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