Volunteering in Tohoku

A Retrospective Three Years Later

A white raven. Which is close enough to a crow. They're both corvids.
So many dead fish.

It's the third anniversary of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that took almost 16,000 lives, with another two and a half thousand missing. Shortly after, I wrote about what it was like being in Tokyo in the wake of the disaster. I also wrote the following about volunteering in north eastern Japan, the Tohoku region, but I didn't get around to uploading it. I figured the anniversary was as good a time as any to rectify that.

Trip One - Peace Boat

There was a lot of confusion with regard to volunteering in the affected areas in the first few weeks following March 11th. Somehow the rumour got spread that volunteers weren't welcome, that they would just get in the way of more professional relief efforts, handled by the Japanese military and others. Some people ignored that rumour and went anyway, and reported back that volunteers were definitely needed. One of the guys who did that was a dude I played ball hockey with named Yudai. He's that kind of guy - after volunteering a while in Tohoku, he went on to help bring water to people who need it in Sri Lanka.

So it took a few weeks, but after sifting past misinformation and sorting schedules, two other friends from my hockey group, Paul and Ted, committed to heading up during Golden Week Holidays, at the end of April, beginning of May, which was six weeks after the disaster struck. On Yudai's advice, we plugged into a group called Peace Boat that was possibly the largest group coordinating volunteer efforts in the region.

A week or so before heading up, we went to an orientation in a community centre, where there were a few hundred people gathered in a large gymnasium to get instructions on matters like what to wear and not to wear, what camping gear we needed, and all the basics. Part way through the meeting, we were told to form groups of six or so. My friends and I were already three, so we joined the first three Japanese women who were standing in front of us. Their names turned out to be Yoshie, Saori, and Yukiko. Saori would later be nicknamed "Akaren" (赤レン), for "red ranger," because of her all red work outfit. We decided Yoshie would be the leader, her official title would be "Dear Leader," which we often just shortened to "Leader." Our group of six coordinated on where and how to get the supplies we needed, what things we might share and what we'd be individually responsible, and then to meet at the spot in Shinjuku where we would catch the bus up to Ishinomaki, the city where Peace Boat seemed to be the most active.

The overnight bus ride up was hell. It wasn't just that the bus made constant pit stops, every hour or so, at highway rest stops, which involved turning on all the lights in the cabin, seemingly to deliberately deprive us as sleep. On top of that was the fact that the earthquake had rippled down the highway, leaving permanent undulations, like a wrinkled ribbon lying on a floor. At completely random times, the bus would hit a massive bump that sent shock waves right up through the seat that was too small to relax in anyway. Most were just annoying, some would bounce you out of the seat.

We arrived early in the morning, barely having slept, and as we poured out of the bus, tired as we were, we still looked more refreshed than the crowds of people we were replacing, who were lined up to take our bus back to Tokyo.

We found ourselves at a university, and a section of the field was designated for us to set up our tents. The field had a red clay race track, and we were instructed that we were to not set up tents on the inside of the track, only the outside, and to be sure to not disturb the students who would occasionally be doing track and field training there. We thought it was a little weird that they were so particular about us giving way to the students, not because we expected any deference for being volunteers, but because it had a feeling that they put gym class in higher priority than rebuilding the community, which seemed odd. Nothing was said, of course, because none of us could say what the circumstances for any of these students was. Maybe having some kind of normalcy was the best thing for them.

Ted and I had a shared tent borrowed from our friend Rob, which turned out to be smaller than we thought it would be, but it just barely fit us both. Paul had his own tent, and each of the three women had their own tent. Leader had the same model of tent as Ted and I, and especially with her small size, meant she had the most spacious living conditions of us all. A couple of nights a few of us would sit in her tent and chat. Conversations, which, we later discovered, were heard by everyone in every nearby tent because, of course, tents don't exactly block noise. A fact that's kind of obvious but you don't think about until it happens.

We were warned of winds blowing in from the other end of the field, so I was particularly obsessive about setting up the tent so that it was at an angle to the wind, the door facing away, having an extra rope tether to a tree, and duckt-taping shut any openings which might trap the wind. At the time I was mocked for overkill.

There was a whole convoy of various shuttle buses and cars that ferried us from the camp toward the city. We passed a Japanese military camp, a huge garbage dump filled with remnants of a city, and through parts of town that seemed completely unaffected by any kind of disaster. Although the earthquake had been felt countrywide, the tsunami only came inshore by a few kilometres. This meant that at a certain point inland, it didn't look like anything had happened at all. And since we came up in the dark, we hadn't seen the devastation that hit the farmlands all the way down the coast. So at this point, as the bus passed a family restaurant, a convenience store, a DVD shop specializing in pornography, I had that slightly guilty feeling of wondering if maybe the worst of everything had been taken care of. It's a guilty feeling because on the one hand, you want to feel like you're making an impact by coming to help when it matters, but at the same time you know you shouldn't want a situation to be bad just so you can be in the thick of it.

