Wednesday, 25 May 2011


Summer's coming and Tokyo's under orders to cut down electricity consumption to avoid the rolling blackouts of last March . 

Last week they shut down Hamaoka nuclear power station 200 kms SW of Tokyo. A good thing for sure, but power's going to be scarce. The Hamaoka plant is the same vintage as Fukushima, sits right on the coast and is where the next "Tokai earthquake" is expected by some to hit sometime in the next 30 years or sooner. Too late to ask why they built it there in the first place, but good on them for shutting the bloody thing down.

Two posters from a bar and a subway station. Different demographic, same message.

Sunday, 22 May 2011


Joined the Team Heal Japan guys yesterday on a trip back up to Iwaki in Fukushima, this time on clean-up duty. We didn’t know where we’d actually be needed till we’d reported to the Iwaki volunteer centre where we were given a clean-up job up in Yotsukura, another favourite weekend surfing spot in days gone by.

Apparently the number of volunteers has dropped off significantly since the Golden Week holidays in early May so it seemed a good time to hook up with these guys. Iwaki is about 3 hours from Tokyo. I used to regularly bolt up here early on a Saturday morning for a one-day surf-trip so why not to do the same thing now.
This was the pile we had to clear and it took 10 guys, one day to do about 80% of it.

It’s not just as simple as shoveling it all into a wheelbarrow and trucking it off, everything has to be separated into burnable, non-burnable, wood, metal, stone, soil etc. They won't let you dispose of it at the proper sites if it’s all mixed up. There’s also so much debris that no-one’s sure exactly where it’s going to go.
The latest figures reckon that 280,000 homes have been damaged in addition to those destroyed, but they are far from finished counting yet. It took ten of us a full day to shift and sort this pile of rubble and that was with the owner chipping in so I’ll let you figure out how many months or more likely years it's going to take and how many people are needed to get through everything.

On the day of the tsunami the husband was in work about 30 minutes away and his wife was in the house on her own. They're the couple in the middle of the top picture. She said she couldn't hear any emergency announcements across the town's emergency PA system so when the TV reported a tsunami of 6 metres was headed their way, no-one in their street really believed it. After a strong earthquake they usually got a 20cm or 30 cm or 50 cm tsunami warning so even though this earthquake had been a belter, the word on the street was that the TV must have meant 60cms, no-one could believe it was really going to be 6 metres.

The wave rushed into the house and she was soon up to her shoulders in water in the middle of her living room. With the water rushing through the house she was pinned to the back wall and couldn’t move forward far enough to reach the stairs and the safety of the second floor, she just had to cover up and wait and hope the waters didn’t get any higher. She had no idea how long it went on for but the next morning she was black and blue with bruises from all the debris banging up against her while she was in the water.

One of her neighbours from across the road wasn’t so lucky and died, his body was found ten days later. His next-door-neighbour was washed across the road and into her front yard where he managed to scramble up a maple tree and cling on. he now calls it the Tree of Life. They are now living with their daughter about 20 minutes away, he still has his part-time job so they hope to rebuild the house soon. There were a few tears from the pair of them as they shared their story and thanked everyone for coming, but overall, they just couldn't stop smiling.

Anyway, hats off to Sean Muramatsu and the Team Heal Japan guys, they seem to really have it sorted and will be doing regular trips up here for the foreseeable future. If you're in Japan, click on the Team Heal Japan link, or find them on facebook, get in touch and come and join us. Hopefully we can get lots more folks along. There'll be a PayPal link on the website soon for donations to keep these trips going.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


Back in March and through most of April it seemed that the rolling power cuts, the hundreds of ongoing aftershocks, the scale of personal loss, the rebuilding, the uncertainty and fundamental change in the immediate way of life here would mean that visits were off limits till further notice. 

