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    Posted July 28, 2011 by
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Recovery in Japan: After the earthquake

    voyager001 and 14 other iReporters contributed to Open Story: Earthquake strikes Japan

    Volunteer Experience in Japan


    Volunteer experience in Iwate

    When the opportunity to volunteer to help in the disaster areas from the Great East Japan Earthquake presented itself, I was very interested in joining and excited for the chance to help. I was in Japan when the earthquake occurred, but hadn’t really seen much damage, except for the broken glass in our apartment since I live in Chofu Tokyo, which is West of Shinjuku. So when this opportunity came up and with my wife’s’ encouragement, I decided to do it. It takes many hands to rebuild a nation.

    Before we could go, we had to get the right kind of equipment. The checklist included breathable durable gloves, industrial masks, boots, and steel insoles in case I would step on a nail. Bacteria and infections are a real concern up there, especially things like tetanus. I have described below my daily experiences from this incredible journey.

    DAY 1 - Sunday July 17th 2011, 4 months after The Great East Japan Earthquake
    This morning our volunteer group, 18 in all, boarded a bus at 8:00am for the 9 hour drive it takes to reach the city of Tono in Iwate prefecture Japan. Our group consisted of 12 men and 6 women through a spectrum of ages from around 18 to mid 50s. I was one of two non-Japanese on the trip. From what I have seen on Google's satellite images, the area was hit very hard by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11th. This will be my first time to see the damage first hand.

    Once we were underway, the leader of the group made some opening remarks and introduced himself to the group. We then passed the microphone around the bus and everyone had a chance to say a few words and introduce themselves as well. Our group consisted of several Chofu city employees including the vice mayor, several college students, a barber, a former professional boxer (he had 1 fight), a volunteer firefighter, and a few from an insurance company.

    Traveling north from Tokyo, reminds you just how beautiful Japan really is. We traveled through the mountains and countryside where the brilliant shades of green stood out against a clear blue sky.

    After arriving in Tono city, we first went to the volunteer coordination center, which is a local community center turned into a makeshift workspace by the NPO running this relief effort, for a first time volunteer orientation. This was the first time volunteering for everyone in our group. A little more than an hour later we made the short trip over to our accommodations. We dropped off the women at the room where they would be staying and unloaded their supplies and luggage. We then proceeded to the community hall where the men would be staying. We unloaded our gear, set up our sleeping arrangements, prepared for the bath, and set off to a local Sento, or public bath, in the mountains with our company issued dosimeter still reading 0.00 millisieverts.

    The sleeping arrangements were a large open hardwood floor where everyone set out a space with their mats for their “bed”. There was no air conditioning in the room, but a large wall opened up with screen doors and the cool mountain breeze was refreshing in the evening.

    Getting to the Sento, was no easy task for the bus since it was already dark and we had to travel on some narrow mountain roads but the drivers managed to get us there in one piece. We did have to back up a few times to make some of the tight turns. At the Sento, we saw many Japanese Self Defense members also using the bath. I guess their military had a relationship with the Sento since they only had to sign a list to get in, while we had to pay a small fee. They are mostly likely in the area to help with the relief effort as well.

    When we finally made it back to town, everyone was hungry, but we had to find our own food since the bus drivers had already worked too long for the day. We found, what seemed like the only place in town still open, a local restaurant that could accommodate our group (12 in all, the women were on their own since we were not staying together). We had a dish that is famous in the area as well as Hokkaido, Genghis Kahn, named after the Mongolian leader. This consisted of cooking our own lamb on a cone shaped grill with some vegetables cooking around the base of this device. This was the first time I had ever tried this meal and it was absolutely delicious. It was now time to turn in for the evening since we had to wake up very early the next morning.

    DAY 2 - Monday July 18th 2011
    This morning we awoke bright and early, with sunrise in Japan occurring well before 5 am. I did not get much sleep as I am not accustomed to sleeping on the hard floor, even with the mats and blankets provided by our group. When I went to shave this morning, I walked into the restroom and realized that there was no mirror, and I mean no mirrors anywhere in the building. I even checked the women’s restroom, since there were only men staying here. I had to shave with no mirror, so from this point forward I would be shaving at night since the Sentos have mirrors. After breakfast and our morning routines, we boarded the bus around 6am to go to the volunteer coordination center.

