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2 posts from December 2012


Volunteer in Tohoku

About two weeks ago I went up to Miyagi-ken (Yonekawa base) with three other Japanese students from the Sophia Volunteer Network. You probably all remember the great earthquake, tsunami, and following destruction of March 2011, but not heard much news recently. I learned a bit about how much work was still left to be done and decided to volunteer.

Unfortnately I do not have any photos to share because there was some rules againt photography, but I wish I could show you. It was amazing and really, a photograph wouldn't capture what you feel being there and seeing it all yourself. 

Driving to the base, I saw scenery just like my hometown in Hillsboro, Oregon; there were trees and then fields and farms, then residential areas, then lots of shops like downtown, then more houses and trees - then nothing.

It was so sudden. I didn't register at first what I was seeing outside my window. There was no sign or blockade or gate or "entrance" of any kind. The landscape went from normal, untouched towns to the wreakage of the tsunami. Keep in mind this is well over a year and a half after the actual incident. There were cranes moving giant pieces of rubble and buildings' walls and unreckognizable cars. Nearby were hills and rises with groups of houses completely unharmed by the tsunami, sticking out like safe islands in the sea of debris and destruction all around. Apart from some tents and a quickly built 7 Eleven meant to supply the workers, there were no structures along the road. Just endless endless rubble, cranes, and foundation outlining where buildings once were.

We worked from morning to afternoon that Saturday and Sunday. Saturday rained but was much warmer than Sunday, when I got really sick. The cold and soberness were paired with after-work visits to onsen (hot springs bath) and vans that would drive past full of old women shouting or singing into megaphones thanking the volunteers for our work and encouraging us despite the early hours and weather conditions.

Our actual work was sorting through the smaller debris, leftover in houses after the cranes removed all the bigger pieces away. Most the time we had no idea what this little piece of glass or that little piece of blue plastic could've once been, but every once in a while we'd find mostly intact bits of someone's life that made me appreciate what we were doing. Some of my discovereries that left an impression were: 

  • an intact jar of salmon pieces that looked exactly like the one my host family brings out every night for dinner to put with our rice
  • a DVD case and DVD of a rainforest animal documentary
  • an entire, intact china cup wrapped in a cloth
  • an umbrella
  • and a small figure of a man playing a trumpet on a unicycle.

That weekend really put my life into perspective and has made me appreciate the fortune of my friends, my family, and myself - a thing I think everyone should reflect on this holiday season instead of getting annoyed that your parents keep nagging you about laundry (or if your kids keep ignoring you). 

Thanks for reading (again, I'm sorry there were no photos to break up the wordiness) - and Happy Holidays from Tokyo!


Running in Japan

I really love running. Please do not mistake me for an extremely dilligent, somewhat crazy, every-dawn-a-day running machine. I wish I was that motivated. Instead I run when I manage to get myself out of bed or decide to not waste my evening online.

You will not find many people running throughout Tokyo at various times of the day because everyone is either taking care of their children, working, or a tourist (sorry, that's a completely untrue generalization, but is part of the reason I think random runners are not common). I have seen the occasional snazzy-sports-wear-clad runner running around the city in the morning or evening, but compared to my experience living in Hillsboro (OR) and Cambridge (MA), it's not that common.

My host family luckily lives between two rivers, and there are lots of parks/public space around rivers in Japan, so I have been able to go running whenever I choose and am rarely alone. Bicyclists far outnumber runners/joggers/walkers, so there's an unspoken law that slow, non-wheeled people stay to the far left so that speedy cyclists can zoom past.

Sometimes my host mom joins me on a run. Here's a photo of us (more like a photo of the running path + scenery):


Sometimes my host sisters join us with scooters or skate-boards, though not recently as it's really cold out. Here we are when it was not cold: 



One thing I do recommend, whether or not it is socially common, is to run in places you vacation to (or just new places). I find getting up early for a run on vacation is much easier than a regular school/work day and when you get yourself out and exploring early, you can scout the scenic places and basically have the town/city/local to yourself. 

About three weeks ago (I think) CIEE went on our big fall trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima. I got up Sunday morning to run through the Peace Park of Hiroshima and it was so much more thought-provoking than walking through with tons of people milling about and taking photos (I get distracted people watching). I stopped a few times to look at details on memorials that caught my eye or to offer some silent wishes for peace to the young, innocent victims and their families.

Monday morning I went on a fabulous run through Miyajima. I went running around 6 AM, which is not that early compared to city life, but the entire place was deserted when I started out. It was so quiet. The sun hadn't risen yet and as I approached the 厳島神社 (Itsukushima Shrine, a very famous shrine in water - if you google it you'll be like, "oh yeah! I've seen photos of that before." Probably.) the flood-lights that lit it through the night went out. And I noticed monks walking around the base of 厳島神社 (normally not possible because the tide comes in the whole day and surround it with water) which made me realize how giant that Tori gate really is. I watched the sun rise accross the bay waters which was beautiful, then ran up to the near mountain where red Momoji leaves covered the ground and I felt like I was running through streams of blood (but in an unreal, beautiful, artsy way... not real blood). As I ran back to the hotel, the few locals trodding through their morning duties looked surprised as I ran past, but we still bowed to each other with the greeting, "おはようございます。" (I, a little breathless and awkward while trying to slow down but not stop running).

All in all, it was a great trip and I am very glad I went running each morning there!