Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Event

Last week’s trip up to Iwaki on Saturday Nov 11 was a bit different. The official volunteer centre run by the council has now officially closed, although they are still keeping a core of staff who will continue to liaise with volunteer groups to get help where it’s still needed. This time though we’d been invited up with about 500 others as part of a thank-you event the volunteer centre and council had arranged for those who had volunteered since the VC first opened on March 16.

The numbers were interesting. Since March 16, 14,452 volunteers had registered with the centre. The total number of participations was 49,986 in around 8 months which meant each volunteer had volunteered an average of about 3.5 times each. There had been 6,869 individual clean-up jobs requested of which they'd been able to fulfil 6,853, so if you include weekdays and weekends, there was an average of something like 208 volunteers per day, assigned to over 28 jobs per day, for nearly 8 months.

Since the event wasn't starting till 1:30pm, we were able to leave at a much more reasonable 9am and planned to pick up 21 takeaway lunches from Hataya supermarket in Hisanohama where we’d been so well received on the last trip. Also a way to give some money back to the local businesses instead of bringing food up from Tokyo. This time Daisuke was with us. Daisuke was one of the nine THJ members who helped with the original cleanup of the supermarket back in June but he missed the reunion last week so I was looking forward to re-introducing him to the mother and grandmother. Everything had been pretty much prepared in boxes for us to take and eat on the bus heading back to Iwaki as time was running short.

Unfortunately the first chance to re-introduce him to the family came as Sean was trying to pay for the lunches. You can imagine what followed with them refusing to take any payment and us nicely telling them that we didn’t come for a free meal and really wanted to pay. I mean we wanted to help them out , not make them pay for 21 lunches! Sean could see they weren’t going to just take it off us so he thrust two 10,000 yen notes under the till and we all ran out of the shop before she could give it back. What followed was like something out of an old black and white film where they came running after us, managed to grab Sylvain and roll up the two notes into his T-Shirt, so Sean had to once again run back to the shop, put the 20,000 back under the till and then run back to the safety of the bus. Not the best time to introduce Daisuke perhaps.

It was all good natured but there was no way we weren’t going to pay. We thought we were home and dry, but they came up to the bus to wave us off smiling and looking a little embarrassed at taking the money before granny spotted her chance and threw the money back into the bus onto the stair-well as we were closing the doors. Once again Sean had to push it back into their hands, jump back on the bus and shut the doors sharp-ish. Lovely people and the lunch was well worth 1,000 yen each.

We made it back to Iwaki with a few minutes to spare and made our way to the very swish looking arts centre where the event was being held. The mood was certainly more upbeat than previous trips. The focus for this one day seemed to be on celebrating how far we’d come, instead of how far there was to go. There were other days for that, today was meant to be a thank-you and a celebration.

They opened with a couple of speeches from the head of hte organizing committe and the city mayor before showing a collage of volunteer photos set to the sounds of “I Love You Baby, Fukushima” which is a regular sing-song on the bus on the way back. I took a dodgy shaky video which I'll try to upload on YouTube at some point.

 There was then a panel discussion hosted by the main organizers of the VC with ten folks who had been heavily involved, one being the THJ main man himself, Sean Muramatsu. The others were teachers, a long-term volunteer, a surfer, a real bunch of characters. There were a few serious moments but overall the tone was of sharing good memories and stories. One guy said it was hard to describe volunteering as “fun” after the thousands of people that had lost their lives in the tsunami, but for him, looking back, the teamwork, the friendships forged, the memories made, meant that in hindsight there really were moments of “fun”. I know what he meant.

They closed with a concert by The (big-In-Japan) Gospellers. A young doo-wop five piece who could actually sing and spent as much time telling stories and chatting as they did singing. The guy singing the bass-lines sounded like Barry White but I’ve seen more meat on a butcher’s pencil. He was a skinny little bugger but couldn’t half hit those low notes.

I had chance to chat to the surfer from the panel discussion during the interval. He lived in Kooriyama, Fukushima and said he hadn’t surfed since the tsunami and was saving the rest of 2011 for volunteering. He might get back in the water in 2012 but hadn’t decided yet. We’d both surfed at Toyoma and both knew the little surf-shop on the front that had been swept away. It was good to hear the guy who owned it evacuated in time and managed to survive. Today was a time for looking forward though. He was drinking Guinness but the bar had run out of beer. I refused his kind offer of a swig of his and toasted him with my fist and a smile. Good guy, hope we both get in the water more in 2012.

The trip back was a little more subdued than usual, mainly due to there being only one beer each and no time to stop to buy more. I’m sure Sean did this on purpose to avoid us peaking too soon since we were heading back to our own THJ celebration event in Tokyo where another 20 or so would be turning up, including the woman who’s grandmother’s house we helped clean-up in Hisanohama, who I miraculously bumped into on the train in Tokyo 3 days later.

