#ArtOfRunning: Recovery in Ishinomaki

A repost from my site http://josephta.me

My latest Art of Running project saw me back up in Tohoku, the region of Japan so badly hit by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. During last month’s trip to Sendai for TEDxTohoku, we made time to visit Ishinomaki, a fishing town that had both industrial and residential areas decimated by the wave. With local volunteers at lunchtime Fellow runners: Jamie (left) and Dean Checking the GoPro camera used to shoot video throughout was switched on (video to follow!) Using an iPad to trace the planned route Whilst in the past I’ve carried out the majority of runs by myself, for this one I was very happy to have company: Jamie, founder of the volunteer organization www.itsnotjustmud.com, and Dean, of www.intrepidmodeladventures.com. Our route, which spelled out ‘Ishinomaki’ in both kanji characters and English, was to see us pass through all of the distinct areas that make up the town: the part to the south that was no so badly hit due to its elevated location; the industrial / fishing sector that stretches right along the seafront and completely wiped out; the residential area to the north that was very badly hit; and the rice paddies nestled just below the hills that mark the eastern border of the town. Despite having seen footage of the area on TV and online, visiting the place for myself left me feeling shocked; I struggled to comprehend the extent of the losses inflicted upon the local community, and the amount of work that remains to be done some 9 months since the initial earthquake hit. I was also to discover than it’s only now that PTSD is really taking a hold, resulting in all manner of social problems. Basically, although the story of Ishinomaki (and countless other fishing towns along the north-east coast of Japan) is no longer in the news, a return to normality remains a long way off. They still need our support, it’s vital we don’t forget.