    After a brief orientation and handout of assignments for the roughly 70 volunteers for the day, we began the group stretching exercises, as is done in Japan. Following a headcount of our assigned group, we grabbed our gear and boarded the bus that would take us to our designated area.

    Heading off to the location where we will be working, I see nothing but mountains in front of us and begin wondering how long it will actually take to get to the coast. On the way, we were given further instructions from a very spirited elderly gentleman, from Osaka, who had been a volunteer since May, including warnings about the heat (30 degrees) and staying hydrated. After roughly 9 kilometers of tunnels, we stop at a convenience store to use the restroom and purchase any additional provisions we want for the day.

    Upon leaving the convenience store, we immediately begin to see some of the destruction firsthand. Right around the corner in the parking lot of Nippon Steel, there is a mountain of debris, mostly wood from destroyed structures, but decorated with many colors from items that were inside the homes, which makes you realize that people’s entire lives were destroyed and we could see that in mountains of rubble we drove past. As we go through this first town, we see that the first floor of the town was basically destroyed with piles of debris where houses once stood. In some of these piles, children’s toys could be seen near the tops. This was minor compared with what we were about to see.

    As we headed out of town, we began seeing some of the clusters of temporary housing that had been set up for the survivors who no longer had a home of their own. We continued through the mountains when we came to the next town, or what was left of it. We came around the bend and saw a flat plain where a village had once been. The only remaining structure was a net from a driving range. This was our first look at the true devastation and power of Mother Nature. At this point the bus became deadly silent and you could have heard a pin drop, partially in shock of what we were witnessing and partially out of respect for those who had lost their lives. As we progressed through town, we came across scores of destroyed vehicles some on top of each other and others that had been cleared and set side by side as if parked. I don't think anyone quite expected this much destruction. Seeing pictures on the news doesn’t quite compare to witnessing these extraordinary scenes in person.

    From here we progressed to the site for our activities for the day in the town of Otsuchi-cho. We parked near the local shelter, which consisted of one large tent and several smaller tents, where we were tasked with clearing the weeds and overgrowth from the riverside (Kozuchi kawa) so that the town could hold their annual festival here along the river and try to return to some sort of normalcy. The river was more like a stream that you typically find in the mountains. You could walk into it, wade across it and in spots it was only ankle deep. When the tsunami struck, it forced its way up the river taking out some of the homes in this town and depositing the remains throughout the river and its banks. Looking into the crystal clear water while clearing the brush, you can see large pieces of roofing tiles, electronic devices, car wheels, etc. But this cleanup would be done later, for now the towns people needed to be able to have their festival and try to return to some semblance of their former lives. While working along the river, we could hear a local group practicing playing their traditional Japanese drums and other instruments. It was pleasant to hear, especially knowing what they had just gone through. It also contributed to a pleasant atmosphere for our lunch, which we ate while sitting along the banks of the river with our feel hanging over a small embankment. By the end of the day, we had cleared nearly 100 meters of the riverbank by hand.

    On the return trip to Tono, we went back through the same remnants of towns. The police were directing traffic at major intersections since the traffic lights had all been destroyed. It appeared as though we were traveling through a war zone. Large piles of debris everywhere we looked. A vending machine and a section of concrete stairs lay side by side, nowhere near their original location. The only remnants of one home were its bathtub and the bottom half of its bathroom with the remaining tiles surprisingly clean and colorful. This area hadn't been cleared yet, only the roads were clear. In places Railroad tracks were completely gone. Temporary bridges had been set up for small crossings where the originals had been completely wiped out. In the next town on the way back, a large ship was sitting upright on the dock with its propeller hanging over the water as if a giant had just picked it up and set it out of the water. I guess it is too heavy to move back into the water. Other places had fishing boats on top of the steel structures of what used to be gas stations. It was truly a surreal experience seeing this destruction that came from the calm sea nearby.

