8 Months After the Tohoku Earthquake: Trip to Ishinomaki - Vikingess Voyages

Thursday, November 24, 2011

8 Months After the Tohoku Earthquake: Trip to Ishinomaki

As you probably already know, in March 2011 Japan was hit not only by one of the most powerful earthquakes in history but also an enormous tsunami. More than 20,000 people lost their lives, not to mention all the damages and all the people still without homes. 
The areas around Sendai (to the north of Tokyo) were among the places hardest hit by the tsunami, and many of the nearby villages were completely destroyed.

The media has mostly gone quiet when it comes to the people in Tohoku, but their need for help is definately still there. This weekend I took the trip to Ishinomaki-shi right outside Sendai city to take a look at the situation there, to do some volunteer work and to gather information for my thesis paper.

It was quite a strange experience to actually go up there and see what it looks like for myself.
I was quite lucky; my adviser at Ristumeikan had introduced me to Izuhara-San who has been volunteering in the Sendai area twice before and was planning to go volunteering again. We decided to go together, and since he already had been there before he also had some contacts willing to help us getting around. His friend, Sannou-san, did us the favor of showing us around in Ishinomaki, which is one of the areas where the damages were the biggest. And trust me, there is still a long way to go when it comes to the recovery of the area..
Kadowaki Elementary School (門脇小学校): Gasoline from cars carried by the tsunami caused curtains and trees to catch fire. Today the school looks like a ghost town.
Kadowaki Elementary School seen through a broken widow
Flowers and teddybears
Though there has been done a lot of cleaning, and the place doesn't smell in the way it apparently did in the months after the earthquake, it was still a shocking experience to see the villages totally viped out, the destroyed and burnt-out school buildings, or the flowers remainding you that it was not only buildings that got destroyed..
Items left by the tsunami
Still, the locals are working together to make progress, even when it is just small steps. A couple of months after the tsunami, the people of Ishinomaki experienced another flooding. This time it was a typhoon, and people who finally had had their houses dried from the water caused by the tsunami had to go through the frustration of water-filled houses once again.. As a consequence, a lot of volunteer groups are now cleaning the grounds and drains to make sure that the water will flow easier back to the sea if another typhoon were to occur.
Volunteers cleaning up the areas in Ishinomaki
Still after all these months you can still see the traces of the natures forces; it was both frightening and amazing to see how the big wave had left traces in places you would never believe a wave could ever reach.
Even though Japan is being known as fast to handle situations like these, there is no doubt that the traces of the tsunami will be hard to wipe away anytime soon.
A big can by the road side
A road that disappears into the ocean

Tanigawa Elementary School
The road to Tanigawa Elementary School (谷川小学校) is totally destroyed
Tanigawa Elementary School is on a cliff high up over the sea. Still, the tsunami managed to reach the building and leave it in ruins.
Trees sticking out of windows in the second floor.
Luckily at least this story had a happy ending: Apparently all the children of this school managed to escape.

It's Not Just Mud
I had contacted Jamie, the leader of the volunteering group It's Not Just Mud, before going to Sendai, and he had agreed to participate in my interviews for my master degree thesis. So after our trip around Ishinomaki me, izuhara-San and Sannou-San decided to go to the volunteer groups location to do the interviews. We really felt welcome when we came there; one of the first thing they asked us about was if we had a place to sleep. Which we actually hadn't got already, so we gladly accepted their offer of spending the night at their base.
After a trip to the local sentou (bath house) we went back there, and I got the chance to spend most of the evening doing interviews. I think that all of them really helped me with interesting insight that I'm sure will come in handy when I write my report. I'm really thankful!!

The group consists of both foreigners from all over the world, and also some Japanese people, both locals and from other cities. I was impressed to see their engagement; some of them even commuted to Sendai every weekend from Tokyo to help out, even though they were working full-time during the week.
I can promise you that you'll make some good friends for life if you spend some time volunteering here; the bond in the group seems to be strong. Besides, It's Not Just Mud already has the facilities and equipment needed ready, so if you want to help them out by volunteering there really isn't a lot you need to worry about.

Some of the members of the volunteer group It's Not Just Mud.
Currently the group is stationed in a couple of the houses that are still standing after the tsunami.
Although I thought it would be terribly cold in Sendai, it is actually not as cold as it has been in Kyoto lately. This might be because the volunteer group had done a great job insolating the house they are staying at, so it did not feel as cold as it does in Kyoto.
For those who wants to volunteer, the group already have the necessary equipment available.
The group is doing a lot of different work in the community. In the start they concentrated on cleaning out houses filled with mud from the tsunami and taking down destroyed houses, but these projects are mostly finished by now. There are still a lot of things that have to be done, and right now they are working on projects to do the daily life easier for the survivors of the earthquake.

