I took part in a volunteer program organized by Waseda University’s Volunteer Centre (WAVOC), and went to Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, once again, 6 months after the disaster. Unlike previous times, this one that I took part did not involve physical work of clearing debris or cleaning up, but instead it was an interaction session between Waseda students (who had taken part in WAVOC activities) and high school students of Ishinomaki-jyoshi-shogyo High School. When WAVOC first sent its volunteer team into the affected areas after the disaster, they were randomly selected to help out in the clearing of debris at the high school. Subsequent teams were sent to shrines and other schools in the vicinity. Apparently the high school was highly grateful of our deeds and wished to meet us personally, and so this volunteer program was organized.

We left Tokyo on a night bus and reached Miyagi Prefecture at 6am the next morning. Since it was still early, we went to Onagawa town, a town that was almost completely swept away by the tsunami. The local hospital of Onagawa was located on a high ground, and so it was designated as the evacuation point for the town. We went up to where the hospital stood, a little hill that overlooked the town, and the sea.

Overlooking the entire town that had been swept away, I could feel chills running  down my spine. I shuddered once again, when we were told that the whole town was submerged in seawater, and the highest tsunami came at a height of 20m. I could virtually imagine the excruciatingly painful scenes of tsunami devouring what was before  my eyes.

As we all alighted the bus to catch a glimpse of the horrifying sight, an old lady standing by the railings, in solidarity and solemnness caught my attention. It was 6:30am in the morning and the whole town was pin-drop silent. The old lady stared blankly at the town that used to be there. She must have been one of the tens of thousands who have lost their homes. A series of questions ran through my mind as we boarded the bus again, preparing to leave. Since when had she been standing there? Since when had she been admitted into the hospital? What was going through her mind as she stared expressionlessly at the flat piece of land that used to be her hometown.

Thereafter, we headed for Myo Shrine, the shrine that I helped out with when I first entered Ishinomaki with the WAVOC volunteer team. It was about five months ago. I could still vividly remember what it was like. Mountains of debris by the roadside, The shrine was intact, but fallen lamp posts, car parts and random items shrewn all over the place in the vicinity of the shrine.

This time, the debris had been all cleared, the shrine looks revitalized all over again. I could not help but smile at the photos of local festivals held at this shrine, boards and posters of anime characters in the vicinity. The locals are slowly getting back to their normal lives.

After the shrine, we headed for the high school, of which the students, whom we would meet later in the day, originally came from. The high school had been declared to be unfit for use anymore, and so the high school students were distributed into three other schools (according to their grades). They had to borrow classrooms from other schools to resume their lessons. Needless to say, to be declared as unfit for use, the condition must have been atrocious. I needed no further explanation when I stepped into the school campus.

The first thing that greeted me was the clock, that stopped at 15:46. I could not help but wonder since when had it stopped. I cringed at the possibility of the date being 11 March, where the earthquake struck at 14:46, and so it meant the clock stopped functioning one hour after. Was it a mere coincidence?

Scenes of the classroom, devoid of emotions and mercy, save for the thousand cranes hanging from the lamp, the gold trophy of the female soccer competition, and math worksheets that scattered on the classroom floor.

Look at how high the debris still pile up 6 months after the disaster.

After we left the school, a teacher from the high school came into the bus to tell us about the situation of the students and the school. As expected, both the students and teachers were heavily affected, but now that six months have passed, things are gradually getting better. The teacher about how most of the students had lost their homes, and how we should not try too hard to console them or avoid anything. We should be natural and treat them as normal high school students, not as victims of the tsunami.

We were worried at first that they might still be depressed over everything, and that we could not break the ice or change the gloomy atmosphere, but when the students appeared, it was beyond our expectation and imagination, in a good way. The students were no different from those in Shibuya. Except for a few quiet ones, many of them were loud, active, and some even fashionable. Before we could start playing games (meant to be ice-breakers), they were already teasing us. I was the leader of my bus group, and we had a really great time playing games and chatting. Unfortunately, there were times when the sense of generation gap hit me like a brick, as if to remind me that I had graduated from high school almost six years ago.

In an attempt to be friendly, and not to mention sensitive words such as family or home, I asked a girl beside me, “So do you have a part-time job?”

