JETAAi Volunteer Day – Rikuzentakata, Iwate

OTSUKARE! and a BIG thanks to Il son for all the pics!

October 23, 2011 – I wasn’t in Japan when the earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit. Even so, the loss, the pain, and the grieving, I sympathized whole-heartedly with the country that I had grown to love when I had studied abroad less than a year before. While in America, I helped anyway I could through relief efforts and donations, but I knew, especially after being accepted into the JET program that I wanted to volunteer, however I could, in the affected areas. I was always asking people, “What can I do to help?”

My first chance at this came this past weekend when JET alumni that are part of JETAAi, partnered with current JET’s teaching in Akita and Iwate, came together and slipped and splattered around in Rikuzentakata. Most of us had to be awake at 4am so that we could meet with our fellow volunteers in Kita-Kami at 6am.  There we loaded onto a bus and headed over to Rikuzentakata. Even at 6am, not generally a human-favored hour, the drive was beautiful. Fall is at its peak right now and the colors on the trees are some of the best I have ever seen. Tohoku is truly beautiful.

Then you turn a corner.

Images prepare you for what you will see.  Television provides firsthand accounts of the sadness and pain of the people living there.  Nothing can prepare you though for what you’ll actually feel when you are there.  Only a few buildings remain, and they are empty carcasses that remind you of the tragedy.  There is no noise but the occasional car that is zipping by, rushing to be free of the silence.  Even smell, the odor of fish that many seaside towns possess has disappeared.

The Rikuzentakata Volunteer Center outfitted our group with equipment, which included: shovels, wheelbarrows, boots and rubber gloves.  Then it was go time. Time to help, time to do our part.  For several hours, we trudged through the muck, sticking our gloved hands into it and then trying to figure out if what we pulled out was burnable or not.  We found everything: tires, teacups, bed posts, clothes, rope, photo negatives, lamps, cards, puzzles, an entire house.  While going through the items, developing a profile as to what kind of people lived in this house, I kept thinking, “I wonder if they’re alive…I really hope that they’re alive.”
Being there is sad.  Seeing the ruins of a once very populated city is hard.  Yet even amongst such destruction and disaster, there is a very prominent feeling of hope.  I felt this when we were digging through grime, sweating from our efforts and getting so frustrated at these green sheets of metal that were intertwined with the dirt and wood, making them almost impossible to get out.  Even through the frustration and emptiness, we were still smiling.  It was pretty funny to get splattered with mud and exciting when we finally separated something from the grips of the earth.  Being together, working towards a goal, doing our part to help this city, and seeing the progress that has already been made in the cleanup and recovery is something to smile and feel hopeful about. We also looked and smelled fantastic!

Our day ended after we met Futoshi Toba-san, the mayor of Rikuzentakata.  In all honesty, I expected him to be sad, old and weighed down by the magnitude of everything that has happened to him and his city.  He couldn’t be more opposite of this.  He is young and vibrant, a leader and believer that his city will recover from the destruction. Best of all though is that he smiles and he laughs.  He wholeheartedly appreciated our efforts of the day, thanking us over and over again.

After meeting the Toba-san and working together with the other JET’s and JETAAi members, I know that my part in volunteering is far from over, because Rikuzentakata is not an empty wasteland. It is a blank canvass where we brought ourselves to fill the void of emptiness, our laughter to break the silence and the smell of our sweat to remind us that Rikuzentakata is alive and ready to be rebuilt.  It’s not a question of  “What can I do to help Rikuzentakata?” but a statement. “The next time you go there, you call me.”

(A special thank you VolunteerAKITA, JETAAi, the Rikuzentakata Volunteer Center, Toba-san and all the current JETs that went with me to Rikuzentakata. You rock!)



The Fruit Tree Project teams up with the Save Minamisoma Project!

October 15, 2011 – The Save Minamisoma Project has been delivering supplies to folks in Fukushima-ken who are still recovering from the tsunami as well as radiation threats.  They have been working tirelessly to deliver supplies to the temporary housing units, and volunteerAKITA/The Fruit Tree Project is very happy to offer our support, and hope to continue working with them in the future.

For their last delivery, The Fruit Tree Project was able to purchase 1980 persimmons which were distributed to 4 different temporary housing neighborhoods!  A BIG OTSUKARE to all the members of their team, and for all the hard work they continue to put into their mission.  Please check them out at and see a brief report from Michael Anop of the Save Minamisoma Project.



Oct. 15th delivery – our biggest delivery to date with a whopping 940 served…with a smile!  First off, as usual I would like to thank the volunteers that helped make this trip possible.

