Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fireflies in Ofunato

Four months to the day after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami I arrived in the disaster area to volunteer with relief work. After climbing Dewa Sanzan with my friends on the weekend I drove to Sendai Sunday night, then onwards to Ofunato on Monday. As I drove through the Japanese countryside it was a very pleasant summer day to roll down the windows and smell the fresh air. I passed a few towns along the coastline that were pretty idealic Japanese coastal towns. With my music pumping and the sunshine making the world bright I was feeling pretty good. As I approached the coast further on I saw two badly damaged cars in a roadside parking lot and then just a bit later on a 30 foot section of guard rail that had been completely crumpled like a wadded up straw. I thought to myself, wow, that must have been a bad accident and at that moment I crested a hill and Kessenuma (picture 1) was revealed to me.
I quickly realized those cars were not damage from a traffic accident. For some reason it had not been on my mind that I would soon be entering the area and it really was a shock. I had seen many images in the news and watched hours of footage of the tsunami, but nothing prepares you for the real thing. For the first 15 minutes all I saw of Kessenuma was a tangle of debris and piles being built by Caterpillar equipment. into large mounds, like ants building ant hills. Soon I mounted another hill and there were houses and businesses standing intact. This pattern came again and again as I made my way north along the coast going to Ofunato. On one side of a hill there was nothing but destruction, on the other side of a hill, normal residential streets. The most dramatic of all being in Rikuzentakata where more than 80% of structures were destroyed, essentially it was been “wiped from the map”(picture 2).
After arriving in Ofunato (picture 3) and finding the All Hands base
Project Tohoku from All Hands Volunteers on Vimeo.
I got settled in and to work. Over the next week I helped various crews with digging ditches in rice fields, clearing water drainage tunnels, scrubbing tubs and stoking fires and an evacuation center, cleaning and restoring damaged photographs, and translating between crew leaders and Japanese volunteers. Each of these had their own rewards.
Each night at dinner a meeting would take place in which new people introduced themselves, leaving people said their goodbyes, and workers would sign up for crews for the next days work. On that first night a woman who had been there for some time got up to say her goodbyes. It was a tearful speech in part because she had come to love the work she was doing, but also because of the connection she felt with the people of Ofunato. She said that of all the things she wanted to emphasize it was making a connection to the people of Ofunato that was most important in her time there an in ours. In her speech she mentioned how someone had explained to her that fireflies are believed to carry the spirits of the dead and that one of her most emotional moments for her was seeing some at night by the river.

Since it was my first night there and there wasn't much going on after the meeting ended I went to the local convenience store to get some snacks and walk about the neighborhood, but I noticed that the sunset was particularly beautiful as I was crossing the river. I got my snacks and a beer and sat by the river banks watching the sun go down, thinking about what the week ahead would be like. As dark came on fireflies began to float about and I couldn’t help but recall that each of them would be carrying a spirit.

