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.