Back in Tokyo in the shadow of Phillipe Starck’s awful Asahi beer building, or as it’s known locally the Unko (Turd) building, we kicked off our own event. During my opening toast I was wishing I’d had more than just the one beer on the bus but everything seemed to go OK. I tried to convey the feeling that we were all lucky to have been part of the THJ effort and this meant anyone who had ever attended, donated to, publicised or supported THJ in any way since their first missions in April. The team have become like an extended family and I know I've made some friendships that will probably last a lifetime.

Even though we were from very different backgrounds, with different interests, there are things that we won’t forget. More than just the devastation up North, there were the people we’ve been lucky to meet up there, the characters, their stories, their hardships, their optimism. The team work, the buddy system, the mud and the sweat. The kids we met, Dirk with his balloon animals, and the smiles on the kids’ faces. The emotional goodbyes after a job and the tears of gratitude. The speeches in the bus coming home, all the songs that were sung, and the new facebook friendships forged every Sunday morning after every trip. And at last, the first signs of a slow recovery.

This was what I remember from the trips so far, and a big hats-off to Sean, Daisuke, Taki, Sylvain and all the other Team Leaders for kicking off Team HEAL Japan, keeping it going and making everyone feel welcome.

Sadly I didn’t win the 17-year old whisky bingo prize we kept after being given it by the bear of a guy who’s house we cleaned up on June 4, but fittingly it went to the lad who threw out the most tatami mats that day and probably sweated more than any of us. Who knew he was a black belt in bingo too?

Till next time! There's still plenty more to do.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Hisanohama Halloween

It was the 16th Team HEAL Japan volunteer trip up North yesterday and the 12th one I've been able to join. The immediate needs of debris removal are thankfully decreasing now but this trip was memorable for another reason. 

Our job was at an elementary school in Taira where the kids were having a Saturday afternoon baseball practice. Since there were 30 of us we were able to finish not long after lunch. A couple of veterans from other volounteer groups joined us for the first time along with another five or six first-timers. As usual, everyone got on like a house on fire. 

Before we left we had a photo session with the kids who were all running around, cheering, laughing and high-fiving the five foreigners in the group. It didn;t seem a good time to explain that a high-five is not something we do a lot in Wales... so of course I just went with the flow.

Lyndon and Matt, the Ishinomaki veterans, were both big fellas. Chuck's an action-movie martial artitst and stuntman so after Lyndon picked one of the kids up clean off the ground with a growl, all the kids were crowding round the three of them, begging to be next. I'm sure they got through all 20 of them... maybe four or five times each.
The early finish meant we had time to head back to Hisanohama, an area where we've volunteered five times before. We'd been invited to a kids' Halloween party at the small shopping street near the new temporary housing area.

When we got there, the festivities were in full flight with all the kids and most of the adults dressed up in fancy dress, playing party games and just running around having fun. After all our previous volunteer trips here being so focused on damage and loss, rebuilding and recovery, it was quite powerful to see all these families, especially the kids, having a chance to just have a bit of normal fun like everyone else for a change.
We'd only been there a couple of minutes when Sean brought over the mother and the grandmother who ran The Supermarket which we helped to clean up last June. It turned out that this is where they've been running a mini-mart business since September 3rd. Three THJ volunteers from that June trip were there yesterday so there was a lot of catching up to do.

They took us over to their new mini-mart where they seemed to be doing a pretty good trade. The mother reached under the desk and brought out an envelope with some 8x10's taken the first time we met.

 It wasn't long before her and her grandmother were both smiling through their tears again.

I'd called into the original supermarket for some food on a surf-trip up to the Yotsukura area in 2008 and remembered seeing the grandmother as she had quite "distinctive" dental work. To see her again last June when she'd lost everything was one thing, but to meet her and her daughter again yesterday as things are very slowly starting to come together made me feel very close to them.

They were both an incredible example of positive thinking, of not giving up. After 100 years of the family being in business at the same spot, they'd lost everything but have found a way to get back to work out of a small portacabin, and just get on with it, working towards getting back to their original site one day. They knew others had been dealt a much worse hand.

Outside, the party was showing no signs of running out of steam. Chuck once again went above and beyond by dressing up in something that looked like a too-small joker's outfit and posing for anyone who wanted a picture with him. He needs to give up the action movies and stunt-work, and get a kid's show instead.

We had to get the tools back to the volunteer centre by 4pm so after some long goodbyes and some more photos, we made our way home with a detour past the original supermarket to see the progress that had been made around there.