My first day in the field I dug ditches in Rikuzentakata and it was hard dirty work. Digging through 3 ft deep mud and debris we would often hit objects with our shovel and each time I had to wonder what we would be digging up. We found cassettes, cuff links, clothing, tires, rice cookers, sign posts, and a host of other things. Each time I found a new object I wondered who it belonged to.
Another day I worked at cleaning photographs and each one I cleaned I looked at the smiling faces and wondered. Wedding albums, school trips, family portraits, who was still among us? Will these photos ever be claimed?
One day I worked at the evacuation center scrubbing tubs and stoking a fire that would heat the water. It was an all day job and very hot having to be near the fire. In some ways I felt like the job was not as interesting as the other jobs I had done, but it was rewarding. As we were preparing to leave for the day a single old woman came from the shelter and said something like, “It’s so hot today! Thank you for heating the water”, as she made her way to the bath, the first person to use it that day. That was enough to make it worth it, but many other people came forward to thank us for our work. Old women brought snacks and tea, people thanked us and waved from passing cars, many other Japanese volunteers shook our hands and I even got one hug which is fairly unusual for a Japanese person.
On my final day I worked with a road crew cleaning out water tunnels and clearing debris from roads and sidewalks. Shortly after arriving a bus load of Japanese volunteers pulled up and started doing the same work a little further on up the street. My crew leader then told me to go work with them since I could speak Japanese. I learned that they had come all the way from Shikoku, about 1000km away. Most of the rest of the day I spent with them joking around and getting dirty. It was nice to make that connection, to tell them who we were and why we were there, but also to be able to serve as a bridge between my team leader and their team leader so they could share ideas and work together. At the end of the day as the Japanese group was leaving they started to call my name (Kebin!Kebin!shashin!) and we came together for a group photo (4).
I'll be forever grateful that my team leader put me with the Japanese crew that day as it is something I will never forget. The reason that my team leader knew I spoke Japanese was because the night before there had been a festival on the street where our base was located. As the night wore on some of the volunteers made our way to a local person’s house who had invited us in for more food and drink. I talked to a number of Japanese people and at one point made my way into a conversation that was happening between a Japanese woman and the team leader where they were struggling a bit to communicate with each other. I got to tell him that she was expressing how touched she was by our hard work and he returning thanks for having us over. It’s those connections, as the woman said on the first night, that matter most. I believe it’s those connects which brought many people like myself to aid Japan in the first place and why All Hands exists. My experience with All Hands was a positive one and I owe a debt of thanks to them for helping me to get in there and get my hands dirty while making the process of actually doing it as painless as possible.

In the early evening on Friday I packed up my bags and started to drive out of Ofunato to meet my father in law in Minami-soma. Unfortunately there would be no tearful last dinner speech from me, but I shook a few hands and was out the door. In Minami-soma I would spend one more day volunteering with my dad, cleaning and drying photographs. As I drove out of town I spotted a sign on a building (photo 5). It reads, “Disaster comes when you forget.” Then there is a line marking the height of the wave that came to Ofunato from an earthquake that occurred in Chile, but sent waves to Ofunato. If you take a look at the building you can see that the damage from this most recent tsunami is more than twice that height.
You see, this is not the first time that Ofunato has been hit by a tsunami in recent history, not even the second if you go back a bit further. This is the third time that the town has been hit and destroyed. While working at cutting wood and stoking the first at the shelter I found an old stone in a park with the warning inscribed about tsunamis. The year was too old to be the latest or even the second most recent wave. The inscription was more than 100 years old, telling people to be aware of the waves from the ocean. Yet the people pick up and start over again.

The Geography of Bliss

During this past trip to Japan I had my Kindle with me. This is the first trip where I have used it since Aya got it for me last November. It was quite handy as I could “pack” four books along with me into a device the size of a thin paperback. One of those books was called, ‘The Geography of Bliss’. It was about one man’s realization that he wasn’t all that happy and his idea to explore the places of the world the normally rank high on happiness scales to see what they had in common if anything and if he could learn from them. I really liked the book and would recommend it if that idea appeals to you. The author was insightful and funny. He went to many countries that rank high like the Netherlands, Iceland, Thailand, Bhutan, and Switzerland as well as some that should rank high like Qatar (having a very high gdp per head) and went to some other places that perhaps don’t rank high like Moldova, finally ending up in India which I believe ranks somewhere in the middle of the scale. In the end he comes to a few conclusions. To simplify, people in countries that have money, but aren’t too rich are happy. Those in countries that discourage envy are happy. Those with a sense of community and trust are happy. Spirituality can make you happy, but maybe not. Opportunity is surely in the mix.

