It’s addictive really. Something changes inside of you after volunteering in Ishinomaki. Or maybe nothing changes. Maybe something wakes up. It would be superficial to call it by any range of emotion it covers. Instead I will refer to it as belonging. For the first time in three years of living in Japan, I belonged, I’m needed, I fit. Even those born or raised here seem to leave Ishinomaki with that same sense of belonging. Where does that come from?
Touching that cyclical rythmn of life, for just a moment, inevitably leaves you unbearably thirsty, extravagantly wiser, and horribly exhausted.
Four more days we spent there. Our team shoveled, shoveled, and shoveled. The stories are never ending. A woman related her house’s survival due to a tree transplanted by her late father. A burly sea urchin fisherman gave us a CD of his son’s band’s tribute to Ishinomaki. And an elderly resident thanked me for being the object of her laughter after terribly dancing the so-ren setsu (a traditional fisherman dance) [I'll post pictures once I have permission].
We worked side by side teams of Japanese people from throughout Japan. We worked side by side residents helping neighbor’s rebuild. We worked side by side those who’s homes disappeared along with the water. Every connection we made will last a lifetime, I can feel it.
Not to mention, every night we ate and slept with many other volunteers. We had a miniature society of kind hearted slightly crazy people all placed in one room. During the day, I belonged to a cleaning crew. During the night, I suddenly belonged to a giant slumber party. I have so many memories from such a short period of time. We did yoga, played card games, shared food (of which I had very little… Everyone remembers my noodles for that is basically all I had)… We even have inside jokes (CMMだよです). There are no words in my limited English and Japanese vernacular. Needless to say, I’m ecstatic to have met such wonderful people.
Is that why I’m begging to go back?
It’s deeper than that.
Yes, everything I’ve tried so desperately to relay in the past few posts bleed with the attempt at portraying the beauty of Ishinomaki coupled with the beauty of volunteering… It’s not my reason for wishing to go back. I also think it isn’t the reason anyone goes back. It may be wonderful to help, and enjoying the process adds a lot, but that’s just the surface.
If you think about it, If you delve into the desire to return, If you pause for a moment and look around, it’s everywhere. The tsunami, water, buried homes and countless lives, but the world goes on. The gardeners tend to their gardens. The fisherman take up new posts. A society licks its wounds. Like a phoenix, a city rebuilds.
This cycle, this key moment where creation replaces devastation, destruction, and dilapidation, is key. Touching that natural cycle of creation, being a part of the order of things, and having a chance at placing yourself in the crux of recreation. That’s where it comes from.
That is why I’m going back.
Day three. Standing in the basin under the removed floor of a three year old home, the watery mix of chemicals, seawater, and other less than savory material felt cold around my boots. At about 5 cm, it barely enveloped my feet, but the sensation was the same as the edge of a cool lake. The difference being the nauseating smell, worries of toxicity, and the fact this pool lay in the middle of a family’s home.
“We all love the ocean. The sounds of waves, we find quite soothing. The salty air, we find full of adventure. The cool touch, we find a reminder of home. Only in it’s ability to wash us away do we find it’s lesson. Destroying without mercy, it reveals the power of compassion.”
The team, including myself did not pause on this comparison though. Locked in discussion of the house’s
relative danger, we stopped working in order to wait for our coordinator’s assessment of the job of emptying the three month old pond. Up to this point, our team had witnessed the remains of a neighborhood and the courage of an elderly family. This situation, a virtual sewage tank inside an inhabited home, added another layer of complexity.
The first day, after groggily leaving our nightly home, we cleaned a local business. As lacking of human presence as it may have been, the property was littered with artifacts from the surrounding neighborhood. A car with the key on the passenger seat, sat near the entrance. next to this, negatives of a Junior High School graduation. We cleaned, and bagged debris. We cleaned more, and bagged more debris. The labour was easy, yet exhausting. That night I ate my soba with a vengeance.
