I wake up a little after 5 a.m. and head to Sendai on the day’s first Tohoku Shinkansen Line train, departing Tokyo at 6:12 a.m. The weather in Tokyo is fine. Joggers are doing laps around the Imperial Palace. The cab driver says to me, “It will be hot today.” His prediction makes me wonder if the power supply will be able to cope.

I arrive at JR Sendai Station. My bag is lighter on arrival because I had read through a huge pile of accumulated magazines and in-house materials on the train. I’m on my way to a heliport now. The weather is fair. The sun is strong. I’m flying out of a heliport located on a hill in the green city of Sendai with a volunteer pilot.

My plan was to travel from the Oshika Peninsula to Rikuzentakata on this helicopter. I put on some headphones. The rotor blades begin spinning. The helicopter leaves the ground.

My eyes catch the Yurtec Stadium Sendai below and the Matsushima islands in the distance. Islands covered with pine trees dot the calm sea. Self-Defense Forces (SDF) jets take off from the SDF’s Matsushima Air Base. We fly over a Nippon Paper Industries plant, the Ishinomori Manga Museum, an industrial port and a fishing port on our way to Oshika Peninsula. Hamaguri beach, where we had brought relief supplies during our previous visit to the area for the KIBOW Sendai Meeting, is just below. The helicopter flies above the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant after crossing the Ayukawa beach, known as a longshore whaling base.

I survey the Ohoka Elementary School from high above. Eighty percent of its students lost their lives in the tsunami. There is a mountain right behind the school. They could have survived by running up there, I thought. This area sustained horrendous damage. A sea of water continues to swamp cultivated fields. Some of the residential districts remain flooded. They look like part of the ocean.

We fly on to Minami Sanriku Town. A perfectly level ground with a few reinforced concrete structures comes into view. The sight makes me wonder what I might be able to do about this. Our helicopter reaches the Kesennuma downtown area, after flying over the Kesennuma Motoyoshi district and the Kesennuma Oshima Island. Studying the area from the helicopter, my viewpoint is naturally different from that when I made an overland visit to the same area last month. I see several large ships that have been driven ashore. They look as if they are just lying there nonchalantly.

Our helicopter reaches the sky over Rikuzentakata. A ballpark is submerged in the sea. The sight leaves me speechless. The pilot steers the helicopter west from the coastline to travel across the mountains. The mountains look different from those I had seen on another helicopter flight from Davos to Zurich in February. The mountains here are lush green. We arrive at a heliport in Kanegasaki after flying across the Kitakami Mountains. A local NPO had made this free (fuel charge only) helicopter ride available to me with strong advice. Urged to “survey the area from a helicopter,” I accepted the ride. I hope to apply this experience to something we do in the future.

Leaving the helicopter, I traveled to JR Ichinoseki Station by car. At the station, I joined eight volunteer workers, including Naoko Takahashi of GLOBIS, a Harvard University student, a female singer, a video cameraman, and a local journalist. The nine of us ate a local specialty called sousu katsu-don (a bowl of steamed rice topped with a breaded deep-fried pork cutlet and flavored with Worcestershire sauce) at a Japanese restaurant in front of the station where a GLOBIS IMBA student from the Czech Republic joined us late. This unusual group of volunteers rode a bus together to reach the town of Rikuzentakata.

After a rocky journey of about an hour, we finally arrived at Rikuzentakata. The bus took us to Rikuzentakata’s temporary office on a hill where the city’s planning department manager, a Mr. Kikuchi joined us as a guide. From there, the bus traveled to the town’s former city office, where we had a chance to ask Mr. Kikuchi about the events on the day of the earthquake and the tsunami. “Water reached the third floor of this building,” he recalled. “I ran to the roof for safety. But the water kept chasing me. I managed to survive by climbing up a wall on the roof.”

Our bus visited a coastal area that had been covered with pine trees before the disaster. We saw a pine tree known as the “miracle lone pine tree” in a critical condition there. The tsunami washed away numerous pine trees that had grown in this area, which was submerged as a result of land subsidence.

