Tuesday, July 3, 2012

SMP & Surfing Minamisoma, 26kms North of Daiichi

In 2004 I had a pretty uneventful surf at Kitaizumi in Minamisoma, Fukushima. It was only waist-high but I remember sharing an early morning, glassy peak with three locals for an hour or two. Like a lot of Fukushima’s coastline, long lines of orange-tinted cliffs and the ever-present tetrapods stretch to the South, but the North side of the bay is dominated by the TEPCO thermal power plant which came online in 1997.

It’s a similar story 50km South at Iwasawa, where one of the most consistent beachbreaks in the area breaks right next to TEPCO’s oil-fired power station at Hirono built in the late 70s. About half-way between the two is Kumagawa, a small rivermouth/beachbreak just a few km South of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant which started up in 1971. Fukushima Daini is another nuclear plant about 10km below Daiichi.

After the coal industry in Fukushima, particularly the Joban coalfield in Iwaki closed down in the 60s, power plants like these filled the local employment void and blots on the landscape became a necessary evil. TEPCO made surface concessions to keep the locals happy while trumpeting the safety of nuclear power. Near Kitaizumi, they even sponsored a woodland area with nature trails called TEPCO Green Park.

Looking South from Kitaizumi towards the old TEPCO Green Park
 It was a mellow, uneventful surf but I’ve been thinking about that session a lot more since I started driving a delivery truck back up to that area as part of the Save Minamisoma Project. I first joined these guys a couple of months ago in early April and had chance to go back up there again last weekend. The SMP are funded entirely by donations and do a trip every two weeks delivering food and safe drinking water to people who 15 months after the disaster are still living in temporary housing.
In Minamisoma alone there are over 8,000 people still living in temporary housing who either lost their homes in the tsunami or had to be evacuated from homes too close to the reactor in which case they may never be able to go back. I’ll write more about volunteering with the SMP later but they do much more than just deliver food and water. It’s about letting the residents know they aren’t forgotten by making the trip to see them every couple of weeks, and just spending some time to chat, listen and laugh together. You can read more about their great work here.  
In a perfect world there’d be no need for these trips any more, but since the world ain’t perfect, the SMP plan to keep on making these trips as long as the local volunteers and residents keep inviting us.
Save Minamisoma Project team delivering food and water to temporary housing residents

Minamisoma itself, like Iwaki to the South has been relatively lucky in regard to radiation. The winds were blowing from the SE when the bulk of the radiation was released last March meaning that the coast near here, about 20-30km North of the reactor has pretty normal levels. It’s as you go inland and up towards the mountains, past towns like Iitate and Date, and then further on towards Koriyama and Fukushima City that the radiation levels really start to spike. Even though levels here are higher than those found in the old 20km and 30km zones the government still refuses to provide any assistance for families to evacuate.
The old 20km and 30km radius limits were pretty much meaningless as a safety guide anyway since much higher radiation can be found much further away to the North-East and then back South West again. You can see a map of the affected areas here.
Although this map is made from government data provided by MEXT, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology, it seems to be pretty accurate compared to real measurements I’ve taken around there.
The old 20km and 30km zones are shown as red circles.
Kiatizumi is about halfway between the two circles in the light blue area

The beach at Kitaizumi is 26kms North of the reactor so on the drive down there before we had to start the deliveries, even on a hot, sunny Sunday morning, I wasn’t expecting to see anyone in the water. As expected, the Haramachi Seaside Park area had been completely swept away and the power station on my left was the only thing still recognizable from eight years ago, but there were quite a few cars parked up.
Clambering up the verge I couldn’t believe it, once again it was small and glassy, but there were 25 guys out! The only way I knew I was in the right spot was to look out at the waves, the half-smashed up terraced embankment leading down to the sand, the cliffs to the right and the power station to the left. Nothing was recognizable when I turned around and looked inland. All the concrete tetrapods, that used to sit 50 yards out to sea just to the South were now thrown up against the foot of the cliff like a set of jacks. There were no families enjoying the hot summer weather, no dog-walkers, no beach-goers... just the surfers.

Click thumbnail for video.

You need to take an average reading

I caught up with a guy who’d just got out of the water, he asked where I was from and if I was scared of the radiation, the exact question I was thinking about how to ask him. From his point of view, he was a Minamisoma local; he was born here, lived here and like the other locals they’d got used to it. The plant may still be unstable, no-one knows for sure, but if you’re a local and have grown up surfing these breaks, and you know from taking your own measurements that the radiation levels at the beach are the same as the levels in Tokyo (averaging 0.12uSv/hr where I measured) and in town they are only slightly elevated (at around 0.2-0.3uSv/hr) then for them they are just taking a calculated risk, like other surfers might take with sunburn, shallow reefs, or sharks.
You could argue there’s nothing calculated about surfing so close to the reactor when no-one knows for sure what’s going on, but just as an example, is it really any more calculated to paddle out in South Africa, South Australia or any other place where surfers have been taken by sharks? The locals here probably think those guys are the ones off their head.

