After a 9 1/2 hours night bus ride, which was surprisingly comfortable because we had booked a more expensive bus ticket, we arrived at the small town of Taro of Iwate Prefecture, a few hundred kilometres north of Tokyo, and just a few kilometres away from the costal areas that had been destroyed by the tsunami about four months ago. There were four of us- me, Peter Draw, Professor Baba (who coordinated with the local schools) and Shinn (a Singaporean friend who came to take photos for us).
The moment we stepped out from the bus and took our luggage, we were greeted by a local, who was pinching crumbs of bread to feed pigeons on the street. He spoke with a local accent so strong that I could barely understand some parts. But that was the biggest signal for us- we had arrived in Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku region, a place that had grabbed news headlines in every newspaper in every language just a few months back. And it served as the biggest reminder of our purpose there- to deliver the drawings we had collected, and to spread the glimpses of hope to the children of the affected areas of the Japan Disaster.
The old man feeding the pigeons smiled at our inquisitive stares and explained, “These poor pigeons do not have any food to eat. The fish markets have all closed down. The crows, the sea gulls… all of them are starving…”
I smiled back at his generosity and kindness, as we proceeded on to a nearby standing soba shop where we had soba for breakfast. We then washed up and discussed about the details of our plans, before setting off in a taxi to the elementary school Professor Baba had contacted for us. It was a long 40 minutes ride through the desolate ruins left behind by the aftermath of the disaster, into the green mountains and then into a huge piece of farmland, where a exquisitely designed wooden building stood in tranquility and indifference to the wrath of nature.
The school is called “Taro-daisan Elementary School. The school Principal Araya came out to welcome us and proudly introduced us to her school, claiming it to be the most beautiful school in the prefecture.
We followed her in to the school and took a rest in her office, where we were promptly served with tea. She then started taking out magazines, photos and newspaper articles that told stories about her school, her mother and her experiences. This was a common trend among all the people from the affected regions I have met so far. All of them seem to be eager to tell us stories, the lessons they learnt and their experiences, as if they were certain that we have to know them for our own sake. Indeed, not many people have such experiences, and to be survivors of these disasters, they must have been given the sacred responsibility of passing the message to those ignorant.
Principal Araya then told us stories of her students- no one in the school had lost their families, but one of them had lost her home in the tsunami. There were only 16 students in the whole school, divided into three classes (Grade 1 and 2, Grade 3 and 4, Grade 5 and 6). She then introduced us to her father, who happened to be the first principal of the school. She recollected the times where she was still young and how her father sang the school song to her as a lullaby, and how she already knew the school before entering the school, and how it was all fate that she had become the 16th principal of the school.
Her mother’s story was more special. Her mother had experienced the tsunami 78 years ago (she turns 90 this year), where she lost her whole family of 7. Being left all alone after the tsunami, she lived and grew up with a relative in Hokkaido. Later on she got married and gave birth to 6 children, out of which Principal Araya was one of them. Principal Araya told us that her mother’s dream was to give proper education to her 6 children. Having lost her whole family when she was 11, and considering that she must have struggled to make ends meet, her little dream must have seemed like a mountain to climb. To my pleasant surprise, Principal Araya then made the widest grin and told us proudly that our of the six children, four of them are now school teachers/ principals.
Dreams are not mere illusions, they do come true. I felt a tear welling up.
We then had interaction sessions with the students where we let them draw pictures of their dreams. (All of these compiled into a video at the end of this entry) After the interaction session, Principal Araya brought us to her old home that had been destroyed by the tsunami. We stood in the middle of a piece of flatland, which we were told later that there used to be rows of houses along the entire stretch of road, and all of them had been washed away, and removed by the rescue teams. Her house still stood there in solitaire, albeit with paint spray on the walls that announced that it would be hacked down in due time.
That night we stayed at a business hotel in Morioka, the city centre of Iwate Prefecture. We then headed off to Fukushima Prefecture the next morning on a Shinkansen. We arrived at Fukushima Station, where we met up with Bush, a Taiwanese friend who came to help us, and Professor Sato, who had liaised with the school we were going to.
Professor Sato brought us to his car where he drove us to nearby evacuation centres, where hundreds of people still reside 4 months after the disaster. He then introduced to us the prefecture enthusiastically, and I was almost choking with a sense of guilt that we did not allocate enough time for him to give us a proper tour of his hometown.
We arrived at Sabara Elementary School, where Principal Tamura came to welcome us warmly. We then had a little talk in the principal office before heading off to interact with the children. Sabara Elementary School initially only had 20 students in the school. However, after the nuclear plants spelled trouble for residents in the vicinity, many people evacuated towards the city centre of Fukushima. Not surprisingly, this year in Sabara Elementary School’s entrance ceremony, 100 students showed up. Coming to think of it, close to 80% of the students were transfer students, but despite having only met each other for 2 months, many of the students seemed to have integrated into their new environment, something that probably brought a huge relief to Principal Tamura.
We then entered the Grade 1 class where we let the children drew their dreams, as we walked around and interacted with them. When I asked them what their dreams were, one of them raised his arm and said without hesitation, “I want to become Mario when I grow up!”
Bush then asked him why. He replied with conviction, “Mario drives really fast, so when the nuclear plants cause problems again, I can take my family out of the area quickly in a car.”
How many of us have dreams to become saviors of our families? It is in times of crisis like this where we realize the importance of our families and friends. This boy must have understood it well, at least much better than I did before listening to his reasoning.
At last, I would like to show everyone a video I created for this trip. It showcases the dreams of the children of the schools we visited, as well as a video of Principal Araya’s mother telling us an important message. Please spread their dreams to the people around you =)