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8 posts from July 2012


Japanese Matsuri Fun and Bittersweet Nostalgia

I can't believe I'm already leaving Japan in less than a week! It frightens me  to think of all the amazing things and all the fantastic people I'll be leaving behind here, but I do know that the bonds that have been made that were the most important will somehow end up lasting despite time and distance. My former host families from here have certainly proven that to me with how wonderfully we've kept in touch and how we continue to meet even though they've had many homestays after me!

Today I got to go to a matsuri (festival) in Harajuku with one of my old host families and three of their current homestay students, and it was really fun for all of us! It was a more local matsuri where everyone participating was from the immediately surrounding neighborhood, so everyone knew each other there and it felt very safe and comfortable.

I brought my former host sister a stuffed animal panda--her favorite animal--from China as a souvenir! It was wonderful being reunited and getting to put on yukata together!


Before the Matsuri my former host mother had me come back to their apartment and dressed me in one of her old yukata (summer robe) and gave me geta (traditional shoes) to wear and even did my hair for me with some of her hair pieces!



Delicious yakisoba being made!



Me and my former host mom eating kakigori (shaved ice)! Mine is matcha and peach flavored!


A traditional yosakoi dance performed by Harajuku's special team.


After the yosakoi performance, other performers came out doing more familiar and less complex dances that everyone could feel free to participate in! The other homestay girls and I jumped at the opportunityーwe even did AKB48's "Heavy Rotation," a dance that I already know from my circle at Sophia University!



A group photo of me, two of the current host girls, my host mom, and my adorable little host sister.


I love you, Japan, and will be back soon. <3



Summer Festival with SISEC!

At Sophia, there's a club known as SISEC, and it's purpose is to give foreign students along with Japanese students a chance to interact. It's been an amazing experience, full of opportunity, and I've personally made some wonderful friends through the club. I'm going to miss them all dearly. 


One Sunday, the executive members of SISEC planned a summer festival! I've only been to a few smaller festivals, but this felt like the real deal to me- everyone wore yukata (a summer version of a kimono), there were traditional snacks and games, and they even put on a haunted house!


We also made shaved ice (aka snow cones)- delicious! 


We played a few games. In one of them, you have a paper clip attached to paper, and you have to use it to catch these water-filled balloon yo-yos; of course, the yo-yos are floating in a pool of water, so your paper string eventually breaks. It was a lot fo fun and actually pretty difficult to get more than one or two!

Afterwards we went on a 2 hour cruise of Tokyo bay! There was a ton of delicious food and drink on board, and the views were gorgeous! We passed Rainbow Bridge and we could see Tokyo Tower and Skytree. 

The last event of the semester was a blast. It was very bittersweet, though- it's so hard to say goodbye to all these amazing people!

If you are a potential student who wants to come to Sophia, JOIN SISEC! So many foreigners didn't join because they thought they would only be interacting with fellow English-speakers; however, the Japanese students easily outnumbered us 10 to 1. You are given the opporunity to make friends and interact with people who WANT to befriend you, and are willing to work through any troubles you might have using your second language. They are all amazing, and I cannot wait to come back and visit them!


Visiting old friends in Nagoya

Over the weekend before finals got too rough, I had the opportunity to go to Nagoya in Aichi prefecture. During my high school years, I helped to start a sister-school relationship with another high school in Toyota (outside of Nagoya), and throughout that time I hosted 3 students and stayed with 2 of them, so I had 3 families I wanted to see. 


My oldest friend, Chiharu, who I have now known for over 6 years, offered to let me stay in her house with her mother and sister. So, for a weekend, I bought a shinkansen, packed a bag, and headed to Nagoya!


I first had reservations- should I go visit everyone? It's so expensive to travel, what if things are akward since it has been so long..... honestly, they were the most ridiculous thoughts. I am so, so thankful for Chi's hospitality and the opportunity to visit my friends. After all, who knows when I will be back??