OH YES… I forgot to mention. In my bag, I had only soba, calorie mate (bar-type food), coffee, and almonds. Other members from my team, as well as a few from other teams were similarly under-prepared. We were saved, so often, by the kindness of people with much more forethought as they laughed and offered us some of the most delicious food I’ve had in months. After a night of introductions, we were all immediate friends. Little did I know, my new friends (especially the men) were competitive in their snoring capacity. For anyone who wishes to volunteer in Ishinomaki through Peace Boat, bring earplugs to sleep at night.
I repeat, “Bring Earplugs” Consider yourself warned.
Waking on the morning of the second day, I did my usual oddly stiff yoga routine, followed everyone outside for calisthenics (ラジオ体操FTW！), and went off, in the rain, to our second assignment of the week. Within 1 kilometer of where we started walking, we entered the home of an elderly couple. It’s policy to rest while it rained, so we waited. The husband offered a story of the first few days after the disaster. He and his wife were stuck on the second floor of their home for over four days as the waited for help. They were not alone either. Two other people had swam in. Four people waited for rescue which first came in the form of the last two rice balls of a group of American military men. Between four people, this was their only food. The next day, however, they were taken into an evacuation center.
At the time, I was fascinated by the story. It sounded amazing to have been able to weather such odds. It wasn’t until after we had finished for the day, after we had worked for 8 hours shoveling sludge from their garden, and after we bagged our last bag of the day, that I notice something. The husband, who had been working with us for the entire day, continued to work and clean after we finished and began to leave.
This was not someone who was simply thrown into a devastating situation, this was someone who understood more. I couldn’t put it into words until a teammate explained it as understand the cycle of nature. I hope, if ever I meet such adversity, I have the same strength to continue on as I had witnessed not only in that man, but in every citizen of Ishinomaki I had the chance to meet.
But standing in that virtual sewage tank, I wanted nothing more than to confirm I had no holes in my boots.
Happily, I did not.
On a bus… I don’t exactly remember the time, however the circumstances gleamed with a clarity that denied my attempts at sleep. It was Saturday, the first day I would be volunteering in the city of Ishinomaki with over 100 other volunteers. I couldn’t sleep. The only thing my mind allowed for was a silent, expectant anxiety. Drifting between the pages of Sherlock Holmes and my attempts at that ever-elusive sleep, the sun rose.
Doing something, no matter the job, exponentially grows in the hearts and minds of all involved.
Arriving at a University parking lot, in the early morning, was quite unexpected. The grounds, littered with volunteer tents, sprang with an energy you only see in movies. Each of the vast fields that usually felt only the feet of athletes, were covered with volunteers. We got out of the bus and went to be sorted.
Working with the organization Peace Boat, volunteering possibly meant a variety of jobs. Some people delivered food, others managed an Elementary school/evacuation centre, and still more cooked food for those in need. None of these described my job though. As they sorted us into our smaller groups of five to six people, I glanced at the paperwork I had received on the bus. My team as well as the other two international teams would be clearing debris and shoveling sludge alongside eight Japanese teams.
As we silently wondered at the toxicity of ’sludge’, the administrative structure of the operation was explained in detail. Basically, each team has a leader. The leader’s supervisor, called the ‘leader leader’ provided explanatory support. On top of this was another level of assistant directors. Fascinatingly, this structure provided a conduit to spread information efficiently. I would come to learn it’s fluidity as the week went on. Although the structure existed for the spread of information, it dissolved in the act of clearing sludge. Leaders, leader leaders, and directors worked side by side with the volunteers of lesser responsibilities.
Peace Boat pushed hard to internationalize the relief effort in Ishinomaki. You could see this in the international teams assembled that day. Each team had a leader appointed by Peace Boat. These three leaders had responsibilities far beyond those expected of other group leaders, for they also provided translation and cultural support for everyone in their multi-national teams.
We boarded the bus again and began the short journey to Kasuka Fashion, our home for the next 7 days. Now, up to this point, the bus windows revealed what seemed to be a normal fishing city with only remnants of dust suspended in the air as if waiting for the inevitable aftershocks. Sitting down, I remember wondering what the devastated area would actually look like.