It stayed that way for a while but really glad Jack, Steve, and the kids made the trip. Longer next time! As well as a hundred photos of the kids running round, this is the only shot I've got of everyone together in the very scenic Yokohama station. Who cares, just great to catch up.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

El Gasóleo

I got some post yesterday that reminded me of a 1987 trip down to Northern Spain in my VW van. Another Welshman Paul Roberts had made his fortune (or so it seemed to us) with Cardiff Skateboard Centre at the height of the craze selling  £20 Coyotes to most of the population of S. Wales, then met a Spanish girl in The Canaries and moved to Sopelana in the Basque country. Since some of the boys had been down there the year before we bolted through France and started there.
After a first-night fiesta in Plencia that saw some of the crew sleeping in a potato field, we headed to Asturias through Ribadesella as far as Playa de Rodiles scoring some great waves before making our way back to Sopelana living on San Miguel, Menu del Dias, Pollo Asado, Vino Tinto and Sidra. On the way home we called in to check out Mundaka.

Just outside town we filled up for petrol and were stoked to see how much cheaper it was compared to Asturias. Then, as the van started juddering round the next bend we realised the difference between the words gasolina (petrol) and gasóleo (diesel). The red-beret wearing basque police stopped to help and we told them we thought we must have filled the van up with gasóleo. The odler guy said he'd go back and give the petrol station owner a bollocking for not checking with us first but wanted to syphon out some of the fuel first to check if we'd put in gasolina or gasóleo.

He told the younger copper to start syphoning out some fuel while he stood back and had a smoke break. When the youngster finally hacked his way through to getting some fuel spurting out, the older guy moved forward but as he did, he mis-flicked his just-finished cigarette butt and it landed smack in the middle of the pool of fuel at our feet.

As his cigarette hissed and went out in the pool of diesel, he looked up at us and nodded, "El Gasóleo!"
We slept in the van in Mundaka for 3 or 4 nights parked outside the local garage but had to clear out each day while they completely took the engine apart and cleaned out all the diesel. No waves the whole time. We gingerly drove back into France on four, then three, then spluttered on and off the ferry on two cylinders to get back into the UK where a selection of AA vans finished the journey home.

While we were in Mundaka, I had to spend most of the time on the phone to the inappropriately named AA 5-Star European Car Insurance folks, dealing with some customer-service guy who sounded like he was in Bulgaria. On the third day, after being on hold for about 10 mins he came back on the line to say he was having trouble locating my records and could he have my name again. I spelled my name out again for what seemed like the fifth time, P-H-I-L-L-I-P  R-E-E-S! After another 10 mins he came back with a heavily accented apology, "I ham sorry Mista Prees, I can not finda your file... can you please spelling name again?"

So 24 years later, this is what I get in the post. (I added the Club 51 bit)
Cheers Ian! Could be worse I suppose. 

Monday, 9 May 2011


Took these all within a couple of minutes yesterday down in Southern Chiba before suiting up. Looks inviting but the water's still full-suit cold.

The tsunami didn't cause any harm to people or property this far South but there was some damage to property in Northern Chiba about 50kms away.

Plenty of guys out at some of the other spots... but just a handful here.
Good to get back in even if some of them were a bit.... straight.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Onagawa then and Minamisanriku now

After describing the scene at Onagawa at the start of my last post I managed to find this clip on YouTube which looks like it was taken during one of the times the tsunami was receding. The tsunami came about three or four times that day.

The hospital car park I took the photos from is below and just in front of the person taking this footage. At the start of the clip you can see the damage to the first floor of the hospital on the left, some cars that have been dropped there as the waters rushed out, and . The still-standing white and grey buildings are covered up to about the third floor.

I also uploaded this raw video I took driving back from Minamisanriku last Sunday.

At the end you can see the red skeleton of the 3-storey building which was the town's crisis management centre where Miki Endo spent her final moments.

Monday, 2 May 2011


Last Friday I went back up North to Miyagi prefecture with Yoshida-san, the guy from East Wind Ministries that I met at Second Harvest Japan over a month ago. Seven weeks after the tsunami and some supply lines are starting to get re-established but there's still a long way to go. Small businesses, supermarkets, corner-shops and home centres are opening up around Ishinomaki, which is one of the main towns on the coast not far from the capital Sendai.