This also has nothing to do with taking a stance on nuclear power, it’s a decision that’s been forced on these surfers as they’ve watched their empty local breaks firing like they have done for years. Radiation at the beach is lower than the readings they see in town, the same as in Tokyo, so over time, they’ve talked themselves into it. If I lived here, I’d have done the same.

Thanks to TEPCO, these guys now have to add one more factor to their “is-it-worth-a-dip” equation. Wave-height, number of people out, wind-direction, stage-of-the-tide, how-much-water-over-the-reef… and now radiation. Maybe these days they also avoid rivermouths especially after heavy rains to factor in any extra radiation that might be washed down from the hotspots in the mountains, but they're out there.
I was brought up surfing the relatively safe waters of S. Wales. When I first got to Australia in 1988 it took a while for me to get my head around surfing spots where I was sure sharks were lurking. Talking to the locals about it, you’d usually get two different responses depending on the stance you took. If you said you were scared of sharks, they’d laugh at you for being some sort of pommie poofter and tell you there was nothing to worry about. If you said their shark stories were exaggerated, they’d fix you with a steely glare and tell you any number of old shark stories, like the time a pack of 600 hammerheads cruised down the coast past Narrabeen with a shark-patrol helicopter flying ahead warning everyone to get out of the water.

The usual attitude though was “no worries”. One guy summed it up best when he told me (incorrectly) not to worry about sharks since I’d only ever get bothered by a Great White, and if I did, it would all happen so fast that I wouldn’t know anything about it anyway… so just get out there!
Then there was Phil Horley one of the Cactus locals in South Australia known as Sharkbait, or Sharky after being attacked surfing Outside Castles in 1977. He went on to be “bumped” another twice at the same spot before being killed years later in a car crash. Imagine surviving three close encounters with a Great White and then dying in a bloody car crash!  You can take all the precautions you like, but if you’re not doing the thing you love, are you really living?
In any surf community there will always be a group of guys who are out there charging when it’s big, guys who’ll sit that bit further inside and take off on anything, guys who will paddle out when no-one else will. That could have been what happened in Minamisoma. The local crew could only watch the empty waves go by unridden for so long before one day, maybe when it just got too perfect to watch from the beach anymore, one or two guys just suited up, got out there and the rest followed. 

Away from crowded city beaches, surfing has always been one of the best ways I know to relax. Away from life’s problems, away from the job, relationship hassles, away from anything dragging you down and give you a little time to yourself, a little time to refocus. I read in an old SURFER mag that surfers were lucky that in times of stress we could jump off the edge of any continent we like and spend a few hours laughing back at the world and all its problems. Good on these boys for deciding to get back in the water, with all the issues they face on land, it’s doing a damn site more to keep them sane than watching the news or trawling the internet.

I wish I'd had more time to talk to these guys that Sunday morning but I had to get back into town for the temporary housing deliveries… I’ll be back though for sure.

How Kitaizumi used to look in mid-summer.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Long Run

Incredible feat of endurance from Charles McJilton, Founder and CEO of Second Harvest Japan (2HJ) the first group I volunteered with after the tsunami last March. To mark the one-year anniversary tomorrow, he took on on a 4-day run heading South from Ofunato, one of the worst affected areas in the North. The idea was to raise awareness of the need for ongoing help for the affected areas of Tohoku.

As the photos show, even though some areas in Tohoku have had a lot of focus, a lot of other areas are still waiting to be touched. Even areas that have been cleared are far from back to normal. Ongoing recovery projects are needed to bring sustainable businesses into these towns, to not just rebuild, but improve on what in some cases were aging and impoverished communities. 

One of the many interesting groups trying to help, Project Fumbaro, are offering training courses for those living in temporary housing to get their Heavy Equipment Licences, diggers and suchlike. The licenses cost just 30,000yen ($385/£240) but once certified, these ex-fishermen or ex-factory workers can then earn a decent wage and can start rebuilding their town.

For Charles though, the weather wasn't cooperating and after a sunny but very cold, early start on March 7, he was soon running through icy rain and snow. Incredibly, he still ran these distances:

Mar 7: about 90 kilometers from Ofunato to Rikuzen Yokoyama
Mar 8: about 50 kilometers from Rikuzen Yokoyama to Higashi Matsuyama
Mar 9: about 50 kilometers from Higashi Matsuyama to Iwanuma
Mar 10: about 37 kilometers from Iwanuma to Soma City.

A total of 227 kilometers in 4 days, or nearly 142 miles. 

To put that into perspective, that's about the same distance as running from Sydney up to Seal Rocks, or from Sydney down to Milton. 
It's the same as running from my hometown of Bridgend in South Wales to Maidenhead just outside London. 
It's also the same distance as Sopelana to Ribadesella in Northern Spain, which won't mean a lot to some, but you get the idea. 

