Nishiyama-sanToday is my friend Takashi Nishiyama’s 62nd birthday. On March 18th, three days after the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, Nishiyama-san, posted this comment on his Facebook wall:

I’m ready to go the disaster relief. But great wall is very difficult for government! 
I’m ready to go to the disaster assistance, but big wall of government is very hard. I am impatient but I’ll try.

The next news came on March 22:

Tomorrow I will depart from Saiki for the affected areas. I plan to volunteer in the field of relief supplies and carried. This time our members number is 2 with 2 cars.

I met Nishiyama-san (his name means “West Mountain”) in August 1996, just after I arrived in Japan to teach English at Honan High School in Saiki City, Oita Prefecture (Southern Japan). I told a friend I was interested in sailing, and the next day I received a call from Nishiyama-san inviting me for coffee. Nishiyama-san is the president of the Saiki Sailing Club. That melting August afternoon, he and I sat in a cafe near the harbor and chatted in English about sailing. I didn’t speak Japanese at the time. At the close of the meeting, Nishiyama-san said, “Great! So, I’ll pick you up at 1:00 a.m. for the regatta.”


Worried, I called the friend who introduced us. I didn’t know this guy at all, and

My first regatta with Nishiyama-san--the Uwajima Cup, 1996.

I was brand new to the country. My friend assured me that Nishiyama-san was a good guy so, with some trepidation, I entered the regatta with the team. We sailed all night to Uwajima, on Shikoku, the next island over, had a great time, and a strong friendship was born. Nishiyama-san and I continued sailing together for the three years I lived in Saiki and we have remained friends ever since.

Nishiyama-san is one of the most “good” people I know. He has a huge heart and his deepest wish is to help people. He can’t stand the thought that someone may not like him, and he endeavors to like everybody. He collects children who need a bit of extra care and teaches them to sail. He volunteers in various organizations, and when asked to help, he always says yes. Nishiyama-san is no saint in outer form–he’s just a regular guy, quick to laugh and joke that his boat runs on beer. His health isn’t so good, but he doesn’t let it prevent him from living his life to the fullest. He brings to mind the Buddhist exhortation to “burn yourself up, leaving no trace.”

At my Zaike Tokudo (Lay Ordination) in 1999.

Scaling the Great Wall
Immediately after the tsunami, many Japanese people wanted to go north to help, but the government told them to wait. First-response teams were combing the rubble for survivors (and bodies), there was no infrastructure, and the areas were dark at night and considered dangerous.

Nishiyama-san went to Saiki City Hall and asked how Saiki was going to help. City Hall said there was nothing they could do. Frustrated, he enlisted the help of Uesuki, one of the former sailing children (now an adult), and the two of them pulled the “Parates of the Saikiwan” (wan = bay) flag off the yacht, hopped in a small, borrowed truck and drove 900 miles north to Ishinomaki City, paying their own tolls, gas, and expenses. There were gas and food shortages at the time, so prices were inflated.

Uesuki & Nishiyama-san. 1997.

In Ishinomaki, Nishiyama-san and Uesuki first slept in the truck and then in a tent (Saikiwan flag flying overhead), living on Calorie Mate power bars and vitamin gel. It was bitterly cold and snow covered the ground. Still, in the chaos of the recent disaster, they found a way to help, using the truck to make food deliveries to people outside of official evacuation shelters. Nishiyama-san listened to people’s stories of floating on rooftops, watching their child being pulled away just out of arm’s reach, and climbing the one tree that was left standing. The children’s stories saddened him most deeply.

Facebook posting, April 2:

The affected areas are slowly changing. Enough rubble has been removed for some roads to become passable, but goods still haven’t reached everywhere. Yesterday, I heard there are plenty of local volunteers and supplies here, so the government will stop collecting donated goods. No way!! There isn’t nearly enough help or relief supplies! Why does the government spread such information? I’m looking for volunteers.