The main goal was to deliver food and supplies to home refugees in Onagawa and Minamisanriku. Others set up soup kitchens in Nobiru which is on the other side of Ishinomaki and others were cleaning up houses and clearing out the sewers and drains in Ishinomaki itself.

It's been seven years since I first came through this area. Living in Sydney at the time, a surf-trip through Tohoku (NE Japan) helped me decide to move to Tokyo in 2005. I took the coast-road wherever I could and ended up passing through what seemed like every small Pacific-facing coastal town in Tohoku. The beaches and ocean reminded me of Australia, the hills and forests reminded me of Wales. 

It was one thing to watch the endlessly repeating tsunami scenes on TV; what one reporter called 'earthquake porn', but to be back in Onagawa, in the carpark of the Hospital and look down over what was left was a humbling experience.
The telegraph pole in the foreground is 10 metres tall. The height of the tsunami is usually given at around 16-18 metres but the Japan Times reported in this article that in Iwate prefecture just to the North of here, it may have even reached 38 metres. That telegraph pole is 10 metres tall.

Click on the pano below for a closer look.
The guy who took us here said that when the tsunami hit, the water completely covered the grey five-storey building in the middle of the photo above. A few people had escaped to the roof-top but then had to climb to the very top of the water tank. They managed to hold on and survived.

I took all these photos above from the hospital car-park which is up on a hill. If you look out to sea in the photo above, you'd think this carpark would be a safe evacuation zone but even this wasn't high enough. The tsunami overflowed the whole car park by a couple of metres and went on to fill the whole first floor of the hospital behind. Every car in the car park and most of the people trying to shelter here were washed away.

This is the other side of the hill from the hospital and just beyond this picture there are people living in houses which are pretty much OK. Water-damaged but structurally sound. These were the home refugees who we'd brought the food and supplies for. The evacuation shelters now have their established lines of supply from the government and other agencies but these people can't register as their homes are still standing.

Those who can leave have left, but those who are still here can't sell their house and move (would you want to buy?) they can't sell their car as it's gone, they have no other family plus they've lost their jobs. Eventually the shelters may find room for them as others move out into temporary housing, or they may find a way to move out for good but in the meantime they just need help while things get figured out.

We hadn't arranged a specific time to drop the stuff off, but when we pulled up in the truck, people just appeared. Some of them came with wheelbarrows, some just carried stuff home in their arms but they all just took what they needed. No hoarding, no rushing for the best stuff, just very practical and deeply grateful.

Before I left I'd heard that nearby Ishinomaki didn't need additional food supplies any more but the tears of appreciation from one of these old ladies in Onagawa showed it's different around here. 

It's great that In Ishinomaki the focus seems to be shifting to cleaning-up and rebuilding, but when you're talking about the whole situation in Japan, there just isn't one answer to the question, "what do they need now?" It changes every day and varies hugely place to place.

Back in Ishinomaki there were still long lines at the supply points in town. The team I was with have been here since the day after the tsunami and came in from Yamagata. They know the people running the evacuation centre in town well and are organizing a kids concert on Thursday so we stopped off for a bit.

 I didn't feel comfortable taking photos inside, and anyone who knows me knows me knows I'm not really an "aren't they cute" kind of kids person, but you'd have to be nearly dead yourself not to be struck by the the optimism in these kids' paintings stuck up on the walls of the evacuation centre.

 Crossing paths with the Second Harvest Japan guys in Ishinomaki. They've been doing these runs non-stop.

Overnight lodging was free in a log-house at a campground with a volunteer-friendly owner. Before kipping down for the night, I checked facebook on my mobile and realised it was the day of the royal wedding. 

 Welsh landscape in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan

My ten-foot-tall, six-speed, five-litre, six-wheel, two-ton truck. What would Isuzu call such a beast? The Isuzu ELF. This is Yoshida-san getting ready to help load up. We travelled up together from Tokyo on Friday morning and I dropped him off when I left on Sunday so I was pretty much with him the whole time. His English is better than he thinks so we spoke some English but mostly Japanese.