My impression is that Rikuzentakata sustained more damage than any other area I had visited. The ground is relatively flat here, and because of this the tsunami dealt the town a devastating blow. “Restoration is no good if it means just returning things to the way they were,” said Mr. Kikuchi. “We cannot map out a reconstruction plan because the central government has not announced its policies yet. The government has been moving too slowly.” Certainly, those of us in the private sector find it difficult to act unless national policies are set.

Our bus arrived at a volunteer support center in Tono. This center serves as a relay base for volunteer workers in the coastal regions of the Iwate Prefecture. Volunteer workers from the United States were also at the center. We greeted a Mr. Tada, a deputy chief from the Tono Magokoro Network, and the director of the Iwate Cooperation Center for Reconstruction.

Unexpectedly, the Cooperation Meeting for Reconstruction of Iwate was underway when we visited the center. Close to 20 people who seemed to represent NPOs were exchanging opinions enthusiastically. I felt something might come out of this meeting because all its participants acted based on their own judgment as representatives of their small organizations. I heard one of them say: “Let’s remove our barriers and cooperate in providing support,” I found this impressive.

Many volunteer workers were visiting this center, which offered them space to spread out sleeping bags and spend their nights. I bought a T-shirt that said in large letters, “Iwate Never Gives Up,” and a bottle of muscat soda made by Kanda Vineyard in Rikuzentakata. I prompted my fellow passengers to go back to our bus because I was worried about reaching the venue for the KIBOW Morioka Meeting on time.

The bus traveled a road that cut through green mountains, rolling left and right. The sun was on its way down. Sunlight blazed in from the side windows. We had a diverse collection of passengers on the bus, including a Czech student, a Harvard University student, a video professional, a singer, a journalist (for the Morioka Keizai Shimbun news site), an NPO representative, and some female NPO staff members. I was meeting most of these people for the first time. We traveled to the venue for the KIBOW Morioka Meeting together.

The bus was caught in traffic near the exit for the Morioka Interchange. According to the bus driver and locals, the Tohoku Expressway sees heavy traffic because it is toll-free for certified victims of the disaster. Power failure and water cutoff were the criteria for receiving a disaster damage certificate. Under this rule, virtually every household in the stricken area qualified for the certificate. In my view, this odd policy increased the volume of paperwork and invited traffic jams. I wondered if the bus could reach the venue in time for the meeting, which was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

To my relief, the bus made it to the meeting on time. We put up the KIBOW banner and kicked off the KIBOW Morioka Meeting right on 7 p.m. I opened with my speech. Dai Tamesue, an athlete who had won a medal in the 400-meter hurdles at a World Track & Field Championships, followed me by proposing a toast. The program then moved to group discussions at each table. In the first section, participants talked about what they have done to that point. In the second section, they shared their perception of the current situation and discussed actions they should take in the future. All participants shared summaries of these group discussions at the end.

Sharing what people in his community have done, Mr. Haga of Kirikiri, in the town of Otsuchi, noted, “We would like to live in a way that will not embarrass the victims and those missing. I believe people in the affected areas along the coast are keeping their heads low. But we are not doing that in Kirikiri. We are trying to live positively, trying to live in a way that will not embarrass our families and friends who fell victim to the tsunami.” This statement changed the atmosphere of the meeting.

“Luckily, all my family survived,” reported a woman from a town called Yamada. “But the tsunami destroyed our house completely. Many of my friends lost family members. We have no choice but to live positively. I came to this meeting because it is a GLOBIS-sponsored event. We must develop industry and generate employment. We must train leaders properly because reconstruction will take 10 years. We must revive industry with fisheries, agriculture, and tourism as our foundations. All coastal communities in this area, including Rikuzentakata, Ofunato, Kamaishi, Otsuchi, and Miyako, must develop something that is unique in its own way. They must come up with something special that can be sold to all parts of the world, like shark fins from Kesennuma.”