If you take a look at the website for the happiness index you can get an idea of the things that make people happy, generally. Of course there are all sorts of different things that can make us happy in our lives like career fulfillment, family relations, connection with ecology, diet/exercise, etc. It also really depends on the person as one person’s hell is another’s heaven.
Going back to Japan this past time I realized just how much I missed living in Japan and why. Standing on a crowded, yet almost silent, Tokyo subway platform one night, making the connection between the book and the travel I was taking wasn’t hard to do. In Japan I felt safe, I could trust people. I was connected to nature just about everywhere I went. The standard of living and care for all people is pretty high and the society discourages envy. Japan is a rich nation and I fear in some ways perhaps they are too rich, to the point where they have more money than they know what to constructively do with. People’s diet and exercise routines are some of the best in the world and Japan boasts the longest life spans. However on the overall scale of things Japan ranks somewhere below where you might expect as does the U.S. and Germany despite having some of the largest economies in the world. Most of the highest ranking countries are Nordic, though Norway might move down a couple notches after the recent attacks. Though maybe it will raise it.
While in Japan I watched the news often and something I saw more than once was a happy couple getting married. The story was that after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami this couple had put things into perspective and decided there was no reason to wait. Similarly polls throughout the country ranked overall happiness, or satisfaction with life, as rising after the disaster. Perhaps a little of “this is what could happen” puts things into perspective. People stop being unsatisfied with what they don’t have and start being satisfied with what they do have. I think the poor of most 1st world nations like the U.S. could take a lesson away from that, but really that is a good lesson for anyone.
On the author’s trip around the world he encountered expatriates in each nation who had made their place in their new country and now called it home. They claimed to be happy and that makes sense as happiness is in the eyes of the beholder. I know that feeling as I was pretty happy living in Japan. Having lived in four countries now I think that Japan is my favorite, it fits me. People are quiet and polite. Streets are clean and things run on time. People concentrate more on “we” than “me”. Religion is not at the forefront of most people’s decision making and does not influence politics. While most Japanese people say they don’t trust the government there actually is a level of trust which is why Japan has such a high level of public debt but is still not considered a risk. Crime is fairly low and people generally trust each other and feel a sense of responsibility for their actions and the well being of others. Diets are good and people value the environment and exercise. Though the country can get crowded in places there are natural expanses and many sights of historical and/or cultural heritage. Unlike the U.S. people who are smart and value learning are themselves valued, no child in school has to hide the fact that they study hard or like learning from their peers. There is also a sense for me of adventure and learning. As an outsider there are constantly new things to learn and that is stimulating.
Of course there are things I didn’t like about Japan, but there will always be things that frustrate one no matter where you live. In hindsight those things didn’t really matter much when weighed against the things I did enjoy. The only thing that sticks out for me was my job, teaching English. I enjoyed it to a degree, but it was not satisfying. Here in China I am satisfied with my job, but not with where I live. I think I have found the geographical location of my happiness, now if I can only get a job there.