He was a good guy and as I could tell from his East Wind Ministries business card, a devout Christian. I hardly knew him before we left and had been a bit worried he was going to bang on about faith the whole way. Just what you need on an 11-hour drive. All Friday and Saturday he was fine but then on Sunday morning I was sure the moment had arrived. He asked me in tentative English, "So, Phil-san, do you.... do you... do you pray...?" Ah, here it is I thought. Then he said, "...sports?", "Do you pray sports?"

After 6 years here I'd been caught out by the old "r" and "l" mix-up again, and should have known better anyway!

We stopped off to buy some veggies at one of the local businesses that are back up and running for today's run to Shizugawa which is bascially the old name of Minamisanriku. The owner of the veggie shop was a good bloke who when he realised I was from Wales, supportively said he loved Old Parr Scotch. Good on him though, he gave us a couple of extra trays of bananas and kiwifruit to take with us.

About 32 trashed cars.  

Putting the poles back up.

 Driving into Minamisanriku the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) tents and trucks were everywhere. These are the guys doing the real heavy lifting. They were the guys who cleared the main roads for traffic in the first few weeks and there is still no end in sight.

Coming over the hill into Rikuzentogura, the main bridge in town had been washed away so the JSDF had built this temporary replacement. This one small bridge cuts 15 kms off the journey from Ishinomaki and opens up a much wider area South of here for the recovery workers.

Minamisanriku; what's left of the town where Miki Endo saved thousands.
 We were heading about a kilometre further round to deliver food and goods to more home refugees whose houses were on higher ground. There are about 100 homes in the area without power or water but in good shape and providing shelter for about 400 people.

We'd called the town's officer-in-charge, the chief, on his mobile phone beforehand and arranged to meet him at a specific meeting point at 11am. We had a good run and got there early at about 10:15 but there were already about 30 smiling faces there waiting for us. Most were over 60s with a few youngsters. A lot of working-age families in rural Japan move to the big cities for work then only move back to retire.

The chief was full of energy and doing a great job in keeping everyone's morale up. When they'd received some food parcels the week before he had them all playing rock-scissors-paper to decide who got the tastiest goodies.

Everyone helped to unload the truck. I was in the back pasing down boxes and was trying to keep the lighter ones for the older women. It was nearly impossible though and as I slowly passed down this box of food weighing about 10 kgs to one frail looking old lady, I warned her it would be heavy. With a big grandmother's smile she said, "the heavier the better!"

While we were in the area, the chief recommended we carry on further round to towns along the coast to see what their needs were. We found an old people's home being used as an evacuation centre who said they were basically OK for food but needed a generator, and work. No-one has jobs any more but there is a ready and willing workforce of small industry workers and fisherman who are out of work and willing to do anything. We couldn't help with the work, yet, but Yoshida-san has already sourced a generator for them in Sendai and will be taking it back on Wednesday.

On the way back we found a restaurant overlooking the ocean which was open for business, no meals, but selling fresh-roasted coffee and ice-cream. The owner had always had his own generator for backup purposes so was one of the first to re-open a week or two ago. This spot would have been idyllic under normal circumstances but we spent a pleasant half-hour with the owner and three others. Two of them were old regulars from Sendai who had come down to help with the clean up and another guy had driven all the way from Fukuoka on the Western-most island of Kyushu.

From the deck there was a sweeping view of the coast. The owner was there when the tsunami came and showed us pictures from that day where you could see the water reaching about halfway up to the first window of the building on the left. You could also see islands of debris, what was once Minamisanriku, being swept out to sea.
As we were paying to leave I noticed a home-made mix CD by the till with tracks like Back in Black by AC/DC and Rock'n'Roll by Led Zeppelin. The music he was playing though was very different, very Norah Jones, laid-back, smooth jazz type of stuff so I asked him if he was into a bit of heavy rock. He told me it was a CD his son had put together of his favourite tracks which he liked to play when he was in.

One of the old locals asked how his son was, and where he was... the owner just shook his head. His son was in Ishinomaki when the earthquake struck and had been killed by a head injury when the house he was in collapsed. He took some solace from the fact that his son had not known anything of the tsunami that he'd seen so clearly and had just been showing us pictures of, and the fact that his son was not one of the more than ten thousand still missing.