Gakuvo x NYN Road Project Mission #4: Ojika Peninsula
I've been lucky and honored to be able to be a part of the Nippon Foundation's disaster relief project called the Road Project, which invites college students from all over the nation to take part in relief efforts in the disaster stricken Tohoku area of Japan.
The really awesome part of this project is that Gakuvo, the Foundation's college volunteering organization, jointly with the Nikkei Youth Network (NYN), has been getting international students from all over the world involved in this project as well. These pictures are from mission #4, which happened during golden week (May 3-7), which was also my first mission as a team leader and translator. On this mission alone, we had about 30 international students from 20 different countries from all across the globe, out of about 100+ Japanese University students.
6:30am bus taking us through the main devastation of Ishinomaki City, but most of us were still sleeping. We arrived the night before around 10pm after an extremely long bus ride. Usually takes about 7 hours, but was a little longer because of golden week traffic. Everyone went to bed quickly after a quick group meeting about safety and tasks, but leaders had to stay up to solidify our game plan and perform equipment checks. We all woke up by 4:30am.
The devastation was so surreal, it's so easy to lose track of your thoughts and reality. This gas station easily grounded us, at the same time slammed into our faces the gravity and the seriousness of the situation. Yes, it's a gas station with debris, cars and a whole house jammed into the filling area.
The main bridge we crossed before entering the Ojika Peninsula. The Ojika Peninsula is the piece of land that juts out from the Miyagi prefecture, which is the closest piece of land to the initial 9.0 epicenter.
The Ojika Peninsula is dotted by many small fishing villages tucked into little valleys like this. But because they are all in little valleys, it made the tsunami surge up even higher and cause even more damage. We passed a bunch of little villages like this. Or what used to be villages.
View from my window on the bus after we parked. This giant barge washed up from being swept away from Ishinomaki City about 10 nautical miles away. Barge is still there today.
Other side of the bus are the remains of a lumberyard.
Lumberyard most likely was a large warehouse type setting with sheet metal roofing and steel beams. We saw none of that in this area. But you can see steel reinforced concrete utility poles that washed up in it's place.
Our morning rally point after driving about 1.5 hours. From this point on, the roads were too destroyed for our buses (which were kindly donated to us by the Seibu Lions baseball team), so we waited here for the local fishermen to come pick us up in their pickup trucks. If I remember correctly, there were about 8 houses in this open area, in which half of the residents did not survive.
Two of my teammates silently assessing the damage. Right in front of them used to be a concrete tsunami wall which probably stood around 8-10 feet high, which absolutely nothing remains. Next to them is a giant hole that was not there before, which was probably bored out by the power of the tsunami after the wall was gone.
Tsunami walls, houses, even trees did not stand a chance against the tsunami.
A close-up of the trees in the previous picture. If you look closely to the tree on the right, it's missing most of it's lower bark, with a chunk missing toward the top. That's evidence of how high the tsunami wave was. The top chunk is about 15 feet up, and we're about 5 feet up from the waterline, which means the tsunami was at least 20 feet high in this area. It was a very humbling moment when I realized this.
Pieces of houses, walls, boats, trees scattered yet all entangled together was a sight that we got used to.
This is a little Ainu (Japan's northern aboriginal people) sculpture found in the debris and wreckage. Another humbling thought that hit us was, the debris and "junk" we were looking at, all used to belong to someone. It used to make up someones house, it was someones valuable possessions just a few weeks ago. Even if we were ultimately throwing them away, we were told to handle everything with respect.
We donned on all our gear, not knowing what we were heading into, and hopped onto the back of trucks to be shipped off like troops. Initially thinking we were going to be shoveling mud the whole time, we actually weren't told what we were going to do until we got to our separate locations. From this point our teams split up and dispersed to work at 5 different villages.
We certainly were all pretty nervous at this point. The night before, we were told that we were the very first volunteer to actually set foot in this disaster zone. The SDF (army) soldiers were still looking for bodies at this point, so we were the very first outsiders to touch the devastation with our hands. Which also means no one was there before us to clear out the dangers and clear the way to make work easier for us. Our biggest concern was rusty nails and tetanus. We were literally walking around in a mine field of rusty nails.