“NPOs should join forces,” maintained Mikio Yokoji, the representative for an NPO called Green Forest Japan. “NPOs have members who are professionals in their fields of specialization. People in Tokyo should visit sites (disaster areas) first. They should not be swayed by media reports. They should visit sites, understand local needs, and think how they can meet the needs.”

“We should know our limits,” noted Mr. Tada of the Tono Magokoro Network. “We should work together because we are not strong on our own. Many organizations have assembled. They are cooperating as partners or hooking up with each other. We don’t need competition or complacency. Let’s cooperate. Operations in disaster areas are now shifting from emergency support to reconstruction assistance. We would like to find a new way to support reconstruction.”

“I just said that volunteer workers should not compete with each other or feel complacent,” continued Tada. “This might sound like a contradiction, but I want them to compete with each other and feel relaxed at the same time. We badly need effective support from many business people. We must prepare now for a harsh winter. We would like to make solid preparations in time for the winter’s arrival.”

“I’m a martial artist, but I could only watch TV when the earthquake and the tsunami occurred,” remembered Taishin Kohiruimaki, a three-time K1 WORLD MAX champion. “So, I went to a stricken area and started working there as a volunteer. Teru wrote a song about the disaster and made it public. As an athlete, I’d like to inspire people in my own way, too. To do that, I must make a miracle happen.”

“To make a miracle happen, constant preparations are necessary,” asserted Kohiruimaki. “I must treasure nature and work out with pure feelings. To become stronger, I must think about the world, think about Japan, and value my sense of appreciation. Other creatures live on the earth, too. I think we must contribute to the whole earth, instead of just our society. I’d like to fight in a disaster area one of these days.”

Aya Tanosaki then prepared to sing to her own piano accompaniment. “I’ve become an onlooker since the earthquake on March 11, without doing anything or realizing that,” she said. “But there were people around me who did many things. They inspired me to attend this KIBOW Morioka Meeting. I met people who were living straight in a disaster area today. I’d like to sing because that’s what I can do now. ”

“There is a frame of mind that says subsidies and petitions weaken residents of Iwate Prefecture,” cautioned Mr. Ishikawa, who sat in the same table. “They must stand on their own feet and achieve a recovery with their efforts in the private sector.” I agreed with him completely. Participants contributed a wide variety of opinions. The KIBOW Morioka Meeting closed with my words of appreciation at the end. Our discussions moved from the meeting venue to a follow-up reception with the participants.

I rose from my bed at 4:30 the next morning. I was scheduled to meet other volunteer workers at 5 a.m., visit coastal communities in Iwate Prefecture, such as Miyako, Yamada, Otsuchi, Kamaishi, and Ofunato, meet with members of local NPOs, and discuss financial support for their activities. We chose to get up and start the day early because the trip from Morioka to Miyako was supposed to take two hours. As I had done the night before, I put on the T-shirt that says “Iwate Never Gives Up” for my activities on the second day.

The driver filled up the tank in Morioka and drove our bus to Miyako in rain. The coastal areas of Iwate Prefecture were about 100 kilometers away from Morioka. By car, the journey takes more than two hours and involves crossing the Kitakami Mountains. Our bus climbed the mountains, crossed passes, and the traveled down the other side. We kept going in spite of a heavy rain warning.

An earthquake occurred while the bus was in a rest area called “Hei-no Sato.” The seismic center for the quake, registering a weak 5 on the Japanese seismic scale, was off the coast of Iwate Prefecture. The jolt caused the Meteorological Agency to issue a tsunami advisory for the prefecture’s coastal areas. The driver took our bus to the coast, checking the situation on the radio. The morning haze that covered mountains created an air of fantasy. The bus traveled through areas that produce matsutake mushrooms.

Our bus arrived in Miyako City. We saw destroyed houses and stranded boats. The bus drove down a coastal road whose crash barriers had collapsed. The sea was calm and clear along the coastline. The bus entered a mountain soon after leaving the coastal road. It continued traveling on to our next destination, a stone monument said to stand in the Aneyoshi district.

