From the time of the quake, it has taken me six months to get to Tohoku as a volunteer, and nearly another month to write about the experience. I will not go into great detail as to why , except to say that not everyone is cut out to shovel sludge or clear debris for hours on end. I have nothing but respect for those who can do the heavy manual labor that has been required in cities like Ishinomaki and Kessenuma, and even greater respect for those who have volunteered their time in Fukushima, where the risk to one’s own health is significantly greater. Though I don’t qualify as a Geezer (yet), I am prone to both “gikkuri-
goshi” (throwing one’s back out) and water-on-the-knee. Knowing that a recurrence of either would render me not only useless but a burden to any volunteer team, I’ve laid low and waited for a chance to do something in Tohoku that did not involve brute strength, and that would not conflict with my full-time teaching job here in Hadano City. If you count fund-raising (I’m darn good at it!) , waving signs at demonstrations, blogging, and keeping the conversation going around me, I suppose I have been contributing all along, but it certainly is a strange feeling to be blogging about a place you’ve never actually been to. Mind you, this has not stopped any number of bloggers, but it was disturbing to me. So when the opportunity came, I seized it with enthusiasm.
It was Linda who gave me the opportunity; she and her yoga group were headed to Miyagi Prefecture to put together a Halloween event for children, with the assistance of an NPO from Sendai. The storyteller, Jocelyn, had suffered a bad fall and was unable to go, so would I take her place? Oh, would I! Children? Stories? Just let me loose, I thought. Stifling a pang of self-consciousness ( I would be the only group member not in the yoga school, looking and feeling significantly plumper than the other women), I signed on almost immediately: a commitment of two days and twenty thousand yen ( the equivalent of two hundred dollars) to cover the cost of the hotel, mini-van, and a faithful driver who would stick with us throughout the trip. There was really no reason NOT to go, and I looked forward to the weekend, choosing my costume and storytelling accessories well in advance.
On the morning of October 1st, most of us were up at four a.m., and everyone was assembled outside of Linda’s house right on schedule, by five forty-five. By six o’ clock, our mini-van had arrived and we had loaded up and were on the road, the van packed to the gills with candy, presents, games to be assembled at the event, costumes, and our overnight bags. It was approximately a six-hour drive, with two rest stops, and there was no dozing. We were eight women, wide awake and excited to be starting an adventure, and one silent but capable Ojisan (i.e. regular middle-aged guy) driver. We were, in fact, so loquacious that the driver remarked in Japanese, “Man, it’s quite an experience to drive a van full of women. Whenever I drive a group of men, they’re asleep within minutes. The only time they talk is when someone’s cell phone rings; then they put on their so-called working face and talk to their boss or colleagues back at the company. You ladies are powerful!” We were pleased by that assessment at the time, but still unaware of how far the limits of our “power” would be tested in the next few days.
After the second rest stop, we approached Fukushima Prefecture, and continued smoothly along the highway into Miyagi. Of course, I had heard of the natural beauty of Northern Japan, but still it was an unexpected pleasure to find that it wasn’t just an advertising campaign; the mountains were gorgeous, the sky was a clear, piercing blue, and all along
the roads, rice stalks were tied neatly into triangular bundles. The National Park where our event would be held was near Mt. Zao, an area famous for both skiing and hot springs….and traditional wooden Japanese dolls called “Kokeshi”, as we surmised when we passed over a bridge guarded by four large doll statues. This was the countryside, with not a single high rise or shopping plaza in sight. As we were inland, there was no tsunami damage, and no visible damage from the quake. Was the lush greenery hiding radioactive particles?? There was no knowing , but daikon radishes were being sold at road stands for as little as ten yen apiece (ten cents!)….a bumper crop, or was no-one buying the produce? I was not about to ask.
Arriving at the park around noontime, the parking lot was only half-full. The NPO had promised to arrange for a bus to drive a group of children from Minami-Soma City in Fukushima to the park to enjoy our program (Halloween games, stories, and presents donated from an organization in Lithuania); the idea was to give children close to the evacuation area a chance to experience the festivities of another culture in a beautiful natural setting. Many Minami-Soma children have not been outside for extended periods of time since March, and this was to be a one-day excursion for their benefit. We unloaded the van, met up with the director from the NPO, and learned that in fact the busload of children would not be coming. We did not fully understand why, but (being powerful women, and cool-headed as well) decided to roll with the punches. It was understood that we would go ahead and do our program anyway, as the park would be full of other families.
