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Golden Week! Yatta! 7 days off. :D Today I've been giving my apartment a well-needed cleaning.

Last Sunday, I went to Ishinomaki, a coastal town hit by the tsunami, to do what little I could to help clean up. It was a horrifying, amazing, perception-altering trip. I wrote about it on Facebook, and posted two albums of pics. One of Ishinomaki, and one of a town called Onagawa, which was hit much worse. Here is a copy of my Facebook post. I'll try to get some pics up here when I can. There are tons, so it may take a while. Feel free to friend me on Facebook if you haven't already. I post all my pics there nowadays. I don't really post personal stuff on lj that much anymore. Just use it for the communities, and for stalking all of you, muah ha HA!

So much to tell. Where to begin??? I went for my first day of after-tsunami cleanup in the coastal town of Ishinomaki this past Sunday. This will likely be a long post. Words and pictures cannot adequately convey all that we saw, smelled, and touched that day, but I'll try. So here goes...

As I have mentioned before, some guys I know have been taking trips up to Ishinomaki (about a 6 hour drive from Ota, where we live,) for the past few weeks. Kosuke, Nobutaka, and Kevin's band did a charity gig last month to raise money. After the gig, they decided to see if there was another way they could help. Kosuke (and also Nobutaka and Kevin, I think) drove up to Ishinomaki and just drove/walked around, talking to people and figuring out what needs to be done, and what they could do to help. They happened to meet some American guys (lawyers who live in Tokyo) who I think introduced them to people in charge of shelters and volunteer organizations. They also met some locals by just walking around and striking up conversations with them.

One of the locals they've met is Abe-san, a 60-ish guy whose home was half-destoyed in the tsunami. Kosuke said they happened upon him one day when they were walking around; he was just standing in his debris-strewn driveway, staring at his house in shock. (This was several weeks after the tsunami.) They approached him and asked if he needed help. He replied that he didn't know what to do, or where to start. He wanted to just demolish his home and start over from scratch.

The guys helped him clear out his house and driveway, both of which were cluttered with every kind of debris under the sun. (You can get an idea of what I mean by looking at the pics I'm going to post soon.) They got to know him pretty well, and now they often stay in his newly clean home when they do overnight trips.

Kosuke told me that one night after working all day, Abe-san and the guys were drinking together, and he told them some of his story. They aren't sure whether any of his family died, and haven't asked, as this would be an inappropriate question to most Japanese people. But he told them about standing in a room on the second floor of his house, looking out as the water swirled violently around his home, watching people drowning in front of him, and being too shocked and scared to try to help them.

Several cars have washed up around his home. (You can see them in my posted pics.) He told them about finding the owner of one of them dead in the street after the water receeded.

I met Abe-san briefly on Sunday. Half of our group spent the day working at his place, since there is still so much to do there. He was dressed in rubber boots like the rest of us, ready to work alongside us. He was very energetic and personable. All the guys say that he's pretty much the coolest guy ever. His place was homebase for us that day. We all gathered there for lunch. Kosuke said that after they helped him clean out his property, he felt much better about it, and doesn't think he needs to start from scratch any more. He says that his neighbors are still disheartened like he was at first, and want to demolish their homes and start over. We are hoping that we can help them clean up and change their minds as well, so that they can keep their homes.

So last week, Liam and I went out and bought rubber work boots, hard hats, goggles, masks, and shovels. I worked Saturday (a VERY tiring day of classes,) then came home and attempted to sleep, as we were leaving at 2:00 a.m. As is always the case when I have something I need to sleep for, sleep eluded me. :( Ah, well. I packed a bag of food for the trip, put on some old crappy clothes, and met up with the group. Colm, the owner of a local English school, had offered to drive us up there in his school van/bus. I think there were 10 of us, plus Kosuke and some other guys who were already in Ishinomaki. We hung a sign on the windows saying that we were aid-workers, as someone had told us we could get through without paying the VERY EXPENSIVE highway tolls that way.

So the wheels on the bus went round and round... we headed north, listening to music and chatting about random stuff. One of the guys had a radiation detector, which beeped and showed SLIGHTLY elevated levels when we drove through Fukushima. (No, we didn't get close to the nuclear plant. We didn't even go within the "exclusion zone.") The sun rose, and we saw some really pretty views. Japan is really a beautiful country, once you get out of the city.

