Day 4 with Project Tohoku in Ofunato

Today I was with a group that headed to Rikuzentakada, a city about an hour away from Ofunato by bus. The group has been working on cleaning rice fields of debris and digging out ditches along the rice fields.

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The city itself sustained far more damage than Ofunato. Unlike Ofunato, Rikuzentakada seems to have a more gentle slope from the coast up to the mountains. The tsunami pushed everything off the coast up into the rice fields that slowly rise into the mountains.

The bus dropped us off at the rice fields and we could see the coast in the distance. Four lights from a baseball stadium stood out against the water. One of the All Hands staff members said that the stadium had just been finished, and now all that remains are the lights and the concrete parts of the building. That was all we could see.

Most of our team moved into the rice fields to start picking out debris. Two members and myself worked on digging out the last of a ditch that they began yesterday. As with the other ditches, we had to pry off the concrete lids, dig the soil out, and then put the lids back. The contents were sandier than the area in Ofunato, and there was less debris. The work went relatively quickly, and we finished up in time for lunch. The group working in the rice field ran into an area covered with oil and raw sewage, so they had to abort their final field before lunch. There are some areas that need a lot of attention, and All Hands is not equipped to handle everything unfortunately.

After lunch, we moved to a different area of the city with safer fields, and the bus drove us closer to the coast, giving us a full picture of the damage. All the buildings along the coast are gone except for one western building, which is a museum. Even it took massive damage. There was a giant hole through the middle.

While the rice fields were in bad shape, it looked like they had already had some work done. There were big treadmarks on the soil, and all the immense pieces of metal had been stacked in different areas. There was still tons of debris, and we collected as much as we could into piles of wood, metal, and other. After work, the team leader commented that she just had to turn off while working, otherwise she just focuses on every item that she sees…there are so many personal items spread out over the field.

The lesson of the day is always check the free box. Because this is communal living and because there are constantly people leaving and joining Project Tohoku, the common areas have a healthy set of free boxes – boxes of food, clothing, hygienic supplies, etc. Last night, really just for fun, I tried on a pair of neon yellow plastic overpants. They were a little too small, but I remembered them this morning when I noticed it was drizzling outside. I threw them in my bag at the last second and was lucky to have them. It rained or drizzled most of the day, and the overpants kept my jeans relatively wet and dirt-free. So thank you, whoever left this pair of pants behind. They really came in handy. I’m going back tonight to secure the matching overjacket.

(I think I’ll post pictures when I get back to Tokyo. I’m exhausted most of the days when I return, and resizing pics on my netbook isn’t as easy as on my other laptop. I haven’t taken too many photos either because I’ve spent most of the time working, but I will post them retroactively later.)

Updates – pictures:

The coastline through the bus:

The photos from Rikuzentakada don’t accurately capture how complete the destruction is there. The whole coastline was wiped out.

Here are some pictures from inside of Sakari Base, including the job board, dinner, and the common area:

Katrina and the Quake

A month after I arrived in Japan on the JET Program, Hurricane Katrina hit my hometown New Orleans. I had been placed in Nishiaizu, Fukushima Prefecture, a small town of 8000 people nestled in the mountains on the northwestern edge of the prefecture. My supervisor told me it would probably be okay to go back to the U.S. and help out if I needed to, but what could I do? A good portion of the city was under water, and my family had already evacuated to Memphis. I stayed and watched from afar.

At night I drank beer, watched CNN, and wrote angry Livejournal posts wondering why the O’Brien family of journalists had exchanges like these on international television:

Soledad: Clearly something is burning off in the distance.
Miles: It’s still burning. Clearly no sign of it being put out.


And now, nearly six years later, I find myself in the same position. I moved back to New Orleans last summer, so I’ve been forced to watch news from abroad and trace the paths of friends in Japan from Facebook status updates and Twitter feeds. Apparently, the journalists from outside are bad and the government response is slow, just like in New Orleans.

However, I’m confident that Japan will recover because I’ve realized that Japan is, secretly, just like New Orleans. They both pride themselves on the strangeness of their culture, they both eat really weird things, and they both love to drink beer outdoors. More importantly, they are both geographically exceptional; New Orleans was founded on the soft alluvial deposits of the Mississippi River Delta and Japan on the intersection of tectonic plates. If New Orleans can recover (and it has), then surely Japan can. Chin up, Japan.

The other reassuring part about being in New Orleans is that I’m in more of a position to help. Japan has a special place in its heart for New Orleans, as evidenced by the $44 million in aid it provided after Katrina. I don’t think New Orleans will approach that amount, but we can certainly try.

A consortium of Japan groups here in town has banded together to create the NOLA Japan Quake Fund. We raised over $8000 during our first day online, and that was without the assistance of any events. There will be a number of events all over town, so please follow @NOLA4Japan to keep up with the latest information. I’ll probably be broadcasting the information on my own feed as well.

Based on the response we’ve already had, we’re hoping to raise a good chunk of change – something approaching $100,000 if not more. This isn’t an impossibility. We already have many different groups who want to contribute to the fund. I’m involved with two in particular: Saturday, April 2 will be “Drink For Japan” at Avenue Pub, and on Sunday, April 10, Rock n Bowl will be hosting a celebration of prominent local bands that feature Japanese musicians – it’s going to be an all-start lineup, so be on the lookout for more information.

Please spread this info as widely as possible, especially if you are in the New Orleans area.

Kyoto Doughnut Plant

On my recent trip to Japan, I stopped by Kyoto and stayed with some friends I knew from Fukushima. Before I got on the train back to Tokyo, I picked up some doughnuts at the new Doughnut Plant in the Yodobashi Camera a few blocks from Kyoto Station.

As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Doughnut Plant in Japan. This time I managed to pick up the super rare 限定 Houji-cha doughnut that is only available in Kyoto.

Unfortunately it was very disappointing, especially after I had a fantastic Houji-cha latte at Starbucks (also only available in Kyoto). The doughnut had very little Houji-cha flavor. I really couldn’t taste the difference between it an a regular glazed doughnut. The carrot cake doughnut, however, was amazing.

Although this feels a little unfair, no? Is it legal to shape carrot cake into a doughnut and call it a doughnut? I guess so. Doughnut Plant shows off their expertise by threading cream cheese icing through the middle. Very nice touch.

And to top everything off, the weather was clear enough to see Mt. Fuji from the train.