May 22, 2011– Our first fruit delivery to Rikuzentakata! Minami and I picked up about 15 boxes of bananas in Honjo before hitting the road towards the east coast of Tohoku. The drive down was pretty straight forward minus a detour due to a damaged bridge from the earthquake. On our way down we stopped by to check out another fruit source we heard of in Kitakami (Thanks Rob!).
Super Osen is like a HUGE mega grocery store, but everything is super CHEAP! There was definitely a reason the whole parking lot was packed at about 9:30 a.m. Inside the store was pure madness! I couldn’t believe how many people were crammed in there trying to take advantage of all the bargains! Since we loaded up first in Honjo, we could only fit about 7 more boxes of bananas in the car, but each box of ~74 bananas cost only 1600yen! We were shocked! They are definitely going to see us back there in the future. We rolled into Rikuzentakata a little after noon. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking driving into these areas of devastation, and of course we heard about the tsunami’s impact on this area, but nothing could have prepared us for what we saw. It was shocking to see how high the water level rose, and how far inland the tsunami came. Even driving several km away from the coast, we still saw whole communities that were flattened.
Our first shelter was a JHS with about 500 residents. It was one of the bigger shelters in Rikuzentakata, so we unloaded 12 boxes to them. From there we headed to several smaller shelters in the area to deliver the rest of the load. We went to 5 shelters total, and they ranged from 30 people in size to 500. All in all, we were very impressed with all of the shelters we visited. They were all extremely organized and seemed to be getting quite a lot of donations in the form of supplies and food. BUT, every shelter did tell us that they hardly receive fresh fruit, so it was nice to be able to provide fresh bananas for them, and they were all thrilled to receive them. Throughout the 5 shelters we provided enough fruit so that everyone could have at least 2 bananas. Its amazing how it all worked out, and we were so happy to be able to provide EVERYONE with fresh fruit. Before heading out of town we checked in with the local VC about volunteer opportunities, and we look forward to organizing/bringing in a group to volunteer in the near future. This first trip to Rikuzentakata was a huge success, and we look forward to getting back there as soon as possible with MORE FRUIT and a GENKI team of volunteers. A big thanks to everyone who has supported volunteerAKITA and The Fruit Tree Project! There is no way any of this could have been possible without your help. MUCH LOVE.
May 21, 2011 – A small group of determined ALTs left Akita in the rainy early morning with hopes of better weather in Kesennuma. Lucky for us it turned out to be a beautiful day on the other side of the mountains, and it was a perfect day for volunteering! We joined up with three other foreigners and two Japanese volunteers to make “Team International.” Our project for the day was cleaning out a lady’s rented apartment. The surrounding area was completely clean, and when we got out of the car our first question was, “Did the tsunami even come here?” The pachinko parlor across the street was up and running business as usual and the neighboring shops were all clean. However, we walked in the apartment and quickly realized that yes, we were in the disaster zone.
Everything in the apartment was covered in a layer of mud, and the tatami mats that had been pulled up and thrown around by the tsunami had molded in the two months since the disaster. The lady asked us to throw everything out, so we got to work moving out the furniture and bagging up everything else. The worst part of the day came when we were shoveling up the mud and discovered the large pile of fish the tsunami had deposited in a corner. We worked through it though, and were able to have the apartment entirely cleaned out by early afternoon. By the time we finished, the trash pile outside was enormous. The big furniture had to be relocated to a nearby park to make room for all the other things we brought out, and a special garbage truck came by to pick it up after we left. Since the apartment was a rental the lady asked us not to throw the tatami mats out, but instead to put them back in. They were caked in mud and molded, but she was afraid the landlord would be upset if they were thrown out. We did as she asked, but the mats are definitely NOT safe to ever use again.
When we said goodbye to our friends at the Volunteer Center they asked if anyone from “Team Akita” would be coming the next day. They are looking forward to our visits, and I am definitely looking forward to returning!
May 15, 2011 – Woke up today to an amazing sunny day! We left around 8a.m. to go pick up fruit so we could finish the delivery in time to meet up with the big crew that came down from Akita to volunteer for the day! We decided to deliver bananas all weekend because right now they are the best bang for our buck. Also the folks in the shelters love them because they are delicious and easy to eat, even for the elderly. Our order today was ~1680 bananas, the same as yesterday. Jon came in late last night, so he was able to help with the deliveries this morning while Todd and Michan headed over to the VC to get everyone checked in to volunteer. It’s always hard on the last day of delivery because everyone is always so thankful and appreciative of what we are doing, so it’s hard not being able to provide for them everyday. Although our main objective is to raise money and make deliveries on our own, we still focus a lot of our time on raising awareness of this issue. If other groups can do the same thing we are doing, we can all make a really big difference in these people’s lives.
May 15, 2011 – We were rolling deep. 15 people from Akita showed up to help today. That was our biggest group of volunteers in Kesennuma yet. It was great to see everyone down there ready to work. At the VC we meet up with four more Japanese people and went to our work site in a group of 19. This job was right on the coast, but was probably not the hardest one we have had. We were tasked with cleaning out a plot of land. There was lots of garbage rocks and a little debris to haul out. We also had to keep our eyes open for money and photo albums, both of which were found (small brick of solid gold). We all worked hard and kept our collective noses to the grind stone and before long it was the end of the day and that plot of land was all cleared up.
I want to thank all the people that came down to help this weekend. Michiko, Paul, Minami, Will, Kathie, Margaret, Rye, Adrian, Melissa, Nikki, Shaun, Ben, Jim, Jon, Ashley, and Rachel, you guys did a great job.