With the Ishinomaki marathon initially planned for Sep 23, I'd started running in the middle of last January just to see how unfit I was. The answer was "very"! That first night I took 30 minutes to run just 3kms, and had to have eight walk-breaks. Slowly though, over the last eight weeks I've built up the distance and today I was able to get through my first 21.1km, a half-marathon. It makes Charles' Robocop/Terminator numbers above even more crazy! I can't imagine keeping going for more than 10 times what I dragged myself through today.

Charles, bloody good on you mate!

Outside of their disaster relief efforts which are described on their Emergency Response Portal, Second Harvest Japan also continue their work to provide food security to an estimated 650,000 people in need in Japan. You can read more about their history and mission here.

Some more pictures below from the run, Charles' run obviously, not mine.
Also some comparison maps which are all on the same scale. I need a lie down.

(all photos of the run are theirs, from the 2HJ facebook page - check them out)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Direct Hit

Last year I missed the sunset making a direct hit down the throat of Fuji-san due to some rare crappy winter weather on the golden weekend. It seemed that Sunday Feb 19 was the likely day for the bullseye though so this year I cleared my weekend early evenings for a bit of  “magic-hour” photography.

Cold, clear, sunny days are the norm for mid-winter here and I can usually see Fuji-san well over half of the time, but mostly just first thing in the morning. As the day gets going a haze builds up which obscures her from view till just before sunset when she’s sometimes been known to make a brief reappearance before dark.

The sunset on Saturday 18th was a classic and crashed into the South-facing slopes.

Sunday 19th was cloudier in the morning but cleared up a bit by lunchtime. An hour before sunset though and there was still too much cloud around. Things weren’t looking good. I set up the camera anyway hoping for one of the old girl’s occasional curtain calls before dark.

The sun was nearly setting but still there was no sign of her. Then right at the death, just as the sun was disappearing, you could slowly start to make out the familiar triangular silhouette emerging. A couple of minutes later, with the mountain now almost fully in view, the sinking crescent of the sun seemed to briefly form a red-hot peak to complete a perfect cone above the usual square-edged crater. Well worth waiting a year for.

Direct hit - Feb 19, 5:19pm

3 minutes earlier. Feb 19, 5:13pm

Saturday warm-up - Feb 18, 5:16pm

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Frying Dutchman


Powerful, passionate wake-up call that may go unheard for a while, but  another step in the right direction. 

Full lyrics below. Read them all if you can. The World is watching!

Long ago, human beings lost their true sense of time, and because of this, their senses grew dull and they lost other-dimensional creative powers that would be unimaginable today, like telepathy and advanced powers of thought.

Ever since then, evil people have created a false sense of time to keep those abilities smothered. Using the science of destruction, they built civilizations dependent on material things and created religion to force their self-serving rules on a bewildered populace, while behind the scenes, they monopolized energy and built money-based economies, snuffing out our powerful natural abilities.

Over thousands of years, genetic memory loss set in: after numerous reincarnations, here we are, having completely forgotten those abilities. We all have collective amnesia! Talking about four-dimensional science and philosophy may bore people who have no interest in fantasy, so let me put it simply: For a long time, some people have made money by destroying nature and irresponsibly making dangerous products, all while using the media to deceive the masses and inflicting horrible pain and suffering on those in harmony with nature.

The electricity powering our lives is no exception -- it’s built on the suffering of others.
But peer deep into Pandora’s box and you’ll see advanced technologies that harness natural energy without destroying nature. With technologies like solar power and other renewables, we can get all the electricity we need without nuclear power, and cheaply, too. We could shut down all the nuclear plants and easily make up the difference by operating our hydroelectric and thermal power plants at full capacity.

But powerful interests hide this fact from us. Why? Because of money! Money! Those people are terminally insane!

Power companies get up to a trillion yen (about US$13 billion) in subsidies from the government to build a nuclear power plant. Once the location is chosen, the power company showers the locals with money. They take the guys to hostess bars and the old people to hot springs.
Wine and dine, wine and dine!

And they lie to them about the nuclear plant being good for the local economy. They actually have a manual on how to use money to divide the community into supporters and opponents.  Fishermen even sell off their fishing rights for enormous sums. Then there’s a PR barrage that’s nothing but propaganda, about safety measures and secret dangerous experiments.

Where does the money for all that come from? From your taxes!

This is how Japan has aggressively constructed 59 nuclear power plants, either operating, decommissioned, or planned.

That means we are now living with over 50 time bombs strapped to our bodies. If even one blows up, the entire area around it becomes uninhabitable for all living things, and contamination slowly spreads all over.

That’s not pleasant to imagine. Japan built these reactors under the banner of peacefully using nuclear power, but the real reason is that the government wants nuclear weapons.

