Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Old Men and the Sea

Some of the fishermen who assisted our group
Fortunately, no one died from the tsunami on Ajishima but the lives of those who lived on the island, were irretrievably changed by the disaster.  However, the tsunami only aggravated a problem that all of Japan has been suffering from, a graying population and youth that tend to leave the countryside in favor of the cities.  As cities continue to grow, many villages have been marked as terminal villages (where at least 50% of the population is over 65 and the village is in danger of dying).  Ten years ago a few thousand people lived on Ajishima; however, now, only 400 people live on the island.  Of those 400 people 70% are over the age of 70 and there are only three children on the island who are of school age. In another 20 years, the two villages on Ajishima will likely no longer exist.

Before the tsunami, Ajishima faced similar problems but after the tsunami many people left the island due to difficult circumstances.  For three months after the tsunami, Ajishima was cut off from the mainland and supplies had to be airlifted in.  The power and water lines that ran from the mainland to the island had been destroyed and the dock from which the islanders had fished from in their boats (fishing is the main occupation) had also disappeared under the waves.  Furthermore, there was concern that the fish that comprised most of their diet and their trade were no longer edible due to radiation from the Fukishima nuclear disaster.

The villagers in Ajishima don't want to give up though and they have been working over the past two years to rebuild their homes, trade, and harbor.  To assist with their efforts, JEN organized a group of volunteers to clean up several of the beaches.  Ajihsima used to be known as having the best beaches in northern Japan but after the disaster, most of them have been unusable.  We cleaned up the beaches, weeded the grounds, and planted new flowers to encourage more people to visit this beautiful island.  The fishermen and ladies from the villages worked alongside us to restore their island and on Saturday night together we cooked a feast for everyone.  The meal was almost entirely fish, the fruits of the fishermen's labor.  I can honestly say, I never realized there were so many sea animals you could eat.  I watched the fishermen cut up live octopus, grill sea urchins while their legs were still moving, and scoop meat out of abalone shells; it was some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten.  I am so grateful for the residents of Ajishima for letting us into their lives for a weekend and experiencing a lifestyle that their families have practiced for decades.

Our team :)

Harvesting sea urchins

Receiving directions for the beach clean-up

Beautiful Ajishima!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Where the Flowers Grow

I lean down to pick up a piece of driftwood and a plastic figurine; immediately separating the two pieces in my hands, the combustible wood to the left, the plastic in the right.  As I stand back up and scan the rocks for more debris, I can feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of my neck from the fire behind me.  It was already a hot and humid day but the fire seemed to absorb whatever cool breeze the ocean offered.  I hear the leader of our group yell "yasumi!" (break time!) and I throw the figurine into a pile of plastic, toss the wood into the fire, and walk closer to the ocean.  I stand behind the jagged dark line the waves make as they crash on the shore.  The tide is coming in and I feel the spray of the ocean on my face as the waves reach my toes.  I close my eyes and hear a pound and then a rattling, almost sucking sound, as the water drains away from the rocks.  My eyes are still closed but I hear a women speak next to me, "I can no longer listen to the ocean, it scares me.  Can you hear it as it beats our shore?"

JEN, the non-profit Jamie and I intern at, has field offices in eight countries, including Japan.  The Japan field office is located in Ishinomaki, one of the hardest hit cities by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and the resulting tsunami.  Over 80% of the houses along the coast of Ishinomaki were leveled and 45% of the city was flooded.  The tragedy was further intensified when Okawa Elementary school was completely destroyed and seventy of the hundred and eight students and nine of the thirteen teachers and staff were killed when they attempted to cross a nearby river bridge to reach higher ground, when the tsunami hit the bridge.

This past week Jamie and I traveled to Ishinomaki to volunteer on a beach clean up crew on Ajishima Island, an hour ferry ride out from Ishinomaki.  Then, later in the week, we returned to Ishinomaki to take care of some newly planted flowers.  As we explored the city this past week, the destruction from two years ago was still evident.  As we passed by open lots of land full of weeds, our friends from JEN would explain that these used to be neighborhoods until the tsunami swept them away.  We could still see debris covering some of these lots with half-demolished houses bordering their outskirts.  While a lot of rebuilding has taken place over the last two years and most of the clean-up work is done, it has taken and will take much longer for the psyches of those affected, to heal.  One effort JEN has initiated to reclaim the land devastated by the tsunami is to plant flowers and create parks.  It is their hope that as the scarred land heals and the flowers bloom, the people can see the beauty around them and begin to heal too.  This has not been without difficulty though.  The soil has become salty from the sea and special efforts have had to be taken to identify plants and flowers that thrive in salty conditions.  However, as evident from the picture below, the flowers have bloomed and the land is beginning to recover and, with time, hopefully, the people will too.  