That concern, as awkward as it is, was put to rest as we got to the community centre which was the base of operations in the city. With just a few turns around some city blocks, the environment changed completely, from one of deceptive normalcy to complete devastation.

It looked like the completely bombed out aftermath of a battlefield that I had only ever seen in news reports about conflicts in places like middle east war zones. Everything was a pale brownish grey colour. The air smelled like concrete after rain. Just about every building was completely gutted on the first floor. The roads had been cleared, but for the most part the debris had been simply pushed into piles on side.

What was striking was a visual silence that matched the auditory silence. Save for ourselves, there was nothing to be heard anywhere, except an occasional distant bird chirping. And on top of that, there was just a complete lack of movement or change. No traffic lights, no pedestrian crossing signals, no street lights, no store signs, no traffic, no pedestrians, nothing automated or otherwise moving, flickering, or changing anywhere. The entire city was more or less frozen in a neutral coloured disarray.

We sat in the parking lot in the back of the community centre, and after a long delay, there was a seminar explaining to us various details about what tasks we'd be doing and what to do if we hear the tsunami alarm, and other things. By the time it was done, it was about noon, so we broke for lunch, and then after we were sent out for our first assignment.

Our group was assigned along with a few others to clean up the area around a museum dedicated to various anime characters. Ishinomaki was the home of Shotaro Ishinomori, a guy who made a lot of famous manga, so along with this museum, there were also a lot of statues of anime characters around on the streets. Our work consisted essentially of using shovels to scoop up debris into drawstring bags, then putting those bags into a wheelbarrow, then moving it to a pile near the side of the road where eventually a truck would come gather it. Particularly large bits of debris would be carted off without the need for a bag.

By debris, Paul had the best description. "It's like everything that had ever been somewhere in the city is now everywhere in the city." Mostly you'd be shovelling up sludge, brought up from the ocean floor and left in a coating over the entirety of everywhere. It was the bond that glued the rest of the debris, which would consist of any random thing you could think of. Old video tapes, golf clubs, motorcycle parts, flower vases, couch cushions, the drawer from a cash register... anything that had been somewhere it belonged was now just part of an indiscernible pile of things to be shovelled out of the way. Every now and again we'd come across something that maybe seemed like it should be set aside, like a small photo album. I don't know where they went, but we'd set them aside and pass them on up the chain of command.

Almost right away we discovered that the best system was to work in teams of two, where one would shovel and another would hold a bag open to receive, and the people shovelling got good at the rhythm of the motion and the angles of attack, and the people working the bags developed snappy turns of the wrist for tying them off and then passing them along to the wheelbarrows. Not that there was any particular intention to be gender normative, but it ended up being that mostly the three men in our group of six did digging and the three women did the bags. Not always, but everyone seemed cool with that for the most part.

Personally, I found I kind of liked shovelling all day. There was a clarity of purpose in it, simple parameters for success, and engaging physicality. Everything I don't get when I'm doing all the bullshit modern day "information technology" work I usually do while sitting at a computer. And at the end of the day, I was so exhausted, I slept like a log. Or, like mud, as the equivalent Japanese saying goes.

Instead of a day by day diary, I'll just break down the basic day template, which was mostly repeated. We'd get up in the morning around six and have breakfast together, our group of six collected around a the portable stoves we brought. We'd all have our own preferred things to eat, but we'd share a few things as well. By seven we'd have our gear on and head over to the parking lot area which was the main gathering spot for announcements and organization. We'd do a little stretching along with a recording of a radio broadcast, and it's one of those situations that a lot of foreigners assume the Japanese do without irony. The reality is that the Japanese know it's kind of silly, but it helps keep things light, adds a little familiarity to an otherwise exceptional situation, and hey, it might even help the body warm up a bit. I often opted to just sit it out, though, because I just don't get much from it.

We'd have to line up so that a headcount could be done, and a guy with a megaphone would call out assignments. Some people were put to work in a food distribution warehouse and I think there were other tasks, but our group was always on city clean up. There was a hodgepodge mix of cars and small buses to ferry us into the city, though on a couple of occasions we had to use bicycles, which I much preferred. In the city we'd gather at the community centre where we waited until assigned to a specific cleanup detail. As far as I understood it, the Peace Boat volunteers didn't just go out to where cleaning was needed, someone who owned a particular property had to come and ask. I'm not sure if that was some kind of legal constraint or just convention. In any case, the whole concept of volunteering seems newish in Japan, so a lot of people in the city were not aware that having volunteers come help was an option. To rectify this, there were some Peace Boat people specially assigned to go out and about to try and inform the public about us.