June 25, 2011

October 29, 2011

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Boxes and Balloons back in Yotuskura

Two weeks ago I was back up in Iwaki with THJ to help clear out a part of a property that was 2kms from the ocean, unaffected by the tsunami but damaged beyond repair by the earthquake.
It was one of the most straightforward jobs we've taken on so far with 27 of us lining up to pull out old boxes, furniture, clothers, lamps, baskets, power tools, basically anything you could ever think of finding in someone's attic or shed and piling it up outside so that the owners could safey store it somewhere else and knock down the two knackered buildings.
The first floor was simple enough but things slowed down when we got to the second floor. The roof had cracked open in the earthquake and 6 months of being open to the rain meant that the attic flooring was rotten in some parts and wouldn't hold any extra weight.

At one point, there was a box of books we needed to get out but I couldn't pick it up and pass the whole box down as the extra weight would have taken us both through the floor so I just had to pass down the books one at a time for the other 26 folks to hand to each other and pile up in another corner. A waste of time for a while but hopefully they all knew what was going on.

We got it all done early though and had some extra time to chat with the mother and two kids as the day went on. The two young girls of the family were about 6 and 10 years old I think. Luckily for them our resident entertainer Dirk Rebel was with us as always. Dirk's the guy who was so good with grandaughter of The Painter that we helped out last July. He does a mean line in balloon animals and has a real gift with kids. I don't think these llittle girls had laughed so much since the earthquake, and for me that was more important than any lifting and carrying work we'd done that day.

Mum taking a video with her mobile phone.

As we were leaving, the mother called Dirk over for her daughter to hand him a hand-written thank-you letter, all colourfully written with stars and stickers on it that just oozed with gratitude. One for the cigar-box for sure.

The father wasn't there that day but he also surfs and was a regular at my beloved Kumagawa, only 4kms South of the reactor. We doubt we'll ever be able to get near there again for many, many years, if ever. A sobering thought, and one that's made me determined to join any of the growing anti-nuclear protests that are becoming common in Tokyo. This is a pic of Kumagawa on a flat day in 2004 and you can just about see the infamous Daiichi nuclear reactor in the background. Their house was 35kms from the reactor and they were obviously worried about the radiation but had very little info from the government. We measured around there and compared to a 0.1 or 0.15 uSv/hr in Tokyo, it was up to between 0.25 and 0.4 at their house which was pretty much what they were expecting.

These areas around the reactor used to be a little piece of heaven for me and are now NO-GO areas. There are kids being brought up even further North and more worryingly North-West of the 20km and 30km zones in contaminated areas who had no say in where they were born and are just being left behind by the government who refuse to relocate them.

Fukushima used to be a coal-mining area, much like my native South Wales. Just as they did in South Wales, the Japanese government closed down all the mines when they decided to move away from the coal industry and invest in nuclear power. The locals all lost their mining jobs through the 50s and 60s, but then the government came to the "rescue" with the offer of work at the two nuclear plants they planned to open in Fukushima. Nice bit of work for 40 years or so... but it's not just jobs they've lost this time around.

We took the coast road on the way back and stopped at the Welcome to Fukushima sign on the border with Ibaraki. In days gone by, this was the spot where I'd get a first good look at the Fukushima coastline and if there were waves, get a bit of a rush knowing I'd be in the water soon far from the city life in Tokyo.

With so many problems for this area, it was a privilege to spend another day with a great team of folks, meeting a bunch of new people who really bring some much-needed relief and happiness to the people of Fukushima. Team HEAL Japan.

Thanks to Dirk, Sean and others for the photos this time.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Toys for Boys

I'd been thinking about buying a geiger counter for a while、the problem was always the high price and the long delivery time. We usually have a Russian-made model on the trips up to Iwaki with us so it was never really a priority but finally I realized I needed to get off my arse and get one sorted. They aren't cheap even for a low-end jobber and there was always a 2-3 month or more wait to get it shipped.

I'd heard good things about this Digilert 100 made in the USA so I rang their Japanese distribtuor since their website says that if you're in Japan, you can only buy from their exclusive distributor, SOWA Industries. Fair enough but they were out of stock and estimated about 3 months before they could get more in. I spent all the next day ringing some of their other worldwide partners in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, France, Denmark, UK, Argentina and finally a few in the US but every one of them was out of stock. Worse than that, every single distributor outside of Japan was charging half the price of their exclusive distributor in Japan, SOWA Industries. Nothing like a bit of profiteering is there! Bastards.

My last call was to another UK distributor that I'd missed on the first run through. I called them expecting the same answer but the guy said he'd just had an over-shipment from the factory and could ship one out to me the next day, and still at half the Japanese price! Result! Done, dusted and forever greateful to both sisters who at really short notice helped with a bit of innocent money-laundering to get around the rule (well more of a guideline) of not shipping to Japan.

Came in handy as a backup unit on last weekend's THJ trip to Iwaki and will continue to do so in the future. The readings vary quite a lot since radiation is random in nature but the top photo above is one I took on my balcony in Japan on the weekend. The photo below is one my sister took in her kitchen in Cambridge, England before sending it over. Let's hope it stays like that.