“This first day will be our practice before the big event,” we told each other (the next day,
more children were expected to be bussed in from Sendai–a couple hundred, we were informed), and cheerily began to set up. The park was a thing of beauty, with acres of lush green grass, shady wooded areas, well-groomed flower beds, and several well-cared-for traditional Japanese houses, complete with thatched roofs and verandas opening out into small garden spaces (this type of house design, I learned, is called an “Engawa”). All of us could have easily spent the rest of the day there soaking up the scenery and peeking into the houses, but our event was due to start within an hour.
Not knowing exactly what to expect or how many children would actually show up, we began choosing our spots and setting up for….Batty Bingo (Linda’s catchy name for Halloween Twister), Hunt the Pumpkin (orange ping-pong balls with intricately drawn Jack-O-Lantern faces, scattered about the wooded area for children to find and gather), Ghost Bowling, a Trick or Treat corner, and my Storytelling. From this point on, things became seriously busy, and I cannot report on what actually happened where, as I was immersed my own preparations, with barely enough time to throw on my many-pocketed Halloween
storyteller’s dress and clip on my fake orange braids. The lovely traditional house where I had hoped to do my storytelling was unavailable (again, no explanation), so I ended up on a bench in the woods, with a small leafy patch of ground for my audience to sit. The first group of children arrived (fresh from playing Batty Bingo), and plopped themselves down on the leaves in front of me; neither they nor I knew what to expect, but I started right in, hoping for inspiration.
And really, children are children. If you can make eye contact and hold them in the spell of your words and smile, it does not matter where they are sitting, whether they know you or not, how old they are, or where they’re from. I used a book called “Big Pumpkin”, but only nominally, holding it up to show the hysterically funny illustrations while I improvised the story, mixing English and Japanese. Once the children began participating in the story, I began enjoying myself as well, egging them on with questions (“Who do you think is stronger: the Mummy, or the Vampire?” “What would you do next?”) and letting the plot line stray a bit. And so our two hours flew by, with group after group of small children running back and forth between the events, and an air of happy pandemonium. Occasionally, there was time in between groups to chat with parents and find out where
they had come from. The girl in this photo was from Ishinomaki; she was sweet, gentle, and uninhibited, sitting with the smaller children to hear the story and eager to have her picture taken holding our Jack-O-Lantern. A tsunami victim? Possibly so, especially since she was with her grandmother rather than her parents; it was not our place to ask, however, and we did not.
By the end of the day, our group was exhausted (at least I was). Our faithful driver appeared at the appointed time to drive us to our Pension, and we sat back in the min-van to relax after a looong day. To my consternation, we did not seem to arrive at a Pension, but kept going farther and farther into the deep woods, up and up a twisting road ( Mt. Zao itself?) that was devoid of human habitation. Not to mention it was pitch dark. The driver cheerfully admitted that the Pension was “off the GPS” and he had no actual idea of where we were. If anyone else was troubled by this they did not say so, and I sputtered and fussed to Linda to calm my own tired nerves.
We did arrive at the Pension, of course, though it was–by anyone’s standards–way off the beaten track. And dinner was abundant, and the company delightful! We all indulged in something alcoholic as a reward for our day’s work, and I was particularly taken with the local wine. Forgetting my exhaustion, I downed a glass or two (did not guzzle, of course), and attacked my deep-fried river trout with gusto. Our mini-van driver, enjoying a tall bottle of beer, suddenly became talkative and animated, launching into a diatribe against–oh, dear–Americans. Since he was directing his verbal tirade at me, I listened politely (matter of habit), not letting on that after the second glass of wine I had only a very general idea of what he was actually talking about. It must have been quite unpleasant, since several of the women in the group approached me afterwards with great concern, but truly, I was oblivious. I have a talent for letting the rudeness of strangers roll off my back, and this, combined with a pleasant inebriation, stood me in good stead that night.
Dinner was followed by a brief plunge into the Japanese bath–a true hot-spring-fed “ofuro”–which turned out to be hellishly hot! Keiko-san, who took the plunge before me, was out in a flash, exclaiming, “I’m a boiled egg!” Then into my blue flannel nightgown (Linda was surprised by this, but what can I say? I’m from New England), on with my eye mask, and I was out like a light till six a.m. the next morning.
The next day was…..phrasing things as gently as possible….not what we expected. This was the day that up to two hundred children were to be bussed into the park for our event. We had been told that not only was the park staff expecting us, but that we would have an entire large area to set up in and utilize for the day. Upon our arrival, we were again told that the children from the disaster area would not be coming. Not a single bus. Again, there was no explanation from the NPO director, who looked stressed- out herself and was not extremely communicative. Worse yet, upon entering the park, we were blasted off our feet
by loudspeakers playing cheery children’s songs at top volume. And what was this? A giant stage set up in the middle of the park? And giant characters running about in costumes? Police cars and fire trucks parked on the lawn with “Dress-Like-a-Police Officer” photo ops for kids? And no space set aside for our activities? We were told that we could have “whatever space we could find”, and immediately broke up into groups to search for appropriate areas, preferably far and away from the giant costumed characters, with whom it would be difficult to compete.