There was only one day where we had to wait a bit for someone to come in for something for our group to do. Usually we'd just get told where to go pretty much right away, and then spend the day cleaning, which mainly involved lots of shovelling of sludge. Sometimes after we finished shovelling we'd disperse this white powder over the ground which was supposedly going to help offset the damage to the soils PH balance. We'd have a break at noon, and finish at four or five. We'd bring all our equipment back to an area where there were two power hoses set up to wash the sludge off the wheelbarrows, shovels, and us. We'd often be covered in grime, but our clothes were waterproof, so we'd just stand with our arms outstretched while someone blasted us clean.

After taking the cleaned equipment back to the storage area, at the end of the day we'd wait for transport at the community centre while the rest of the groups finished and came in. We would sit around a fire that warmed up some drinks and have some snacks with a really nice security guard guy who was always there. There'd always be conversation, and sometimes people sang or were entertaining in some way or another.

We'd get ferried back to the camp site the same way we came, and there'd usually be just enough daylight left for us to get some dinner made, and eat it just after it got dark. There'd be a little hanging out and talking, maybe saying hi to another group or someone else coming over to say hi to us, but we'd be pretty tired, so we'd get to sleep pretty early.

That was the general swing of things.

Our first cleaning assignment turned out to be a really small and probably quite crappy hostess bar before the tsunami. Admittedly, at first we were a tiny bit put off by the idea of cleaning out what seemed kind of like a very non-essential location. Weren't there homes, hospitals, and schools in need of cleaning? However, we realized that it wasn't the point to make judgements about who was the recipient of our efforts. The whole city and community needed to be restored, and who's to say which part and which person is more or less integral to getting back to normal?

The guy who ran the place was an older man, with white hair but fairly energetic, and had a sort of haughty tone about him, but nothing too bad. He wasn't totally clear on our function. There were two tiny rooms to his establishment, each about three square metres, and both had large cupboards that had fallen over. These large cupboards were leaning against other counters at precarious angles, were mostly broken, and were in need of removal. We gave him the option to either destroy them and clear them out of the room or leave them as they stood. He asked us numerous times if we could get them out without damaging them, and we had to explain that we weren't professional movers or construction workers. We demolish and clean, and that's it.

The back room was probably the most difficult thing we cleaned while we were there. Most people in Tokyo lament the fact that buildings in Japan don't use insulation, leading to really inefficient heating and cooling of rooms throughout the seasons. However, it turns out that in Tohoku, at least in some places, they do have insulation. Which is probably a good thing, when it hasn't been ripped out of the walls by a natural disaster. As it was, in this place, the insulation mixed with the sludge, which itself was a mixture of ocean floor and oil and chemicals from smashed boats, making it into a heavy and wet substance that does not separate easily for shovelling. If that weren't bad enough, there were layers of waterlogged gyprock in large sheets, and the mirrors that had been all over the walls were now in razor sharp shards mixed throughout. So you couldn't reach in to pull out the gyprock for fear of cutting your hands, you couldn't just shovel it up because the gyprock wouldn't break easily, and everything was weighed down by the insulation sludge combo.

When we cleared out enough to reach the back wall, we discovered that on the outside were three cars piled on top of each other, and the ones on top were pushing into the room, with only the thinnest sheets of wood holding them out. There were a few bits of furniture and debris left that we thought might be holding the wall up and the cars out, so we decided that was a problem for someone more professional than us and that was our day.

One of the interesting parts of doing the volunteering was talking to the locals, like this guy, and learning about their situations. This guy spoke about how he's in a difficult position. Some of the shopkeepers on his street aren't coming back, and then that in turn makes it less worthwhile for other shopkeepers to be there. The area his little bar was in was a thriving entertainment area before, and it was good for business to be around other lively businesses. But now with two out of every three shops possibly shutting down, there was uncertainty about whether or not it was worth reopening. He told us it seemed like it might be the case that the entertainment area might shift further inland, in an area where people are already starting to gather, where the tsunami didn't reach. Rebuilding isn't just a matter of cleaning up and physically reconstructing, it's also a matter of navigating the ebbs and flows of lots of individual decisions aggregating into larger group dynamics. This guy had a difficult choice ahead of him. Does he commit to rebuilding where he is, which is cheaper because he already has a place, but he could lose out if not enough other people make the same decision? Or does he pick up and pay all the expense of moving his business elsewhere, and have to gamble on where the best elsewhere will turn out to be.