Nishiyama-san's first volunteer trip

On April 18, after a month of hard work, Nishiyama-san pulled himself away from Ishinomaki with some difficulty and drove back to Saiki. As he left the disaster zone, he wondered what kind of dream he’d been in. Stopping at a hotel, after the proprietor bought him a beer and thanked him for doing what so many people wanted to do, Nishiyama-san fell asleep in the bathtub that night, exhausted. Back in Saiki, he couldn’t quite discern whether his month volunteering had really happened or not. Many volunteers, relief workers and tsunami survivors express this same sentiment. In one of the videos of the tsunami arriving at Ishinomaki, we can hear a woman alternately crying out loudly, and then stopping and asking, “Is this a dream? Is this a dream?”

Tenku & Nishiyama-san

Tenku & Nishiyama-san in front of his tent

Nishiyama-san returned to Saiki a hero. People were eager for stories, photos and firsthand information. He raised money, gave talks, and, over time, recruited over 100 volunteers from Saiki. He has become a point person for volunteers from other countries as well, offering his tent for their use and helping them figure out how to help. The Saiki City Hall was now eager to help, and Saiki sent its fire brigade to Ishinomaki. Saiki offered free housing to refugees. Local fishermen, upon hearing how much the devastated fishing communities craved fresh fish, sent an entire catch north. Saiki also donated a truckload of their local specialty, sesame soup stock, and the nearby city of Beppu sent a boatload of hot-spring water. On the June day that Fukan-san and I volunteered with Nishiyama-san in Ayukawahama he was awaiting delivery of a fishing boat, donated by Saiki fishermen so that fishermen in the devastated village could resume their livelihood.

Saiki Firefighters at Work

May 21:

I am going back to Ishinomaki again to do volunteer work! My condition is very good for beer!!!!!

Currently, Nishiyama-san is on his fourth trip to Ishinomaki. When volunteers answer “Oita Prefecture” to inquiries about where they’re from, the locals say, “Oh, Saiki City?” I am so proud of Nishiyama-san, and of my Japanese hometown of Saiki. Nishiyama-san’s bravery in finding a way over the great wall of government has made way for hundreds of people to do something with the compassion they feel for Northern Japan. He is my hero. Happy birthday Nishiyama-san!

August 23:

My birthday today! Where was I going till now?

(Photos from various sources)


Okawa Elementary School is a name known to nearly everyone in Japan. When the tsunami warning came, the teachers weren’t sure how best to evacuate the students. No one thought the tsunami would come 4 kilometers upriver. There was snow and the mountain behind the school was very steep. Of the 108 students, 74 died and three remain missing. Ten of the school’s 13 teachers died. Some of the children who made it to the mountain wrapped their arms around trees; some were able to hang on and some were not.

Okawa Elementary School is about five minutes’ drive from Fukan’s temple, and six of the children who died were from Sho-un-ji. On the way back from looking through the rubble of Kannonji, we stopped at the school and offered the Daihishin Darani (Heart of Great Compassion chant) at a makeshift shrine in front of the remains of the school. The shrine had toys, stuffed animals, children’s cups, and messages to the lost children along with the usual flowers, water offerings, and funerary plaques. Chanting in front of it was one of the most difficult things I have done as a priest.IMG_4129

After we chanted, Fukan asked if I had read the messages. I had not, so she read one to me. It was from a mother to her daughter, Eri-chan. The message told Eri how sorry the mother was that she had not been able to protect her. The mother was sorry that Eri would never grow up, get married, and have children of her own. She said how much Eri’s older brother and the rest of the family missed her.

Hearing this message and standing in front of the destroyed school in the middle of a destroyed town after weeks of volunteering and listening to sad story after sad story, I started to cry. It was so unbearably sad.IMG_4125

When I first arrived at Sho-un-ji, Fukan’s teacher told me about one of the mothers of an Okawa Elementary School student. Her child was twelve years old and her body has not yet been found. The mother was heavily pregnant when the tsunami came. Soon afterwards her baby was born and then, not long after the birth, she took classes and became licensed to use heavy machinery. Now, on weekends when the machinery is not being used, the mother rents it to search on her own. Though her family begs her not to go, she goes anyway.
When Fukan and I were in the area, I looked for the mother out of the corner of my eye. I pictured her driving a large yellow power shovel, her face strong and determined. Her story makes me think of the Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami and her dead child, the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to regard all sentient beings as having been our mothers, and the phrase from the Metta Sutra:

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings

If you know of similar teachings from other religions, please post them in the comments section below.

