Saturday, 23 July 2011

Ippon Matsu: 4 months on

Last weekend I went on a two-day trip up to Rikuzentakada, Iwate and Minamisanriku, Miyagi with THJ. We usually go to Iwaki, Fukushima where the tsunami reached between 6m and 9m, unprecedented for that area in the last thousand years but up North in Miyagi and Iwate where they get them more often, the tsunami was on average 16-17m high and in places where the looping bays and headlands refracted the power of the surge it reached as high as 38m. More about historic tsunamis in a later post.

I wanted to see what had changed between my last trip up there seven weeks after the tsunami when food and supplies were in urgent need, and this one for clean-up work which was just over 4 months after. It seemed at first like nothing had changed with so much debris still around but the roads were now mostly open, the makeshift pontoon bridge in Minamisanriku had been replaced with a new tarmac’d two-lane bridge, food supply lines seemed to be back up and running, the army had moved out of the sports-centre/evacuation-centre in Minamisanriku (replaced by volunteers) and were now working through the hundreds of smaller villages that still remain untouched, clearing the roads and rebuilding the bridges. Japan doesn’t have an actual army they have a Self-Defence Force but let’s just call them the army easier.

In Rikuzentakada, about 80% of the town’s 8,000 homes were destroyed. From a population of about 26,000 over 10,000 people are now dead or missing.
Rikuzentakada is also the home of the Ippon Matsu, or the single pine tree. The beach area here, Takatamatsubara, used to be have about 70,000 pine trees. It started at the main rivermouth and curved East out of town. I came through here in 2004 and had to stop the car to take the photos below, it looked so much like Australia!

The 2004 photo above with the ocean on the left is looking back to the West. The buildings in the distance on the left of the photo is about the same place I took the Ippon Matsu photo from last week. There’s just almost nothing left of this pristine beach and the other pine trees which are still being pulled out of rivers and buildings from miles inland.

The Ippon Matsu is a ten-metre tall 200-year old pine tree and has become a symbol of hope for survival against the odds. It’s also the name given to a new company started in the town who at the moment are making stickers and souvenirs etc but hopefully this will expand to more meaningful employment for the locals that are left and expand to help all of Tohoku. Japanese website here.

At the Rikuzentakda volunteer centre, buses were pulling up from far-flung places like Mie prefecture, about twice as far as we’d come from Tokyo and things were starting to buzz. We were given a map and sent to clean out a river that was blocked with heaps of timber and debris so that the salmon could migrate up the river again, which they usually do about this time of year.
The six of us were soon joined by a team of 24 from JAR (Japan Association for Refugees). The river was over waist-deep in the middle so the help was gratefully accepted. There were three guys from Myanmar with the JAR folks, and the younger two were like dynamos! Wiry little buggers but man, they just jumped in and didn’t stop the whole day in 34C heat. With Sean and our boxer Goto-san leading the charge from our side we managed to drag out everything including these huge wooden trusses to the left of the picture just under the bridge that must have weighed half a ton or more.
One of their guys told us not to waste our time but fair play, as he saw it starting to move he was grunting along with the rest of us as we hammered and dragged the bugger out.  
 two dynamos, middle and right!

As we left, the 50-something guy from Myanmar told me it was his 35th straight day of volunteering in Minamisanriku. It was the fifth time he’d been to this river but no-one had managed to get it all out. Good job he didn’t tell us that before…
I asked his name and it was something like Shalwalbalabral, which I admit is wrong. Although I’m normally OK with names, I was ashamed to realize I’d forget his name as soon as we waved goodbye so to even things up, when he asked where I was from I told him I was from Wales but added, “a place called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”. That should make us even in the "forgetting personal information" stakes!

We drove down to Minamisanriku that night through spectacular countryside and scenery, as long as you were away from the exposed areas of the coast. You could tell why people lived up here.

Minamisanriku was the same story, 95% of the homes destroyed and roughly half of the 20,000+ population now dead or missing. The cafĂ© I went to last time up on the hill on the way out of town wasn’t open the next morning so we took the time to pay our respects at the town hall where Miki Endo had died. There was a small shrine set up there now with various offerings, her work jacket, a flag and some messages presumably from family and dignitaries.

Some of her co-workers escaped up to the third floor and were rescued but this 24-year old woman saved about 7,000 people by sticking to her post and warning people over the town PA. She was still shouting warnings into the microphone when her workmates saw her finally taken.
The setup at the volunteer centres here and yesterday was a little different to Iwaki but the same basic principle. Here they got 100-200 volunteers on a week day with 300 on the weekends. They guessed there were about 800 here today due to the long weekend. Yesterday in Rikuzentakada they said the numbers were about double that. You signed up and said what type of work you could do then sat back and waited to be assigned. You could also sign-up for photo-cleaning. Thousands of photos have been recovered which need cleaning and restoring, you could see them hanging up to dry at the back of the volunteer tent, how many find their way back home nobody knows.

We were doing the usual debris cleanup again and went back to Utatsucho about 5kms North which we’d driven through the night before.  The place was flattened, even my fisheye camera couldn't always get everything in. There was a train line running though the back of town at a height of something like 20 metres up the hillside above sea level. The tracks were bent like they were spaghetti.

There was a bank in town where you could see where the entrance to the lobby was just off the main road becuase of the different exterior floor paving but then there was 10 metres of bare concrete slab before the safe room which was the only thing left standing with a 2 foot (60cm) thick iron girder snapped in two above it.

This cheesy idyllic bathside mural somehow still left intact. 
The main road through Utatsucho was one of the main thoroughfares from North to South and had been cleared by the army some time before. The debris had been dumped on the side of the road and we were separating this and debris that was dragged out of the community centre so it could be diposed properly. Again we were teamed up with a bunch of other teams and there were about 60 of us working on the community centre. Hot as hell so lots of water breaks.

Lots to think about on the way home but looking forward to getting back to Iwaki on July 30.

And for a comparison, here are the two clips. Both taken on the same road heading into Minamisanriku from the NE. 

18 weeks after

7 weeks after


  1. Phil, these posts are amazing - extraordinary stories told in a simple straightforward way. Great stuff!

  2. Thanks, it's hard to know if I'm striking the right balance sometimes. I only started this blog as a way to put up the odd photo but things are a bit different now.

  3. Amazing Phil!! Thank you. It's truly an honor to have had this experience with somebody as devoted and caring as you! I cannot thank you enough for your respect and passion to help the Japanese people! I look forward to our long friendship!!
    Thanks again!

  4. It's been a while since I looked in on your blog, Phil - but what an amazing story you tell. It is hard for us to conceive the scale of the task before you. I can only admire the effort you have put in already, and imagine what a rewarding experience it must be. Well done, lad!

  5. Sean, no worries mate, you're the guy that makes this all happen, I'm just glad to be a part of it.

    David, thanks, it is indeed hard to conceive the scale of it all, and actually maybe better not to or you'd never get started.