The run

Our run began in a backstreet not far from the main railway station. It was here that we were to write the first kanji, ‘Ishi’ (meaning rock), a course of about 9km. The route wasn’t overly complex, being just a series of long straight lines. …or so I had thought. It wasn’t long after we began that I realized just how tricky this was going to be, as the images I was using for my guide (satellite photos of the town taken not long after the tsunami had hit) differed somewhat from the reality on the ground, where the cleanup had been going on ever since. The Ishinomaki that I was running was indeed a very different place to that described in this report by 37frames following Dee and Tracey’s visit there just a couple of weeks after the disaster. Compared to back then the place was clean. The cars, previously strewn across the area, wedged up against houses, wrapped around the remains of lampposts. were now all neatly stacked up in a car graveyard down. The huge boats that had blocked the roads had been removed, and the mud which had coated everything, was mostly gone (partly thanks to the amazing work of my hosts for this trip, It’s Not Just Mud). The piles of rubble I saw on Google Earth were also gone, as were many of the partially destroyed houses. What surprised me however was just how many damaged houses and industrial buildings did remain, in what looked like much the same condition as shortly after the tsunami waters receded. The volunteer house were I had stayed the previous night was surrounded by abandoned buildings with sections of wall missing, some of which still had all of their contents piled up inside, encased in mud. And whilst the wreckage of many homes had been removed, the concrete foundations remained. Occasionally we’d see what was left of the bathroom, complete with pipes sticking up out of the ground. Or, we’d see the gateposts and beyond them the floor of the entrance hall; I was told by a volunteer that when clearing homes, people would continue to use the original entrance, even if most of the walls were missing. The spirits remained. So whilst the drastic changes in the landscape made it tricky to follow our planned route at times, on the other hand, the damage actually made some parts easier, as we were able to cross ground that had previously had homes on. (I would add that we discussed if this would be seen as insensitive, but the feeling was that people really wouldn’t mind at all, rather they would like to see some life there). With the ‘Ishi’ under our belts, we headed down to the vast flat stretch of land that extends along the coast – this is where we would write the English for ‘Ishinomaki’. The starting point was in a sobering location – in front of the school that was now a blackened wreck. When the wave hit, cars piled up against the building before bursting into flames. The school, an official evacuation point, was gutted. The landscape there is now not unlike that of Hiroshima, shortly after the bomb was dropped. A flattened plain, with just the shells of a few buildings remaining. This area won’t be rebuilt. Not far from the school though, in the midst of this new plain, is a more positive sign – a big sign – reading ‘Ganbarou Ishinomaki’, meaning ‘come on, let’s get through this / we can do it Ishinomaki!’ The site has become a place where people come to reflect, to gather strength. It wasn’t long before we ran into a challenge – our route was to take us through the middle of the car graveyard, but this was no longer a public road. As we turned into it a security guard came into view. I greeted him in a friendly manner, and said, “I guess we can’t come through here, right?”. He confirmed that no, we couldn’t, it was off-limits. I went on to show him my iPad with our planned route, and explained that we had already written the ‘Ishi’ and that this road was an important part of the overall route – was there any possibility of us just running through, if we didn’t stop? On seeing that, his expression softened, “Well, in that case I think it would OK” he told us, and waved us through. We thanked him, and continued on our route. One thing I noted was that it was only once inside the car graveyard that you saw the most badly-damaged cars – they had been surrounded my many others that still resembled vehicles in a bid to hide them from those who may have witnessed the tsunami and be traumatized by seeing such twisted lumps of metal. (These cars were actually photographed in Kessennuma, examples of the kind of vehicles you’ll find across the region) The next challenge was the letter ‘H’, which incorporated the big road bridge across the river. It also took us right out to water and along the sea wall, from where we gazed out at the still waters. It looked so picturesque if one ignored the skeletons of buildings behind you; hard to believe that such a devastating force had come from here. Having crossed the river, we were now in the area that had hosted the fishing industry. Whilst it’s dominated by skeletons of factories that had previously produced canned fish and the likes, by the harbor a series of huge new temporary warehouses have been set up to process seafood catches. They’re made of some kind of plastic-canvas, stretched around enormous metal frames. As we ran through there was some activity, with catches being sorted and prepared for dispatch. This had been the heart of Ishinomaki’s economy prior to the tsunami, so to see it back up and running was a very positive sign. With the trade comes the jobs, the incomes, the ability to rebuild lives. One of the roads in the fishing district that we needed to run down…! This is one aspect of the recovery that still has a long way to go, right across the town. What was once the heart of Ishinomaki’s shopping district is just a strip of smashed shutters. Local business owners may have had insurance against fire or earthquake damage – but not tsunami. Thus, for many, repairing and reopening just isn’t an option: they just don’t have the money. Along the main road, some of the big names in family restaurants and supermarkets have returned, as have the convenience stores. Whilst this is a positive sign, in a way it’s a shame that it’s these generic brands that can afford to reinvest, and not the locally-run businesses. Nakayama-san There are exceptions however. Take the Nakayama family for example. They have a ramen (noodle) restaurant in what was once of the main shopping streets. When the tsunami came it destroyed the lower floor, almost reaching the ceiling. The building however stood firm, and the family were safe on the 3rd floor. Since March they have worked tirelessly to clean out and rebuild the restaurant. When we first visited last month they were just waiting for the electrician to reconnect the internal wiring, then they’d be ready for business – one of the first to reopen in that street. I was very happy to hear via their daughter on Facebook last week that the restaurant has just last week reopened – may they do a roaring trade! It’s the return of businesses like this that I find the most positive. Whilst big business is vital for the recovery of the wider economy, the return of smaller shops shows that the community is getting back on track on a local level. There are efforts underway to get those who are now living in temporary accommodation back to work. One of the projects that the volunteers at www.itsnotjustmud.com are involved in is teaching residents of these new housing units how to make (and then sell) furniture. The effect of this goes far beyond having furniture in their homes or making some money to live off – it gives them a purpose to live. For those who’ve lost everything – home, job, family, this is a vital part of the recovery process.   