    This was the capstone for the day as most slept on the bus the rest of the way back, exhausted from the days work. After returning to our accommodations, we had     about an hour before we would leave for the Sento; our group leader had a meeting with the volunteer organization to finalize the next day’s activities. The rest of us prepared for the bath and relaxed. We went to a closer Sento today, with multiple smaller bathing areas.

    Afterwards, the bus dropped us off at the train station and everyone was on their own for dinner. This was about a 15 minute walk back to where we were staying and much shorter for the women. Another guy and I ended up having dinner with the 6 women in the group since we were chatting as we walked, we didn’t notice that the other guys had gone off in other direction into various sushi or ramen shops near the station. We had not trouble navigating our way back through the night.

    DAY 3 - Tuesday July 19th 2011
    Wide-awake, the sun still rises very early, and headed to the volunteer coordination center again by 6 am. We went through the same routine as yesterday, but there were fewer volunteers today since it is a workday. I am fortunate that my company supports these activities and provides us with special volunteer time off that can be taken by anyone.

    On the mountainous drive to the work site, same location as yesterday, I can't help but notice how the many rice patties below look like meticulously manicured lawns. This is truly a beautiful place with a deep and rich culture.

    Once again we pass through the devastated towns and the bus grows silent yet again. This is just not something that you can get used to seeing. It must be difficult for the residents to cope with the aftermath and get on with the rest of their lives.

    For today's work, part of our group was provided with wading boots and walked through the river clearing items from the river bed and shore line, I could not do this work because they didn't have boots large enough for my feet. Our assignment was to pick up trash and other objects along the river bank. We picked up broken glass, wood that was once part of the walls of someone's home, insulation, pet bottles, cans, etc. A few of the other items found were an unopened package of Japanese tea, a slightly bent door hinge with two screws remaining, someone’s cloth bag, a can of paint thinner, and some boards with nails.

    At lunch today, the people of the town brought us some watermelons to show their appreciation for the work that we were doing. They were delicious. Coming back from lunch, we saw some women cutting hair under a tent near the shelter. They were going about the daily tasks of their lives, 4 months after that fateful afternoon, even though their homes and businesses were either damaged or destroyed.

    We returned on alternative route and witnessed the same widespread destruction as the previous day. There was one hair salon still intact, at least the building was intact, but much of the place was ruined. There was however spray-paint on the building that said "open" with a chair sitting in front of the building as a welcome site to the patrons of this establishment. This was our last day of work here in Otsuchi-cho, tomorrow we will be heading home.

    For this evening’s bath, we stayed in town and didn’t take the bus. We found a very small Sento where they still heated their water with a wood burning stove, but we had to all take turns since the facility wasn’t large enough for our entire group. From here we went to enjoy the final dinner together. I say together, but it was really just the men, since the neighbors staying near the women had invited the women to have dinner together. So we all enjoyed a beer and each other’s company one final night in Tono over a large delicious meal, which was full of variety.

    While in Tono, and throughout Japan, many people were grateful and thanked us for what we were doing. Some establishments in Tono even offered discounts or special prices to the volunteers. This was a nice gesture that no one would even consider asking for.

    DAY 4 - Wednesday July 20th 2011
    Up early, as is customary up here, to the sight of 0.01 millisieverts of radiation on my dosimeter. It has been accumulating since Sunday morning, nothing significant to worry about. The other two members’ devices haven't registered anything yet. A second dosimeter registered 0.01 when we stopped for lunch on our way home. Today we return home to Chofu city, Tokyo, 17 new friends in total, through the typhoon that was approaching Japan.

    When we arrived back at the Chofu city building, several of the other city workers were there to greet us and take pictures. One of the other volunteers introduced me to his boss, who was among those that had gathered to meet us upon our return. This was the first of several trips to Tono that the city of Chofu plans to organize. I hope that I will be able to join again.

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