Of course it was never just 100 days – always there was the +1. To fulfil this final duty in Miyagi, we decided to dodge the needless flying, skip the indirect trains, and drive a bus all the way from Kanazawa, straight to Ishinomaki.
It wasn’t the quickest way to do things, but for Katy and I, it was easily the best option. Firstly, we got to have a last glimpse at Japan’s vast countryside, this time during the best and worst of winter. On re-entering Niigata, we were met with an ugly blizzard and a frozen highway. A scenic sojourn it was not. But when we turned inland, through more of Niigata and eventually Fukushima, we had our first real glimpses of a vast, white country, topped by a giant blue sky that was only occasionally smudged with patches of snowy cloud.
Because of this scenery, and because of the wonderful company, the nine-hour journey felt half as long. Our arrangement with the Travel Volunteer team in Kanazawa has been largely a remote one. In spite of that, we found ourselves growing closer as time passed; discovered which of our personalities matched; and always agreed on the best course for our strange little project. The road trip was finally a chance to talk about things other than business, and to share our behind the scenes experiences from the 100 days.
Hours of conversation later, we pulled into frozen Ishinomaki. Most of the Travel Volunteer team have been here numerous times since March. They’ve seen huge strides of improvement since those sodden, unsettling days, but for Katy and I, the changes were harder to discern. Many of Ishinomaki’s derelict buildings remain skeletal, while others have been razed to the ground. For the most part, little rebuilding taken place since we first saw it all in September.
In other words, most of the residents of this stricken, increasingly cold area have little to celebrate. Nor, in truth, do the heroic volunteers from the On The Road charity: the weather has got so inclement that their sprawling camp has been dismantled. Now, to fend off the worst of the chill, they are renting three houses in which to see-through the winter.
So there were plenty of reasons to be miserable, but, as we soon found out melancholy was to have no place in their makeshift community shelter, set-up on some bare land where a home once stood. Comparable to a Mongolian yurt, this centre for celebration was insulated with wool to keep the icy breeze out, and filled with people in search of distraction.
The musicians were first, starting with a man on the clarinet. The camp’s best friend and worst enemy, he blasts that horn at 6am each day – the alarm call for his voluntary comrades. At night, though, he is the entertainer, happy to puff out soothing songs to the gathered community.
He was followed by two elderly ladies who played traditional Japanese songs on the harp and the flute respectively. I won’t pretend to know what they were singing – in some ways I preferred not to – but watching their crumpled faces, and seeing the candlelight flickering in the watery black eyes of the crowd, knowing that it was snowing outside just as it did on the day of the terrible earthquake… It was one of the most moving things I have ever seen.
Any sadness I felt was evidently not shared by the group because a few minutes later the generator was back on and the floor was cleared for a mass game of janken (rock, paper, scissors). In the UK, we use the game to settle minor dispute – which lazy student will go to the shop, or which sibling will do the washing up. In Japan, it’s more than that: a source of mass entertainment, where the crowd competes against a central janken master. To raise the stakes in the yurt, teams of four were put together and instructed to stand on a single sheet of newspaper. If they lost against the master’s draw, they had to fold the sheet in half. Within a couple of rounds, with the paper getting smaller and smaller, women were on the backs of men, and children on top of them, like fretting polar bears refusing to leave the last iceberg. As a newspaper journalist who frequently worries that his trade is about to go the same way as the lighthouse keeper and the dodo hunter, it was strangely satisfying to see that was some life yet left in the old print format.
We decided to follow this by coordinating a game of musical statues, a birthday party favourite from home, but one that the Japanese – adults and kids alike – had never played it before. The idea is that while music plays, people are invited to dance, but the moment it stops, they must freeze immediately, maintaining their petrification until the music restarts. With the help of a brilliant bongo player, we thought we’d be on to a sure-fire winner. After all, with the number of strange looks from children who were visibly stunned by our faces over the past 100 days, surely it’d be easy to perturb a Japanese statue?
Alas, we hadn’t gambled on the native desire to obey the rules. Even small children seemed unimpressed by my strange, gurning face. Katy’s Halloween “boo!” was as effective as a computer made of sand. It was a long game, with no clear winner, but watching the untethered joy people had while dancing reassured us that we were ploughing the right field.
Inevitably, our stint as Santa Claus came after that. Initially, our plan had been to raise a vast amount of money, and to spoil the people of Ishinomaki rotten. However, this plan was rejected, and eventually revised. To understand why people wouldn’t want to be showered with gifts after such a tragedy-laden year, I remember something my friend Tetsuya (temporarily back in Kyoto while his family grows again) said back in September.
“The people here shouldn’t be so keen for handouts,” he said, “It’s not the Japanese way – people have been getting government support, but now it’s time to get back to work. The earthquake has given us a chance to start again – things like possessions aren’t important.” He said this while talking over the top of his iPad, and I couldn’t help think that he was at least talking about himself. But his wider message – that people should fend for themselves and shouldn’t prize shiny things too greatly – seems to have been adopted by the people of Ishinomaki.
So instead of riding in like white knights, our job was to give out a few humble presents from the UK, in a sort of support role to the genuine, local Santa-san. Whatever the configuration, we’ll never forget the look of gratitude and glee on the faces of the little children. In the end, we didn’t become centre stage of Christmas Eve in Ishinomaki, but no one – not us, nor the people on site – were making any complaints about that.
Our time at the party was made possible by:
The illusive Mr. Matsumoto, who spoke little but drove an awful lot to make our 15 hours round trip possible. We started in Kanazawa, drove to Ishinomaki and spent the night in Tokyo – a long-cut if ever there was one.
Aya Koiwa and Toshio Kawakami who who joined us for Christmas event and helped us to get organised. This after spending the first part of the day in similarly stricken Iwate. An amazing pair of volunteers.
The hospitality of the On The Road volunteers who arranged the Christmas party, did all the donkey work, and allowed us to join in. They’ve been in the disaster area for over nine months now, and their work will continue well into the new year. Please support them if you can.
The humble business Hotel Nishiike who offered our team an incredible five complimentary rooms in which to lay our weary heads. At a busy time of year, we’re sincerely grateful that they found room for us.