We arrived in Ishinomaki at maybe 6:30? Everything looked normal at first, but Kevin told us that things would soon change drastically. He was right.

We drove through some small floods in the street, caused by a combination of land shifting during the earthquake, and the rain from the previous night. (Luckily, the rain stopped just before we got there, so we didn't have to worry about staying indoors to espace the Scary Rain of Radioactive Death, ha ha.) Things quickly went from Perfectly Normal to Holy Shit.

Again, you can look at my pics for a better idea. Still, words and pictures can only convey so much...

The roads have all been cleared of debris, but everything else is still in shambles. Busted houses, VERY busted up, randomly placed cars EVERYWHERE... I mean, seriously, CARS EVERYWHERE. Standing on their heads against trees. Overturned in the middle of what used to be rice paddies. Inside stores and houses. ON TOP of buildings several stories high. Under other cars. Just everywhere. I worry about how many of them had people inside when they were thrown around...

In Ishinomaki, much of the debris has been stacked up in huge piles on the sidewalks, waiting to be carted away by a million dump trucks. Imagine everything in your house wet, dirty, broken, and piled up in your yard. Yeah. However, at least this shows that some small progress has been made. Onagawa, another town we visited which I will talk about later, was much worse.

We met up with Kosuke and some other guys at Abe-san's house. First, Kosuke took us on a walk to a local building which is being used as a shelter by about 70 people. The lady in charge was a local woman whose home had been ruined. (I would spend the day clearing out her yard.) She told us that the tsunami came right up to the building, then stopped a few feet away. If another big earthquake were to happen, we were to run there. I think we then took a drive around, Kosuke leading us through town so we could see more of the damage. If I'm getting this out of order, sorry... I hadn't slept and was really tired.

We then split into two groups, one working at Abe-san's house, the other (my group) working on clearing out that lady's yard. Our job was to just pile everything up in one place, to be taken away later. HARD WORK, yo. Thank god for those rubber boots and gloves!!! We encountered all kinds of stuff... wet tatami mats (which are F-ING HEAVY, by the way,) bathtubs, sofas, tables, shelves... plus lighter-weight stuff like car tail lights, clothing, books, etc.

Unearthing personal belongings was the hardest part. I found a baby's chair, Pokemon cards, photo albums, dolls, someone's English studying notebook, an autograph book, a Minnie Mouse hairbrush, a sweater someone had sealed in a plastic storage bag to put away for summer, video games, a beautiful blue acoustic guitar still in its case... all kinds of stuff. Who knows where it washed up from. Could be from a neighbor, could be from a whole other town. Everything was wet and muddy.

Before we started our work, Kosuke told my group that the police hadn't searced that area yet for bodies. "You might find a dead body. I'm not exaggerating," he said. He pointed out a nearby greenhouse where two elementary school girls were found...

Besides people's belongings, tons of straw-like stuff from obliterated rice paddies has washed up in mounds. Picking through it was pretty nerve-wracking for me... I never realized how many things look like human hair. We didn't find anyone, but there were plenty of times when I was startled by string or fabrics that look like hair...

Broke for lunch mid-day, and I had a short nap in Kosuke's car. Back to work for another few hours. Someone unearthed a pile of very, VERY dead octopuses (octopi??) OMFG, THE STENCH!!! THE INK!!! Kosuke gave them a proper burial with my brand-new, as-yet unused shovel. Ew. Ha ha.

While we were working, some Japanese people approached us and asked if they could help. Turns out they were locals who were staying in the shelter. Some of them spoke English. They said that they hadn't really done much to clean up yet, because they felt so hopeless in the face of such destruction. But, after seeing the progress we made in that lady's yard that day (and probably also the work the guys had done previously,) they felt inspired to finally do something. So they started working on the other half of her property. :) That's what it's all about. Not only helping physically, but helping the local people not feel quite so helpless.

After a LONG day of hard labor (and I'm not gonna lie, it WAS hard, especially since I hadn't slept,) we bid the place goodbye. Kosuke wanted to take us to see Onegawa, another town which was hit even harder by the tsunami.

