Breaking Waves

Ishinomaki, one year after the tsunami

Japan was absolutely crushed by a tsunami. This was not one town or city. Hundreds of miles of coastline, from small fishing villages to moderately large cities, ports, harbors, industrial and residential, simple and advanced, ready or not, it didn’t matter.  A lot of these towns were slightly below sea level, protected by seawalls sometimes 20 feet high. Most of these places now, especially the small villages, are just flat, open spaces. 

Walking through these places made me feel small. The water didn’t just spill over the seawall. It came over with a force that is impossible to understand; reinforced concrete walls, 20 feet high and three feet thick, were crumbled and tossed aside. Buildings were crushed or swept away entirely. One out of every 15 or 20 houses is still standing, and those are nothing more than a foundation and frame. In some places the water went as far at six miles inland. An impossible, unstoppable, unrelenting force of pure power and violence killed over 20,000 people in a highly developed, advanced, prepared country.

Finding service opportunities in foreign countries has proven quite difficult. You’d think it would be easy; at least I did. There was a major disaster, there is limitless work to be done, there should be plenty of places to get involved, right? Not so much. And, trying to broker a volunteer deal in Japanese over the phone…not happening.

At any rate, after hours of searching online and dozens of emails, I finally found an organization based out of the town of Ishinomaki, in the Miyagi Prefecture (prefectures are like states), a coastal area in northeast Japan that was hit particularly hard by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. It’s Not Just Mud started with one person who went up to Ishinomaki after the tsunami to help in the recovery effort. As he started blogging about his experiences, others began to join him, and the group expanded over time to become an official volunteer non-profit organization.

Fortunately for me, INJM generally consists of about half Japanese and half foreigners, speaking English and Japanese equally.

INJM started with helping people clean up and restore their homes – those that were still standing – that were damaged by the tsunami. In these cases the homes were typically filled with up to 12 inches of mud and muck. INJM would go into a house, remove the debris, walls, floor boards, and completely gut it out, scoop and shovel out all the muck, and slowly rebuild the house. The name of the group alludes to the people who they work with and the lives that have been changed – that it’s really more than just mud.

The INJM crew in Ayukawa

After completing the restoration of two homes in Ishinomaki, the homeowners offered INJM their homes for housing volunteers to continue their efforts – prior to that, volunteers had simply been camping in tents. Since then, these two adjacent homes have become INJM headquarters, and home away from home for INJM volunteers.

It really is a home now. On any given day there are as few as eight or ten, or as many as 30 volunteers staying at the house. Every day people are coming and going. Every night someone cooks and the entire group joins on the floor around several coffee tables. Itadakimas! And everyone enjoys their meal.

After dinner, assignments for the next morning are posted on the white board, usually consisting of three or four different projects in the area. Teams are broken up and deployed to the different sites between 7:30 – 8:30 AM.

So, after managing to book a bus trip to Ishinomaki in Japanese (had to translate my name into Japanese Katakana to enter on the website, using Google Translate, among other challenges), I left the comforts of my cousin Brian’s house in Kinugasa (just outside of Tokyo, and I’ll write about my first few days in Japan in the next volume of Travel Notes) under cover of darkness. My task was to navigate my way to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, then find the bus station where my overnight bus would depart from. After a bit of an adventure I made it to the station and boarded, falling asleep in about 90 seconds and not stirring until arriving at Ishinomaki at 06:40.

I was picked up at the bus station by Masae, a regular volunteer for INJM, and dropped off at the volunteer house. After a piece of toast and some coffee I left with Trevor from Canada and Eugene from Malaysia to my first project, a house that was in the final stages of being rebuilt. Our task was to cut and install drywall in the few areas remaining, after INJM had gutted and cleaned out the house over the past month.

We worked on this job for my first two days until the house was done. Apparently, after the contractors come in to finish the plumbing, electrical, etc., the house is to be used a halfway house of sorts, for people who have been displaced by the tsunami and still don’t have a permanent home.

Days three and four took most of the team about an hour’s drive north to Ayakuba, another town that was wiped out by the tsunami. The first of these two days had our team working in an area immediately behind the seawall that had been flattened. There are hundreds of miles of coastline like this, that are just simply flat, littered with debris and trash, where towns and villages used to stand. We spent the day cleaning up trash and debris, separating glass, metal, and other materials.

There was no telling what you were going to find; from roof shingles, glassware, silverware, CD’s, appliances, clothes, and anything else you can imagine. Picture a giant wave pulverizing your house, crushing everything in a giant washing machine filled with houses and mud, then draining the water out as everything sinks into the earth.

My fourth and final day with INJM we went inland a bit further to work at the property of a wise old Japanese man. A large creek running through his property was eroding badly on either bank, causing a shed and some other structures to start collapsing into the creek. We spent the entire day hauling tons – literally tons – of rocks from elsewhere on his property down into the creek bed, building a rock wall to support and reinforce the creek bed from collapsing any further. This was probably the most enjoyable day for me – for a number of reasons, but not least of which we actually constructed something. From nothing there, just dirt, our team moved thousands of rocks and stones to build a substantial wall that is going to be there for the foreseeable future. It was also quite interesting and enjoyable working with this old, wise man, still out there slugging it, pointing where he wanted the rocks and directing traffic. A powerful man.

It’s freezing right now in northern Japan, as it was when the tsunami hit. While there is electricity in the INJM house, it’s not full throughout the house, and it’s only heated by space heaters. The boys sleeping area is not heated. It was a cold week.

Most evenings after work we would go to the onsen, a traditional Japanese public bath house. These were really great, as long as you don’t mind hanging out with 40 or 50 naked dudes. You go in, sit down on a stool with a shower head, mirror, soap and shampoo. After bathing you have your choice of hot tubs, cold tubs, saunas, steam rooms, outdoor hot tubs and hot baths, massage tubs and mysterious colored hot tubs. All I can say is you walk out feeling refreshed, invigorated, and at peace.

The seawall in Ishinomaki

Reflecting on this experience, there are a few things that I really took away. First is the power of the ocean. The second is the power of people. And finally, it’s important to appreciate what you have, and what can easily be lost. It was a good experience and I was glad to be able to make it happen, despite some of the challenges. Lots of credit to INJM – a brilliant organization doing great things.

Sabine from France and the USA, Jojo from Berkely, Anna from Japan and North Carolina, Choco (Queen of Japan), Trevor from Canada, Eugene from Malaysia, Yannick from France, Tetsu from Japan, Slammin Sam from England (half American), Rachel from the USA, Buccio from Italy, Ayami from Japan, a wise old Japanese man, and Jamie from England, the founder of INJM, are just a small fraction of the great people I met in Ishinomaki. Interestingly enough, I met more Americans during my time with INJM than during the entire course of my travels so far, which was a good feeling (especially after the lack of traveling Americans during my travels up to that point).

With not a small bit of help from my new Japanese-speaking friends, I booked my onward travel to Nagano, home of the 1998 winter olympics, and departed late on a Monday night.

Photo Gallery.

7 Replies to “Breaking Waves”

  1. Pingback: Follow Chris
  2. I read it now, so great blog!!!!!
    Thank you for coming here and called me “Queen of Japan” haha
    Keep going クリス!!!


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