Okawa Elementary School
As you all know there are a lot of tragic stories that can be told about the earthquake and the following tsunami. One of the schools with the biggest losses was Ogawa elementary school. Seeing this school was probably one of the things that made the biggest impression on me. The school is situated quite far from the sea, and I'm pretty sure nobody ever though that a tsunami would pose a threat to the school or its pupils. There is a mountain behind the school, but the distance is long, and it must have been hard to escape. 70 of the 108 children lost their lives, and one is still missing. Almost all of the teachers that were in school that day lost their lives too.
津波到達点: A sign that marks how high the tsunami hit the land.
Okawa Elementary School seen from the highest place the tsunami reached.

We also visited a school where they have been collecting items found in the area that still haven't been picked up by anybody. Here a big hall was filled up with everything from photographies to purses and books. Worst was it to see the typical red rucksacks used by Japanese school kids, all lined up.
I wonder if their owners will ever return to pick them up..

Further we stopped by a local community hall, where we got to take a look at a bus left by the tsunami on the top of the roof. If it weren't for the damages one could almost believe that it had been parked there..
A bus that had been swept away by the tsunami on top of the local community house,
View from inside the community house
Lastly I want to show you guys a picture of an Eon-mall in Ishinomaki. Even though it does not look like it is something out of the ordinary, this place was filmed when the tsunami came washing away the cars at the parking lot, and the video has been broadcasted all over the world. I have posted the youtube-video underneath so you can see how it looked like when the tsunami came.
The area around the Eon-mall has recovered from the tsunami.

As you can see, there has been improvements. Actually we did get to see a lot that had become better during the last eight months. But still I think it is necessary that we do not forget about the people in the Tohoku area just because the media does not write a lot about it anymore.
Ishinomaki has been deemed safe in terms of radiation, and I do recommend anybody who has got the chance to take the trip to the area to volunteer.

Related blogposts

Author Image

About Anette
Anette came to Japan as an exchange student in 2010, met the love of her life and got stuck. From her base in Tokyo she writes about her experiences as a full-time worker in Tokyo and about her travels in Japan and abroad. She's a free-spirited adventurer who enjoys both the great outdoors and her urban lifestyle.

  • 6Disqus Comment
  • Facebook Comment


  1. 記事にしてくれてありがとう!


  2. コメントありがとうございます!


  3. I was in Kesennuma last January. I did some volunteering with SWTJ (Solidarity with Tohoku Japan), and it was a great experience... emotionally tough also. I am really looking forward to going back once I have the chance to. SWTJ also told me how great "It's not just mud" was, and I might try to go give a hand over there next time! :-)

    I found your blog while looking for information about the GCP of Ritsumeikan, and I find myself wandering through all your posts ;-) Thanks!

    Quentin / ケント

  4. Hello Quentin! I'm glad to hear that you had a good time in Kesennuma! I agree that the experience is well worth it, although it of course can be really tough as well.

    I also went to Minami Sanriku this August to volunteer, and some of the work we did actually involved a seaweed factory in Kesennuma as well. Unfortunately there is still a lot of recovery work that needs to be done there still..
    The group I volunteered for in Minami-Sanriku is called United Earth, and if you're looking for a group where the majority (if not all) of the members are Japanese then this group has my warmest recommendations. But if you prefer a group with more foreigners then INJM would be a better choice;)
    I have gathered my posts about volunteering in Japan under the tag 'Tohoku', so feel free to take a look if you are interested! (http://goo.gl/P9Cr0)

    Also, please let me know if you have any questions about Ritsumeikan, since I studied there for two years I might know a thing or two that hopefully can help you ;)


  5. Hi Anette!

    Thanks for your answer! I will try to check all your posts on your Tohoku experience then! :) It's nice to participate with other foreigners, but I guess I would enjoy it more vounteering with japanese people. I might check this United Earth then :)

    It's kind of you to propose your help. I would actually love to ask you a few question about Ritsumeikan's programs etc. Shall I write them down here? Is there a more suitable place to converse? Or even by skype if you don't want to use too much time writing? :)
    In case, my mail is: quentin451@hotmail.com



  6. Alright, I've added you on Skype ;)



comments powered by Disqus

About Me

Adventures ofAnette

A modern day shield-maiden who loves to explore the unbeaten paths of the world. From her base in Tokyo, Anette takes on both rural and urban challenges, and goes by the motto "No challenge too big, no adventure too small"!
・Read more →

Recent Posts


Random Posts