Right now, in Kaminoseki Town in Yamaguchi, Chugoku Electric Power wants to build what would be two of Japan’s largest nuclear reactors, filling in ocean along the beautiful Tanoura coast.
For 30 years, the people of nearby Iwai Island have fought these plans. They devoted their lives to this cause, and they stopped the construction.

These people lived in harmony with their island’s verdant nature for generations. It’s an amazing place, with history and wide-open nature. But Chugoku Power wants to ignore all that and force their plans through.

“Fukushima?” they say. “We didn’t have anything to do with that.” Until only recently, they were working on that plant every day. How stupid!

And now other companies that shut down their nuclear plants after Fukushima want to restart them. “They’re safe,” they say. What do you mean, safe? Did a meltdown happen inside your heads? They are terminally insane. With all that chanting of “It’s safe, it’s safe” they’ve brainwashed themselves, like people in a religious cult. What idiots! But we’ve been deceived by those idiots, which makes us idiots, too. We’re completely caught in their trap!

A lot of people on Twitter and the Internet nitpick what the anti-nuclear people say, but those shallow types don’t understand the situation at all. It’s pathetic! Don’t say you support nuclear power until you know the real history -- Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the radiation exposure from Fukuryumaru Reactor No. 5.; the United Nations “peaceful use” campaign starting in 1953, which was just a cover for the Cold War nuclear development race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.; the nuclear energy plans drafted by America and sold to the public by Matsutaro Shoriki’s Yomiuri newspaper and TV station. That’s how uranium came to Japan. Once you know that history, your views will change!

Once you see the negative chain reaction that nuclear energy has throughout our society, it’ll make you want to puke! If you have a heart, that is.

Television and newspapers are tools for deceiving the public, and it’s really bad in Japan. The TV news is absolutely horrible. Only now have they even started mentioning plutonium -- the most dangerous substance in the world! Fukushima Reactor No. 3 is a plutonium-thermal reactor,
the kind promoted in the Kansai Power commercials starring baseball coach Sen’ichi Hoshino.

A reactor that uses plutonium -- that’s the one that blew up! But the newspaper headline the next day just said it was a “planned stoppage.” That is pure propaganda! Just how many people’s lives will they sacrifice to cover up their crimes? Enough already, you bastards!

Plutonium is far deadlier than other radioactive materials.  If you breathe in even just a tiny amount, it attacks your cells and destroys their DNA so they can’t reproduce. That’s the stuff that leaked out, but for a long time, those bastards never even mentioned plutonium.

They just kept repeating:
“There is no immediate health risk.”
“There is no immediate health risk.”

That phrase should win some kind of propaganda award.

This is organized crime committed by a gang of murderers. More lives could have been saved if they had disclosed more information, and not just about nuclear power. You TV news people are nothing but mindless cheerleaders for the nuclear industry.

Do you have any respect for human life, you stupid morons! You scumbags!

Right now, those lying, deceiving bastards aren’t thinking about the Japanese people.
They’re desperately trying to think up excuses to avoid taking responsibility for what they’ve done. What a joke! That’s their job. “Human error”? Anyone can see through that crap!

The whole world is watching.
The whole universe is watching!

Now, the world is watching to see how the Japanese will overcome this horror -- what Japan’s young people will do, how artists and musicians will express this pain in their art, and the world is watching, Japan is in crisis, so this is no time for hair-splitting arguments. It’s time to wake up! Nuclear energy is outdated!

The Swedish government was honest with its people. “Nuclear energy is headed for disaster,” they said. “We can give it up, but it will be hard at first.” But the people still said no to nuclear power, and now the country is working to get by without it!

Japan already has the technology to get by with just natural energy, but that fact is covered up with lies and fear-mongering. Because of money!

So wake up! How can you be so apathetic?

At the Rokkasho nuclear reprocessing plant in Aomori, nuclear waste leaked from a 3,000-ton pool. There was too much liquid waste to bury, so they dumped it into the ocean.
Can you believe that? And they’re hiding that from everyone.

There’s so much nuclear material there that if the plant ever exploded, forget about Japan -- the whole world would be finished. The government is hiding so much, and that’s just what they’re hiding about nuclear power.

Those recent planned power outages were outrageous. They intentionally did that to fool people into believing they need nuclear power. People died because of those outages, but what’s the point? Japan has so much electrical power that more and more homes and buildings are switching to electricity-only power.

Think about it, everyone. Japan has hot springs almost everywhere, so there’s plenty of hot water underground for geothermal energy! Japan is an island nation, and we’ve created the technology to generate unlimited energy from the tides.

Japan also has high-tech power-transmission lines that could almost eliminate electricity loss -- the lines we use now to transmit electricity from power plants to your homes and office buildings lose a lot of power!We Japanese have amazing technology! If we had the money for all that stuff, then we absolutely can achieve the goal of getting by on natural energy alone.

So why don’t we? Because of nuclear weapons and money! Dirty damned money!