More of my photos.

News stories about Okawa Elementary School

Japan: Amid many tragedies, one school’s story,” GlobalPost, Gavin Blair March 25, 2011.

At that Moment, What Should We Have Done… ” Pacific Friends Fund Blog. Takashi Sasaki. April 29, 2011

Panoramic photo of the school

The following video is in Japanese, but you can get a good idea of the town and school’s story visually. It shows before and after footage, and the path of the tsunami. This is the area where Fukan lives. Her temple is along the road behind the next mountain finger beyond the school. The man’s voice you hear while watching the video of the tsunami coming in is saying, “Is the school o.k.?’

July 3, 2011. Fukan and I got up early in the morning, sat zazen (meditation), then did morning service. My sitting position during service directly faced the rows of memorial placards lining the back of the hall. (The left wall was lined as well.) I felt so awed and so grateful and so sad to offer chants for the boxes, photos and placards representing so many lost lives. Fukan asked me to chant the dedication and, as happened to her at the funeral, I did not know my voice would work until it came out.

After service, we had breakfast, drank coffee, called a mutual friend in the States, and then went out. First, we offered the Daihishin Darani (Great Compassionate Heart chant) at the ruins of Kannonji Temple’s graveyard. GraveyardAll the stones were turned over and broken, and many of the graves lay open. The unbroken stones had been gathered into one area, which is where we offered the chant. A pair of black men’s shoes, a child’s toy, pink plastic flowers, and a woman’s purse (the contents neatly spread out on a wall), lay among the broken stones.Contents of a purseMan's shoes

Next, we drove about five to ten minutes along a rustic dirt road through what had once been a village but was now a flood plane, to Ryuukoku-in, the next temple over. The skeleton of a temple building, a shed, and the second floor of what had once been a two-story house remained. RyuukokuinFukan told me that the elderly Abbot and his wife ran to the second floor of their house, just behind the main temple building, as the waters rose. The waters lifted the house like a boat. As it floated, it moved close to, then away from, close to, then away from the foot of the mountain. When it floated towards the mountain once more they both jumped from the veranda, swam a bit, and made it to safety. It was freezing cold and snow started to fall soon after. The wife was injured, but apparently they’re both o.k. now. They live with a relative in Sendai. Since the tsunami, the Abbot has been very busy with ceremonies, and hasn’t been able to come to the area more than once or twice. (The makeshift road to this area had just opened the previous week.)

Behind the temple, I saw zafus (meditation cushions), priest robes, sutra books, ceremonial items, incense boxes, juzu prayer beads, and more in the muck. I found this very disturbing, as did Fukan, and also my teacher when I told him later. I think it must be so for any priest, including the Ryuukoku-an’s Abbot. I couldn’t stand to leave the things lying there in the mud interspersed with animal and bird carcasses, but Fukan told me strongly to leave them just as they were, so I moved the two juzu and two small robes I’d already picked up to a dry place and left the rest. Fukan told me that Ryuukoku-in had earthquake insurance and will rebuild. I wondered what they will build and why they will rebuild in the same place. Interestingly, the temple graveyard fared much better than Kannonji’s, and on our way out we saw families cleaning up their plots.Road to Temple

Next, we donned gloves, boots, protective clothing and masks, and visited the remains of Kannonji, the temple nearest to Fukan’s temple. It had been completely destroyed and the temple’s members have now been absorbed into Sho-un-ji. Heavy machinery had already been there, so the rubble had been roughly sorted. We searched for 1) the temple’s main Buddha statue, 2) the temple records book, and 3) (this was unsaid) corpses. We found none. We collected some family photos, a wooden Kannon statue, a few more statues, and a bag full of o-ihai (funerary plaques). We put them into large plastic bags, loaded the car, and left.Protective Gear

Near Kannonji, we met Abe-sensei. He used to teach at Ogawa Elementary School and loved the area and the children, but was transferred to another school two years ago. Fukan greeted him familiarly. Apparently, Abe-sensei returns to the area any time he has a day or some time off from school to search among the ruins. He stops by Sho-un-ji on his way home. Though I suspected the answer, I asked Fukan what he searches for. Bodies. Many of the children from the school were never found.

