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!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

When the Water Reflected the Sun

Yesterday, Jamie and I went on a day trip to Hakone.  Hakone is a breathtaking mountainous area about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo.  I have now been in Japan for two weeks but yestedary was the first time I have left the city.  As much I love the city and its perfection at making everything "convenient," I am so glad I had the opportunity to escape for at least a day to the surrounding countryside!  Hakone is beyond beautiful and is so green!  However, one of my favorite moments was at the end of our hike around the lake.  As we walked across a bridge that connected the peninsula to the main land,  I looked out over the water.  The water was so clear and reflective that the center of lake reflected the clouds and the sides reflected the trees.  It reminded me of some lines from T.S. Eliot's poem, "Burnt Norton," from Four Quartets.
"And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,/ And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,/ The surface glittered out of heart of light,/ and they were behind us, reflected in the pool./ Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty./ Go, said the bird...human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality."
What I saw in Hakone certainly did not feel like reality.  Throughout the day, as we walked around the lake, I felt as if I had entered a divine place, devoid of train timetables, stoplights, and convenience stores.  I felt as if I had a window into a naturally harmonic eternity.  Even now, it is difficult for me to put into words what I felt, but I have always been amazed at poetry's ability to encapsulate feelings, emotions, and experiences in ways that prose fails.

Below is Eliot's poem with pictures from my trip to Hakone that I think can be applied to the poetry.  If you get the chance, read the poem a few times.  Eliot has this magical quality of staying with you.  His words rise to the forefront of your mind, sometimes, when you least expect it.

Friday, June 7, 2013


As I said in earlier post, it was inevitable that I would commit another cultural faux pas at work.  I was a bit late this morning and as I quickly walked in, I said my customary おはようございます (good morning) to my co-workers and hurried into the kitchen to fill my water bottle for the day.  As I came out of the kitchen, I walked by an old man I didn’t recognize (whom I now assume was a visitor or a donor) and one of my co-workers.  I quickly said おはよう to them as I walked back to my desk.  As I began to sit down, I heard my co-worker say かわいい (cute).  As I turned to look at her, she motioned me back over to her and the old man.

She explained to me that in Japan when you are speaking to someone who is older than you, you have to be respectful.  Since both she and the older man were older than me, I could not say おはよう, but I had to  おはようございます (the longer and more polite version).  I apologized the best I could and said  おはようございます to both of them and returned to my seat. What was more embarrassing than being told to say  おはようございます to adults older than me in front of all my co-workers, was the fact that I already knew this, but in my haste to begin working, I forgot. 

This event reminded me that I need to take time to slow down.  In my typical American haste, I offended not only a co-worker but also a potential donor.  This morning was a good reminder that I need to not only put effort into the physical work I do but also into my interactions with others.  In the future, I will do my best to be more conscientious of those around me.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Fireflies in the Night

I am still suffering a bit from jet lag but this morning I woke up even earlier than my usual seven a.m. and began my day around five.  With an encroaching rainy season on the horizon, I am ecstatic every morning when I wake up and look out my window to find one more sunny day.  This morning when I woke up, I opened the curtains and was shocked at how bright it was outside.  Japan is truly the "Land of the Rising Sun," with the sun rising at 4:30 in the morning! However, despite the early sunrise, Tokyo is a bit chilly in the morning and at nights (although it is plenty hot during the day).  It was on a more chilly and windy night than usual that I discovered you can access the rooftop of the building I live in.

As I quickly scaled the access ladder to the roof, I was struck by the multitude of lights all around me.  Tokyo is the biggest city in the world in terms of both population and land area.  It makes perfect sense that I would be bathed in the lights from the neon restaurant signs, the flashing red airplane guides on skyscrapers, or the occasional light left on from a condominium apartment, but the sight still surprised me.  I honestly have never seen so many lights or so much proof of human life before.

I wish I had brought my real camera with me to the roof but all I had was my rented Japanese flip-phone (which is actually pretty neat despite having no touch screen).  The picture above can't even begin to describe what I saw around me but it is proof of that chilly night I stood on the roof of my building, looked out, and was mesmerized by the flashing firefly-like lights around me, so different from the fireflies back home, but somehow still magical all the same.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Dress for Success - First Day of Work

Today was my first day of work at JEN (Japanese Emergency NGO).  Since I have arrived in Tokyo, I have noticed how well dressed everyone is in the city.  All the men and women dress very business-like and I think it is a safe bet that 90% of women here wear heels of various heights.  When I woke up this morning, I wanted to blend in (or at least not stick out) with the workforce so I put on a black pencil skirt, a cardigan, and a pair of heels.  However, when Jamie and I first stepped into JEN, I realized I was in a different office setting than the other people who had ridden the train with me to their respective offices.  Everyone around me was not dressed to the nines with various shapes and shades of black bottoms and white tops but rather their colorfully casual but nice clothing seemed almost symbolic of their grassroot run organization.