Friday night I met up with my second student, Miho, for dinner and some window shopping. She's a busy third year student in the lacrosse club, but she managed to make time for me! We ate miso-katsu, which is a local dish in Nagoya,  comprised of fried pork cutlet with a sauce made with miso and sugar (mostly). It is AMAZING, and if you ever go to Nagoya, PLEASE EAT IT. It might be my favorite dish in all of Japan. Seriously. 

After the necessary purikura, or picture booth session, we parted ways and I met back up with Chi, who drove me about 25 minutes to her house. (Distance is so relative- I couldn't believe how far she was from the metro station!)

Saturday Chi and I visited Toyota Minami High School, where she was a student and I visited twice as a member of the sister school program. She said afterwards that it was a little awkward and unusual for people to come back to school and visit, but because it was Saturday and most teachers weren't around, they were okay with us walking around (with a chaperon). I stumbled across a very old photo from 6 years ago hanging on the wall, of the first exchange ever- when Chi came to visit Texas! Afterwards we went to this amazing Japanese restaurant. They served traditional style set meals.  

We went back home for a short break (during which I met her sister-in-law and niece and nephew). Then we left to go to a store in town primarily used for kimono shopping, dressing, and other preparations for the coming-of-age ceremony when girls turn 20. At this shop, Chi and I got to use an old-school spool and essentially make a coaster; however, we got a feel for the boring qualities of the job, and the employees showed us the string they used to make kimonos with- it would have taken weeks to make an entire kimono in those days! 

At the store we also saw some gorgeous jewelry and browsed through kimonos, and I was forced to try one on. I treated it like my own miniature ceremony.

That night, the sister-in-law and her kids came back for a takoyaki party! Takoyaki is really similar to okonomiyaki- cabbage, a flour-based mixture to hold everything together, a few other ingredients- however, it is ball-shaped and has octopus inside. This was my first time making takoyaki, so it was so much fun! I love to cook and bake, and I definitely want to buy a takoyaki tray now!

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Afterwards, Chi's older sister joined us in a nail-painting party. Her sister wants to be a professional nail artist, so she did my nails, and they were so gorgeous!  

Sunday, my last day, Chi's mother treated us to the breakfast service at a popular local restaurant. We had delicious coffee, toast, and eggs before they saw me off at the station. It was so heartbreaking to leave them, they truly are my second family halfway across the world, and their hospitality is second to none. 


When I got to Nagoya station, I met up with the mother from my third host student, Aiko- she is currently studying abroad in Canada, so I couldn't see her. I met with Aiko's sister and mother, as well as 3 other mothers from the exchange program. I was SO surprised! I remembered everyone's faces, but they ALL remembered me, and we so excited to get to see me (even if it was only for an hour).  They treated me to (more) coffee and cake, and every single one of them bought these tickets so they could come up to the shinkansen platform with me to see me off and help with my luggage. 

They presented me with a cute package full of snacks and a gorgeous headband, and even bought me so cold water for the trip. I boarded the train, and they followed the windows to my seat, where they didn't stop waving/making hearts/sending me kisses until I was out of sight. I think I was crying the entire 1 1/2 hour trip back to Tokyo!


The people I met during my trips in high school never stop surprising me with their kindness. These families are amazing people, and I am so thankful for their friendship and the ability to keep in touch with them. It's made me realize how hard it is to network and make friends and families in our global world- if I'm in America, I miss my Japanese friends, but when I'm in Japan, I miss my American friends. I'm not sure how I'm going to deal with my emotions when I return (soon) to the states, as being here for nearly 5 months during school I've made so many amazing friends.


I guess I'll just have to come back to see them again, won't I? (:  


Last Days

Well it's down to the last couple days here in Tokyo, so I thought I would write a quick blog post about how I plan to spend it. Thankfully, I have about a week left in Japan, as I'll be heading back to Okayama before I go home to the US, but I leave Tokyo on August 2nd... :( This is officially my last weekend of this amazing study abroad experience I've been wonderfully priviliged to have. 