With the English for ‘Ishinomaki’ done, it was time to tackle the most challenging part – the kanji for ‘Maki’. It was at this point that I got off my bicycle – the weight of the iRun and the exhaustion induced by constant having to focus on Google Earth meant that I had needed to take a break from running from after the letter ‘H’ to the final letter ‘I’. During that section I’d instead guided Dean and Jamie. (Jamie, by his own admission, was not a long-distance runner, but did over 14km on the day at a good pace – fantastic! Dean meanwhile has also never run more than 21km, yet did about 35km in total thanks to an additional section he did when looking for a taxi! Animal!) The ‘maki’ section was for me the toughest – and the most memorable. It took us up through the ruined rice paddies, along the closed railway line, backwards and forwards through destroyed residential areas, finishing not too far from the sure on a pitch-black road with the remains of deserted houses around. It was also the section where we met the most people. Whilst many communities were destroyed along with the houses, whilst carrying out our run I got a strong sense that those who remain have strong links, a shared purpose and are working together to put things back on track (which of course is to be expected). During our run we stopped and talked with many local people. We listened to their stories, and we explained what we were doing. When asked by the NHK cameraman that was accompanying us what they thought of foreign volunteers who had come to help with the recovery, or people like us who were wanting to keep Tohoku in the minds of others long after the mainstream media had left, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. At one point we met a chap in his 70s, dressed in a tracksuit, taking a brisk walk. He used to be a marathon runner, but these days preferred a more relaxed pace. We walked and talked, and he told us, on the verge of tears, how much the help was appreciated. On hearing that I felt tears coming to my own eyes. Further down the track we were ambushed by a group of children, who seeing these gaijin runners (one of them dressed in a crazy outfit!) went crazy with excitement and ran after us. When we reached the edge of a rice paddy, surrounded by a drainage channel that was too wide for me to jump with the iRun on, they showed us another way, that brought us out alongside the old cowshed. One of the boys, aged about 6, explained that the cows had drowned in the tsunami, so they didn’t have any anymore. His mother recounted how they were shocked that the wave had reached them this far, 2km from the shore. It had rushed up the little rivers and railway line (now destroyed and unlikely to be rebuilt as it’s not a through-route), wiping out homes, roads, and leaving the (now barren) rice fields laden with salt water, the roads caked in mud. Volunteers had come and helped them clear the area, to the extent that you couldn’t necessarily tell that a tsunami and struck. By this time it was getting dark. The run, which I’d initially estimated at taking about 4~5 hours had now taken 6, and there was still a way to go! Dean was fantastic though, and without him running alongside of me I’m not sure I could have completed it – the iRun was really starting to dig in! The NHK cameraman was also a star, doing an awesome job of filming us as we crossed the area. Many times we’d reach a little river or the likes that meant that he couldn’t continue with the bicycle, so he’d head off to try and find another way around. He always found us again, partly as my iRun costume came complete with flashing red LEDs! And then there we were, into the final stretch. We sped up, delighted that we had actually managed to do this! It was a nondescript finish line; a point in the road where there was nothing but the foundations of former homes – and a streetlamp. There was a great sense of achievement. This had been a tough run; physically, mentally and emotionally. By passing through all these different areas and by meeting people all along the way, I’d come a certain way towards appreciating the magnitude of the disaster and how it had impacted this little town in so many ways. The local businesses, the big industry, the families, the farmers – all hit by this wave tremendous force …and yet each working hard to get back on track, to look forward, not back, and rebuild their lives. And yet there’s so much more to this than we could explore with a run. So many heart-wrenching stories, so many heroes. So many people who’s lives have been changed forever by what happen on March 11th, and whom will always bear the scars. The following day I met with the head of a pre-school near Ofunato, following a performance by Guy Totaro, professional entertainer and Tyler Foundation Smile On! Ambassador. In our conversation, he summed up what is now needed. He told us how now, people are letting go. They have suffered the shock, they have held things together for 8 months because they had to, but now they have temporary housing and food, they can let go a little. But when they do so, they are hit by PTSD and the depression that can accompany it. Domestic abuse and divorce are on the rise in the region, as are the number of suicides. Young children who witnessed the tsunami and lost friends and relatives struggle to make sense of it, whilst those members of the older generation who have lost their homes, children and grandchildren are left with nothing. What was the purpose of their lives? These people need support more now than ever. The children need laughter put back in their lives, “they need to have their hearts soothed” he said. However, as far as the media is concerned, the story is old. PTSD doesn’t sell newspapers; there’s a lack of interest. Also, it’s far easier to raise awareness of a need for support by showing an image of destroyed homes, than it is by showing a family fall apart. The fact is that the need for help in Tohoku is still there. Organizations such as www.itsnotjustmud.com will continue to need volunteers to help with recovery programs – not necessarily digging mud from ditches, but helping get businesses up and running, helping get the economy moving again, helping people put meaning back into their lives. It’s vital that this area is not forgotten, there is still so much left to do. I’m planning to return early next year and to continue to follow up on the recovery, supporting where I can. I’ll also be posting video footage from this project soon. In the meantime, if you’d like to volunteer contact www.itsnotjustmud.com For more information and to donate to allow Guy to continue bring smiles to the faces of children throughout the region, see www.tylershineon.org My thanks to Jamie and the crew at Its Not Just Mud for running and being my host, to Dean for being a big help in the planning and execution of the run, to Carlos for his encouragement, to the community in Ishinomaki for being so welcoming, To NHK for filming the run (to be broadcast in late January 2012, follow me on Twitter for updates), and to my wife @twinkletame for supporting me throughout in so many ways. I’m very grateful to all. For the latest updates on my activities follow me on Twitter @tamegoeswild. Joseph