This thought was quickly interrupted by the Orange Jumpsuited enigmatic actor, Shige-san, as he jumped in the bus to give us a quick orientation of what we would soon be doing. Standing in the aisle, he relayed his tale up to this point. Having traveled by motorbike, he planned to spend 3 days offering help in Ishinomaki. As that 3 days turned into weeks, his drive inversly grew in comparison to the cleanliness of his orange jumpsuit. Yes, he had only one jumpsuit and this was his 4th week.
We crossed a river.
Although small, this river split Ishinomaki’s fate in half. On one side, cracked earth seemed to be one of the few signs of travesty. On the other side, neighborhoods were littered with overturned cars, broken glass, and buried memories. Although not nearly the heaviest devastation, we rolled into Kasuka Fashion. Weeks earlier, this small factory had been de-sludged by Peace Boat. And it was about to be our home for the next 7 days.
We exited the bus, for the last time, and although dazed with obvious lack of sleep, we crossed the threshold of our new home.
The line. I clearly remember the brown line on every wall. I quickly learned this line (at roughly 1 and a half meters in our little home) used to be the tsunami surface. Effectively, we were under water. I remember thinking this as we were quickly explained the layout. The men slept on the mats laid out to the left and women had a plastic sheet-walled area next to this. To the right, the kitchen and dining area, consisted of a sink and ample room for discussion, card games, and of course, Yoga.
We quickly dropped our bags in the assigned sleeping areas. Dressing with fervor, we donned the hopefully bacteria resistance concoction of gear purchased in Tokyo the week earlier. For me, this meant two pairs of socks, pants, t-shirt, rain pants, rain coat, face mask, and work boats. Later I received rubber gloves, glove liners (from a team mate!), metal shoe insoles, goggles, a helmet, and a blue bib. Similarly dressed, my teammates gathered. Together, The three Americans, Indonesian-Australian, French, Japanese mix of international-ness looked strikingly like a group of giggling snowboarders.
Soon we would be receiving our first day’s instructions. Today, my team would be working with the other international teams to clear out a local business in thearea. Through the day we would find, among the terribly repulsive sludge, remnants of lives similar to our own. Our instructions would be to shovel sludge and dirt into white bags and small debris in brown bags (for clearance). We would also need to carry larger debris to the street. Later city workers would come to take away the bags and debris. We would clear over 150 white bags worth that day while entwining our vastly quirky personalities into friendships that usually required years of development. We would laugh at the volatile combination of six wildly different personalities with such fervor, local residents smiled with agreement. We would gently clean a set of photo negatives from a junior high school graduation while wondering at the fate of those forever captured in each little square box.
But first, we lined up outside Kasuka Fashion, duct-taped our boots to our tucked in pants, and waited.
I gawked with obvious miscalculations. “Yeah, it was knife. You should buy a steel insole” Immediately, I penned a memo. 20 minutes earlier the orientation meeting for Peace Boat volunteers ended with directions to split into our small groups.
“I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Today, I had the pleasure of attending a very informative meeting regarding the volunteer activities I will be participating in from May 20th until May 28th. As far as what I will be doing, I don’t know just yet. It’ll range from shoveling sludge to cooking food for displaced fellows.
Where will you be going?
Sitting to the left of my team leader, I glanced at the other four members. Together, the six of us represented four different countries from varying walks of life. How each one of us came to be sitting around ‘Volunteer Insurance’ forms boggles the mind. As with any volunteering, all participating burst with enigmatic, slightly eccentric, and wonderfully explosive personalities. I’ve known them for roughly two hours, however I couldn’t help laughing at our immediate friendships. Cutting myself from the daydream, I looked to my right. One of ‘Team Awesome’ (Yes… Yes… It’s official, and it’s awesome) was attempting to find Ishinomaki on a map.
To save all of you the trouble, here’s a link from Google Maps. That’s where I will be attempting to avoid getting stabbed in the foot.
What role do you play?