Another guy who lived in a sort of housing complex with a yard area in front showed us the small tree he and others gripped for life while the waters swirled around him. You could see on the walls around it, as you could on most walls in the city, the dingy brown line that delineated the high water mark, and the tree was clearly not as high as you would have liked it to have been. He made it through, though, and told us how from where he was, he watched people on rooftops getting carried down the street and out to sea. As the water came in, a lot of people made the natural choice to head upwards, and climbed on top of the roof of their homes. For some of those people, though, the house underneath gave way, and the roof became a raft that they had no control over.

On a lunch break on one of the early days, we went up to the top of a hill in the centre of town that overlooks another part of town on a peninsula. That part of town, the peninsula, was the part facing directly toward the sea and the tsunami, and it was the most devastated. By devastated, I mean that save for a handful of exceptions, every building and structure had been reduced to a pile of rubble no more than about a metre high. The wave reached heights of 30 metres here, and came in at hundreds of kilometres an hour. The Japanese military had been through with heavy machinery by this time, and had cleared the streets by simply pushing debris off to the side of the road, meaning there was a visible grid pattern dividing up the rubble.

You could look down on this devastation from the top of the hill where we were, and it made for some very contemplative viewing. This was cherry blossom season, and this hill was covered in trees in bright pink and white sakura, which were gently falling like snowflakes. I'm not usually given to overly poetic notions, but you'd have to be completely dead inside to not be struck by the contrast between the delicate beauty of the sakura petals and the overwhelming destructive potential of the ocean, two extreme ends of nature's potential.

On another day, after the days work had been done, the six from our team took some bicycles into that devastated area. We took some pictures, and we wondered if this wasn't maybe a form of disaster tourism. Being in Ishinomaki to volunteer gave us some ethical leeway, but did it justify the morbidity of taking snapshots of the site where hundreds or thousands of people were killed? I don't know about the others, but my concerns were put to rest when we were passed by a driving school car that was giving a lesson to a new driver in the area. The car was from a local driving school, and they were clearly slowing down and looking around. If the locals are okay with not treating the area with reverence, then I felt okay too.

As part of our little bicycle journey, we went out to the furthermost edge of the peninsula, looking straight out into the sea. It was a beautiful endless horizon, that was also a little intimidating. Right behind us was the evidence of what happens when that horizon comes at you.

The city was essentially divided into three zones. The first zone being that peninsula area that was completely devastated. The third zone was the area far enough inland that was untouched by the tsunami and just went on as normal. The middle zone was the area where we worked in, where buildings were still standing, but varied between being completely gutted to possibly salvageable. The first floor of almost every building was ruined, and there were cars and boats strewn in, around, and on top of buildings everywhere. Before I came up, I saw some newspaper pictures of large boats on top of buildings and assumed those pictures were selected for the news because of their novelty. When I got up to Ishinomaki, though, I realized that boats on top of buildings was far from unusual. There were boats big and small on enough buildings to make it not worth pointing out as you walked around.

In some places, there were pieces of road thrown into buildings. Apparently, in sections of the city, the earthquake had fractured the road, and then the tsunami came in and picked up the large flat chunks and carried them into buildings. That struck me as really weird, to see a chunk of road cutting into the side of a building. The kind of effect you just don't anticipate.

The most frustrating day was spent working with a group of other teams to clean out some kind of warehouse. What made the day frustrating was that a Russian guy who was some professor at a university in Osaka took it upon himself to be the leader of the whole operation, and he had no idea what the hell he was doing. It was clear from the other members on his team, who we befriended and would talk to sometimes in the evenings, that he was always trying to boss people around and they were pretty tired of it. I realized we were pretty lucky in that our team had no problem members in it.

The issue of the day was that there was a backup of water behind the building, because debris and sludge had blocked the drainage ditch that led out to the sea. The city had drainage ditches alongside most of the roads, covered by cement tiles, that led into larger drainage canals leading out to the sea. One of these larger drainage canals was behind this building, and there was a large collection of water obscuring what was blocking it. The Russian genius decided to form a bucket brigade, having ferry water from where it was collecting and then pouring it out into another drainage ditch near the front of the building. What became apparent, and should have been apparent from the start if anyone, such as the genius, had bothered to look, was that the angle and path of the drainage ditches meant that the water being poured out front was coming right back around to the back again, to the exact same place it was taken from.

