Sunday, 31 July 2011

Rock The Quake

I'm a week behind with stuff now so before I write up yesterday's THJ trip up to Fukushima I wanted to mention last weekend's gig, Rock The Quake in Shimokitazawa's Garden.

Reward were playing with my bass-player, MC, stripper, magician mate Hurricane Sally (she sometimes does all four at the same time) the 5,6,7,8's and a few familiar Shinjuku live-house faces in the crowd but all the other bands were new for me.

The gig was organized by among others Support The Underground the Deadly-Drive MC, Japan Nomads, a group of bikers headed by Mune who have been taking a couple of relief trips a month up North since mid-March. There's a story about them here.
 The cross-section of people invovled in the relief effort continues to amaze me. From Yoshida-san the Japanese Christian last April to a 55-year old refugee from Burma last week, now Mune and the bikers... and the whole spectrum of ordinary and colourful characters inbetween.

The gig was cracking, Little Elvis Ryuta and the S.R.P. lived up to expectations and Mune, the leader of the Deadly Drive MC's band got the crowd moving, probably through fear more than anything else.
I got more bruises slam-dancing with the bikers than I have in 3 months of clean-up volunteering... as you'd expect really.

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

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


I finally had chance to join Daisuke, Sean, his father-in-law Hashimoto-san and some of the Ushijima Kiyari guys last week in Asakusa for one of their Edo Kiyari practice sessions.

Last May coming home from my first THJ trip I was in the car with these three guys when Hashimoto-san launched into song swiftly backed up by a chorus of Sean and Daisuke. It was like being back down the Laleston Inn with Slim, Johnny, Peter and the boys. The sounds were totally different of course but there was something about the ritual of it all that reminded of the Welsh Male Voice Choirs. It didn't take much to imagine the boys back home getting into it, especially after a few bevs.

These guys meet up twice about month for practice and do weddings, izakaya restaurant openings, anything... They've played the Tokyo Dome before a baseball match but no-one was taking things too seriously tonight.

Edo Kiyari originally started as lumber work songs back in the Edo period and typically have a leader and a chorus. I'd heard something similar before at the Onbashira Matsuri in Nagano but these guys told me their version in Asakusa was different. Even in other parts of Tokyo like nearby Nihonbashi the style is slightly different to what these guys do in Asakusa. Always a long, drawn out lead stretching out before the bellowing chorus joins in to support. There were eight guys tonight, less than half the full group so you could just imagine the power they'd build up for a full performance. Awesome stuff.

After an hour, practice was over and we went for some yakitori nearby. I got chance to chat to some of the other guys who had all been brought up with their fathers and grandfathers singing Kiyari and their fathers before them. They just knew what sounds good and natural and what doesn't. Suzuki-san, sounding like a guy who'd been born into it, said there wasn't really a wrong way to sing, the key part was that the chorus followed the leader and you just adjusted to whatever the rest were doing. You needed to feel it in your heart and then it would all just flow.

I could have back in S. Wales listening to Laleston's prime chorister, Mr. Peter Wright.

The Painter

Yesterday we found out where all the squid came from that the supermarket owner told us about two weeks ago. This week we were clearing out a small complex of buildings just North of the river from the supermarket which turned out to be the seafood frying factory that lost all its squid. Before the tsunami hit, all the workers were able to escape up the hill to safety. The boss though, getting impatient as bosses tend to do, ran back down to check a few last things and had to be rescued as the wave rushed up the river. They all made it back OK, but a lesson there for bosses everywhere I think...

We were met by a woman who asked us to start first on her grandfather’s house which was the main house in the complex with an adjoining flat, then a barn and if we had time and finish off with the house she lived in. All these places were dotted around the main factory but before we could start there was a magnitude 7.3 earthquake and a tsunami warning. We could hear the emergency PA broadcasting warnings and fire engines were driving around warning of a tsunami. Combined with a high-tide we heard this could mean a possible 6 metre rise in sea level so we drove up to the evacuation area to wait it out. We returned after hearing the warning was actually for a 60cm tsunami but left the bus parked in a quick getaway spot at the bottom of the hill and all us team leaders were given whistles to get everyone out and back on the bus sharp if it looked like going pear-shaped. 30 mins later the tsunami warning was cancelled.