And the money has them in a feeding frenzy! Japan’s electric power companies are monopolies, so they themselves are illegal! What are you all paying taxes for? It’s all about money, money, money! Sure, money is important, but there are more important things than money!

Right! Don’t forget it!

You can buy a house, but you can’t buy a home.
Money buys you a watch, but it can’t buy you time.
You can buy a book, but you can’t buy knowledge.
You can buy a bed, but you can’t buy sleep.
Money pays the doctor, but it can’t cure disease.
Buying electricity destroys nature.

A lot of people feel frustrated because they want to help, but all they can think of is sending in a donation. Donating money is a good thing, but how many people think about how that money is spent or who benefits from it? Many people send in donations out of guilt, but they don’t really care.

One thing we can do is democratize electric power. In Kyoto, wherever you dig a hole you hit a hot spring, so the city could create a power grid where every community has its own hot spring to generate electricity. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Geothermal has its downsides, but communities can decide what the right balance is.

Kyoto also has dams, so cloudy weather is no problem, and the dams can turn rain into more hydroelectric power. With all that, Kyoto could generate the electric power it needs without harming nature. That is electric democracy. Let’s take over their transmission lines!!

Of course a project like that will take capital, along with thorough discussions and transparency, so everyone can see how donations, subsidies, and taxes are used. Working together, we can do it! People would want to donate if it was for a good cause and if there was transparency. Donation scams are out there. You can’t trust a company just because it’s big. In fact, big companies are better at pulling off scams. I hate to say it, but there is a dismal amount of dishonesty in Japan today.

Nuclear energy has powered our daily lives, and being ignorant of the situation, we let that happen. While we played around, engineers designed nuclear power plants. They knew the dangers better than anyone, and they got paid well, so maybe they did the best job they could.

Maybe I should feel grateful for nuclear power, but I just can’t, not with all the lies we’ve been told. Irresponsible people have left us contaminated waste that will plague the nation for who knows how many generations. The power companies, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, bureaucrats, politicians, bankers, corporate executives, the mass media, and government scientists are all chasing money around like characters in a comedy. But it’s too painful to watch anymore!

If we pursue the truth and keep our eyes on those criminals, if we open our eyes to reality, to see how things should change, we’ll be able to visualize creatively and come up with concrete ideas. We’ll also figure out how everything we lost over thousands of years can be regained, even if it takes thousands of years.

 But no matter what, we do not need nuclear energy anymore. Staying apathetic and gullible will only lead us to destruction!

This isn’t about not having enough electrical power, because you can live without electricity, but you can’t live without nature. Irreversible damage has already been done. I’m not talking about feeling sorry for animals and plants harmed by our egotistical ways, because you know who we should really feel sorry for? The children! They’re our future! If we don’t protect them, who the hell will?

Fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years from now, people might look back on our era and say, “They were a bunch of Hitlers! They were a bunch of genocidal maniacs!” If we see the truth behind the lies, we can change the world overnight without violence!

No matter how many detours we take, or how many times we are reborn, the goal remains the same: love! Love!  It’s not just some corny word, and don’t be embarrassed to say it: “Love!”  
Love is what we need! Shout it out: “LOVE!”

Now let the bastards hear you! “You bastards!” Shout it: “YOU BASTARDS!”

Now stand up and make your voice heard! Wake up!!


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Ishinomaki: Jan 2012

After an uneventful New Year's Eve at 35,000ft somewhere above Russia on the flight back from the UK, I headed up to Ishinomaki on Jan 3rd to meet up with Matt who I’d met Matt a couple of times on Team HEAL Japan trips. I'd promised to deliver all the clothes I’d collected back home and wanted to see where I could help. 

Led by Fujita-san, the team at Koganehama Kaikan, the local community centre were focusing on rebuilding communities and businesses in the area. Matt does a fine job up here and also manages an English language facebook page for their group which is called the Association for the Revitalization of Ishinomaki (ARI)

Knitting and Clothes donated from the UK
Past the (634) Tokyo Sky Tree, I stopped at Tsukuba to meet up with Jeffrey who along with my old THJ mate Jacinta and others have been organizing the wildly successful Share Your Christmas With Tohoku. They’re still receiving presents and donations from all over the world today and see it turning into a year-round thing. Worth a look.

I didn’t realise but one of the groups he belongs to: Team Tsukuba, were also involved in the Knit Ishinomaki campaign I’d been collecting for back home. He also helped make this powerful video about what life is like up in Ishinomaki these days and features Fujita-san heavily. Filmed on 11.11.11 it's definitely worth watching, before you read the rest of this (long) post if you can.

Koganehama Kaikan

I arrived at Koganehama Kaikan (Koganehama Community Centre) in Ishinomaki around seven-ish and met up with Matt, Fujita-san and the other volunteers who were staying there. I was pleased to hear the It’s Not Just Mud team were based just down the road. I’d heard of the INJM volunteer group before so it was a good chance to call in. They have two houses now that they were given by owners who originally planned to have them demolished. They’ve done them up (a bit) and use them now as a base of operations and to house volunteers. 