It was time for this self-appointed “good weather guy” to prove his worth. It stopped raining and patches of blue sky began to appear, despite the heavy rain warning issued for the area.

“This is Mayor Yamamoto speaking. I promise you that Miyako will rebuild itself.” Loud speakers used for disaster broadcasting brought this message to our ears when the bus traveled through a small village.

Our bus reached the Aneyoshi district. The tsunami was said to be 40.5 meters high here. It was one of the largest tsunamis ever to strike Japan. The gigantic waves uprooted trees in a beachfront campground and washed them halfway up a mountain. We saw smashed dikes lying on the beach.

Returning to the village of Aneyoshi, we looked for the stone monument. We found the monument by a main road. Words carved on the stone said, “Don’t build houses below this point. The tsunami reached here and wiped out an entire settlement. Guard against the danger of tsunami no matter how many years pass by.” These words saved people in Aneyoshi from the latest tsunami. The stone monument stands in a place more than 20 meters above sea level. The sea was invisible from this location.

According to local residents, the village’s forefathers used surplus donations sent from many parts of Japan to put up this stone monument. Following the lesson carved on the stone, the people of Aneyoshi have built their houses in plots higher up the mountain. These houses sustained no damage on March 11. This episode demonstrates the importance of leaving advice for future generations.

The Aneyoshi district sustained no casualties, but the tsunami reportedly claimed four lives in an adjacent town, including three elementary school pupils and one mother.

As we studied in our social studies class, depressions in the mountains formed deeply indented coastlines. The road was a mountain trail, though it was near the shoreline. We saw piles of rubble as our bus climbed down and approached a bay. Compared with the coastline in Miyagi Prefecture, the mountains looked steep.

The Osawa district of Yamada Town was blessed with beautiful scenery, thanks to its location in the Rikuchu Kaigan National Park. This district is a collection center for oysters. We saw the remains of mercilessly destroyed dikes here and there. But there were also oyster farming beds out on the bay. How encouraging!

The tsunami gave Yamada Town a devastating blow. A local supermarket was under reconstruction. I felt the motivation of the residents. I saw no sign of residences around, but someone has to start doing things in a positive manner. The reconstruction of Yamada will start with this kind of mettle, I thought.

Our bus entered the town of Otsuchi, home to a story called Hyokkori Hyotan-jima. We went to a shelter in the Town’s Kirikiri district to meet Mr. Haga. He was chopping firewood when we arrived.

Haga told us some interesting stories. “Everyone who lost their lives did so by underestimating the tsunami. A tsunami hit this area previously on March 3, 1931. We have been conducting tsunami evacuation drills every year on March 3, but only about 50 residents have taken part in them. No one was killed at the day care center for children where my daughter worked because people there conducted evacuation drills in earnest twice each year. The day care center kept all its important documents safe, too.”

“There were people waving at us from windows when we were fleeing for safety. They seemed to think the tsunami would not reach their houses. We had almost one hour to take refuge after the earthquake. We could keep ourselves safe even though our houses are demolished. All those people could have run for safety.”

“I started this job of making firewood in cooperation with forestry business operators in Osaka and other parts of western Japan after moving into this shelter. I’m picking out usable wood from rubble, pulling nails out, cutting the wood down to the same size, putting it in a bag, and selling each bag for 500 yen.”

I went to see the stock of firewood. Haga recycled plastic rice bags as firewood bags. The bags bore an orange piece of paper, on which was written “Firewood that came back to life.” It described the product precisely.

“People who act big are all thinking about themselves only,” pointed out Haga. “The most important thing is to think about ways for bettering our society, to do things that are positive for Kirikiri and to make people around me happy. I’ll think about myself after doing those things. That’s my way of thinking. This society will definitely change for the better if and when all people think and act in that way.”

After listening to Haga, we walked around the shelter. One of us asked an evacuee the biggest problem he was facing. “Employment” was his reply. Jobs came first, as I had expected. But a great deal of employment has been lost.