So, what do I plan to do? Unfortunately, I'm one of the [un]lucky few to have three final papers to write (I had two final exams too! The world is not fair), so that will definitely take up a good chunk of my weekend. A 10-page paper for Regional Security, 12-page paper for Japanese Government, 3-page (okay, don't laugh-- it's hard to write three pages in Japanese, especially about a societal issue like suicide when your sources have to be in Japanese) paper for Japanese.... ahh. Sad weekend up ahead. But I'm trying to make it a little bit better. Such as....

I'm going to Disney Sea again!! Disney has this great after 5 discount, where its 3,300 yen to enter the park after 5 pm. I'll be doing that today(: I'll get to see fireworks, which I'm excited about. What's a summer in Japan without fireworks?

On Saturday, I have one last circle activity with SPH, the AKB imitation group I joined. We'll be doing some yearbook photos and one last presentation? I think, haha. Then I'll be going to my synagogue to say my goodbyes, followed by a nice nomikai with some CIEE program friends!

Though I may not be in the best state of productivity Sunday morning, my plan is to crank out those three papers I have to write, as well as complete some last minute shoppping for myself and friends back home! I also have to buy omiyage (gifts) for people here who have been super hospitable to me.

Monday is more crunch time paper writing, because I want to get them all done before Hakone on Tuesday!! And Wednesday will be time for goodbyes before everyone leaves Thursday....

Goodbyes are always hard, and I'll definitely miss all the amazing friends I've made here. Sure, I miss plenty back home and I've had my share of homesickness, but right now it's hard to think about anything except how much I'm going to miss everyone :( It's been a wonderful four months!!




Sharing Tokyo<3

My sister came to visit me!! For five days, I got the wonderful opportunity to show my sister around Tokyo, and it was absolutely so much fun. My sister and I, though she's about three years younger than me, are super close, and I honestly had been really missing her during the months in Japan. Especially with the time difference, it's harder than ever while here to keep up with family. So it was really nice to be able to be with her again, catch up, and show her my life here.

Wednesday I have no classes-- one of the weird but wonderful aspects of Sophia's course scheduling-- so she and I went to Tokyo Disney Sea for the day!! My grandmother had free tickets because she apparently holds stock, so we got to get into the park for free. It was kind of crowded because a new Toy Story ride had opened up (we didn't get to ride it!! the wait time was over 3 hours long and there was way too much other stuff to do and see), but so much fun nonetheless.


My cute sister and me(:



The insanely popular Toy Story ride!



Some Disney Sea performers




The following day I had classes!! Thankfully, I have a wonderful friend who didn't (she ends early), so she graciously took my sister to the Tokyo National Museum. My sister is usually into art, but both found the museum old and dusty, so headed instead to the Ueno Zoo. Unfortunately they learned there that one of the baby pandas had died that morning!! But they had fun, despite the mourning.

I also took my sister to a bunch of food places (Yakiniku, Kaiten Sushi, Kebabs, Crepes, Indian...) and my favorite shopping sites. She had literally come to visit me in order to shop, so we hit a TON of stores! She's a cheapskate like me, so we mostly hang out in the sale sections of H&M, Forever, and Topshop (they had some crazy 80% off sales going on)... as well as some thrift stores in Shimokitazawa. We toured Harajuku for fun too(:

I headed up with my sister to Osaka to drop her off before her flight with the rest of my family from Japan back home! They were spending the night before a flight the next morning, so I had the chance to spend a day with my mother, grandmother and other sister too~ We decided to spend the afternoon at a small zoo.... WHERE I GOT TO FEED A SLOTH.

Sloths are almost my favorite animals. After bunnies and turtles.


I also got to hold an armadillo, feed some squirrel monkeys, and feed some giant capibara. I really don't understand the appeal of the capibara. They're kinda scary. 