It’s really easy for anyone who wants to make the trip up there to help out. All you have to do is let them know you’re coming,  get the train/bus up to Ishinomaki and they’ll meet you from the station.  After that, they’ll find work for you from 8am to 4pm the next day and you can stay in their house for about 500yen a night. They even provide overalls and most importantly, a good laugh. All the info’s on their website including these FUEs, or Frequently Used Excuses

Everyone at the INJM house was really welcoming, as you’d expect. Like Team HEAL Japan there was no fixed requirement to be there for a specific period of time, you just joined when you could and did what you could while you were in town. You had to be up and ready to start work in the morning but you’re done by 4pm and the evenings are free.  As well as the more serious stuff, the focus was also on being able to enjoy the whole experience. I didn’t even know they were within walking distance of where I was staying but after chatting to some of them at about 9pm, they said to come back by 8am the next day and they’d find something for me to help with, which of course they did. Easy.

Volunteering has a beautiful cyclical nature to it. First, the volunteers turn up to do what they can to help out the local communities, they get energy from people they’re helping and seeing the communities coming back to life, then as the local people start looking forward to a future they can now start to plan for themselves, the presence and the energy of the volunteers plays an important part in encouraging them even more, so you have this powerful positive feedback loop going on with everyone feeding off each other.  I saw it with THJ in Hisanohama and here it was again in Ishinomaki.

Take Hashimoto-san, who cooked us lunch the next day. When the tsunami came, as with most of the few houses that remain in the area, the first floor was completely destroyed leaving her confined to living on the second floor for many months. Then some volunteers from INJM came and helped strip it down, clean it out to get it ready to be renovated. Now it’s good as new inside and the joy she gets from being able to offer the volunteers a feast for lunch every day, to chat to new people in her living room, is something to behold.

Hashimoto-san (centre) smiling and waving
The day I was there with an INJM team, we’d been cleaning up a separate community centre in preparation for an upcoming concert: cleaning their photos and documents, getting rid of more sand and mud stacked up in the car park. Her house was about a 5-minute walk away and she welcomed us all into her front room with this massive lunch she’s made for 15 or more of us. All through lunch she was chatting away to the new folks as well as the regulars, making sure everyone felt welcome, making sure we all had enough food and making sure we were all warm enough. I heard she’d catered for 90 before! A diamond, absolute diamond.

Cleaning photos and documents

 Sketch of Ishinomaki port in the 1950s

 Ground floor of the kaikan, you can see the high-water mark

Just Say No!

On the way back Mike took us via one of the worst affected areas in Ishinomaki to show us a commemorative garden they’d started building. It was on the site of a house that belonged to another family they’d got to know well but this family hadn’t been so lucky. The tsunami picked their house up and dragged it about 200m before wedging it between the tree and the temple in the pic below. The daughter was stranded on the second floor alone for four days till help arrived and understandably hasn’t been back to visit the area.   

Kadanowaki elementary school just behind here was designated as an official evacuation centre but it caught fire while people were sheltering from the tsunami, killing everyone inside. There won’t be any rebuilding here.

Back at the kaikan we hooked up with Fujita-san again and planned out the next day’s knitting and clothing deliveries. I also wanted to go spend some money in the bottle shop Kotobuki after seeing the owners interviewed in the video clip.

The Sato-sans who ran the bottle shop were a great couple. Like Hashimoto-san, an INJM team had helped them restart their 85-year old business by cleaning out the ruined first floor so they could refit the shop and get ready to open again. It was Jan 4, they’d just re-opened on Dec 20 and were well happy to see us.

I know my shouchu pretty well, but I’m a novice when it comes to nihon-shuu (sake) so I needed Sato-san’s advice. Over coffee in Tsukuba on the way up Jeffrey had recommended a bottle of Ben Kei Misaki as the premium sake from these parts, but it turned out that the bottles in Kotobuki were special. On the morning of March 11, the brewery had a number of full vats that were either still going through the fermentation process or waiting to be bottled. The tsunami destroyed most of them, washed them away or contaminated them with its vile water but a select number of vats survived intact. The brewery had recently restarted operations and what we were looking at in the shop was some of the first bottling of sake that had been in the vats on the morning of March 11. These tsunami-survivors were packed in specially marked boxes denoting Special Edition. I added another two bottles.

The Sato-sans, Matt and Yukari-san 
If it was anywhere else in the world, you’d think it was just a story they’d made up to sell more bottles. Special “disaster-survivor” bottles being sold to tourists 10 years after the event at hugely inflated prices, but nothing could have been further from the truth here. In fact, this only occurred to me while I was writing this up a few weeks later, putting myself in the position of someone who hasn’t met them, or been up to Tohoku.