Volunteering, earthquakes and my dream house

purple flowers_0101As I mentioned on Twitter, *Twinkle’s* come down with a nasty itchy rash covering her whole body. It’s pretty spectacular. What’s equally spectacular is how quickly it appeared, and how much it’s faded following a night of rest. She’s still not 100% though, so is taking the day off, and is as snug as an itchy bug in a rug on the futon behind me.

We’re pretty sure its due to tiredness (last week’s conference saw her doing crazy hours) – so rest is what she needs. Incidentally, I used the NHS (National Health Service) Self-help guide – highly recommended.

I spent a couple of hours at Meguro ward city hall this morning, discussing how I might be of assistance to the Meguro International Friendship Association (MIFA). My motivation for volunteering was the frustration I’ve felt at not putting myself in situations where I have to use Japanese, which has resulted in a slip in my language abilities. This seems ideal. My main role is to give advice and feedback on their services, from the gaijin perspective. I’ll also be helping them get their website up to date (spent quite a while trying to explain RSS today!), and figuring out new ways of reaching foreigners in the area who are unaware of the services they provide.

I also did some translation and proof-reading. I’m glad I did that as it made me realise that *Twinkle’s* not emptying the bath after using it was not laziness, but is actually something that everyone is recommended to do in case of earthquake.

It’s also prompted me to decided to get provisions in for when the earthquake does strike. We’ll be getting a few sacks of no-wash rice later today (to be used in rotation), and a variety of other food for emergency use, oh, and a cardboard-box toilet.

The dangerous (tall and heavy) items we do have are already secured to the walls, so that’s cool.

Whilst of course there’s no way of telling whether the big quake will strike in our lifetimes, I think it’s worth taking precautions just in case.

Yesterday was a pretty interesting day. Following a run from Shinjuku to Roppongi via the Imperial Palace, I taught English for an hour in a Shibuya cafe, then headed out to visit someone who owns an Amway business, and had built a pretty stunning house on a hilltop next to a large ‘wild’ park.

It was a really funky place. To reach the entrance you climb a short flight of stairs and then cross some stepping-stones across a big (shallow) pond, which is actually the roof of their garage (which houses a very sexy talking Mercedes). Passing by the lift (for when they get old and are unable to use the stairs), you enter tatami-floored reception room. Going upstairs you’re greeted by a huge glass-walled living room, featuring one of the longest tables I’ve seen outside of a film, and a grand piano (that had to be lifted in by crane through the window).

Photos were not allowed – the home security company complained that they could not do their job with so many photos of the place floating around online.

We laughed when we were shown the wife’s bedroom closet – it was almost big enough to fit our entire flat in!

Dinner was the freshest seafood (caught by their fisherman friend), washed down with some rather nice champagne.

Personally, nice though it was, I wouldn’t choose to live in such a house.

My dream house is entirely self-sufficient in terms of energy generation / use, and has a vegee garden that keeps us going in fresh produce for much of the year. It has every energy-saving gadget installed you could imagine – the toilet even does a self-assement of its contents before flushing, and adjusts the flush accordingly. We have a garden on the roof too. Flowers, deckchairs, and a special light funnel channelling natural warmth and light to the rooms below, including the branch office of our charitable organisation.

The house systems are fully controllable from my iPhone, wherever I am in the world.

It’s mounted on large ball bearings so as to prevent earthquake damage [demo].

