Thursday, August 11, 2011

Afterthoughts on Tohoku, 5 months after

In the past week, under the Singapore Youth Ambassador for Tohoku program, I have been in Tohoku. You might know this as the region which was hit by the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami. Today marks the 5th month after the disaster. Up till now, many foreign visitors still shun going to Japan, and especially Tohoku, despite the fact that most areas are safe; that the food and water are edible and uncontaminated; that the people are alive and living.

This summer, I've been to Japan 3 times, and each time I've come back better than ever. Tohoku is a beautiful place, and it really saddened me that so many people shunned the whole region after the 3.11 disaster. And to make matters worse, the media did not always portray an accurate reflection of the situation, choosing at times to merely focus on the worst-case stories. Without knowing any better, over time the masses lumped the whole Tohoku region together, giving each and every place, affected or unaffected, the same branding of "unsafe", "dead" and "nothing there".

There was a point in time that I heard from friends living abroad that the Japanese living in their countries did not want to return to Japan, not because they feared for their safety, but because their children would be bullied after coming back. It was really saddening to hear of such horrific thinking and behavior.

I started learning Japanese when I was 12, and continued formal lessons all the way until I graduated from high school. Throughout the years, I've always felt that Japan is like my second home. Due to twitter, I actually found out real-time when the earthquake happened. At first, I thought it was just a larger-than-normal earthquake. A few hours later, after classes ended, I read about the devastating tsunami that followed.

All I could do was feel helpless; there was nothing I could do to help other than pour in monetary donations and convince friends and family that Tohoku would recover; that Japan is like a phoenix, forever rising from the ashes and surviving thick and thin.

DAY 1:

After landing in Narita, we sat on a 6-hour bus ride to Sendai, where we made mini-tanabata decorations and attended a welcoming reception. More on Day 1 here.

DAY 2:

Headed off pretty early to visit Chuusonji at Hiraizumi, Japan's newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a quick and delicious lunch we headed off the Akita International University for an interaction session, where a girl, a recent graduate working at the Akita Prefectural Office, shared with us her nerve-racking experience alone when the earthquake hit. In the evening, we got to experience the amazing Akita Kantou Festival, where men balanced heavy bamboo poles carrying up to 46 lanterns and weighing up to 50kg on their heads, shoulders and hips. Posts on the festival here and here.

DAY 3: Volunteering day

Headed down to Rikuzentakata, one of the most badly affected areas during the disaster. What used to be a populated coastal town was literally flattened, nothing could be seen in the distance except for piles of debris, crushed cars and buildings reduced to their steel supports. Lands were barren; no greenery; no people. It was heartbreaking to witness.

We were tasked with clearing drains which had been blocked and covered with debris and mud, hardened over time by the weather. Despite a collective effort over a few hours, all we could clear was a section of a single drain. It was a tad sad to know that our minute efforts did not make a significant impact, although it was nice to know that at least we were helping albeit in a small manner. Imagine all the time and effort needed to get the whole town back to recovery. Or all the affected towns. But bit by bit, one step at a time, it will happen.

DAY 4:

In the morning, we went for the Sendai Tanabata Festival, one of the largest Tanabata Festivals in Japan and one of the major summer festivals in the Tohoku region. After, we headed to Sendai's Mitsui Outlet for a short while.

Next, we visited Sendai Airport, which was damaged and flooded by the tsunami, in which floodwaters reached a height of 3.02m. In a mere 4 months, the damaged area has been rebuilt, and international flights resumed on 25th July 2011. The airport is now fully operational. It was heartwarming to see various messages of support and encouragement from all over the world and all over Japan, and they made the airport brighter and cheerier. In the evening we had a farewell dinner with our new Japanese friends from Tohoku.

DAY 5: Took a bus to Utsunomiya, where we bid a sad farewell to out new-found but dear friends, and took a Shinkansen to Tokyo. After arriving, we headed to the University of Tokyo for informative lectures and an exhibition by the students from the civil engineering department.

DAY 6: Farewell reception and headed back to Singapore

I'll be putting up more in-depth posts as the days go along. Though my time spent there was short, from what I experienced, the Tohoku region is a beautiful place with wonderfully amicable people. I would definitely like to go back to leisurely visit the area some other time in the future.

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