“Ishinomaki can be beautiful again”

This post is by Amy Corcoran from the UK, who volunteered in Ishinomaki for a week in late June.

On Friday 24th June, still exhausted from the previous night’s bus from Kyoto, Alicia and I boarded another night bus, this time bound for Ishinomaki, a town on the north east coast of Japan and one of the worst affected by the March tsunami.  Myself and Alicia were just two people amongst 150 willing Peace Boat volunteers who travelled overnight, arriving early the next morning at the local university, which was at one point Peace Boat’s base. We lined up and sat down, half asleep, on the tarmac in the light rain and had our first meeting, entirely in Japanese. I have to admit that whilst everyone else was nodding along, faces full of understanding and purpose, I momentarily wondered what I had got myself in to. However, that feeling disappeared as we were all united once more with the giving out of blue Peace Boat bibs that would progressively become more brown than blue under layers of mud over the coming week.  I enjoyed the fact that I was handed an XL bib (prompting me to make a mental note to lay off the Oreos) whilst Jonathon from the other international group sported a fetching crop-top sized bib.

A short bus ride through devastated Ishinomaki and we arrived at our home for the week, a disused clothing factory.  The ground floor had been divided in to a couple of common areas, an area for cooking and separate sleeping areas for male and female volunteers.  After a brief talk (this time in English) we were given time to organise our belongings and change in to our work clothes ready for our first day.

The sleeping areas consisted of large areas of the floor covered in plastic covered tatami mats.  Although we were grateful for the mats’ comfort they did slightly become the bane of our existence as when overly keen volunteers decided to begin preparing for the day at 5am (which happened on a daily basis) the rustling was almost too much to bear.

But enough of that. Over the course of the week we kept to a pretty regular routine. The day began with breakfast, which was anywhere from 5.30-7.00am, with people arriving one by one as they woke.  This was always somehow always followed by a mad dash to be ready by 7.45am for the morning meeting (despite having been up for two hours most days).

Our work gear consisted of long boots with steel inserts, waterproof trousers, t-shirt and bib (and occasionally waterproof jacket), mask, goggles, helmet and the all important sweat-absorbing bandana.

After being instructed on our jobs for the day the whole team did morning exercises, in full work gear of course.  These exercises were apparently particularly popular after WW2 and although their popularity has waned in recent years everyone (other than the international volunteers) seemed to know what they were doing as instructions were played out from someone’s phone through a megaphone. These exercises always put me in a good mood and both Alicia and I took our turns to be up at the front, giggling, flailing our arms, clomping about in our boots and copying those who were supposedly copying us.

We would then be told our jobs for the day, collect up our tools and head out in teams (other than one day the two international teams, nine people in total, always worked together).  During my week in Ishinomaki we cleared an elderly couple’s yard, and then their home, as well as another smaller home and two studio apartments, some gutters and a printing factory, which was our largest job and for which we had the help of other teams for two days.  The work was dirty, smelly and exhausting but our groups fell in to as easy pattern and we worked faster than was anticipated on all our jobs.  We also
managed to have a lot of fun during our work and bonded well as a team, sharing lots of in-jokes by the end of the week.  It felt amazing to finish a job, to know that the owners could, after three months of waiting, begin to move on with their lives.  They showed their appreciation for the work we were doing by almost invariably feeding us like kings throughout the day.  It is an amazing thing for someone who has lost so much to still be smiling and to go out of their way to feed and accommodate people they do not know.

One of the highlights of the work for me was finding things that had survived the tsunami and bringing them to the owners, photographs and jewellery for example. Hidden by so much destruction small pockets of their old lives remained and it was a beautiful feeling to find them amongst the smelly filth.  Sometimes the things that did manage to survive were quite surprising, a still inflated pink panther comes to mind, as well as the almost untouched car that was lodged in the middle of the printing factory.  It is an amazing feeling to really see the difference you are making in people’s lives for the better, to
be able to provide help to people that have lost so much and potentially do not know how to start rebuilding their lives again.
Giving money monthly to charity is great but you somehow feel so detached and removed from whatever project you are donating to, it was great to be, for once, really there and really doing it.

The evenings consisted of hosing down the tools (and ourselves) as well as a great deal of eating, talking and sleeping.  On a couple of occasions we went out to eat in local restaurants that had re-opened and mid-week we were treated to a much needed trip to a local onsen (traditional Japanese bath), although by 10am the following morning all effects of this trip had been eradicated under a new layer of filth.  It was worth it to have clean hair, if only for one night. We were also taken to a view point of the bay in which the most extreme destruction had inevitably taken place.  The view made my heart sink,
we worked so hard and yet there was so much still to be done, even three months after the tsunami.  However, people, my team leader Bruno for example, who had been to Ishinomaki soon after the tsunami had hit, told us improvements had taken place, for example the roads had been cleared so the sites were now accessible.  It is true though that there is a lot of work still to be done, a great number of people are still displaced and the clean up operation is going to be a long one.
However, Ishinomaki can be saved and can be beautiful again, and it seems that the residents are starting to believe this themselves and are growing in hope from seeing the change that volunteers such as those with Peace Boat can make to their homes and businesses.

My trip to Ishinomaki was one I will never forget, and one I hope to repeat if I have the chance.  It was great after so much time adrift in Asia to be doing something productive and contributing to something so positive. In addition to everything else, although I did not go for social reasons, I met some amazing and inspiring people, and I am grateful for that and I want to thank them all for making an unforgettable week even more so.


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