These folks were the genuine article and were just as they appeared in the video: been through hell, freshly optimistic, finishing each other’s sentences and full of hope having finally rediscovered a joint purpose in life. 

Yukari-san who was with us at the time got a bottle sent back down to her home in Tokyo and within a couple of days she received a thank-you  letter saying how important the volunteers were to them, how they’d been in an evacuation shelter for 3 months, then temporary housing for another 3 months which was hard to take for a 74 and 71-year old couple, and how the sharing the energy and laughter of the volunteers got them through. It really is not JUST mud.

If you're up in Ishinomaki, you can find Kotobukiya at:
986-0822, Ishinomaki-Shi, Chuo 2-11-5.
986-0822 石巻市中央 2-11-5

Call in and se them. Lovely, lovely people.
Yukari-san's Thank-You letter

Then it was off to Matt’s not-so-secret-anymore spot for a wood-fired pizza dinner at a restaurant also just getting going again. Mieko-san at Kitchen Jaga Imo must have been nearly in her 70s (unless she’s reading this in which case she was probably 29) but her smile lit up the room. The menu is less extensive than it used to be but the pizzas and pasta there are first class, plus it was just so toasty warm in there! I was driving so couldn’t have any of the wine on offer, just a house-coke. Next time I’ll get a lift.

To round the night off we went to check on Matt’s friend Baba-san in the house just behind the Kaikan along with Paula and Stephanie who had come up to give therapeutic, healing massages to the people in temporary housing. This turned out to be the Izakaya Kogane (local bar/restaurant) and after months of struggling to figure out a future Baba-san was now planning an opening night within a few weeks. Baba-san was another one who’d really fed off the energy of the volunteers’ and made a positive decision to restart her business.

I sat at the counter with Matt and tried my best to coax Baba-san behind the bar away from her preferred tipple of draught beer and share with me some of the Katsu shouchu I’d spotted behind the counter. 

We spent the night finishing the bottle, laughing and talking about all sorts of stuff: my surprise at finding an izakaya just behind the kaikan, the funky mural painted on some cardboard outside, her plans for re-opening, her four sons and their plans, the 20-year old's new girlfriend, the location of a surf shop I remembered driven past on my Tohoku surf trip in 2004, which I was sure was just up the road from here but was beginning to think I’d imagined, and what might have happened if in 2004 I’d come through the door of Izakaya Kogane for something to eat and drink knowing no Japanese and none of the people around here. 

She said the welcome would have been the same, but we’d all have had to drink a lot quicker because no-one could understand a bloody word I was saying. Just what I was thinking... my kind of people!

Next morning we headed off to a small temporary housing centre just up the road with Matt, Paula and Stephanie. I’d brought the knitting and the clothes collected from Lianne, Obie, my mum, Gill, Roisin and Jack while I was in the UK. Great effort from them for the Knit Ishinomaki campaign. Matt later gave me the figures as of Jan 11, 2012: 

Ishinomaki: 134 housing blocks with about 16,000 people in 6,819 units. 
Higashi Matsushima: 29 housing blocks with 4,405 people in 1,695 units. 
Onagawa: 30 housing blocks, with 3,192 people in 1,261 occupied units .

That’s a total of 23,597 people still living in temporary housing in and around Ishinomaki alone. That doesn’t count those further North where Jeffrey had heard there are still over a thousand people still living in evacuation centres. They’ve been there since March, still waiting for temporary housing to become available.

The block we went to was one of the smaller ones with less than 30 people that often gets overlooked when it comes to handing out aid. The units were tiny and there was a small common room where the women had gathered for our visit. There were no kids in this block so Matt delivered the kid’s and baby’s items the next day leaving just the hats, scarves and gloves and jackets to dish out. 

It had been snowing that morning again and after being home for Christmas, seeing my nieces and nephews surrounded by presents on Christmas morning, it was exactly the same atmosphere here as the women realized that these clothes had been hand-made or donated from miles away in a country they didn’t really know much about, delivered here to help them through the winter. 

They were smiling, laughing, teasing each other at how dapper they all looked as they tried on their new scarves, warm jackets and trendy gloves.  Quite surreal to see one of the old ladies posing for the camera proudly wearing the scarf that we’d all watched my mother knit while I was home for Christmas. 

The Knit Ishinomaki campaign will be running till April at least. There’s a blog here and again there's also a facebook group you can join. 

Matt delivering the kids and babies stuff to Kazuma nursery the next day. 
This lady was also interviewed in the video.

Paula and Stephanie had set up their massage table and massage chair in the corner and were working their way through the women there. I imagine that their healing massages normally take place in rooms with subdued lighting and some ambient music, maybe a stream trickling in the background or waves gently lapping on the shore, but in this case the background noise was of story-telling, laughing and joking. Stephanie said it may not have been usual but was one of the best sessions she could remember.