My mom got a little scared of the capibara too

 I was sad to say goodbye to my family, but I'll be seeing them in a couple weeks! As much as I love Japan, home is home<3


Hakone: Story of Onsen

I spent the weekend in Hakone. It was great. I had hardly any homework (gotta love having finished all your major projects), so it was a weekend of relaxation, kicked off with 3 hours of staring into space while waiting in the CIEE Study Center for everyone else to get out of class b/c I was too tired to move. 


We left campus around 3 pm on Friday, and got to Hakone that evening, checked into the inn and immediately bathed naked together in the indoor onsen downstairs (gender-segregated, of course.) That was my first onsen experience. Luckily, it was only the five of us the first night, and since it was just the three of us guys in the men's onsen, I didn't have to cover up my tattoo. Because tattoos are most often connected to the yakuza (like a Japanese mafia), people view them a lot more negatively here than in the States. I don't know if they were ever really connected to criminals, or at least any famous criminals (aside from Mike Tyson's Maori face tattoo), but mostly to bikers. Now, they're becoming more of a fashion statement, and we see a lot more types of tattoos. I explained this to my host family in April when the topic of yakuza scalp tattoos came up at dinner. I don't know why it never occurred to me that my tattoo might be an issue at public onsen. 


We discovered a hill outside the convenience store shrouded in mist. It appeared as if from a magical land, like Brigadoon. So we attempt to conquer it. We got a good 5 minutes in before the trail ended and we have to turn around. Also, we had other plans. 

The first night, the three of us guys decided to make a conbini run ("conbini" = "convenience store"), for some dinner food to eat in the room. It was balmy outside (anyone from NC knows what a balmy summer night is: warm, humid, buggy...but dark), and there was fog galore. We didn't want to change out of our yukata (provided in the rooms for the onsen), so we slipped on our shoes and entered the darkness like three hapless, modern-day samurai looking for sandwiches. I am reminded of the Meiji Restoration, when Comm. Matthew Perry threatened to attack Japan if the nation didn't start trading with the States, and as a result, for the next few years, samurai attempted to attack the American sailors and traders now living in the Japanese ports.*

*Samurai comparison not mine.



You know how hard it is to walk in yukata? Oh, the ankle chafing.

The few street lights on the way to the conbini (rather, the three streetlights in the entire city) combined with the fog and mist, created light effects never before imagined.

Too bad I left my camera in the inn.


After our little adventure, it was time for some real exploration. We took a bus to the ropeway, and then flew right over the mountains! What a feat of extraordinary skill!

We rode over the top in a box.

I did this three years ago with my parents. I love discovering things that I had forgotten about from the first trip. Maybe next time I'm in Japan, I'll end up in Saitama again.


In the ropeway station, before we made our final transfer, we found black boiled eggs. They dip them in hot springs on top of the mountains and the water turns the shells black and lightly cooks the yolk and whites. Japanese eggs are amazing. Often, with ramen, you get brown hard boiled eggs that taste like no egg I've ever had has ever tasted. Amazing. American hard-boiled eggs aren't even a proper match. 


We're in Goura now, looking for the Hakone Open-Air Museum and the water park (both covered in the next post). Ajisai have been blooming for the last few weeks, replacing the sakura that closed up in May. You can find them in a wide range of colors: white, cream, pink, peach, orange, blue, purple, sunset, and more fake colors that I'm naming for fun. The Goura station had ajisai softcream. 


Way back in November, while reading blogs about Japan to find things to do, I stumbled across an article or blog post about this, the Hakone Open Air Museum ("Sculpture Woods,") so I added it to my "may want to do if possible" list. As I mentioned before, I came to Hakone 3 years ago with my parents, but I'm geographically inept and paid little to no attention on the trip there, so I had no idea how long it would take to get to Hakone. My friends went earlier in the semester (on a date, which means smoochy-smoochy in the rain, and me having to put up with "ooh, this is where we kissed last time," all weekend), and mentioned they'd like to come back as a group. So we followed all the required protocol for such situations (created a Facebook event page), and started discussing things to do. I mentioned the museum, then immediately forgot I had mentioned it (I have a selective memory.)

