Sunday, 22 January 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?

Sunday, 15 January 2012


A lot of things change in 18 years, which was how long it had been since all four of us kids had got together with the folks for Christmas. For instance, I don't remember much about a Jamaican cricketer Christmas tree decoration when I was a kid.

Luckily though, some things don't change. Good times!

It was a rare chance to spend time with the whole family, aunties and uncles, and all seven nieces and nephews, so I made sure I was a good Uncle and kept the youngest of them well stocked with Corona and Grolsch.

This year, we'd also been roped into the Christmas Morning Swim at Coney Beach in Portchcawl. It's a bit of an institution back home and this was its 47th year so I  thought it was a good chance. They reckon 2000-3000 people turned up to watch more than 900 swimmers. I say swimmers, it wasn't exactly a course, more of a run in, scream and shout, then run back again. Not helped by it being low tide and a long, long way to go before you even reached the water. 

 Good fun but bloody freezing! (Last photo by the wonderful Mandy Thomas)

The Blue Anchor in Aberthaw completely burned down a few years ago but good to see it back to its former glory. Like the Plough & Harrow, The Bush and hundreds of other pubs back home, there's nothing like sipping a pint in front of a real fire.

The original Stonehenge, known locally as The Gorsedd Stones. Actually they were put up slightly after Stonehenge but no need to go into the details...

Nash Point and the Sand Bar. Site of many an adventure back in the day. Good to know guys are still getting out there. Timing is everything with the tides round here.

In the time it took my Full Breakfast to go from this...
... to this

The Esp went from this... this.

 Up The Bwlch to meet the locals

 time for a quick duet

before making the pilgrimage to Caerphilly, birthplace of Tommy Cooper

 then over to Castell Coch

 before a pint of Brains, since 2012 is the Year of the Dragon

back over the bridge. Free to get into England but it costs to get into Wales

lunch in a Cornish pub

 then a tour of the manor with KK... and Rudolf.

 Hell's Mouth on the North Cliffs near Hayle. Just round the corner was where this video  of the massive cliff collapse was shot. 

Lunch in The Spreadeagle Inn

 before a look at the other Stonehenge

and to round of a great trip home, thanks to JAL's increased baggage allowance of 46kg each, even in economy, I was able to take all this stuff back for the Knit Ishinomaki campaign. Unbelievable effort from Lianne, Obie, Mum, Gill, Roisin and Jack.
Pics from the delivery of this stuff up to Ishinomaki coming up.