Earlier in the evening, I sat near the back right side of an gymnasium. About 200 people piled into the makeshift hall to be briefed on the current situation in Ishinomaki City. More than 90% of those present were Japanese and thus the presentation was in Japanese. For the foreigners, three interpreters strategically placed themselves among the ranks and whispered into our ears like ambassadors visiting the UN. The presentation, itself, was… well… a presentation. Being my forte, I found myself amazed at the presenter’s ability to present confidently and with concise precision. If he were a student of mine, he’d receive an A. Fading back into the room, I noted many small items I need to buy in the next few days.
After the first ninety minutes of orientation and pre-departure information, the foreigners gathered their things to move out of the main hall to discuss how our teams would be split. The coordinator presented our three team leaders, each of which heavily qualified translators. To determine which team we would be placed into, we were asked a series of questions. The first of which, “Who is fluent in Japanese?” My instinctual ‘kind of’ hand wave rose into the air. A man to my right asked for clarification on the meaning of ‘fluent’. The coordinator said, “If you understood the entirety of the presentation you just heard, that’s fluent enough.” I thought back. During the presentation I had listened to the Japanese and English filtering into my ears. As with my regular study behavior, I translated the Japanese in my head and checked it against the English being fed into my mind. I’m not fluent (just ask ANY of my friends) in Japanese, but I understood the presentation with ease.
I rose my hand.
I was the only person to raise my hand. Two other people had already spoken about their fluency, so the three of us were split among the three team leaders. Alongside those leaders, the other members were decided through other dividing factors. Those factors included Manual Transmission drivers, gender, and preference.
As nervous as the new responsibility that gesture has bestowed on me, I’m more worried that my team members might think I’m much cockier than I really am.
SO, What can WE do for the people of the affected area?
As I mentioned, our team consists of four different countries. Our team leader relayed a very important message to us that I’ll try to paraphrase from memory here. “We have international teams alongside our Japanese teams for a reason. The local people will see you, and what you represent is the world. Everything you do for them will multiply”
From that, I gather that many options exist for people wishing to help. As I learn more, I will relay any ways we can all help. Because the travesty, although local in nature, represents so much.
The out-pour of international support will, by itself, multiply.
After 35 days walking through some of the most beautiful nature I’ve had the luck of exploring, my journey ended two days ago with my visit to temple 88.
The moments we hold from our past inform and mold the future set out before us.
I’m very excited to be, in the next few days, making my way to Tokyo in order to meet with the many volunteer organizations currently helping in Tohoku. As it looks now, I may be doing a variety of jobs from sorting food to cleaning streets.
My Promise to You
I haven’t had enough electricity to relate all of the exceedingly wonderful experiences I’ve had the chance to be a part of in the last month. Taking a quick look at Project Go, my hike appears to have been a mildly negative experience. I’m happy to report that there is no statement further from the truth. My journey has been so eye-opening, so amazing, and so thought-provoking, it’s hard to put in words. To explain a little, here’s a quick clip from my scribbled journal;
Day 30: When I first started this grueling hike, I couldn’t imagine why anyone sane would ever walk this pilgrimage more than once. In that first week, I met six people who’ve all followed this path 2, 3 or 6 times each. “They must be crazy or really really bored,” i thought. I slowly settled on the latter conclusion for those men and women were much less crazy than me… “They must be bored,” I found myself thinking. A lot has changed. Recounting the pain, the suffering, the laughs, and the awe inspiring beauty of the periless mountains (hills?); there is nothing like this pilgrimage. Everyone you meet flickers into a fit of exuberation upon your arrival. Every person you help smiles gleefully through their pain-stricken knees. Every single person you greet, returns your greeting with multiplied ferver. The love inherent to this quest for truth intoxicates the senses. I see now. Boredom doesn’t push people into this world, love does.
With that, I have a promise to you… All of you. I promise to provide for you, to the best of my ability, an account of the last 35 days through a series of posts detailing all of those heart warming and heart breaking moments as snipets.