It was some of the strangest, most interesting, most emotion-inspiring, and most beautiful artwork I've ever seen. We couldn't possibly see everything in one day. The photo immediately above is of a sculpture near the entrance called "The Crying Angel," and the bust was set in a reflecting pool. For more pictures (not mine) of the museum, here's the Flickr page (which soon will have to put up with my photographic attempts.) 

After a few minutes, we came upon the edge of a forest in the middle of the museum, and got separated. As I am wont to do, I wandered off, crashing through the bushes like an idiot (read: politely following the trails and bridges until I had walked them all), stumbling through the cob webs (looking at them from afar, paralyzed by fear of spiders), and discovering sculpture like none I've ever seen before (Roman nudes and Buddhist statues that you can see in many other places.)

There was art by modern Japanese artists, artists from other countries, and even things from various time periods. At the base of the hill coming down from the entrance was the Picasso Pavilion, a church-like building containing works from throughout Picasso's lifetime. I've never seen his work up close. It was mind-blowing. Now, if I could just visit the Rothko Chapel, I'd be a happy camper. Mark Rothko's work is some of my favorite.


These works of art inspired in me many a feeling. The star-shaped labyrinth made me feel as if I were a character in Wonderland; the woods evoked an ancient jungle in my soul; the underground passages a sense of "will I make it out of here alive?"

But most importantly, this view. It made me think of food.

So we got a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant in the museum entrance.

Of the next event, there are no photographs, as it consists almost entirely of naked people. The photographs contained herein depict the scene at the close of our adventure.

After "lunch," we hiked up the road towards Yunessun, a water resort and open-air public onsen. It's split into two halves: the water park, and the traditional onsen (the onsen woods.) In the water park, you can bathe in green tea, coffee, wine, sake, or regular hot spring water (in bathing suits.) It's all supposed to be good for your skin. It is said that Cleopatra bathed in wine. That means I'm just as fabulous as Cleopatra.


Luckily, my tattoo is on my upper back near my neck, meaning I can cover it easily with my towel without looking too conspicuous. I sat with my back away from everyone, trying to keep my towel from falling into the sake (no one likes an alcohol-soaked towel, even if they bathe in rice wine.) Mind you, this was all pretty diluted. We could smell the coffee and wine, and taste the tea (no one told me not to drink it), but I couldn't really smell the sake. I should emulate this at home. Maybe I can bathe in beer. I wonder what that'd do for my skin. After that half of the resort, we went to the other half (the onsen woods), for traditional onsen. I've never been in a room with so many naked people in my life. I got over my body-anxiety pretty quickly. After the hot springs, we got milk. Milk is great after a good nudy dip. 

We left right at closing, which, unfortunately, is half an hour after the buses stop, so we had to wait half an hour on the curb for a taxi. When we got back to the inn, we went to the convenience store for dinner, and fell asleep almost immediately after. School? What even is that?

Our plan for Sunday was to take a pirate cruise on Lake Ashi.

But alas, the weather was not conducive.



You saw that coming. Admit it.


This is what happens when you let someone else hold your camera.


The fog was redonkulously thick when we got out of the shrine, so we took pictures by the torii gate (on the lake). 

And then it was time for home. We got on the bus for Odawara, then the train, and then parted ways for the night. And now I'm dreading a sunburn from the mid-summer Tokyo weather. Granted, it's probably worse in Chapel Hill right now, but I never did enjoy the mid-summer anyway. 


Home is where the family is

In less than a month, I will be on a plane back to the United States. In exactly a month, I will be in my small, suburban hometown staring out the window at the California sunshine and wondering how long ago the fast-paced, bustling Tokyo life was. In a month and a few days, I will be back at USC going through RA training and preparing for the next school year.

Where did the time go? With less than a month left in Japan, people are becoming more resolved to go out and do things. 「せっかく日本に来ました」(Coming to Japan with much effort) takes on a new meaning when one realizes that there's only so much time to accomplish everything one had wanted to.

Despite all the hustle and rushing around, I'm very thankful that there's still time for crazy things: like my entire family coming to visit me while I'm here in Japan!