This view used to be full of houses and buildings which made up a big portion of this fishing village.
This road to the left leads up to this village's evacuation center, where a bunch of people still live today. It goes up pretty high, and was our designated rally point in case we were hit with another big quake. Big quake = tsunami = run for your life.
For some reason this random sight of a mailbox going through some sort of sign on a bed of oyster and scallop shells stayed in my mind. The Ojika peninsula used to produce some of the finest oysters in Japan, and is going to take years to revive. The fishermen initially told us it might take up to 10 years before everything is back to normal. 10 years.
Our first work site. Our task was to sort the debris in this area and salvage any fishing equipment not too damaged. We were told to enter the half collapsed buildings in the back... only to be told by our overseers who came around, that the buildings were too dangerous. If an aftershock came, the whole thing might fall on top of us.
So we decided to have lunch while we changed our strategy. Lunch for the next few days: calorie mates and soyjoys.
So it was decided for the rest of the week, we would work closer to the water salvaging shells, buoys and other fishing equipment. This photo was taken atop a mountain of oyster shells (the smell was excruciatingly horrid) where we worked on day #3. The ovoids are the buoys, and cost over $100 each. So we tried to salvage as many as we could. I think we collected a few thousand total.
My team #5, at one point, was asked to salvage buoys floating in the water just out of reach in this bay. So we built little bridges and unstable rafts to get to them, but 4 of us fell in the water anyway (including me). The water at this point was still very black and foul, so I'm sure we didn't smell very pleasant afterwards.
This was all very hard work. Lifting, dragging, carrying, moving... so some of us tried to squeeze in naps anywhere possible.
Team #9 was on a different schedule than us, so they were working while we were taking our lunch break. You can see them salvaging blue baskets from atop trees. A very odd and surreal thing to see, but in reality the tsunami washed the baskets away from the oyster processing facilities and they would get caught up in the trees.
It was May already, but the Northeast get their cherry blossom season later because it warms up later. This sakura tree most likely was submerged and swallowed up in the tsunami, but survived. I think seeing the cherry blossoms gave us all a boost of energy to work harder.
3 of my kids from team 5. From L to R, Gengo from Kyoto, Yoshi from the Self Defense Academy in Yokosuka and Nogi from Tokyo. We had one girl fly in from Okinawa just for this trip too.
I am extremely proud and glad that my first team was this team. I learned so much from them, and made me want to continue volunteer efforts in any way I can. Thank you, team 5.
Teams 4, 5 and 9 (out of a total of 11 teams). Our job was to help the village of Makinohama in any way possible, and many times we were just caught up in laughter and stories by the local people of Makinohama. They were all so kindhearted and caring. I think this was a very emotional trip for a lot of us, seeing the devastation first hand and being in that environment really is taxing mentally and emotionally. So being able to interact and have fun with the local people really boosted our spirits and kept us mentally and emotionally healthy.
Team 5 after our very last task of recovering scallop shells from muck. We didn't think we could get this done, had about 45 min left of our day, but we were able to work as one and got it done. The shells are strung on some wire so they look like necklaces, so when they become covered in mud, they can weigh about 50lbs each. Each string had about 30 shells each, but when we were done, we probably recovered several thousand.
Walking back to our main meeting area, we had time to really take in some of the devastation.
The stairway in the middle leads up to the village's temple, which probably dates back several hundred years. The village's ancestors knew to build on high ground, and that high ground is the only safety to tsunamis.
Washing tsunami mud off our boots in the bay. Tsunami mud, called "hedoro", is extremely tough to get off. It's almost a mixture of clay, mud, tar and smells like rotting fish.
Our main overseer Tadano-san and main village recovery leader.
One last team 5 group shot in front of the B&G center in Oosato, where we stayed for one week for free.
Thank you Makinohama. All of us of team 5 made a vow to return one day, to Makinohama, and eat oysters with the town folk. It may take up to 10 years, but we all will be reunited. Until then, we will never forget you, and will continue to help the Tohoku.