May 14, 2011– Back again in Kesennuma. This weekend a bunch of people from Akita made the trip to volunteer for one or two days at the volunteer centre (VC) in Kesennuma. Paul, Minami, Will, Michiko and myself were sent to help a very nice gentlemen in the heart of the city. Being a small group, only the five of us, we were able to clean up a quite a bit. We were right in the center of the city so there was little debris to cleanup. This job was all about bagging up the tsunami mud and rotten fish. We have been to a few sites now and I have to say that rotting fish was the worst smell I have ever smelt. We were all very greatful that there was a light breeze keeping the air moving. So with our shovels, bags and brooms we filled about 200 bags of muck and cleaned out the back yard and this inside of the gentleman`s shop. It was a great days and we got a lot accomplished.
May 14, 2011 – Heading back to Kesennuma! A group of 5 of us left Honjo at about 5 a.m. today after picking up ~1,680 bananas from the lovely folks at Sasaki Seikatan! We made great time and arrived in Kes at about 8:30 a.m. We went straight to the Elementary school to drop off some bananas and say hello! Along with the fruit, I passed along over 100 hundred messages that my 2nd grade JHS students had written for the kids in the shelter. Minami and I organized them in a photo album book so they could flip through them easier. We also brought some stickers and fun stuff for the group running FIGHTO shimbun. It was nice to see everyone again, and they all seemed Genki as usual. We continued the fruit deliveries to the other shelters, and everyone was happy/surprised to see us again! It appears that people have already moved into the temporary housing units that were being built when we were there during Golden Week. It’s great that people are moving out of the gymnasiums, but we are still not sure how the food situation is working for them. This is something we plan to look into, to make sure they are still being provided for. After our last delivery, we rushed off to the Kesennuma VC to prepare for a full day of volunteering. Looking forward to all the folks heading down tomorrow from Akita!
May 5, 2011– Sadly, it’s our last day in Kesennuma. We came through for Omose JHS (Jessica’s school) and delivered enough fruit for everyone! In total we delivered 1,176 bananas and 1,008 oranges across 4 shelters.
At our first two stops, the NHK team followed us around to get footage of what we were doing. They have been so supportive from the start, and they are really trying to help us get the word out. A BIG thank you to Rena and her team for working with us the past few days. It’s been amazing having them around, and we look forward to working with them in the future! The heartfelt gratitude we received from the shelters over the week was truly amazing. Another HUGE thanks to all of the people running the shelters and putting in endless hours to make everything run smoothly. It has been so inspiring meeting so many people doing amazing things for Tohoku right now, we all wish them the best. Before leaving Kesennuma Elementary school, Minami and I got to chat with Oikawa-san, who we have been in contact with since the first trip back in early April. It was nice that we got to spend some time with him before we left because it was our first conversation with him that inspired the idea of The Fruit Tree Project. Saying goodbye was sad, but we know we will be back.
After the deliveries and wrapping up with NHK, we scrambled to the VC to volunteer for the day. Minami and I joined up with the rest of the group, and luckily made it in time to volunteer with the Akita crew! A big pat on the back to our very own Michan, who stepped up to be the fearless team leader for the day. She did an amazing job, and we were all so glad she made it down! We got to the work-site, and were greeted by an extremely genki old man and his wife! They were truly the most amazing people I have ever met. They were so kind and loving, and the stories they shared with us were touching.
Our workday mainly consisted of removing the tsunami sludge that covered the whole property. There were also big pieces of debris that we had to remove from a small garden pond in their front yard, along with some medium sized trees that got knocked over. The area they were living in was totally destroyed. It was surreal looking out over the community and seeing all the large fishing vessels washed up on shore. After our work for the day was complete, we had some time to kill before the van arrived to pick us up. Otosan and Okasan decided to take us for a walk, and tell us more stories.
Our first stop was to a statue of Buddha that had been displaced by the tsunami, but still stood upright. It was definitely a pleasant site, but our next stop was definitely pretty hard to take in. They took us up to the hill they fled to before the tsunami came in. Otosan is a community leader of sorts, and was in charge of helping the elderly get up to the hill for safety. The view was intense. The whole community was gone. The landscape consisted of huge piles of debris, washed up fishing vessels, and a some lonely structures that remained standing. It was definitely something none of us will ever forget. Otosan had told us earlier how he now sees us as his family, and invited us to come back to visit in the future. It was hard saying goodbye to them, and as our van drove away we all waved to each other until we couldn’t see the other. Our last day in Kesennuma offered amazing closure to our long week of volunteering. We met some amazing people and built many bonds with the people living and working to make a difference in Kesennuma. There is no doubt in my mind that we will all be back someday, and our hearts go out to the people who are fighting everyday to get their lives back and move on from this very unfortunate disaster.
Another BIG THANKS to all the people who helped us throughout the trip. Sato-san from the Kes. VC along with the whole VC crew, Jessica and friends, Arata and team NBC, Rena and team NHK, Oikawa-san from Kes. Elem. shelter along with all of the shelter leaders we worked with, Takayuki-san (you are an amazing human being), the AWESOME crew we had down there representing volunteerAKITA: Minami, Doug, Todd, Michan, Rye, Melissa, Jeff, Liyen, and Selina, and last but not least, EVERYONE who donated and supported this vision and our mission. There is no way any of this could have been possible without you.
It has been an unforgettable Golden Week. Such an INSPIRATIONAL and HUMBLING experience. Very sad to leave our Kes-family, but know we will be back soon. The Fruit Tree Project doesn’t stop here, our hope is that it GROWS from here on out! So many places to go, so many people to help.