“Yeah, I used to have,” she replied, “but the restaurant that I worked had been washed away by the tsunami.”

It was there when it dawned upon me that the disaster’s aftermath was so huge that the daily lives of the people, every little aspect of it, have been affected. But she smiled when she answered, as if waiting for me to laugh. It was there again, when I realized that they have long gotten rid of the identities of being a victim. They do not want to be consoled or to be thought sympathetic. Come to think of it, in years to come, they would be the ones to tell stories of this historic disaster to their future generations, and even to people like us who watched by the side.

All in all, we had a great time visiting a whisky factory, Sendai Highland Amusement Park, and having barbecue together for lunch.

After we bade farewell with the high school students, the WAVOC team went back to Tokyo. Ito-san, a guy from JTB, me and another girl from Waseda, remained in Miyagi Prefecture for the second part of our trip. Ito-san has been planning future trips and activities to revitalize the dying businesses in Miyagi Prefecture due to the disaster, and I had been invited to come along to learn about his plans and the actual situations of the various industries that are heavily affected. We visited the sake industry, farm industry, can-making industry, hotel industry and so on, and I was given a huge treat of stories, lessons learnt and ideas to revive themselves.

We were given a free bath at Hotel Kanyo at Minami-sanriku, which was one of the closest spots to the epicentre of the earthquake. It was an open-air bath, and right in front of us stood the Pacific ocean, where the tsunami came from. It was a splendid scenery, endless ocean shimmering in the sun, but the pretty images were quickly shattered when I was reminded that this was where the tsunami came and devoured the entire coastal town. The hotel was a huge and strong structure and so it was saved from the tsunami, except the lower floors.

For dinner, we were treated to a gorgeous meal of sashimi at a local izakaya. As we downed glasses of beer and pinched on raw fish meat, Ito-san and Suzuki-san from JTB told us various stories from their work experience. On the night of the first day, we stayed at the home of the president of a local fish industrial company- Fuse-san, thanks to the Ito-san who had arranged for us.

His house was located near the sea, and the entire town was gobbled up by the tsunami. As we drove around the area, there were countless signs of the cruel reality. The streets were pitch dark due to the lack of street lamps, some parts were bare ground because the debris had been cleared, those buildings that still stood were either emptied or ready to be demolished. Only a few had their lights on, and families resided in them.

The first floor of Fuse’s house was pretty bare. All the furniture had been swept away by the tsunami. Tatami was replaced by cardboards, the glass door was replaced by flimsy temporary wooden planks. The bathroom had no doors, only a curtain as a partition. Broken glass windows were still unrepaired. Fortunately, the second floor was untouched by the tsunami, and so we had our bedroom prepared for us on the second floor.

At night, we were treated to excellent sake and wine, together with lots of finger food. Fuse-san was extremely friendly, and full of humour. We chatted and laughed all night, as we listened to random stories of Fuse-san. He told us how he had to drink every night after the disaster to forget his troubles and get to sleep, and how he had long wanted to have company like us to drink with him. He told us about how he was all ready to give his business up, but his wife pushed him on. He told us about how he was depressed over the destruction of his house and hometown. We listened intently, and at a loss of words at times.

“Come, get me some glass wines for the guests!” Fuse-san ordered his daughter.

His daughere came up empty-handed, and replied, “It seems that all the glass wines have been washed away (by the tsunami)” And they broke into laughter. It definitely isn’t a laughing matter had it been two, three months ago, but like the high school students I met, they knew they have to get over with it. We were heavily comforted by their positive attitude as we joined in the laughter as well.

The next morning, we woke up to a surprisingly sumptuous breakfast prepared by his wife and daughter. The Fuse home was not any five-star hotel, or anything close to that. In fact, it was a remnant of a huge disaster. Furniture swept away, walls destroyed. Yet, what I had experienced was a home-stay brimming with warmth and kindness. The willingness to let us stay despite the visually ugly scenes, the excellent wine and sake served, the stories we listened to, and the breakfast prepared for us- all of these is something that cannot be replaced by money. It was indeed a heart-warming homestay.

Thank you so much, the Fuse family.

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