Recently my life has been flashing like an action movie sequence, as this month has been jam packed with various activities in preparation of leaving Japan. These activities are not dominated by practical measures like packing and making sure my house is in order for the move, but rather ensuring that I get to do all the things I wanted to do before returning home to the Western Hemisphere.
And one thing I wanted very desperately was to make a trip to Northern Japan to contribute to the tsunami relief efforts. I was lucky enough to find a church volunteer group willing to accept the presence of a semi-Japanese-speaking gai-Jing. Iwate is the second largest prefecture in Japan and known for it’s natural beauty. Noda village in Iwate is a small seaside village that was devastated by the tsunami; five months later the village is a vast field crisscrossed with building foundations. An enormous pile of debris by the seashore is all that is left of its schools, banks, and many homes. It was here that a group of about 60 volunteers from all over Japan and Korea gathered together to clear a rice field.
We spent a few hours the first day clearing the field in the rain before our efforts were postponed, but the second day was a beautiful overcast day, perfect for moving debris and uprooting weeds. The field was littered with bits of wood, plastic, and metal, and we gathered things in bags and wheelbarrows to be carted away to the huge pile of debris that had been cleared from other areas. We’d slosh around the field and dig through the mud, and sometimes when we found something it would be more than we imagined. Everything, including me, was covered in mud, but the work was very rewarding. It was something like a treasure hunt. On occasion we found whole and intact personal possessions – I found a kitchen timer, a plastic recorder, and a stuffed Pluto toy dog. Other items were set aside to be saved – a school I.D. Card, any photos, and even a yearbook.
At the end of the day, we retired to a Japanese hotel to rest and relax. It was my first experience in a Japanese hotel, and it was a pleasant one. I slept on a futon on a tatami mat, which was surprising comfortable and warm. I ate a traditional Japanese breakfast, which consisted of a piece of fish, some rice, some soup, and natto, a popular food made from fermented beans mixed with a little soy sauce and mustard. I’ve been warned by Westerners about the grossness of this dish, but it is prized by Japanese people for its health benefits. Verdict: Not as bad as expected. It’s rather tasteless actually, but it is rather gross-looking, gooey and lumpy. I didn’t finish the bowl, but I would eat it again.
The best part of the hotel was the o furo, or public bath. It is a basically a large room, separated by sex, where one bathes with every other guest in the hotel, and maybe in the neighborhood as well. It is a little intimidating to be naked in a room full of strangers, but you quickly realize that no one cares about your being naked. One showers first by sitting on a stool and scrubbing oneself, then one hops into a big hot bath and soaks for a few moments before rinsing again if you choose. THIS IS THE MOST RELAXING THING EVER. No really, it’s better than a sauna, a hot tub and a pool all rolled into one! It’s simply fabulous, and the absolute best way to relax your muscles after pulling up weeds from a rice field all day.
I also got to know my fellow volunteers, who were quite friendly and a beautiful and touching example of the enduring work ethic of those who want to help. People were eager and ready to work. I met a few families that were a blend of Japanese and American, and they helped me to translate and make sense of the trip. I am so grateful to have met them, because without their help I would have been a lot more clueless as to what was going on. At the end of the day we had a lovely dinner together, and I managed to introduce myself to the group in Japanese without too much difficulty, a challenge that I took to be my final test in Beginner’s Japanese. I can only hope I didn’t embarrass myself, but then again, if you don’t know if you embarrassed yourself, is it really embarrassing? Hmm.
As we get ready to leave, I appreciate any experiences that I can cherish when I am home in America. This trip is one that will help me to remember all the things I love about Japan – its natural beauty, its culture, and the strength of its people. Thus, to my list I’ll add another successful adventure.
Related Post: Read and watch my experience of the Tsunami-enducing Great East Japan earthquake here.