More photos

IMG_4016July 2, 2011. Fukan-san and I volunteered in the tiny fishing village of Ayukawahama with Nishiyama-san, a close friend of mine from Oita Prefecture. Volunteers hosted a summer festival for tsunami survivors, and dancers came from Osaka, Sendai, Tokyo, and Kyoto to perform their region’s traditional summer dances. Vendors from the various regions came as well, offering traditional festival foods like yakisoba noodles, takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings), neon-colored shaved ice, and yakitori (grilled chicken). No money exchanged hands. Children played games in the water. It was a very strange setting, with brightly clothed, smiling, energetic young people dancing amidst a backdrop of pure ruin. The evacuees seemed to enjoy themselves, though, especially children and the elderly. One elderly woman learned the dances well enough to join in towards the end.

Personally, I couldn’t get into it. Fukan and I had the job of standing on the roadside and directing traffic towards parking lots. There was almost no traffic, so I did a lot of standing in the sun, sweating, and chanting the Heart Sutra.

I became absorbed by the ruins of the house next to me. It was apparent that no one had been there since the tsunami. This was true for much of the town, though we saw a few people sifting through debris. What makes up thFlowerse ruins of a life? A Swiss Army knife, open, with a name written in marker, lay on a wall. A TV perched on the roof next to a laundry basket. As first, looking into the debris, all one sees is a pile of rubble. Then the eye adjusts and you see a tiny prajñā [wisdom] character printed on a tiny shard of tea cup. (The cup must have had the Heart Sutra written on it. It probably came from the altar. I guess.) Then, a cutting board sticking out of a pile of rocks right in front of my eyes. Potato, tomato, kabocha pumpkin, and dokudani (a weed that can be used for medicine) plants grow in a pile of rubble in what must have been the courtyard. A navy blue sweatshirt hangs from one arm on a nail in an open window (that bothered me the most). One geta sandal. One spoon. A lace blouse pushed solidly under the lamppost I’d been standing by all day showed itself only after lunch. A lacquer bowl. A small stuffed elephant. A tiny gold plastic flower.

After lunch, Fukan and I poked around the remains of the community center. It now serves as a distribution center, with neatly arranged used clothing (mostly winter things) in one room, and cleaned-up-important-items recovered from houses in another (photos, prayer beads, statues, Japanese dolls, keys). Used ClothingThere is a playroom for children, a storage area, a food distribution area, an area for some sort of paperwork, and a back room where the volunteers sleep. Fukan checked to see that no one was around (it feels odd to take photos in such places), then took a photo of the water line, high up on the wall of the community center theater space. The line was even and smooth, not far from the ceiling. The clean, straight, brown line seemed strange to me among so much disorder.

We went on a short walk through town and unconsciously ended where the tsunami did, slightly uphill. Seeing repairs taking place on one of the less-damaged houses, I asked why people would rebuild in such a place. Fukan said that the owners probably had earthquake insurance and rebuilding is the most affordable option. After all, the land is still theirs, the house still has a foundation and some structure, and besides, where else would they go?

Fukan talked to me in the car the whole way back–about an hour and a half. She said she’s glad she went because now she knows that doing that sort of thing is more than she can handle. She realized on this day that her work in the temple is where she can do the most good, with people coming for tea every day, all day long. She officiates at funerals, and, soon, memorial services as well. She tells me before today she felt like she should somehow be doing more, like volunteering, but now she understands her role better. I feel I am watching her mature as a priest before my eyes, and wonder what this experience will teach me.

