Only a week after I returned from my first trip from Shiogama, I returned for a second trip. One trip wasn’t enough for me anymore; I wanted to provide as much power as I could to the relief efforts.
Emotionally, my second time was a lot easier. I definitely wasn’t OK with the pain that these poor victims were feeling, but instead of feeling hopeless about it, I was instead determined to make their lives easier, even if it was a little bit.
Day 1. We headed out to a factory. The factory produces a Japanese snack called Kamaboko, which is this little patty of processed fish. It may not sound very good, but it’s delicious. This kamaboko factory was struck by the tsunami, and, as a result, was covered in sludge. Although our volunteer group had gone there periodically to clean this sludge, there was an unbelievable amount, and apparently it was our 4th or 5th trip to the site. And sure enough, there was plenty of sludge left all over the place. We spent most of our time in the front lawn, digging out sludge and placing them into bags, which we then piled up into a wall. Usual business.
During lunch, the head of the factory brought us freshly baked kamabokos, which were absolutely delicious. I’ve had them cold before, but never warm, let alone fresh out of the oven. And the hard work that we did to earn it made it that much better (as corny as that sounds).
Like during the first trip, I was able to make friends with a lot of people, regardless of age. For the first time, however, I met someone near my age: a first year college student named Hanako, who came all the way from Osaka. I think we were only 2 years apart, which was a welcomed change for me. Of course, I don’t mind spending time with people much older than me at all, but it’s still nice to meet someone with similar ideas and views. Sadly, Hanako left that day, but we exchanged contacts and still occasionally talk. It’s really nice, considering I didn’t even think about making friends when I first came.
I forgot to mention how horrendous the odor of sludge is. It’s probably twice as bad as the odor that comes from a dumpster in New York City. It’s pretty hard working under those conditions. Not to mention that it’s extremely hot and humid. I’m fine, but I sometimes worry about the elderly volunteers that work as hard as I do. Most of the time, they all know how to take care of their bodies, so there weren’t any incidents, luckily.
After we got back to the base, Kamachi-san (the head volunteer) pulled me aside, and asked me to help him with another task. Although it was way past 4PM, the time we usually stop working on any requests, I agreed, and we all piled into the Caritas van and headed out to the site.
Our client was a very elderly man named Mr. Oota. His apartment was flooded by the tsunami, and although the damage wasn’t too significant, the sludge attracted a large amount of flies into his room, where they have taken residence. Because of this, he decided to move next door, to another apartment where the tsunami miraculously didn’t hit. Unfortunately, two things prevented him from making the move alone: his broken back, and his wife, who had Alzheimer’s disease.
The job, moving furniture from one apartment to another, wasn’t hard. However, my heart broke for Mr. Oota, who had attempted to start the move alone. I was so taken aback when I learned that his back was broken. How the hell do you walk with a broken back, let alone move furniture while taking care of a bed-ridden grandma with Alzheimer’s? It was absolutely mind-boggling, and I wanted Mr. Oota to be as comfortable as possible. I returned to our base with thoughts swirling in my head. I was determined to make the most of my time here again.
Day 2. The job for that day was ripping off the floors of a small house, and shoveling out the sludge underneath. The work was pretty standard, except that it was the first time in my life using a crowbar. It was hard at first, but once I got the technique down, I was ripping off floors left and right, and we breezed through the work.
Since we finished so early, we were able to regroup with the other group, who had gone to another job. At this point, we were limited to a very small number of people. It was a Tuesday, and most people were either at work or at school, so not many people were available. Because of this, however, we were able to finish up smaller jobs. One of them was getting rid of the weeds that grew in the parking lot of the church we were staying at. Since our group was borrowing the church as our base of operations, it was important that we took good care of the place.
Day 3. I got up at 5AM this morning, to go sightseeing for a little while. Yoshida-san, a person I met the day before, took me to see Shiogama Shrine. Although I don’t follow Shintoism, I wanted to see some Japanese culture. I did cast a prayer, asking for the speedy recovery of Shiogama. Hopefully, someone will answer me, and this mess will go away quickly.
Once we got back to the base, we found out that our job was at Katsurashima, an island that I also visited on the last day of my previous visit. I was excited, since I wanted to see if things were any different, and also because of the boat ride. Sure enough, we all ended up playing with the seagulls again.
And sure enough, little things had changed on the island. The victims who had lost their homes, and had no choice but to evacuate to the elementary school on the island, all had moved out of the school. All victims had safely moved into a temporary shelter, and the school was returned to its original purpose. Although I don’t think school was in session just yet, I’m glad that life is returning back to normal, one step at a time, for the residents of this island.
I also noticed a new contraption that had been built. It was a water pump that was draining the water that flooded the middle part of the island. Slowly, the lake of water that had formed where houses once stood was disappearing. Slowly, the island was progressing.
Our job that day was to clean the beach on the island. There was an unbelievable amount of garbage on the shore, including boats, shipping containers, and other large pieces of debris. We weren’t able to do much that day; instead, we soaked up the reality of the tsunami. The damage was absolutely catastrophic. Even though it was my eighth day overall in Shiogama, it was still hard sometimes to accept it.
Afterwards, we also visited Shichigahama, another city by the shore that was devestated by the tsunami. The sights I saw were eerily similar to Ishinomaki and Onagawa, the cities I visited on the second day of my first trip. The city was unrecognizable, with nothing but garbage everywhere. It was difficult to swallow. I can’t explain it, but there’s a large difference between seeing some footage on TV, and visiting the site of the disaster. You can feel the horror in the air.
