Gambappe Tohoku! – Ellie Banwell

Tokyo-based nanobiotechnology researcher Ellie Banwell’s report about her time volunteering in Ishinomaki was originally posted on her blog here.

Aaaaaand we’re back…

Sorry the moblogging stopped abruptly after 3 days, it turned out my pathetic little solar charger was NOT man enough for the job of charging my phone and so after 3 days, that was that.

Reading back what I wrote at the time; it’s not very positive sounding. I strongly suspect that has far more to do with the time of day I was writing (before 6am, bleh) than any actual unhappiness because, looking back on it, the week I spent in Tohoku was, quite simply, the best week of my life so far. It’s too hot for me up there now so I won’t be going back for a couple of months, but come October and you just try and keep me away.

Here’s the story:

We boarded the night bus at 9.30 pm for the journey to Ishinomaki in Tohoku. I was expecting a miserable time as I don’t generally sleep well on buses, but as the bus was less than half full and we each had two seats I actually managed to pass most of the journey asleep. We stopped at a services about 45 mins from the disaster zone at 5am and, as we weren’t due in Ishinomaki until 7.30, we stopped there for a couple of hours. It is the unexpected moments of closeness that cement friendships and, as I sat in a park in the early morning light with my friend Erica just chatting and whiling away the hour until the bus would be leaving again, I suspected this week was probably going to forge ours into something a bit stronger that the usual ‘ladies that lunch’.

We arrived, had a quick orientation meeting and transfered to our final destination. We were staying in a clothing factory that had been cleared by previous groups of volunteers in the middle of a badly damaged residential area. The factory was just one huge room with a tarpaulin to give the girls a bit of privacy. No such luck for the boys, and some of them seemed to relish the fact. Certainly I caught myself more than once staring vacantly into the distance, only to realise I was staring fully at some guy getting changed. Still, they had a changing room and they chose not to use it, so I shan’t feel too guilty if I occasionally elected not to look immediately away from some of the adonis-esque abs I found myself accidentally gazing at.

We had time to unroll our bedding, change into our work gear and then we were straight into it. On the first day all the new arrivals were together clearing a plot of land for a family. Our team of 7 had a garage to clear:



Team 10 and friends taking a break:

Nearly finished:

That’s a lot of hedoro (sludge):

A job well done:

By everybody (4 teams and the family):

We finished fairly early as it was our first day and we hadn’t had a full night’s sleep the night before and headed back to the factory. I don’t remember much about that first evening. Food was eaten and there was probably some chatting.

It’s strange looking back at those photos to think that, at that point, I’d barely spoken to the people in them. The work had been carried out with spirit and speed and pretty much all of our conversation on that day was dedicated to figuring out how to work together. I doubt we talked much that first night: we didn’t know each other yet. At some point I must have fallen, exhausted, into bed. The bed, however, was a yoga mat on the floor, so the quality of the sleep, even as exhausted as we were, shouldn’t be overestimated.

The next morning, we were up again by 6am. Coffee and porridge with almonds and cranberries set me up well for the day and Erica supplied both. I think I may have fallen a little bit in love with her at that point.

We geared up and presented ourselves for the daily morning meeting and rajio taiso session (radio exercise):

Equipment was loaded into wheelbarrows and we were off for day 2:

As I posted at the time, day 2 was somewhat uninspiring at first, but in the afternoon we were transfered to help with clearing a garden of mud and we felt better at the end of the day than we had at lunch. Still, even as difficult as we found that first lot, we cleared a lot of detritus, and the before and after pictures show that perhaps the day 2 blues were responsible for some, if not all, of our (my) feelings of frustration, because we did good work that morning:



The concrete pole is a telegraph pole that had been ripped up by it’s base. The piece lying at an angle in the first picture is the base, you can just see it lying on the rest of the pole on the left hand side of the second picture as well. The pole is nearly 2 feet thick reinforced concrete and it has been snapped like a twig. You can’t get the magnitude of the destruction from the TV, and even on the ground it is too great to be comprehensible, but perhaps this, more than a km from the shore and quite far from the worst of the destruction, can give you the smallest sense of the power involved.

The area had suffered:

After day 2 we settled into a routine. We would get up very early, usually around 5.30, have a leisurely breakfast lasting an hour or more (these became the most important part of the day for me; I really treasured the peace and the conversation), gear up, do our rajio taiso, get our jobs for the day and get stuck in. Breaks were approximately every hour and lunch was 12.30 – 13.30. We carried debris and piled it for collection and we shovelled mud and sludge into bags and piled those up by the road too. In the evenings we would perhaps visit the one open convenience store, sit around chatting over dinner, read a book or play cards. We worked hard and in the evening we enjoyed each other’s company. We weren’t without the occasional point of friction, and I think everyone snapped at someone else at some point during the week, but on the whole, we got on with getting on and we made friends.

At some point, dressed in full PPE for shovelling toxic sludge, we ended up hauling debris in the full sun outside instead. Taped into our boots, the only solution for cooling down was… well… At this point we ceased to be Team 10 and became Team Pants Off! instead. Or Team Trousers Down! in British :)

Towards the end, I started to feel sad that it was coming to and end. I was dying for a shower and a night in a proper bed, but I had expected the week to be one of the hardest things I had ever done, physically and mentally, and, while there were definitely moments of sadness and fear, it was far from hard and it was also fantastically good fun.

I am so very grateful to the people I met and the friends I made and especially to Erica for her fantastic company and to Aki for leading our team so well, for putting up with us and for taking and sharing these photos. I hope to keep in touch with everyone and I will definitely be doing this again.

Gambappe Tohoku!


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