Thursday, July 21, 2011



This summer I went back to Japan and as such one of my main goals was to do some hiking. The boots I had been wearing for the past 4 years were certainly worn out so while in Tokyo I got a new pair from L-Breath near Shinjuku station. They turned out to work pretty well.
I had scheduled to hike with a few friends on Dewa Sanzan, the three holy mountains located in Yamagata prefecture. As such I knew I should try to get in some training before hand since I hadn’t done any hiking while in China. I run often and work out, but hiking for two solid days would strain my body in ways it was no longer used to. I also wanted to break in the boots and find any problems so I hiked Ono-Dake just south of my in laws home in Aizu, Fukushima prefecture. Ono-Dake is 1383m high and from the starting point it took me only about 2 hours up and 2 down. On the way up on more than one occasion I stopped and thought, ‘wow I am not in shape for this’.
I am very glad I took that hike because over the next 5 days I worked through the soreness of having shocked my body and so was ready to go for Dewa Sanzan.
With the weather looking fine, two friends, Jon and Danny, met up with me in Kitakata city. On a nice Saturday morning we drove north into Yamagata ken. I parked my car in Yamagata city and jumped in Danny’s car for the rest of the trip there. Danny had plans to snowboard on Mt. Gassan and so he let Jon and I off at the station in Tsuruouka to wait for a bus that would bring us to the bottom of Mt. Haguro. He would easily join us later in the evening as Haguro is only 414m high and can be climbed quickly.
Jon and I caught our bus and started our hike up Haguro happy to be out of the sun and under the cover of the forests leaves. It wasn’t long before we passed over a beautiful red bridge spanning a crystal clear river. On the other side the path went through trees over 500 years old and soon thereafter we saw Goju-no-to, the five storied wooden pagoda built more than 600 years ago. We carried on the trail and were passed by a yamabushi, a pilgrim blowing into a conch shell. He was leading a group of about 10 other men and women, pilgrims, up the mountain. We would see them again and again on our journey to the three peaks.
After a short break at a tea house we resumed climbing up the stairs (all 2446 of them!) and eventually came to a fork in the path. There was a sign, which was too difficult to read, but we assumed we had lots of time and so took the detour. We shortly arrived at a small pavilion surrounded by three stinking ponds of scum water. After deciding there was nothing to see we turned back to the main trail. We later learned that Basho, the famous haiku poet, had composed a famous poem at those three pools. I don’t know what he saw in them.

In the summer heat/ three pools turn to stinking mud/ not what Basho saw

A little later on and we were at the top of Haguro. We could see the tori gate to the shrine and knew there was more a bit beyond, but our ryokan for the night, Saikan, was just before this so we decided to get our room and strip off our packs before exploring the top. Before I go on I must say that staying at Saikan was on of the neatest parts of the trip. A traditional ryokan, it offers a small ofuro (indoor bath), traditional dining, and a large quiet place to stay. I would recommend it.
After leaving our bags inside we made it to the top were there were many sights to see. Especially intriguing was the Sanzan Gosaiden temple at the top. It is unique in many ways, but I was especially drawn to the 2 meter (6ft!) thick thatch roofing made from kaya trees. I don’t remember where, but I had read it is the thickest thatch roofing in Japan. There were many other smaller shrines at the top along with a smattering of tourist shops and a bus parking lot. After walking around for a bit we headed back for dinner and a bath. Danny showed up later and back in our room, feeling very relaxed, we cracked celebratory beers (not sure what we were celebrating as we were only 1/3 done with our hike)
The next morning we were up early to catch a bus that would take us from the top of Haguro to the bottom of Mt. Gassan, the largest of the three peaks at 1984m. On the bus with us was the same group of pilgrims from the day before and throughout the day we would pass them and they us along the trail. After Danny bought a hat and walking stick we were on our way. It was pleasant down below but after a certain altitude the clouds were clinging too closely to the peak for us to have any pleasant views. Then the rain started. We all had some rain gear, but still got pinned under a very small tree for 20 minutes waiting for the worst of the rain to stop. Reaching the top the winds picked up noticeably and the rain continued to drizzle, but it never got terribly cold. After spending a few minutes in a hut near the top shrine we began our decent on a trail that would bring us to Mt.Yudono, the last of the three holy peaks and the middle sized one. Going down got tough as the rocks were slick with rain and in some parts we were either going through snow or snow runoff/trails. About half way to Yudono Jon slipped and hurt his ankle. Some very helpful Japanese people nearby gave him some cold spray and he carried on, but would fall an additional 5 or 6 times no doubt because of his weakened ankle. I myself didn’t fall until near the end of the trail. As the trail reaches Yudono it forks going into a steep valley. The peak is not accessible. The steep trail into the valley gets so much so at times that chains and ladders are in place to assists decent. Even so the trail was a stream and going was not easy. Finally we arrived at the tori gate of the Yudono shrine entrance and the end of our hike. Overall a success and much fun. I would highly recommend this to anyone in the area as it has lots of interesting views and is a moderate but challenging hike. Oh, and did I mentioned the mummified monks in the area? Yes, it’s true