It was 34°C but felt much hotter in the sun. It was a big ask but we got through it much quicker than we thought and had the main house cleared just after lunch. The grandfather is now 87 and currently in hospital. He’s an avid painter and photographer though and we must have pulled more than a hundred paintings and old photos out of the back room. The woman must have been through the house and assured us she’d retrieved all the valuables she needed.
As we were starting to pile up our usual stock of mementos she was confidently saying it was OK she’d taken everything she needed and we could bin everything else. We piled them up separately for her anyway and the longer it went on, the more stuff we brought out and she slowly started to pour over the old photos, wedding albums, old paintings and old portraits that she’d either forgotten about or had no idea were in there. Dirk, my only fellow foreigner and sunburn victim on this trip, who kindly supplied a couple of these photos, did an outstanding job gently talking to her, chatting about how he still has one of the first black-and-white portraits ever taken of his great-grandfather and how nice it is to have to show his kids, and grandkids, and their kids… and just gave her plenty of space to mull things over and make up her own mind. Slowly she started gathering up some of the photos and putting them in her car.

We cleared out the barn in about 40mins and after another break did as much of the last house as we could in the final hour, about 80% of it. She was stoked we had time to get to her place, as she couldn’t have directly asked us to start on it first. Her 87-year old grandfather was in hospital so she couldn’t very well ask us to start on her house first and do his last.

As we all got back on the bus she stood alongside waving, bowing and thanking each of us, waving all the time till we drove out of sight.

On the way back we drove past the place we worked on five weeks ago and stopped off at the wrecked primary school where we’d heard the head teacher and others had written thank you messages on the second floor wall. Not a bad place to go to school, right by the beach... you’d think. The grass is starting to grow back but the overturned car is still there and further down there were lots more houses that just haven’t been started on yet… plenty more to do.

And finally, the main reason I reckon we were able to get so much done this time was we had one of the Blues Brothers on the team, although he did claim to be a dentist from Asakusa.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

You couldn't write it

Last Tuesday, three days after cleaning out Granny's Place up North in Fukushima I finished work earlier than usual and took my mate up on an offer to go to a favourite place of his, Jitokko in Meguro. Not my usual area to hang out but he usually knows some good spots and I felt like a change so jumped at the chance.

It meant changing trains in Ebisu for one stop on the Yamanote line down to Meguro, just a two-minute trip. I used to ride the Yamanote line to work every day when I worked in Shinjuku but almost never after work these days. 

As we jammed ourselves into the train at Ebisu, I found myself standing next to a woman who looked sort of familiar. I thought she was looking at me as if she may have recognized me but wasn't too sure. I certainly didn't want to get arrested by staring too much and scaring her into calling the police like I was some kind of groper or stalker so there was a full minute where we were both kind of avoiding eye contact and both thinking, “no it can’t be... can it?”. Then it hit me so I leaned across and asked "Fukushima?" which was followed by a full minute of unbelievable surprise as we both realized yes, it really was. It was the grandaughter who we'd helped three days ago. 

I know coincidences happen, I know it's a small world, but to meet her, three days later, in a city of 35 million people, on a 2-minute crowded train that I don't normally ride has really got me thinking. There were more tears from her and we're hoping to meet up again with all the rest of the team soon.

When I got to my mate's new bar, there was a surprise as one of the girl's working there used to work at Mott's Bar in Shinjuku and is the girl in this picture I took over a year ago. She left Mott's a few months back and we weren't sure where she was working now, and then she turns up at my mate's new local.

Actually that second coincidence would have been much better on any other day, but after just meeting the grandaughter, it just didn't seem that unusual...

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Granny's Place

Back in Fukushima yesterday with Team Heal Japan to clear out a much older house directly opposite the whisky collector's house from 2 weeks ago. There was no way to save this wooden house so we were clearing it out so it could be knocked down. About 2pm a woman and her mother turned up who were the daughter and grandaughter of the owner. They told us that the grandmother who lived here had died some months before the tsunami but they hadn't been able to clear out the house before. There were a lot more personal items around this time and they both quietly went through the huge pile of photos, letters, documents and trophies etc finding photos of the grandaughter as a kid with her grandmother and who knows what else.

