound or rain. A good part of the time was spent in a briefing which prepared volunteers for the next trip. Although I have a trip that I'm engaging in on my own within the next week. This meeting was for a different run two weeks from now and organized by the same group I had gone up before. This time we'll be cooking and serving meals. From the previous groups, we heard that anything from 1,000 to 3,000 meals will be prepared. Cooking will be done outdoors using a wood burning stove/grill. Most food preparations will be done on site. Arrive to the same spot as the last trip. Stage the cooking area, cook, and serve. All whilst locals wait politely and patiently in line. I was told I'll be in charge of making the fire, preparing rice, and serving. Hard work, but worthwhile.

With this meeting I'm also aligning my mission with a friend and his company. I'm reaching out to the the contact at 2nd Harvest for name and coordinates of the shelters we'll deliver to. Thus far the list we were given detailed a week's required amount of food and perishables. The organizer hoped that we could collect as much as possible as the list was long. Our aim is to deliver a week's worth and fulfill their needs. By tomorrow I should receive word or our destination. Over all a good day to get things done.

One nice thing is that I'm now very focused on these an other activities. It is true to say that life here in Tokyo is for the most part back to normal.