I found an open-air workshop for Haga’s “firewood that came back to life” in front of the shelter. The stockpile was in a tent. A bathhouse was set up under a tent next to the firewood storage tent. The shelter reportedly had a public bath that had been supplied by the United Nations. But this facility was said to have been taken away from the shelter because of its complete lack of popularity. “Why,” I asked Haga. “People don’t accept things when they communicate no feeling,” he answered. Giving things is not a solution. The important thing is to sympathize, to communicate feelings, and to work together.

We went to see Kirikiri’s white sand beach. The beach was visible from gaps in the collapsed dikes. The width of this rare and beautiful white beach on the Sanriku coast was said to have been halved. Stagnant puddles lay between the dikes and the beach. Rubble was strewn on the white sand. The name Kirikiri is said to have come from the sound the sand produces when walking on the beach.

Moving to a neighboring town, we viewed Hyotan Island from a port. Police were there, and the atmosphere at the port was solemn. Perhaps, a victim had been found. A drizzle began. “Hyotan” means “calabash” and the island was indeed calabash-shaped. Instinctively, I sang a theme song from an old TV drama called “Hyokkori Hyotan-jima.” I learned that Horai-jima was the island’s official name.

Our bus arrived at the Otsuchi Town Office. We stood there motionless. Rubble was still blocking office windows. We saw nothing but rubble, seared by a fire that had razed the area after the tsunami. The town was oddly quiet. The tranquility enhanced the sense of loneliness further. None of us said anything. Taking the initiative, I urged the group to leave the town with our observations.

Our bus drove into downtown Kamaishi. The streets of Kamaishi were familiar to me because I had viewed them repeatedly on YouTube. The tsunami left merciless scars on a downtown shopping mall. I offered a prayer for its early restoration. The bus traveled through the city’s empty streets, devastated by the tsunami, and took a right in front of Nippon Steel Corporation’s Kamaishi Works. We decided to have lunch at a restaurant called “Ramen Ichiban.” It was almost 1 p.m. already. Kamaishi was renowned for a local variety of high-grade ramen (noodle soup).

From the lunch spot, the bus drove south along the deeply indented coastline. We arrived at Ofunato City, the final destination on this inspection tour of Iwate Prefecture’s coastal regions. The bus passed by Taiheiyo Cement Corporation’s plant and headed to an industrial port in Ofunato. On the way, we saw the head office of Saito Seika, the company that manufactures a local sweet called kamome-no tamago (seagull egg). Sporadic buildings remain in a sea of rubble. The odor of fish remained in my nose.

I saw green mountains enveloped in mist behind the port where large ships were anchored. This fine natural harbor does a disservice to Ofunato by concentrating the power of any tsunami that arrives. But aside from tsunami damages, this beautiful port city must be a great place to live, I thought. I could not help but pray for the early reconstruction of Ofunato.

I returned to Tokyo. Our bus left the deeply-indented coastline and crossed the Kitakami Mountains. After a short drive, we reached JR Kitakami Station. I bowed to NPO Representative, Mr. Sasaki, and boarded a Tohoku Shinkansen train at the station. I admired Iwate Prefecture’s rural scenery from a train window. Green seedlings form neat lines on rice paddies. They looked great against the black farm houses that accentuate them, the green mountains in their background, and the turquoise sky after the rain. Looking at this natural scenery, I could understand why Iwate Prefecture has produced poets such as Kenji Miyazawa and Takuboku Ishikawa.

Starting with the first assembly in Mito on March 25, we brought our KIBOW Meeting to Iwaki on April 12, to Sendai on May 11, and to Morioka on June 22. We will hold the final meeting, the KIBOW Hachinohe Meeting on July 22. The meeting will complete our coverage of all major cities in the five stricken prefectures.

Tokyo Station is just a stone’s throw away. Outside my window, I can see the skyscrapers at night. The logo, “Iwate Never Gives Up,” is on my chest. I shouted in my heart. Harambee, Iwate! Harambee, Tohoku and Ibaraki! Harambee, Japan!

June 26, 2011
Yoshito Hori
Written in Nagoya