One of the women who must have been in her late 60s’ had a son who ran a nearby ramen (noodle) shop. Like other local people I’d met, she was planning on heading down to a volunteer site the next day with him to cook lunch for the volunteers, she just wanted to do what she could.

I left the ladies to their massages and headed across to Onagawa. I’d last visited Onagawa on April 30 delivering food to the home refugees up behind the main town, past Shimizucho and on the way up to the small community of Shinden. (old post here).  The tsunami had inundated their homes but not with the same power as nearer the coast, so the houses were classed as undamaged and they were not allowed into the evacuation centres.

At Onagawa hospital, there was now a new fence at the edge of the car park where I took these photos from, a lot more traffic and lots more buildings cleared. The hospital itself also seemed busier with lights on, cars coming and going but the first floor of the adjacent building was still empty. These photos were taken 8 months apart in April 2011, and Jan 2012.

Onagawa from the hospital car park: Top-April 2011. Bottom-January 2012 
At the back of town, the community I’d delivered the supplies to was still there, a few kids were playing in the street looking out over only a slightly cleared vista of complete destruction. There was even a barber shop that had sprung up in a portacabin with a drink vending machine flashing away on the corner. These people seemed determined to stay, something that the remaining population who used to live in the tsunami inundation areas and were now in temporary housing struggle with on a daily basis. 

In Ishinomaki I’d bought a book of photos taken in Tohoku before the tsunami and there was  a picture of Onagawa taken from the hillside above the hospital. This was the same place this YouTube clip was taken from.  

I climbed up to the same spot and found a shrine at the very top that I didn’t realise was there. In Japan there’s a tradition called hatsumode which is the first visit to a shrine early in the New Year, usually within the first three days but sometimes in the first week or two in January.  I took the opportunity at Onagawa. Hatsumode for me is normally a kind-of fun and to be honest almost meaningless activity of visiting a shrine with friends, making a small monetary offering, focusing on things you want for the coming year... and then going for lots of drinks. 

View over Onagawa: before the tsunami and in Jan 2012

This year though, looking out over all this, the meaningless of previous years’ hatsumode evaporated.

It was getting late and I wanted to also go back to Minamisanriku, an hour North of here and and somewhere I’d visited last April on a supplies run, and again in August with THJ. I got there as the sun was going down and paid my respects again to Miki Endo. The building where she worked and the small shrine is still like it was back in August, creaking eerily in the late afternoon wind.  One of the more powerful stories from the tsunami in my opinion. If you don’t know it you can watch it here

The rest of town has had a lot more debris cleared now, one set of traffic lights has been reinstalled and there’s even a relatively busy 7-11 now operating in its previous location, surrounded by absolutely nothing. It’s easy to forget though that there are still people living in untouched communities just up and around the hill from here for which this 7-11 represents a small but important step on the road back to a normal life. This was the drive 10 months after, to go with the previous ones I'd done at 7 weeks after and 4 months after.

I called round to the Volunteer Centre in Minamisanriku but was too late to talk to anyone in charge. Here though, as with Shichigahama, they seemed to have moved their main operations to photo- restoration and a place for people to come and see if any of their photos had been found, still very important work.   

I headed back to the coffee shop I called into on May 1 with Yoshida-san. The difference was refreshing to see. The Cafe G was located up on the hill overlooking the ocean as you head south out of Minamisanriku. Being so high up, the cafe was undamaged by the tsunami but back then he had just re-opened, running off his own generator power, selling only coffee and ice-cream. This time he was almost back to a full menu, there was another woman helping him out that he seemed to spend the whole time giggling with, and even one or two locals there to take in the view.

It was freezing outside so I ordered a coffee, sat by the fire and sat down to take in the pristine view, untouched, undamaged, uncluttered by any debris or any other signs of the tsunami. Looking out over the now-peaceful ocean, it might have been easy to imagine I was back in 2004 with the board in the car heading north again, blissfully ignorant of the horrendous damage a real tsunami could do... but that only lasted a few seconds.

I remembered the photos and videos the owner took and showed me last time I was here that were taken from this very balcony: the massive height the water had reached, the islands of debris floating out to sea which covered a much wider area than the real picturesque island I was looking at in the distance today.

I’d met a lot of happier faces on this trip and I've tried to focus this post on their stories but the situation is still bleak for these people and many others like them. I'd met most of them at the high point of their day but the problems there are immense. There’s so much still left to do in Tohoku, so many decisions to make, so many plans to get up and running, so much bureaucracy to cut through and still so much help needed. 

With initiatives and organizations large and small like Share Your Christmas, ARI, INJM, THJ, Knit IshinomakiIshinomaki 2.0 as well as many others like Tonomagokoro which I just heard about and focuses on areas further north, hopefully it’ll be sooner rather than later but either way it's going to be a long haul. 

If you can, why not click on the links and see if you can help them out?