Fukan wants to go to Kannonji, the next temple over from hers, the next day to sort through the rubble. She asked if I might help with that. It’s been too much for her to think of doing alone, and she’s only gone to that area–five minutes away from her temple–once since the tsunami. The Abbot is elderly and very kind-hearted. She says taking charge of such a task is too much for him. Over 90 members of his temple died, the entire temple was destroyed, and many people remain missing. He can’t face it. He is living with a son in Sendai now, and has no way back even if he wanted to come.

After we returned to the volunteer base camp in Ishinomaki City, we said goodbye to Nishiyama-san, had a lovely meal of soba, and came back to the temple. What a relief. When Fukan lives in a cleared out a storage room next to the main temple building. It’s quite comfortable and very quiet. Each night, as we lay in our futons, though we were both exhausted, we talked for a while. Though she says she is over her limit, Fukan keeps going, constantly stretching her previously defined limits. I am so impressed.
Volunteer Group Self-portrait in the Sun Happy DancerOsaka DancersWashed-up fishing boatMore photos

Though I visited Fukan-san toward the end of my trip, I want to write about her now. Fukan is a friend from my training days at the Aichi Senmon Nisodo (Women’s Monastery) in Nagoya City. She is not what I thought of as a “nun’s nun,” but rather, a breath of fresh air in an environment that emphasizes similarity. Her robes are never quite straight, her posture is a bit slumpy, and Fukan prefers a joke, delivered in deadpan, to austere silence. I fondly remember her raucous laughter echoing through the silent hallways after lights-out. Though at first Fukan wasn’t too keen on training at the Nisodo, she gradually shifted, coming to appreciate zazen (meditation), Abbess Aoyama Roshi and her teachings, and the lifestyle offered there.

Fukan had just completed five years of training at the Nisodo when the earthquake and tsunami struck. In fact, her completion ceremony took place on March 13, two days later. After the disaster, there was no electricity, gas, telephone access, or running water at Sho-un-ji, Fukan’s home temple in Ishinomaki, nor was there any entrance or exit by road or sea. You can look at this map to get a sense of the landscape. Because the temple is located next to the Kitakami River, and not the ocean, no one expected the tsunami to strike there. As such, Fukan had no idea how badly the area had been hit until she made it there in person many days later. I heard Sho-un-ji’s story from Fukan’s shisho, or Zen master/teacher, an 80-year-old monk.


July 1, 2011. It was cold the afternoon the earthquake and tsunami came. Yaguchi Roshi, Fukan’s shisho, was at home with his wife.They felt the earthquake hit and then heard the general alarm announcing a tsunami. Like others in the neighborhood, though, they did not expect a tsunami to come up the river. In fact, many people in the area died because they were standing on the river wall or the stoops of their homes, watching it come in.

Yaguchi Roshi did not know what was going on when people started to show up at the temple. What was happening becomes more clear from the map. As the waters rose from the river, people fled upriver until the escape road also was flooded. The only place to go was into the mountains away from the river, which is why they came to Sho-un-ji. Members of the small, close-knit community began showing up on the steps of the one local temple that was not destroyed.

Almost as soon as the first people arrived in a panic, more came, and then more. It was bitterly cold, and soon snow began to fall. In almost no time at all between 70 and 80 people were huddled into every available space in the temple. Fortunately, the temple had just filled up their large kerosene tank, and they had five or six kerosene heaters to offer some warmth. Blankets were distributed and the temple’s stores of food offered. With no gas, people were not able to cook, but they made food on the heaters and over fires. Some used seawater to cook rice.

After the waters receded and dusk came, more wet and bedraggled survivors drifted in. Two elderly women in their 90’s were drenched to the bone and shivering violently. Yaguchi Roshi worried they would die, but after they received dry clothes, tea, and warmth, they slowly recovered.

Sho-un-ji is not a designated evacuation site, so the authorities did not know to look there for survivors. Some people ventured out, reporting back to the group on the horrors they encountered. When the police did not show up, people waded into the icy water to retrieve corpses themselves. The temple offered its land to bury them, and people from all different sects of Buddhism were interred on its grounds. Though the temple offered every bit of food and supplies it had, it only had about three days’ supply for so many people. People were forced to move to a formal evacuation shelter further away from their former homes.