Introducing my Osaki family to the DK House Nerima dorm family! :) Worlds colliding!

My youngest sister, Janelle, made some new best friends with two of the Japanese who live in our dorm.

IMG_4319The view from my family's hotel room in Shibuyaーis Tokyo not the most beautiful city ever?


Enjoying the view of the city together.

Even Mount Fuji was apparent from the hotel window!

A delicious ramen place called 九州じゃんがら that I took my family to! Mmm the marinated pork in this is heavenly~

We dropped by the Design Festa museum in Harajukuーthere wasn't much on display there because it was Wednesdya, but pictures with graffitti art are ALWAYS a plus!

The most fascinating sink EVER. It contains automatic wash, soap, AND dryer options! The sink is functioning as a hand dryer in the above photo, and my sister is using it!

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Milky Way in Ikebukuro has parfaits that are some of my favorite desserts in Japan. Being able to share that love with my family makes it all the better!


My family came to visit Sophia University as well, where they got to meet many of my friends, classmates, a professor, and experience 上智's food options! Karaage (fried chicken) onigiri (rice balls) are always delicious, and my most favorite thingーthe iced coffeeーdeserved a picture! :)

Family visiting Sophia University. :) My brother even bought swag at the gift store!

Doner kebabs! Kind of amazing and delicious. As silly as it may sound, the last nine people who have visited me in Japan have all been taken to eat kebabs! ^^; It may not be technically Japanese food, but it's definitely a delicious food experience! The friendly Turkish men who work there, the generous portions of meat, and the surprisingly yummy cherry and apricot juices all make this a fun lunch stop!

One thing that my little sisters had been begging me to take them to do was go to a rabbit cafe. I took them to the same one I've been to twice alreadyーRAAFG (see Hana Rudolph's blog for more about the cafe)ーand it was probably their most favorite thing in all of Japan. After the hour of petting and feeding these fluffy creatures, my youngest sister was running around Harajuku exclaiming, "BEST DAY EVERRRR!!!"

Is any trip to Harajuku complete without a crepe? Mmm mmm good!

We headed out on a weekend trip to Hitachi in Ibaraki Prefectureーwhere the remainder my dad's Japanese relatives who haven't moved to the States live. We had a wonderful time of reuniting with them!

Hitachi. The harbor view is much prettier, but I didn't have one from the hotel window! >_<

Making a visit to my dad's cousin's grave. My Japanese family has Anglican roots, so my great uncle led us in prayer when we went.

My "Auntie" Masako who passed away a few years ago from breast cancer. In my first blog post, I mentioned that this wonderful woman was the reason for my sparked interest in Japan. I wouldn't be here in this country learning this language if not for her! 

Many of my second (third?) cousins have, since we last saw them, gotten married and had cute little Japanese babies! I kind of want to claim this one as mine, she's so adorable. :)

The cutie is walking! :)

Group picture with the baby cousins!

Awwwh adorable!

After visiting Hitachi, we took a train back to Tokyo and headed straight to my home church in JapanーNew Hope Tokyo in Ochanomizu. I was blessed to have a couple friends from Sophia and from my dorm come and visit church together with me! :)

A group picture of the best of all my worlds colliding. My church family, my Christian volunteer group that goes up to Tohoku, my immediate family, and people from my Sophia and dorm family as well! :) So thankful for the opportunity to spend 5 months abroad in this wonderful, magical, special country!

Ishinomaki: Tohoku One Year Later

On my second day in Japan, I learned my first tidbit about my host family: they wanted to take me to Tohoku to volunteer. Before receiving a packet of information or even meeting them, I knew they were the perfect match for me. In my CIEE and scholarship application essays I had mentioned wanting to get involved in some kind of volunteering, but this kind of an opportunity was better than anything I could have imagined for myself for my time in Japan.

We headed out around sunrise in a van fit for a textbook American pedophile. I appreciated the irony: I was the youngest one there. The eight of us drove and/or nodded off for eight hours until we arrived in Ishinomaki-shi, a city in Miyagi-ken.