Day 4. Our job today was to go to a new island called Sabusawashima, an island that’s located even more offshore than Katsurashima. There, our task was to clear out an old house filled with garbage and debris.
Just as I was getting ready for the long trip, however, Kamachi-san pulled me aside again and gave me a different task. He wanted me to return to Mr. Oota’s apartment, where I helped out on my first day, and help him settle into his new home. Although I was extremely reluctant, since I had heard stories about Sabusawashima, and was ecstatic about the opportunity to go there, I didn’t complain. I came here to help people, not to sightsee.
I was paired with Miyazaki-san, a woman from Osaka who I had gotten to know very well the past few days. We became so close that I started calling her “Okan”, or “Mom” in Kansai-Ben, a type of Japanese accent. It may seem weird, but she actually treated me as if I were her son. And when you’re in such a sensitive place, sharing opinions and frequently mourning together, it’s hard not to become close to someone, no matter the age difference.
Anyways, Kamachi-san sent her with me to handle any fragile things, such as tableware and china, while I handled the heavy things while making Mr. Oota comfortable, since he already knew me from Monday. The job itself wasn’t too hard, since it was just unpacking boxes and cleaning. What was hard for both me and Okan, however, was dealing with Mr. Oota. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for the old man, who’s so weak physically, yet has to take care of his bed-ridden wife, and has to deal with the aftermath of the tsunami. And even after all of the obstacles life throws at him, he simply continues with his life, overcoming everything and trying to return everything back to normal. It’s not everyday you see someone so determined that he walks on a broken back.
We felt absolutely horrible when he ordered us ramen, or Japanese noodles, for lunch. The food was absolutely delicious, of course, but I felt extremely guilty receiving such an expensive meal from a man who lives on a miniscule pension. Usually, I leave the site of a request satisfied, happy that I was able to help someone out. That day, both me and Okan left guilt-ridden and powerless. No matter how much we help Mr. Oota, it’s impossible for us to fix his bad back, or magically cure his wife’s Alzheimer’s.
Though my time at our first request felt extremely long, we got back to the base at around noon. The group that headed off to the island were a long way from coming back, so we decided to tackle some other minor requests that were left unattended. First, Ogawara-san, the veteran volunteer that usually handles the housework within the base, told us about an elderly lady who injured her leg in the tsunami, and therefore couldn’t do any heavy labor. So me and Okan headed out to this lady’s house, and did some chores to help her out. When I heard the gratitude in her voice, my previous guilt from Mr. Oota seemed to have disappeared. This time, I felt like I had regained the power to help again.
Next, Ogawara-san told us about another lady with some kind of disability, who needed help washing out some old duckboards. The duckboards were originally used for her and her husband’s hot spring business, but they apparently closed because of the damage done by the tsunami. I don’t know the specifics, but it was tragic nonetheless. Small businesses received the most damage from this natural disaster—larger businesses may have other branches and money left over to rebuild, but smaller businesses pretty much have nothing but a mess to clean up.
Anyways, we used large brushes and a hose to wash out three large duckboards, which we placed in a small storage area inside the woman’s house. The woman had difficulty expressing her gratitude, struggling to put together words, but I could tell that she was relieved. It was a good feeling.
Once we got back to the base, we still had time. So, me and Okan decided to do our home a favor, and clean up a bit. We wiped down all the floors, windows, walls and doors, and finally unclogged the sink outside. It turns out that the drain was stuffed with sludge from people washing their boots and clothes. It also explained the odor that people had been complaining about. I stuffed the sludge into a bag, and the problem was solved.
At last, the rest of the group returned from the island, and our day was over. However, I couldn’t help but feel empty inside. I still felt bad for Mr. Oota. I felt so bad that I decided to head back to his house and help him take in the laundry that I had hung out in the sun to dry earlier. Just as I went to go get ready, however, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was Okan, and apparently she was feeling the same thing I was. She asked if we should head back to his house. I told her we get each other, like mother, like son. We laughed.
So we jumped onto bikes and pedaled down back to where we started this morning. Unfortunately, we returned to our base sadder than before. Mr. Oota had gone out, presumably to the hospital, and once again, we were powerless to help him. Forget being sad; I felt downright pathetic.
Luckily for me, the fates had something in store for me to life my mood. 4 newcomers showed up to our base that afternoon, and one of them was a high schooler: the first fellow high schooler I met while volunteering. Her name was Marina, and she became the first real friend I ever made in Japan. Eventually, she would go on to be my best friend in the motherland.
What would a normal guy do when a cute girl walks through the door? So I went over and introduced myself, and we immediately hit it off. I met the people who came with her: her mother (who I also ended up calling “Okan”, go figure), her friend Take-chan, and his friend Higuchi-san. They were an energetic group, always laughing, and sure enough, I ended up becoming just as energetic and happy. What a far cry from just an hour ago.
After dinner and our daily meeting, the group invited me and a couple others to go to a local restaurant. I got to know my fellow volunteers even better, and it was a lot of fun. We all need these breathers sometimes, especially when in such high-stress situations such as these.
I fell asleep extremely happy that night. Little did I know that that was all about to change the next day…
Day 5 coming up next.