Only after time, as the days blurred, did the story of the tsunami slowly reach the survivors. When electricity was restored and people could see or hear the news, they were shocked. Kannonji, the neighboring temple had been completely wiped out, as had the next one. The local elementary school, just around the corner from Sho-un-ji, was destroyed, killing 74 of the 108 students and 10 of the 13 teachers.  Twenty-six of Sho-un-ji’s members have been confirmed dead; Kannonji lost at least 90. More than 20 people from the immediate area remain missing.

Not long after the tsunami hit, Yaguchi Roshi became gravely ill with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized in Sendai for two weeks. It was to this environment that Fukan, freshly minted as a full priest, returned. When I visited Sho-un-ji, a steady stream of visitors arrived throughout the day and into the evening for tea, coffee and chocolates sent from a Columbian nun and her community, and conversation. Fukan estimates that she and her teacher visit with about 30 people each day.

The first funeral at which Fukan was the officiant was for multiple people. Japanese people usually cremate the bodies of the deceased, but after the tsunami the crematoriums could not keep up, so people were buried in the ground. Most Japanese people have never seen coffins. As Fukan stood, surrounded by coffins and mourners, she felt her voice would not come to offer the chants. She told herself, “I think I can do one chant, but no more.”

The chant came. And then the next one, and the next. Then she thought, “ . . .but there’s no way I can offer the eko (dedication).” The eko came.

It is customary after a funeral service for the priest to offer a few words. In this situation, Fukan had no idea what to say, and only a few simple words about returning to the sea came out. She felt like a failure as a priest.

When I told this story to my teacher, he was deeply moved, remarking reverently, “That was the best priest training (shugyo) possible. Your friend is going to be a nun among nuns.”

Fukan in car

Tokyo. I am at Will and Miwa’s house tonight. Flying in today, I chanted the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo (invoking compassion) over the water, straining my eyes to the north. It’s tsuyu (rainy season) and the coastline held up low, puffy clouds. I saw two ships. Haze. No debris. I wonder where the flotsam is now? How long will it take to reach Oregon? I chanted for the thousands of people who died in the water beneath me. I included the water itself. (Toxic seas.) And then the clouds. (Toxic clouds.)

From the train, the rice fields gleamed brightly and the sky hung low, burning orange behind me. Bright green fields. Tiled houses. Apartment buildings. A salaryman sat next to me, dozing lightly. People texted on their cellphones. I love Japan. As we passed a river (toxic river) floating three small boats, I wanted to cry. I am home.

Thank you so much for your donations and support for Japan. Returning to Portland this week, I find I have seen so many things and heard so many stories I don’t quite know what to share. I experienced six weeks of intensive compassion training that I know will fuel my practice for years to come.

I went to Japan without nervousness or excitement, but more with of a sense of being compelled–as if there were no choice. As soon as my plane touched down at Narita Airport I was immersed. Nothing I have seen on TV or read in the news prepared me for what I found in Japan. Sure, the images were the same, but TV can’t capture the energy. Tokyo appeared fairly normal on the surface, but the atmosphere was muted. The trains were slower, donation boxes sat on every shop counter, people seemed somehow more polite, and signs of support and concern popped up in random places–on billboards, in taxi windows, hand-stenciled at the airport, and on candy wrappers.

The newspapers publish a daily radiation report next to the weather. Friends with children study it closely and worry. There is so much conflicting information that people aren’t sure what to think–especially those people who can read news in more than one language. Should we make our kids wear masks? What about the rain? (I was there in rainy season.) Should we wipe our shoes when we get home? My friends’ children in Tokyo broke open their piggy banks to give their money to the people of Tohoku (Northern Japan). The boy is having trouble paying attention in school and is fearful.