Photo courtesy of JEN

Monday, July 1, 2013

Unreal City

 At times, I have felt like I have entered the "unreal city," T.S. Eliot mentions in "The Waste Land."  Lights, bullet trains, neon signs, cars driving on the left side of the road, and endless endless blocks of office buildings, shops, restaurants, and people.  Tokyo is an interesting mix of the height of technology with a deep acknowledgement of the past.  Everyday, I walk past women dressed in kimonos carrying a parasol in one hand and talking on an iPhone in the other.  Tokyo never ceases to amaze me in terms of the breadth of its eccentricities.  Yesterday, I traveled to Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo bay, and the Meji Shrine, a green oasis  in the middle of the city.  There, I was met by a number of sights that I can only classify as Japanese.  Below are some of the both wondrously new and old, things I saw.

The torii gates at the entrance of the Meji Shrine

At the torii gate entrance

A Shinto service (I think)

The entrance to the Meji Shrine

Similar to performing ablutions in Islam, before you pray at
the shrine you are supposed to wash your face and hands

I saw a host of people dressed up in costumes
 taking pictures in the park in Odaiba

A great example of modern Japanese architecture

Odaiba was full of interesting buildings, this one was
a part of a tunnel for pedestrians to cross the street

A beautiful ferris wheel on the island

Venus Fort: the entire mall has a fake sky and
is lit so it resembles twilight throughout the day

The famous Fuji building: the ball in the center
houses a restaurant and an observation deck

Flame of Freedom: but personally it reminded me of an
organism we learned about in biology called a sea pen

The island even features a replica of the Statue of Liberty

Defies explanation

Just to show you how large the statue was, you can see
an office building and a Ferris wheel in the background

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Singin' in the Rain

On the first day of the rainy season
From even before I arrived in Tokyo, people told me in sympathetic whispers, "Caitlin, do you know Tokyo has a rainy season that lasts from the beginning of June to the end of July? (conveniently, of course, coinciding with my travel dates)  It rains the entire time and it is so humid!" To which I answered with a phrase I am beginning to realize I use more and more frequently, "Remember, I am from the South."

"Bring on the mosquitoes, humidity, summer storms, and scorching weather; its nothing that I haven't experienced before."

Confident in my Southern-life derived ability to enjoy summer irregardless of insects and weather, and still scarred from my decision to pack my big heavy rain boots in my suitcase when I studied abroad in Turkey (of which the six weeks I was there it rained only one day, you can decide for yourself the pragmatism of that decision), I put no value in the kind warnings I had received.  Coincidentally, I did not pack my rain boots or my rain jacket, and on one of my first days here, I lost my only umbrella.

Losing my umbrella; however, was more a blessing in disguise than anything else because it gave me the opportunity to invest in a Japanese umbrella.  You might ask, "what is so special about a Japanese umbrella?"  The question really to ask is, "what isn't special about a Japanese umbrella?"  Small, compact, light, colorful, and available for a few hundred yen about every 100m down a street at a convenience store, the umbrellas available here are not only cheap but as every everything else here in Japan, they are also cute.

The umbrellas here come in all shapes and sizes. Below is my amateur survey of umbrellas across the city.  They get quite the use during Tokyo's infamous rainy season (which unlike the "rainy season" in Istanbul, really does exist here in Japan!).  Enjoy!

A smattering of umbrella styles

Most common: clear umbrellas

The ever popular sun umbrella, as seen on the left

I am always impressed by the people who manage
to match their outfit with their umbrella

Super blurry but equally impressive are the
people who carry groceries, hold an umbrella,
and simultaneously ride a bicycle in the rain.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Lessons Learned

I feel I was very fortunate to be able to attend the annual planning and strategy meeting for JEN this week.  My job was to type the minutes and record the meeting in English but I feel like I got so much more out of the experience than simply typing their conversations.  One of the main reasons I came to Japan in the first place was to see how a large NGO operates.  I have often been on the serving side of volunteer work but I have never really experienced the organizational side of it (or at least not the organization required of an NGO to successfully operate in eight countries as JEN does).

However, one of the most surprising things I have learned, is that irregardless of your organization's size, there are some problems and issues that seem systemic.  Many of the problems that student leadership boards face at Duke, are the same problems that JEN faces here at their headquarters in Tokyo.