Last year, Ishinomaki was one of the more intensely devastated victims of the tragic tsunami. Over 3000 people died as a result, and the city is far from back to normal a year later. When we arrived, my fellow travellers immediately donned volunteer vests and went to work. My host parents, however, felt that it was really important that I see the city. So my host dad and I took the creeper van and explored the remains that now make up Ishinomaki. 

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This is most of what we saw: mountains and mountains of garbage, some as tall as nearby buildings that were sturdy enough to stay standing. A year later, the cleanup has begun. How much has been completed? This. There was so much debris left over after the tsunami that after a year all the workers have been able to do is put it all in taller, more condensed piles. Therefore, the other half of what we saw was mostly this:

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Emptiness… and graveyards. I couldn’t help but think of the whole town as a grave. It will certainly function as one for many years to come, because it remains a quiet, solemn place in which people grieve for those lost and remember. 

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This island was able to keep its two landmarks: the statue of liberty in the center and the white domed-manga museum at the tip. I couldn’t help but ask myself what good it was that they were strong enough to survive the tsunami when there were no people left to enjoy their presence. You can see buildings around the island still standing, but if you take a closer look:

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Everything has been completely gutted. These buildings stand, but with them an eerie loneliness lingers. It will likely be more work dealing with these buildings than it has been clearing away the rubbish from the buildings that were completely destroyed. And to attest to and remind everyone of the strength of the storm, a ship lies far from shore. It was lifted completely out of the water by the tsunami, and then tossed aside on land.

            The most depressing images I saw, however, came from evidence of children who are likely no longer with us. 

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This is one of the elementary schools we passed. I couldn’t even imagine being a parent when the tsunami hit. 

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Sometimes foundations of the houses remained. This was one of the few times I could actually pick out an individual personal item from the gray bulk of the rubble: a child’s bike. This is not an image I will ever be able to get out of my head. I’ve imagined the life of the kid who owned this bike over and over again. Unlike in the history books or the stories, I don’t get to find out what happened to the owner. I don’t have a crew tracing fingerprints or a database of names of the deceased. All I have is what I saw that day, a year after the tsunami, and these photos.

            I got a similar feeling from seeing the vehicle graveyard. Cars were often stacked 4-high in rows upon rows of now ownerless cars, trucks, mopeds, vans… Each car represents a family and a tragic story of its own. The sheer magnitude of what they told me just by looking at them was completely overwhelming.

            For the actual volunteering part of my trip, our group collected, organized, and distributed supplies to the survivors who were living in temporary housing nearby. It was difficult not to think of it like a famous dystopia novel or film. Everything was so orderly: the housing units were in neat rows, every row looked identical, and there was a sad, gray feeling to the environment. When people started coming out of the units to collect supplies however, all of that changed. People of all ages came out smiling. I greeted them and handed them bags to use with the supplies they gathered from what we had. At this point, however, my Japanese was still quite rusty and I immediately noticed a difference from Tokyo: no one started out trying to speak English to me. Unfortunately, my poor language skills kept me from asking them all the questions I had about life there. So, they thanked me and some exchanged small talk with me. Within an hour my experience with victims of the tsunami was over and we were back to packing and storing supplies.

In spite of the lack of time and talking, my stay in Tohoku was one of the most authentic, traditional Japanese experiences I’ve had so far. Each night, our volunteer group ate dinner together, bought liquor, and sat on tatami mats in a very traditional-style Japanese house for kanpai. It was very chilly and snowing outside, but everyone had enough alcohol to stay warm each night. And that was enough. We were all happy to be there despite the somber nature of the trip. I still don’t think of it as a sad or depressing trip, really. The willingness of people who live so far away to go volunteer for people they have virtually no connection to really astounded me. I can only hope to maintain the active compassion these people displayed into my 40s, 50s, 60s, and so on. This trip really revived my optimism for the empathy of humankind.