I bailed on the bucket brigade before realizing this, though, because the way the Russian guy insisted on his plan set off every anti-authoritarian trigger in me. I only participated in it as long as I did because the other members of my team are far less hot headed than I am and convinced me that playing along would keep the peace between everyone a lot better. They probably saved me from an unnecessary argument with the genius. I was, however, so frustrated with the ineffectuality of his plan that I hunted around for something more meaningful to do, and discovered that there was an area accessible through a broken wall where the bulk of the blockage was. People were hesitant to get in, because it meant jumping into hip deep muddy water, but I was fed up enough with the Russian genius to do just that. At first I had illusions I could maybe do this without getting that dirty, as everything I was wearing from the waist down was waterproof. But when I was lifting up a quilt to volunteers above me, it ripped in half due to the weight of being soaked in sludge, covering me in a rain of gunk as it splashed into the water around me. Still, I managed to help clear out enough junk to allow water to start draining, and my willingness to dive into the sludge earned me some cred.

On about the third day or so, coming back to our tents, I was vindicated in my over zealous securing of the tent Ted and I were using, as strong winds had destroyed about thirty percent of all the tents in the little tent city on university grounds. Leader's tent, which was the same make and model, was knocked down, and there were pieces missing. Fortunately, there were tent pegs and rope and things on offer from past groups who had left gear, and from other destroyed tents.

One night, in the middle of the night, I woke up suddenly, sure that I heard the tsunami alarm go off. I hit Ted to wake him up, and we rushed to get some clothes on, and then burst out of the tent... to find absolutely nothing going on. I was really puzzled, because I was so sure I heard the alarm. I walked around a bit, and found some other people up and asked them if an alarm had gone off, and they said they were pretty sure it hadn't. There was so little activity in the camp that it became undeniable that I must have dreamt it. There were often ambulance or fire truck sirens going off in the distance, so perhaps my sleeping brain had misinterpreted one of those. Or I just totally dreamt it. Fortunately, Ted was pretty chill about having been woken up in the middle of the night. Partly because he's pretty chill in any case. Also because with the labour we were doing all day, it wasn't hard to get back to sleep.

Locals in the area would come by the volunteer camp, bringing hot food as a show of gratitude, which was really nice. Even though we had little stoves to heat up our own food, it was never really the kind of steaming hot meal that one would hope for in the cold nights after a hard day of work. The best thing ever, though, was on one day some group brought a portable sento, basically a little hot bath, that we could soak our feet into. I have rarely experienced anything that felt better.

When we were briefed on what to bring, they emphasized strongly, or at least I thought they did, that we needed to bring sufficient water, because there would be no access to water where we'd be camped. That turned out not to be the case, as there was a water truck that came in every day, making the heavy and unwieldy 24 litres of water I brought up totally superfluous. I drank only from my bottled water anyway, out of spite, but Paul enjoyed constantly reminding me of my wasted effort, usually by sarcastically mentioning that there might be some water available if I was short of supply.

Over time we made friends with other teams. Especially two members of the team with the genius Russian would come over and say hi after dinner. Hirai San, a really jovial type of guy who worked as a teacher, and Yoshitake San, a sharp guy who worked trading energy between the various power companies in Japan. They liked hanging with our team because theirs was a little dysfunctional.

We also made friends with another team that we dubbed "Team Fish." They were a nice group of mostly foreign members. One day, somewhere in the middle of our time up there, it was the end of the work day and everyone was getting on one of the buses that would ferry us all back to base camp. As some people got on, there was this brutal smell. It's hard to describe. It was of something rotten, but not like I had ever smelled before. It was unmistakeably coming from certain members, the ones we later dubbed "Team Fish." Of course, we had to ask what the deal was, and it turned out that they had been assigned to shovel out sludge in an area of town that had a lot of fish packing warehouses. The main industry in Ishinomaki, or at least a really big industry, is fishing, and there are tons and tons of fish stored in warehouses, frozen, mostly packed, and ready to be shipped around the country. According to Team Fish, in this area they were in, just under the sludge were piles of dead fish, rotting away, and only getting worse as time went on and the weather improved.

That smell wove into the very fabric of the clothes of each member of Team Fish and did not leave them for the entire rest of the time. You could identify them by smell immediately whenever they got onto a bus or near you. If you walked around the camp, you would know which tents belonged to members of Team Fish, and later of other volunteers who also had to contend with fish. Our team spent the rest of the time in a state of oscillation between anxious about having to suffer a day of fish detail and a morbid curiosity about contending with it. In the end, we didn't have to do any fish detail - or at least, I didn't have to on that trip.

