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day 9, last day volunteering with all hands

today was my last day volunteering with all hands in ofunato. I’m sad to be leaving, and it was sad to say goodbye at tonight’s meeting. it does feel like the project is winding down, but I wish I could have been here longer.
my job this morning was cleaning the base (there’s a housekeeping rotation). since cleaning is only a half day job, I signed up for the photo rescue project in the afternoon. one of the things that I’m happy about this trip is that I had a chance to join the photo project, which was just getting started when I was here last. and I wanted to spend my last day cleaning photos.
I think one of the nice things about the all hands project tohoku is the broad range of activities, from distribution to temporary housing to photo retouching, and of course gutting and cleaning ditches.
there is a bento lunch provided to each volunteer at the worksite everyday, and since I was joining in the afternoon, I rode with the bento delivery, which was actually a great thing to do on my last day. since photos is furthest away, actually in rikuzentakata, not ofunato, we stopped by each of the other projects first, and even drive by the first gutting project I worked on.
this morning, as we were on the bus that takes us from the residential facility that is hosting us down to the office/base in town, our bus had to stop at the railroad crossing, because the bar was down. since the rails were completely destroyed by the tsunami and rains aren’t running here, this was a first for almost everyone on our bus. actually they are doing test runs, and as we sat there waiting this morning, with sun streaming in the windows, a single blue locomotive chugged by. at this sign of recovery, we all spontaneously started clapping, and seconds later burst into laughter because we were adults clapping at a train engine. it was a nice moment to start off the day.

day 8, back at the K’s house for gutting and cleaning

today I went back to the K’s house, where all hands is working on mudding under the floor and gutting the walls. the team was split into 2 groups–the gutting folks and I was on the dishwashing team. there are A LOT of dishes in that house, although apparently many broke during the earthquake–the best ones, as the china cabinets tipped over.
Mr K is a craftsman, who makes the stone blocks used in calligraphy. today under the house, they found a picture of mr and mrs K, with a display of his stones at a big department store in Tokyo. Mr K’s back was hurt during the disaster, either by falling or something falling on him. Because of his hurt back, he can’t make the stones anymore.
Before the disaster, 8 people lived in the house, I would guess 3 generations. Now the K’s live in temporary housing, which is close enough to be visible from her house. There are 65 units, and the people from this local area moved into them. But Mrs K says the temporary units are cold, and they are deep in the valley, so they don’t receive much sunlight. She said that coming to her old house makes her feel comfortable. But I think she has good connections to friends/neighbors, since today after giving us snacks, she left for a while and didn’t come back until the end of the day, saying that she got caught up having tea and chatting with 7 friends.

day 7, the park; day off, and stories

yesterday I worked in the park, placing some bricks and digging some dirt. the park looks amazing–completely different from how it was in july, when it was still being cleaned up. it has lots of new playground equipment and structures. towards the end of the days, some kids showed up and were very excited to come into the park and play. I talked a little with the grandma that came with them. she said that they all live in the same block (they were different ages, around 6 or 7 kids), and although they had a park near their homes, it’s been use for temporary housing, so the kids have nowhere to play. as we watched them run and jump in the sand area over and over again, it was clear how much they need this kind of space, and how much they will use the park. the opening will be on nov 12, the last days of the all hands project in ofunato.

today was our day off, and I took a long long walk near the river, and back to the center of ofunato–actually where I had visited in the beginning of april with K sensei and M sensei. now it’s been cleaned up quite a bit, and bulldozers are still at work picking up rubble, mostly concrete. but because of the sunken land levels, there are large areas that are flooded there now.

although there’s progress in cleanup, the scale of damage is still overwhelming. although thinking back on the situation of new orleans 6/7 months after katrina, everything here seems more on track.

I stopped by my favorite coffee shop and chatted with the owner a bit (I had already been there in july, and heard how they opened the cafe a few months before the tsunami, and what was damaged). we talked about how the life in temporary housing will be cold in winter, especially for the elderly, and she told me how many people are now in a difficult place emotionally–up until now they have made a lot of effort to do what need to, but now they are feeling like they just want to give up, that they don’t have anything to live for really. this is what she hears from her customers. she thanked me again for coming here to volunteer, and said that it means a lot for the people here.

then I stopped in to the little community space by jr sakari station (sakari is on part of ofunato city, where all hands has its base). the railway was destroyed by the tsunami, and the train car that was sitting in the station has been used for some community activities as well, since a few months ago. they give out tea and sell some local products and crafts that are handmade by ladies living in temporary housing. I think they are supporting both the livelihood of disaster victims, and also raising money for the reconstruction of the train line. they said that it’s been decided that the train will be back up and running again in 2 years, in the same location–along the coast, but elevated in some places, which hopefully can act as a kind of barrier for future tsunamis.

day 6, gutting and cleaning at the K’s

when I was here in July, there were fewer Japanese speakers, so sometimes it was hard to find a translator for each volunteer work group every day–this meant that as a Japanese speaker, I joined more gutting jobs as a translator. now however, there’s – reduced number of volunteers, and no shortage of Japanese speakers. so today was my first day during this visit to join a gutting team, and there were other translators in our group.

the K’s are an elderly couple, with a big house that they built 8 years ago, using a traditional Japanese carpenter. their daughter is in her 60s, so they must be in their 80s at least. Mr. K has a bad back, and some pain, but Mrs K gets around pretty well. but cleaning up and repairing their house would be impossible for them on their own–she said that if her kids helped, it would still take 2 months.

we are cleaning all the many dishes, etc. that survived the tsunami, and then also gutting and mudding the house.

the K’s are very very sweet. they told us they think of us like a family. mr K was telling stories about when he was a boy, and they didn’t have any money for food, so they would eat the bread that the u.s. and australian soldiers threw away, so now he is grateful to have food to eat and a roof over his head. he also said that since he was very young, he had been taught that there are boundary lines between countries, but that from the experience of volunteers coming from all over to work together, he now feels we don’t those boundaries.

day 5, distributing winter packs to temporary houses



today I got pretty drenched doing deliveries to temporary housing. we went to this area, in rikuzentaka, which is also the location of the photo rescue project.

today there was a large memorial event in Rikuzantaka for people who had lost their lives in the tsunami, so many people were not home in the morning.

most of the houses in this site are detached single units (around 170 total), and the families tend to live in the few connected row house areas of temporary housing. we saw a few kids today (it’s Saturday, so they don’t have school. there were 1 little boy and 1 little girl who were very cute and followed us around chatting constantly. when I said I was a student in Kobe, the little boy who is 7 said “I’ve been to Kobe”, when I asked why, he said because Kobe suffered a disaster, and his town had also suffered a disaster. and that it took 3 days to get there.

but there weren’t very many kids around, and many of the houses have only 1 person living in them, including some very elderly folks (we went door to door dropping off hot water bottles, etc.). one women who lives very close to the photo project came to the door with a exceptional energetic attitude and was very friendly and chatty. she told us that her husband had died in the tsunami, and that today she went to the memorial event. but she was so positive, and said that she had many friends around, and that many people died in the tsunami, so there were many others around her who shared her feelings.

but mostly people seemed very quiet and withdrawn. I had always thought that detached temporary housing is the best option (more privacy, more space, more control over your own living environment), but today I realized that it’s not enough–if the people living there don’t have a way and/or reason to come outside and interact with others, the form of the housing, whereas it looks nicer, may not serve them any better than the big barracks type temporary housing after the Kobe earthquake, or the high rise recovery public housing built later.


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