There is ample room for guests in the annex, which has its own kitchen and bathroom, and an open-door policy. Both short and long stays are possible for those either on holiday in Japan, or in trouble.

The whole house is networked with a main server acting as a central entertainment repository whilst also maintaining the house systems. It runs Mac OS (XI?).

There is a car in the garage. It is an Audi that runs on compressed air. Zero emissions.

The point of having such a house is not just to be happy with the home we live in. We hold frequent open days to demonstrate the steps people can take to reduce their impact on the environment, and offer a consultancy service to those interested in reducing their own home carbon footprints.

We have a log-cabin retreat in the woods too, comfortably housing up to 30 people at a time, where various holistic sessions are run year round.

Is this just a dream? At the moment, yes of course, but it’s a dream I believe will come true.

Best get to work then.

Earthquakes and iPhoto09

joseph at Zieteil
Random image: me at Zietal, the highest monastery in Europe (nr Savognin, Switzerland), age 10-ish. I was in a real strop that day, running off ahead and refusing to speak to mum and dad!

Earthquakes really do give me the jeepers. I think the fact that I’m currently listening to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything doesn’t help – in that he talks of the earthquakes that are way overdue in Japan, including the one centred on Tokyo which will no doubt see a lot of people killed and injured.

It got me thinking though. I tend to have this idea that great cataclysmic events (ice ages, meteor strikes, earthquakes, volcano eruptions etc) are all in the past, a part of Earth’s history before it settled down and enabled the current eco-system to develop.

But listening to Bryson reminds me that the Earth is no less active now than it ever has been. It still has a molten core that lets off steam now and then, it still has an atmosphere that’s changing in its composition (now more than ever of course), it still suffers from tectonic shifts. We’re still in this ‘historical era of cataclysmic events’ – it’s just one of those little quiet periods at the moment.

I find this fact useful. It reminds me how important it is to live for today, and to not focus on how much ‘stuff’ I own. If our house comes down in rubble and goes up in smoke, the only thing that will be left is relationships with others (and a backup of my hard drive that I have permanently attached to my inner thigh, updated hourly by bluetooth). Ultimately, nothing else will matter but preserving life itself. And when life itself is finally extinguished, as it surely will be, there won’t even be relationships with others to get hung up about. Best not be overly obsessed with them either then.

On a sidenote, and I forget whether I blogged this before, when we were re-negotiating our contract on this apartment, we voiced our concerns about its age and earthquake-proofness. With a smile, the agent told us:

“Well, when the big one strikes most apartments will come down anyway, so I wouldn’t worry about that”.

Well, that’s reassuring.

The two blessing we do have is that we have a park in front of us with a huge lake (useful in case of fire), and no buildings immediately to the east or south of us, thus reducing the risk of fire and giving us soft ground to jump on should we need to. In fact we’re kind of ideally situated, as the park compost heaps are directly below our balcony – perfect for soft landings.


I do love being married. Things are really good. *Twinkle* is such a blessing in my life.


As I write, iPhoto 09 – one of the applications contained in Apple’s brand new iLife suite – is trawling my collection of 30,000 photos searching for faces. It’s been at it for over 6 hours now, and apparently will take at least another 3 hours to pick everyone out. (That includes YOU if I’ve ever taken a photo of you!).

It’ll then ask me to name people, and will ‘learn’ what people look like, the idea being that when I add new photos in the future, it will automatically identify whose in them, and apply the appropriate tags. These can be synced to and from facebook – clever huh? If someone out there tags a photo of me in Facebook, my photo library on my Macbook will be automatically updated to include it.

[Update: The facial recognition thing is pretty damn good. Having labelled about 10 photos of *Twinkle* it came up with another 900 images that it thought contained her face – and was only wrong about 30 times. Not bad for a beginner!]

The ability to group photos based on their location is also pretty nifty. If your camera is not GPS equipped, you can tag your images by searching for a place name, or by dropping a pin on the built-in Google Map. The place index is a bit too US-centered for my liking, with tonnes of results coming up for American cities, but only the ‘big places’ listed for other countries. No doubt that will change.

Anyway, best get on. The earthquake has inspired me to look for an Earthquake app for the iPhone, which I now need to blog about.