The music was deafening, with speakers set up all along the central area of the park. I began setting up for storytelling (this day, I was able to use the porch of one of the old houses), but knew instinctively that any efforts to be heard over the aggressively-cheery music would be futile. In my pro-active American fashion, I went straight to the visitors center and pleaded my case in Japanese with an important-looking lady from the park. This had the opposite effect of upsetting the NPO woman (I should have made my case to her instead, it seemed) , who scolded me for “not having requested a perfectly quiet spot in the first place”. The injustice of THAT remark caused me to bite my lip (when I wanted to howl) and say, “We don’t need PERFECT quiet. We need a REASONABLY quiet setting.” I returned to my area in a state of disgust, but–to my relief–the music was turned off in a matter of minutes, so I forced myself to simmer down and get mentally ready for the first group of Tohoku tots. I could see them across the way, going back and forth between the Batty Bingo and the large costumed characters (I am truly sorry I do not have a photo of the characters, but I did not have that kind of free time), and knew they’d be headed my way soon.
And in a matter of minutes, they began streaming in: kids of all ages. Babies in strollers, whole families with grandparents in tow, toothless toddlers grinning up at me, and shy older kids sitting off in the back. They were excellent listeners, with no ill-mannered interruptions, rude comments, or pushing and jostling for space. Their parents took the time to speak with me afterwards, and I made a point of asking, “Where did you come from today?” The answers were varied, but all were from Tohoku. Yamagata, Aomori, Ibaragi, and Fukushima Prefectures were represented, as well as a family from the town of Natori (in Miyagi), which was devastated by the tsunami. I was taken off guard by the woman from Natori, seeing in my mind images of the monstrous wave rolling over the highway, but before I could say a word, my partner Keiko-san quietly responded, “Otsukaresama deshita”. This can mean anything from the literal, “You must be tired” to a deeper meaning of, ”You must have endured a very hard thing.” I now know what to say to someone who has suffered a great loss, and I was glad to have Keiko-san there to teach me by her example. After our own events were officially finished (we kept going through the afternoon), I strolled through the park, taking photos of some of the kids who I’d met at my story corner. They were happy to see me again, posed for pictures, and ran off again to join their parents.
And that was it. We packed up our things again, stuffed ourselves into the mini-van (it was easier this time, as we returned home minus several large bags of candy, and several boxes of coloring books and crayons), and started the long drive home to Hadano. Of course, the
minute we were on the road, we had a “hansei-kai” or “summing-up” of the weekend. It was not what we had expected. We had not been met with graciousness and appreciation (except by the children themselves and their parents). There had been broken promises and poor communication. We had to ask ourselves if the trip had been worth the trouble and expense. And of course, we agreed that it had. We had put together a fabulous event (it really was well-organized, with crafty and eye-catching hand-made games, energetic and experienced women running the show, and lovely prizes for the kids to take home), adapted to constantly-changing circumstances and setbacks, and fulfilled our end of the bargain with the NPO. While it was frustrating to not know why the promised busloads of children from the hardest-hit areas never arrived, we accepted that the situation was out of our control, and knocked ourselves out providing a good time for the children that happened to be in the park that day.
I’m sure that there were a number of disaster victims among the people we met, but we’ll never know any more than that. That had to be okay, and it really was. As one of the leaders, Setsuko-san, said, things in Tohoku are not running as smoothly as they are in Tokyo. Our NPO was a small organization, and literally unable to keep its promises ( one of the directors, another woman mentioned, is himself a disaster victim, and suffers from insomnia and recurring nightmares); this was deeply disappointing, and I will always wonder what the story-behind-the-story really was, but we carried on and found ourselves energized and engaged by the children who WERE there. In the end, they were Tohoku children. While they may not have lost homes or family members (though some assuredly did), they all lived through the quake. And if that quake was a terrifying thing for children hours away in Kanagawa Prefecture, I can well imagine what it was like for children farther North. I’m glad I was able to give them a story that made them laugh out loud and clamber to touch my Beanie Baby dolls (I brought the Witch, the Ghost, and the Black Cat). Some children will soon forget, but others will retain happy memories of the crazy ladies dressed in witch costumes handing out coloring books and Hershey’s chocolates, and that’s enough for me. We counted over two hundred kids that experienced a mini-Halloween in the middle of Tohoku on a sunny weekend in October, and eight very powerful women who came away from the experience exhausted, but satisfied.