At my teacher’s temple in Iiyama, a woman told me about her daughter and grandchildren, from whom she’d heard nothing for ten days following the tsunami. Mid-story, my friend switched to her own tragedy, many years previously, when the Chikuma River flooded. “We watched people, pillows, animals, and debris float by, just out of arm’s reach. We didn’t know whether we would live or die, if we would ever eat again, or if anyone even knew we were there,” she said. When my teacher asked if she was speaking about the tsunami or the flood, she didn’t answer, but sat silently with vacant eyes.

And, thus began my trip. My zuise ceremonies went smoothly. I made arrangements and saw friends. Nearly everyone is worried about radiation, and I observed a collective anger toward the government. Friends in Oita want to set up safe houses for mothers and children from Fukushima. People told me their stories–where they were when they heard the news of the tsunami, how they responded to the earthquake, how they couldn’t stop watching television after the disaster, and how their kids cry every time a large aftershock rattles the house.

When I finally took the train north, tent in hand, I wasn’t sure what I was going to, but I understood that my first two weeks in Japan had been as important as shoveling muck would be. As one friend pointed out, rather than “Ganbare Tohoku!” we should say, “Isshoni gambarimasho” or, rather than “Hang in there Tohoku!” we should say, “Let’s all do our best together.” [From ganbaru: to persevere; to persist; to keep at it; to hang on; to hold out; to do one’s best.] Over and over, I heard people say, “We are one.”

I arrived at Kannon-ji, my teacher’s temple in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, in the early afternoon, and within the space of an hour I was driving to the volunteer center in Tono City. The volunteer center is housed in the city’s community center. Volunteers sleep in the gymnasium or in a large tatami room. There are portable showers, working toilets, washing machines, two microwave ovens, a refrigerator, and other amenities. We were crowded but comfortable. I slept between a woman from Kobe and a woman from Aceh, Indonesia.

Each day volunteers choose an activity, and then gather in groups to drive to the coast. Most people do heavy cleanup work–shoveling muck, sorting debris, cleaning roadside drains, and removing the remains of houses. The weather was hot and humid and the work very difficult. Other activities included everything from cooking food for refugees and making aid deliveries to cleaning muddy photographs, offering foot baths, supporting the volunteer center, planting gardens, and more.

I did heavy cleanup work one day, but my efforts mainly focused on offering my ears to hear people’s stories. We would go around to evacuation shelters and temporary housing units offering light massage, and then sit and listen to what people had to say. At first I wondered how we would get people to talk, but that concern dissipated as soon as the first story spilled out.

The word I heard over and over was nagasareta, which means “washed away.”  I heard stories from a two-year-old who watched his parents wash away in their car (his great-grandmother told me), from a teenager whose school friends were gone (she longed for summer festivals), from a woman about my age who grew up in the mountains and was shocked at the power of the sea (not one item from her home was recovered–she most craves her children’s baby pictures), and from an old woman who lost her friends, her home, her garden, and her husband. She worries how she’ll survive without her husband’s pension. She has no place to go, she’s bent in half and she can’t walk far.

The scale of the destruction was more than my mind–more than any human mind–could take in. When I first arrived in Rikuzen Takata and saw one destroyed house, I felt I might cry. Then I lifted my eyes and saw the destruction of thousands and thousands of homes and entered a dream. Or, I opened my eyes to the dream around me. There are great fields of endless debris–crushed cars and boats, twisted metal, piles of concrete, clothing, dolls, wood, toys, plastic bins, and more–remnants of thousands of lives. For weeks, I’ve dreamed of upside-down floating cars, being lost in a maze of debris, and the force of water moving in slow motion.

There is so much more I want to say about this trip–my visit with my friend Fukan and her temple’s role in the disaster, the nearby elementary school that was washed away (with its children and teachers), the volunteers I met, the creative ways I found to distribute your donations, and the countless stories I heard.  I will leave them for now, though.

I could not have volunteered in Tohoku without the support of many people. The recovery in Japan will be a very, very long process on so many different levels, and I will continue to collect donations. If I think of all the suffering I encountered, it is overwhelming. If I remember one person at a time, though, I can see that the benefit of our contributions is immeasurable.

With gratitude,


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