During our time there, we had helped to clear out some houses, the area around a hospital which had syringes and acetone mixed in with the sludge, drainage ditches around the city, along the shoreline, and other random tasks. Our last day was clearing out a parking about half full with abandoned and ruined cars.

At the end of the last day our team plus a few people from the other teams, Team Fish and our friends from the Russian geniuses team, got on some bicycles and headed inland to see some of the local area that hadn't been affected. We headed up a hillside to a shrine and walked along the edge of an inlet that seemed unaffected by the disaster. I was pretty excited about discovering wild pitcher plants, which I had no idea were native to Japan. Carnivorous plants have always fascinated me. These ones were huge and an nice shade of purple.

The bus ride on the way back was during the day, and so it was possible to get a better sense of the scale of the devastation. For pretty much the whole way, hour after hour as we travelled, the scene to the left of the bus was total devastation from the highway to the shore. Sometimes the devastation would be to the right as well. Mostly it was farmland, which, as someone explained, was largely ruined because the saltwater soaked into the ground and the salt made it unfarmable.

The bus made a stop at a highway rest area in Fukushima prefecture. I made the point of buying strawberries farmed locally, which was for me symbolically dispelling any unfounded panic about the radiation, which was a hot topic of mostly uninformed debate.

Part Two - IMA

I went up again a couple weeks later, this time with another friend, Jane, who knew a guy named Dean that was coordinating small groups of volunteers through a fledgling volunteer group of his own called Intrepid Model Adventures, or IMA. Dean is the kind of guy I would totally hate had I met him in any other context, because he's a tall good looking model type of guy and... well, that's it really. I just resent good looking guys. But it's hard to hate on a guy who's working as hard as he was to do some good up in Tohoku, and he also happens to be a pretty nice guy. Anyway, this time up we went up by car, driven by Jane's friend Pete. In our group was Jane, Pete, myself, and another dude named Mehmet, and Dean was in the car with us both on the way up and back.

This time the car ride up, and back, was a hell of a lot more enjoyable. We talked about all sorts of insane things and had a good laugh. And unlike the Peace Boat chartered bus which stopped every hour or so, Pete only needed to stop once or twice, so we made the trip in about 4 hours, instead of 7. I think. I could be wrong about the travel times.

Our first night up found us crashing on the floor of the second story of some small building right in the middle of Ishinomaki that had previously had shops of some kind in it. Already there camping in the room were some Christian missionaries, an older guy and two younger men, one of whom I think was the son of the older guy. They were nice and didn't proselytize, but had their bibles out and prayed a lot, leaving no room for doubt that they were pretty hard core Christian.

Already the town was noticeably different from the last time I was there. There was more infrastructure in terms of streetlights working, and a significant amount of debris had been cleared from the roads, making getting around both by foot and car a lot easier. I was reminded of something Paul mentioned on the first trip about all the volunteer effort, which is that "it's not efficient, but it is effective." All the shovelling and debris clearing and tasks that volunteers like us did was mostly haphazard. There was no coordinating guidance that, had it existed, might have gone about things differently. Making sure roads that led to hospitals and essential services were tended to first and that kind of thing. Instead, we just cleaned up here and there, like ants randomly running around the city. In total, though, the sustained effort added up to some impressive aggregate results. The city had a long way to go, but you could see that it was on the way.

The next day we headed over to an elementary school that had been turned into a refugee centre, a place for volunteers to sleep, and outside there was an area where volunteers were assigned tasks. There were dozens of small charitable groups, and individuals, and teams of people from unions and corporations and schools and the like, who were all up there to volunteer. They would all come to this one central area to be assigned tasks. It was all headed by a woman named Kanada San who had been a part of the volunteer effort in the Kansai earthquake of 1995, and I think had been doing volunteer activities since. She was well organized and did a good job delegating tasks.

The kind of work we did on this second trip of mine was different from the first. In the first, there was much more shovelling of sludge. This time, there was much more clearing of debris out of houses. Most of that debris was the house itself, as just about any part of the house on the first floor that wasn't a load bearing beam had to be ripped out and disposed of, especially flooring.

On the first day, we were sent to a house that was in an area where there were many small warehouses that stored fish to be packed and shipped elsewhere. There was no separate zoning of houses and warehouses, and you'd have warehouses one floor high and maybe 10 square metres in back of a regular family house.

As I walked up to the first house, over one of the windows on the first floor, I saw what looked like a black curtain gently swaying in the breeze. As I got closer, it was clear that the curtain wasn't black, it was covered in flies. I waved my shovel at it just to see what it looked like for the cloud of flies to disperse. It was as disturbing as I figured it would be. Turns out that what happened was that there was a small fishing warehouse about fifteen meters away from this house, and pretty much all the contents of that warehouse, all the packed and previously frozen fish, were swept into the first floor of this house. The whole first floor had a thick layer, about 30 centimetres deep, of dead fish and sludge that had since rotted into a more or less indiscernible mass.