Truck Drivers: Rob Keyworth, Dave Kell, Mike Connolly, Tyler Rothmar, Hideo Yamamoto and yours truly.
Distribution Volunteers: Andrew Coad, Rich Rivera, John Daub, Dustin Seo, Michael Martin, Marci McComish and last but not least Nori Saito and his team of local Minamisoam volunteers.
Special Thanks:
– K.K. Abios for funding truck rental and related transportation costs
– Second Harvest Japan 1.8 tons of water and soft drinks
– Side By Side 1 ton of water & 3 free round trip highway passes
– Philip Duncan for helping to arrange high way passes
– Fruit Tree Project for donationg JPY138,000 toward to purchase of fruit for the SMP project, much of which went towards this delivery.
Temporary Housing Neighborhoods Visited:
Teijuusokushin: 271
Terauchi-daiichi: 244
Terauchi-daini: 111
Chikura: 314
Goods Distributed:
Potatoes – 700kg
Onions – 700kg
Carrots – 450kg
Persimmon fruit – 1980pcs
1.5ltr bottles water – 2,064
350ml cans water – 190
350ml cans Lemon Drink – 192
350ml cans Pocari Sweat – 96
Michael Anop

the BIG CLEAN – Kamaishi field report

September 23, 2011 – Our crew was off to an early start on Friday September 23rd. Nikki (our dedicated driver), Ben, Ali and I set off just after 5am in the morning. Our destination: Kamaishi, Iwate-Ken. What a beautiful drive! We enjoyed the sweeping, majestic mountains and lovely rural landscapes the whole way there.

The small city of Kamaishi is located on the Sanriku rias coast of Iwate.  Much of this area was devastated by the tsunami on March 11th.  We were early for our registration and orientation at the Kamaishi City Volunteer Centre.  Our crew decided to do a little exploring in the area. It didn’t take long before we came across buildings that had been toppled by the tsunami. The remaining buildings had suffered from severe damage to the first storey.  We can only imagine that these buildings will all have to be completely torn down and rebuilt.  The most shocking site for us was a massive cargo ship called Asia Symphony that was beached on the Kamaishi pier. The 175, 000 tonne ship left us breathless and in awe of the power of the tsunami. We were reminded of just how lucky we had been in our areas of Akita-Ken where some food shortages and fuel shortages were our main concerns after the great earthquake and tsunami. It was humbling to see the amount of damage and loss suffered in Kamaishi.

A few days before our journey to Iwate, we had signed up over the phone to volunteer.  At the moment, the nature of the volunteer positions available are changing and slowing down but by no means stopping.  There is so much to do! We were picked up at the volunteer centre by a man called Ebihara-san.  He works for a volunteer association called Let’s Walk Together! which will stay open for two years to help with various tasks related to clean-up and relief. Several Christian denominations are working in cooperation to run this organization.  That day we worked alongside Deacon Yoshino from Chiba and Miyuka-san from Hokkaido.

We were put to work cleaning photographs that had been salvaged from the
wreckage. The photographs were cleaned using wet wipes, cotton ear buds, water and tissue. Some of the photographs had been so drenched by seawater that much of the picture just wiped away. We were told to concentrate on preserving the faces.  The faces in the photographs would be important to the owner of the photograph or possibly family members. After the photographs were repaired, they were dried and then put in photo albums. Amazingly, though many of the photographs had been badly damaged, they were made beautiful again as a collection of memories.  We were told that the albums would be displayed and members of the community would search through them to find their missing treasures. During the day we cleaned many photos that included the same cute and fun-loving woman. Through her rescued album, we were privy to her adventures and friendships over the years.  We nicknamed her Keiko-san. Miyuka-san and I had a touching conversation in mixed Japanese and English. I explained that I hoped that Keiko-san would find her charming photos again someday. Miuka-san agreed but explained that Keiko-san could be ‘sleeping’. It’s a heartbreaking possibility, and so, we hoped that the photos would end up with someone who cares/cared about Keiko.  For someone they will be memories well worth the rescue.

Cleaning photos is not a very physically demanding task but we felt that it was an
amazing experience and an important task in a very personal way. That day we got to play a part in saving something very special for people who have lost so much.  We were moved by the long-term efforts of the volunteers in Kamaishi, some of who were long ways from home. Our crew was inspired to work in the community again. Maybe next time we will spend a couple of days in Kamaishi. Not only will we most certainly have another rewarding volunteering experience but we’ll also get a chance to check out the exquisite Dai Kannon statue holding a fish and looking out over Kamaishi Bay. She is an incarnation of Bosatsu and symbolizes maritime safety and good fishing. Hopefully she also stands as a symbol of hope for a community that is in the midst of rebuilding.