JEN has over 400 staff but at their headquarters in Tokyo they only have 20 employees.  The staff members pick their own hours and so throughout the day I saw people arriving and leaving the office.  One of the most difficult things I have found when traveling abroad is how to learn different cultures' societal rules and manners.  In Japan, it is customary to announce to the entire office when you enter in the morning, when you leave for lunch/errands/snacks in the middle of the day, and also when you leave at night.  However, not only are you expected to say a traditional phrase when you exit the office but when other people leave, there is also a response you are expected to say in return.  To say the least, it was very difficult for my jet-lagged muddled brain to sort through the appropriate calls and responses, but I managed with a few mispronunciations and lots of smiles both from me and my new co-workers.

Hopefully, as the summer goes on, my pronunciation of Japanese will become more accurate and both I and my new co-workers will continue to smile together but perhaps over new things besides my, albeit inevitable, cultural faux pas.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Lift Up Your Voice

I think service work/building trips are a very interesting concept.  At the heart of work trips there are two conflicting goals: the work getting done and relational service.  It is a very unique balance of being productive but at the same reserving time to build relationships.  This can be very difficult to accomplish well.  As a junior, I have gone on two other international break team trips with Wesley Fellowship.  Each trip has left an impression on my heart and created relationships that have far outlasted the time I actually spent abroad.  Traveling to Costa Rica, this past winter break was no different;I felt my faith and the faith of my team members grow as we completed relational service with our hosts.

When we arrived in Costa Rica we were very excited about the work we would begin the day after we got in.  However, when we arrived at the church we would be staying at, we discovered that our contact in Costa Rica had a back injury and was unable to move from his home a few hours away. Luckily, our little group of seven had several Spanish speakers so we were able to make new plans with our hosts at the church. Our project changed work locations and our “light” construction crew turned into dry walling an outside three story stairwell (both the inside and outside surfaces) and plastering the third floor. 

The day after we got in, we woke up early to begin working but then discovered that the foreman who was supposed to assist us, quit suddenly. While at first I felt like we were wasting a day trying to find a new foreman, that day became my favorite from the trip. Instead of doing construction work we spent the day with our hosts at the church, walking around town, and sharing our cultures with one another. I speak very little Spanish and our hosts spoke very little English but we still managed to share our thoughts and have fun together. When we found a new foreman, he proved to be an ideal match. It was not only important to him for our group to get the job done but for us to also be learning. He would not only supervise our work but would assist us in the hard parts until we could do it ourselves. Although painting turned into plastering and wiring turned into dry walling, I don’t think I could have imagined a better experience.

As the week continued, we worked with various members of the church and community to help drywall the stairwell we were working on.  As we sweated and served together, we also shared stories with each other.  I learned about and met their families, what led them to join a Methodist church when the majority of their country is Catholic, what they wanted to do in the future, and a lot of, "I will tell you what this object is in English if you tell me what it is in Spanish" game.  

Over the course of the week, we worshiped with the church we were staying at several times.  Every time, I was struck by both the differences and similarities between their service and the services I had grown up attending.  Some of the songs, I recognized their English equivalents but others were completely foreign to me.  While I didn’t understand the words I found myself getting caught up in the passion that surrounded me.  I loved how when it was time for offering everyone in the congregation came and laid something on the alter.  I loved how when we prayed it was never silent.  As the preacher spoke, everyone else whispered their own additions to the prayer.  I could never make up out the whispered words that surrounded me but I could clearly hear the devotion present in their voices.  The words wrapped around me like a blanket and I found comfort in their presence and ambiguity.

When our little team would meet together to discuss our experiences from the day, we often would often spend time retelling our favorite stories and experiences with our wonderful hosts, inevitably ending up laughing all over again.  Often members of the church would wander in during these times and together we would share what the day had meant to us.  It’s hard to say precisely just how my faith was changed by the trip but I think it resides in those little moments: the whispered prayers, carefully being taught to use a drill by our foreman, holding hands with our hosts and team members as we gathered around the table to pray, gentle corrections of my poor Spanish pronunciation, the high fives youth from the church gave me as we finished a game of soccer, and of course the never-ending smiles and laughter from everyone.  

This trip was probably one of the more challenging ones I have been on because of the language barrier; however, I only had to lift up my voice in worship and language suddenly no longer mattered.

Our team members with an Alajuela sign in the town.


Our team members with Julio: our friend, wonderful cook, guide around town, teller of all fruits and vegetable Spanish names, and generally all-around wonderful person.

Part of the stairwell we worked on plastering and dry-walling.