Also: maggots. Mainly there were white ones, black ones, and red ones of various sizes. With every shovelful of fish mush, there were pockets of maggots. At first it would give you pause, but soon they were just part of the debris to be shovelled up. The fact that it was debris that wriggled didn't mean anything.

And the smell. Wow, the smell. Of course it smelled terrible, but it wasn't just a smell that a person would describe as bad. It was a smell that hit you on a visceral level. I think deep down biologically we're hard wired to get away from smells like that, because nothing good can ever be happening in the presence of that kind of odour. Especially in that volume, and being in the enclosed confines of the house we were in. Some people retched, others had to excuse themselves completely. I was determined to not be phased, but I nonetheless had to step outside now and again just to breathe some fresh air.

What added an element of surreality to the shovelfuls of fish mass and maggots was that there were tons of fresh packs of socks mixed in. A nearby Shimamura store had been blown out just like the fish warehouse, and its stock of socks, and pretty much only socks, had collected into this house.

Speaking of surreal, there were also fish hanging in the trees outside. It was less clear if those fish were from the warehouses or were brought in from the ocean, but seeing fish in trees makes the world seem a bit topsy turvy.

On another day, we were clearing out the house of a husband and wife. I was amused that the one thing that they had managed to salvage when pretty much every single thing that was on the first floor of their house was destroyed, was their collection of large jars of umeshu. Umeshu is a plum liquor that people make at home by simply letting plums ferment along with sugar and water in sealed jars. I had tried it myself one time, resulting in some slightly substandard quality umeshu, but my tiny little hobbyist jar was nothing compared to the massive jars these people had. They might have lost most of their home, but they were all set to do some serious drinking over the summer.

On another day, while we were clearing out a house, Pete, from the UK, Jane, from Australia, and myself, from Canada, were taking a bit of a break and talking with each other. As we did, we suddenly found an elderly Japanese man standing with us. He was delighted and fascinated to know that we were from all these different countries, having never been out of Japan his whole life, and never having met a single foreigner before. I thought it was awesome when he asked, "So... being foreign... what's that like?"

Mehmet was probably off somewhere else at that moment. He often disappeared for periods of time, and it was only later when he shared his pictures with us that we realized he was having all sorts of adventures of his own, hanging out with the Japanese military and meeting people we never saw.

It was a great moment, chatting with the old guy and being his first in person encounter with foreigners. He was totally into it, and that was pretty representative of all the people I met while up on both trips. We met a fair amount of elderly people, and they were either curious, or just friendly, and the ones we directly helped were as engaging and grateful as you could hope for. Which I mention because a while back there was this Japanese politician named Hidehiko Nishiyama, a total tool, who said that he didn't think it was a good idea to have foreign assistance in the rebuilding effort in Tohoku because having foreigners roaming around the Tohoku region would scare the grandmas and grandpas out there. What a fucking twat. I've got nothing good to say about that guy. Though at least he's still not as much of an outright asshole as former Tokyo governor Ishihara, who actually said that the tsunami was divine punishment for a Japan that deserved it. But I won't go into how Japanese politicians are, for the most part, an insulated and incestuous oligarchy of moronic self serving elitist assholes. That's a blog post for a different day.

It felt very noble to be doing basic physical labour to help regular folks. But then one time I was shovelling crud out of a ditch near the house with all the fish in it, and I was taking a break alongside a bunch of Japanese dudes. I chatted with them and found out they all worked in construction down in Osaka. What I realized was that these guys were doing the same kind of stuff as their regular jobs, which is a bigger ask than what I was doing. They were basically working for free, while I was taking a vacation into the novelty of being a labourer before returning to my cushy existence as a guy who sits in air conditioned rooms, sipping coffee while trying not to to surf the net instead of doing work. I mean, I'm not saying the end results of the efforts of people like me contribute any less, just that it's good to keep a bit of perspective on the different sacrifices people make to help out.

It was interesting to see the varied efforts. There was a guy who set up shop just outside the refugee centre to repair bicycles for free. I can't remember where he came from, but I remember it was pretty far, maybe even Kyushu, and he had biked up. He knew how to repair bikes, so he came up to do just that. Another day a baker from some other part of the country showed up with a whole bunch of baked goods to distribute to the refugees. There were all sorts of random things people would do to contribute. Inefficient, but effective.