Here are some common problems:
  • How do we facilitate communication?--both between the board and the organization, people within the organization, and between the organization and the general public.
  • How do we not overwork our staff or leaders?
  • How can we make advocacy more prominent in our organization?
  • How can we give a name and a face to our organization?

It is amazing how much I have learned just in this week alone.  From the annual conference last Saturday and the strategy meeting this past week, I have learned that confidence is essential to active leadership and that empowerment and communication with group members are essential to an organization's success.  Hopefully, I can take the lessons I have learned to heart and use this knowledge in the coming year at Duke.

Some favorite quotes from the week:
"I have heard that a goal you know how to get to is a goal that is too small to accomplish.  If we know how to achieve something, then that goal is too small."
"I think the goal we are aiming for, is not simply a goal we can achieve, but a goal we want to achieve."
Jamie and I with our supervisor, PR manager, Miyako Hamasaka

Monday, June 17, 2013

Forgetting and Relearning

Growing up in the South,  I told myself that manners in Japan would not be that different from the famous Southern hospitality and old-time manners I was was always surrounded by. I thought I had mentally prepared myself for the inevitable hierarchy of the office space and the keigo (honorific language) used by the service industry. However, immediately upon my arrival in Narita International Airport, I realized the just the extent of my naivety in assuming I would blend seamlessly into a city half-way across the world from my hometown, with 2600 times more people to boot.

Here is a list of some of initial observations of different manners and customs I have seen so far during my trip to Japan.

  • There is no common phrase in Japanese to say "bless you" for sneezes
  • You walk on the left side of the street to be polite instead of the right
  • When you first meet someone you bow instead of shaking hands
  • Although the service industry is very customer oriented, you never pay your bill at your table but rather you walk to the cashier
  • When you enter a house and some restaurants, you always take off your shoes before entering
  • You never place your bag on the floor at restaurants but rather in conveniently provided boxes beside your chair
  • Throwing away trash is a very resourceful but complicated process of separating it into combustibles, incombustibles, and recyclables (each neighborhood also has its own rules for recycling which makes it even more complicated)

Whenever you enter a foreign country there is to a certain extent a process of forgetting old customs and learning new ones. Every day is a part of the continual process of forgetting and relearning only to have the same process repeated on your return trip home. However, while this might be true in a generic sense, as time has gone by, I have realized that while many of these customs are not exactly the same ones as the ones I grew up with, they are not entirely different either. I have begun to find that these culturally specific manners are simply a different vein of a similar intent: to humble yourself and show care to your neighbor always, an admirable aspiration indeed.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Birthday in Japan-land :)

I share an early summer birthday with my mother but since our birthday is during the summer, I only occasionally get to spend it with her.  This year I am in Japan but with the lovely application skype, we were able to spend a part of our birthday together (granted I am thirteen hours ahead of the US east coast so technically while it was our birthday in Japan, it wasn't our birthday on the east coast).

After skyping my family, Jamie and I traveled to Yokohama to meet one of our friends from Duke who lives in Yokohama.  We went to Chinatown and ate lunch at an all-you-can-eat place. Anyone who knows me, knows how much I enjoy food, so you  can only imagine how much fun I had ordering seemingly endless amounts of dishes off the menu.  After eating for two hours, we counted how many plates of food we ate and it was exactly 21 which seemed fitting for my 21st birthday.  At lunch, Jamie also revealed he attempted to bake me a red bean cake for my birthday in a rice cooker, since our apartment doesn't have an oven.  However, it didn't work so he gave me a very cute pop-up card of An-man (a red bean bun anime hero) for my birthday instead.

After lunch we walked to the ocean.  Although you couldn't go into the water, we walked on a path alongside the bay and it was absolutely gorgeous.  We passed by an old amusement park and saw a beautiful old Ferris wheel but decided to ride a really crazy spinning ride instead.  Before we said goodbye to our friend and returned to Tokyo, we went into an arcade and took pictures at a photo booth, to commemorate the day.  Unlike photo booths in the US, there are an enormous amount of options to edit, draw, and write on your photos after you take them.  While the photo booth still spits out a narrow strip of pictures at the end, there is also an option to have the pictures emailed to your phone as well.

Once we were back in Tokyo, Jamie and I went to eat at a very cute pancake place for dinner.  I, again the sweets and food lover that I am, had a monster plate of flower shaped pancakes with mango, pomegranates, bananas, kiwis, mango sorbet, chocolate ice cream, and these really cute colored white chocolate hearts.  My perfect dinner was then followed by a perfect after dinner chamomile tea.

I am so grateful to my friends and family who helped make my 21st birthday one of my best.  Thank you!