On the way there, it was weird to see how some areas look totally normal, and others were destroyed. You'd see a normal street scene on the left, with people shopping at the 7-11 and eating in restaurants, while on the right you'd see overturned and battered cars and blown-out buildings. I saw a refrigerator in the middle of a graveyard.

Onagawa... what can I say? Nothing I can say, no pictures I can post, can really convey how shockingly horrible it is. It was once a coastal town, nestled in a kind of valley, which must have been really beautiful. Now... god, it's like 800 atomic bombs hit it. I'm putting pics of it in a separate album. Pics don't do it justice, though. I saw a car on top of a building that must have been 7 or 8 stories high. I saw concrete buildings overturned, lying on their sides. Foundations of what were once houses, now just a few bricks and pieces of tile flooring which managed to hold on.

I spent all day working in the midst of the destuction in Ishinomaki, and maybe half an hour in Onagawa, yet it is Onagawa that I can't stop thinking about. No one lives there any more. There isn't anything we can do to help there. All that can be done is to literally dynamite what is left of it, and rebuild from scratch.

No one, not even the Japanese people who know all about tsunamis, expected it to be as huge or as fast as it was. There is a hospital on a high hill there, and people were told to run there if a tsunami happens. But they weren't safe even there. The first floor of the hospital was washed out. Only the people who lived on, or ran to, even higher ground survived. I stood in the parking lot of that hospital, and looked out on the beautiful bay, staring at the calm, quiet sea, and wondering how in the hell that peaceful-looking water could do what it did.

The last stop was back in Ishinomaki at one of the shelters. It's a school that was being used by people with no homes... now the school has forced them all to move into the gym, so school can start again. I didn't spend a lot of time there, as I felt kind of awkward and didn't want to appear like I was looking at animals in a zoo or something. I'd like to go back there during the day sometime, maybe when the guys do a concert for the people, and spend some time playing with the kids. This time I just dropped off some candy I'd brought, then we headed out. I did see that people were living on "plots" made of futons and blankets, and the size of your family determines how much space you have. There were some single-futon sized spaces of elderly people who had lost their whole families in the disaster. Kosuke has spoken with some of them. Some of them want to die, because, with their families gone, they feel that they have nothing to live for. Some of them don't even have the strength or will to stand in line for food.

We piled back in the bus, dirty, sweaty, and exhausted. Some of the guys stopped off to pick up a bottle of whiskey for the return trip. Had I not been so exhausted, I would have joined them. A day like that demands a good stiff drink.

At one point on our trip home, our cell phones went off in unison with an earthquake alert. Apparently the eipicenter was in Fukushima. We didn't notice anything, as the roads were bumpy already from the previous big one.

I arrived home, took the best shower of my life, and promptly collapsed in bed. Work today wasn't as hard as I was expecting, made easier by the fact that my usually crazy kids were rather well-behaved for a change. Thank heavens for small miracles. I quickly got back into Tara-sensei mode, but whenever I am not occupied, my mind wanders back to Onagawa...

Pics to come soon. Those of you who can, PLEASE donate to the relief effort. Those of you in Japan, please go and see for yourself, and help out, even if it is just for one day. My friend Kosuke will be glad to help you find a way to help. Those of my fellow foreigners living here who won't come with us for whatever reason, you suck. Seriously. Stop being a wimp and get your ass out there and do something. You know who you are.

As for me, I will be back as often as I can. Ganbare, Ganbare, Tohoku.

Date: 2011-05-07 02:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
This sounds absolutely heartbreaking!! You sent a chill right through me when you wrote that you were warned about maybe finding a body. It's overwhelming to read about the devastation, I can't imagine the strength it must take people to rebuild their lives.

I'd like to keep in touch with you and friend you on Facebook. Do you have an email I can send my name to??

Date: 2011-05-09 04:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You can search for me. I'm Tara Talley, and my current picture is me as a kid, in a birthday hat. :D Just let me know who you are when you request me, so I won't ignore it. I have two albums of pics from the trip in my photos. I never did get around to posting them here, ha ha. So lazy...


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