On one of the days, I encountered the river of maggots. We were digging out a roadside trench, and when we managed to unblock a section, water started pouring through, and it was chock full of maggots, some drowned, some still wriggling. Yeah, it was every bit as disturbing as you think it was. A few of us wondered what the source of this little tributary to the river Styx was, and so we followed the drainage ditch up the road. We found another fish warehouse, and it looked like it hadn't been attended to since the disaster. It was private property, but we suspected no one would mind us poking in a bit. We managed to work our way around some debris to get an angle to see inside, and discovered that there was a faucet running at maximum output, filling the lower part of the warehouse with a pool of water. This, along with the masses of decaying fish strewn everywhere, was a perfect breeding ground for all sorts of insect horrors. With a little deductive reasoning, we figured that the water had probably been shut off sometime after the disaster, and then turned on again recently, meaning the fish had the time to rot and get a healthy population of maggots, before drowning them and sending them downstream. I actually can't remember exactly what happened after that. I think we managed to get in with the intention of turning it off, but the valve was broken such that no amount of turning had any impact, and so we told someone who might have been able to contact some local utilities people. I'll never forget that river of maggots though. That was when I learned that Japanese for maggot was "uji" (蛆), because some of the Japanese casually referred to it as "ujigawa" (蛆川), "maggot river."

At night our group, which was Jane, Pete, Mehmet, and myself since Dean was off doing other tasks, stayed in the music room of the elementary school. There were some rooms set aside for administration and whatnot, but most of the rooms in the building, were occupied by people whose homes had been destroyed. We didn't really interact with them, though, out of a sort of deference for their situation. Sometimes I caught a glance into one of the rooms as I walked down a hallway, and noticed that each room was a barely organized mess of blankets and necessities most likely donated after the disaster, mixed in with salvaged personal possessions. It brought home the reality of having everything in your life reduced to the random selection that mother nature decides to leave you with. Not to mention that most, if not all, of the people in this building had likely lost family and friends. The kind of loss they had was hard to relate to, and so we didn't try. We'd smile and nod if we happened to pass in a hallway or something, so it wasn't an unfriendly atmosphere or anything, we just didn't want to impose, so we left it to them to set the tone for any interaction. For the most part, though, what I remember was the silence. A whole school where every room was filled with people who were for the most part strangers, maybe neighbours at best, all living in close quarters during maybe the most stressful time of their lives, and you barely heard them. Not only were there no fights or yelling, there was so close to no noise that it was almost as if no one was there at all.

The most noise that happened was in our room. In the evenings we'd converse with the other volunteers, and in the morning Jane, Pete, and myself mostly chatted amongst ourselves. Each night there was a random assortment of people strewn about the floor in sleeping bags, and one night there was one older dude, in his fifties or sixties, who both snored and ground his teeth at volumes that prevented anyone from sleeping. It's amazing how loud teeth grinding can be - it was literally as loud as a power tool. We just laughed instead of sleeping, because what else can you do?

Just outside the room we were in was a graveyard that had cars scattered over top the family shrines. Japan graveyards don't usually have individual tombstones, but instead a larger stone shrines, similar to a tombstone but much bigger, that represents a whole family that are cremated and interred underneath. Anyway, the cars seemed somewhat delicately placed on top of the shrines, indicating they had floated much higher, and then came to settle as the water washed away. As we were there, there was a large crane pulling cars out, moving carefully as one would expect.

I had the pleasure of enjoying the Japanese military sento. Going to onsens and sentos around Japan in various exotic locales and with quirky features is a common thing for people to do, but not many people get to say they've experienced a militarily deployed public bath. Everything was in satisfyingly authentic green canvas, and run with suitable rigid protocol. Of course, at the heart of it, it's just a bath, but much appreciated in the context of labouring all day. The most interesting thing about it was talking to the navy personnel who clearly had no skill, or interest, in chatting with civilians. One officer I spoke to had a frozen rictus smile as he put up with my questions. This guy clearly wanted to be out on the open sea, defending the Senkakus or shooting pirates in the Strait of Malacca, not listening to some gaijin with crappy Japanese blither away about how adorable it was that there was such a thing as a combat-ready hot bath.

On the drive back to Tokyo, at one point we thought maybe were going the wrong way. The GPS seemed to be giving us wrong locations, and most of the time showed us as being somewhere off the highway. Pete wondered if maybe we were on a road that was newly constructed and not yet represented in his GPS system's software. After some checking and reconfirming, we realized that the the ground had moved enough that the GPS signals and the map had gone out of sync. The implications of that left us a little awestruck. It's not often that the ground under your feet moves from where it was last marked on a map.