We also managed to save about three beer-barrel size barrels of miso paste from the back room which her grandmother was famous for making. We opened the first barrel to check the miso was still useable and it was fine. The fact that we'd been able to rescue her last batch brought and so many mementos brought both of them to tears.

The fourth barrel though had been knocked around and had been open for nearly four months so couldn't be saved. Miso is basically fermented soybeans and that last open barrel stunk to high heaven. Sometimes it's good to wear your mask...

Once again, met some great people and forged some hopefully lasting friendships. It's Sunday now and the grandaughter has just emailed THJ to thank us as she just couldn't believe that 26 people came up from Tokyo and beyond to help her and her mother. The clean-up effort covers many activities, sometimes you clean houses up and get them fit for living again, sometimes where the damage has been too much, you just have to clean them out and save what you can so the owners can knock them down and start again. Either way their reaction is the same and I'm really glad to have chance to be a small part of it with all these folks.

This time we made sure to take longer readings in the same places with the geiger counter. We let it settle for at least the full 160 seconds, usually more and the readings were around the 0.25 - 0.30 microSieverts per hour as opposed to about 0.15 when we left Tokyo, as expected. We ate lunch inside the local shrine building where it was back down to 0.13.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Supermarket

There was an unofficial smaller THJ trip up to Iwaki, Fukushima again last Saturday. This time there were six of us but we were joined by the same movie actor who came with us about 3 weeks ago, Ken Matsuyama and another Ken, his mate Ken Miyake who is part of a pretty famous boy-band over here called V6. They were both certainly very safe from being pestered by me for an autograph. I thought the new Ken was the actor’s little brother till someone explained to me who he was. Fair play to them though, no prancing around, they got stuck right in like everyone else. With their driver there was ten of us.

This time we were just up the road from the whisky collector’s house the week before. It was pissing down with rain in the morning so we’d been assigned a job indoors, clearing out a small family-owned supermarket that had been trashed. It was the only supermarket around for miles and had been in business for 100 years. We were only 200 metres round the bend from last week but around here, very little was left and there was a lot of fire damage.

The mother and grandmother who ran the place told us a bus had exploded just up the road during the earthquake which set off a fire that raged through the area before the tsunami hit. As the waters receded the grandmother said there were hundreds of Isaki (Gruntfish) flapping around in the debris as well as loads of squid from a nearby processing plant. She said the stench was unbearable for the first month or two and they were finding squid wedged in everywhere.

Since it was a pretty big job we’d been hooked up with another team of six guys from Shizuoka, South-West of Tokyo. Most of the job was pretty standard stuff but after hosing down the floor inside things were getting really slippery underfoot. At one point I saw the youngest member of our crew break-dancing and thought he must have been trying to audition for the boy-band but he was actually just trying to stay upright on the slippery floor.

There was also this one big overturned refrigerated food display rack that just would not move. All 18 of us trying to slide it forward, left, back, right and forward again but absolutely nothing was happening, it was like the thing was nailed to the floor. We tried pulling it with ropes like a big tug-of-war, but one of the ropes snapped. We tried a couple of crowbars under it to try and shuffle it forward with no luck, we managed to roll it over 90° but that didn’t help either. We finally got it moving by counting everyone in and with a big grunt picked the thing straight up and ran it over to the corner. Grocery shopping will never be the same again.

When we were done we chatted some more with the mother and grandmother who insisted we take a carton of soft drinks and some thank-you food home with us. An interesting choice of pizza and donuts, but hey, after sweating and struggling with that overgrown bloody fridge, I’d have eaten anything!

Then, just after 3pm, photos were done and we were counting out the tools back into the van and getting ready to leave. I noticed about five or six small groups of between five and ten people in funeral dress. They had gathered at different spots in the rubble within a few hundred metres of us. The earthquake happened at 2:46pm and the tsunami would have taken 10-30 mins to reach the worst affected areas. They’d come to pay their respects at the exact time the tsunami hit on March 11. A sobering thought to go with our pizza and donuts on the drive home.

Thanks to Sylvain for most of these photos...