I’ll also provide reviews for the equipment I purchased and the equipment I forgot to purchase. I hope it will shed light on the usefulness of certain equipment for those coming up behind me.
Mid-Journey, The Road Ahead
My original plan included the Nakasendo and Tokaido roads as well as Mt. Fuji. As I’ve mentioned many times, I will be changing course to help volunteer in Tohoku. This doesn’t mean I have abandoned the plan. It simply means I will be hiking those roads in the future after the next phase of my life. All of the intentions I have collected up to now, and any more I receive will continue on the journey with me. And with that, I hope to continually move towards the dreams I’ve laid out before me.
I’ll Prove It
Why will I recount the last few weeks? Why am I continuing this blog after I’ve begun the journey? Well, everyone likes a story! More selfishly, I want to attempt to swallow the massive amount of input I’ve had over the last few weeks as well as the weeks to come. Charting the course and slicing it into bite-sized morsels will (hopefully) provide as much entertainment as it passes the time.
Did I achieve what I wanted? Did I prove it, like I planned? Well, I’ll leave you to decide. I’m midway through the journey, however having come this far, I can see the change beginning to take hold. I can see myself begining to resemble the honest picture I want the world to see.
The journey, ever more important than the destination, will prove the possibility of looking off into the distance, measuring the space between, and acting on the dreams we’ve set out before us.
Tomorrow, I will arrive at temple 88 in the early morning. For Shikoku, that will be the end. I’ll spend time looking into the various volunteer opportunities for Tohoku, spend a day or so in Tokyo, then off to Tohoku.
When nearing the end, it’s hard not to contemplate the meaning of that ending
What is Kechigan? Did you get it?
Well… This is the word used to mean you have visited all 88 temples. You’ve ‘kechigan’d, persay. The definition varies from person to person. Some say it means visiting every temple, and some say it is visiting every temple and visiting the first temple you went to once more to make a complete circle.
For me, completing the circle seems to fit the phrase more. However, my goal isn’t to achieve some sort of Medellin of completion. I came here to bring the dreams and intentions of those I love as well as have a chance at living the transformative experience this pilgrimage has to offer.
After tomorrow, I will have done just that. Then I will have a few days to relax while I wait to hear from volunteer organizations. Then a few purchases in Tokyo and I’ll be off once again!
Sadly, this post lacks the eloquence and imaginative language I try to fit into my other posts. My apologies for that. I must type this in a handicap restroom, and the awkwardness of doing so slackens my ability to speak with my heart.
Lol, with that – I’m off to unplug, write and sleep one last time in the beautiful nature of Shikoku!
So what happened?!? Right? I promise to keep everyone updated and I go dark for two weeks. Well, I took a day of rest after temple 38, so it seemed liked the best time to setup blogging from my phone. Wish me luck!
Though we may stumble, we must never forget to keep our chin up and eyes fixed on the horizon ahead
Eyes On The Prize
In the first few days, I was slammed with what felt like a scalding fire directly below my left knee. This was accompanied by a massive amount of blisters and general sunburn. After only the fourth day I had to take my first day off. It was devastating to say the least.
But I fought.
Through the pain I realized nothing comes to those who don’t withstand the tests put before them. My fellow Hikers had many problems that I escaped from easily. My tent is warm at night. My rain gear (North Face Pro Hard Shell FTW!) is excellent, and I had the luxury of two years gym training under my belt. Even with these luxuries i have had to withstand other mishaps. However, I’m always willing to get back on the horse.
When Will We Learn About The Hike??
Well, there are a few answers. (1) You can follow me on Twitter. From there I will update whenever possible. Soon I hope to take more pictures of other people and temples. For now it is mostly small updates on my location. (2) You can keep reading my blog! Please do! However, I must apologize that I won’t have as much time to update it as I will Twitter.
I’m excited to keep moving! I’m soon entering the second half of the Henro portion of my journey. As it continues, I’ll update you on what’s going on, rant about philosophy, and provide some first hand experience for those wishing to follow in my footsteps.