Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sunday, May 27, 2012 Disapprovals, Conversations, and Gardens

Chad drives me to the eki (bus/train station) for the 7:30 bus to Sendai and I tell him I know now why the bus driver was annoyed when I got on two weeks ago for my ride into Ishinomaki. When the bus pulls up you're supposed to get out of line, open the outside luggage bin, throw your suitcase in and get back in line; nobody does it for you. Not knowing this when I arrived, I dragged my big old suitcase on the bus with me. Chad says, "actually I'm infamous for that very thing--three trips now I've forgotten my luggage in the bin underneath and had to choose: 'do I miss my flight waiting several hours for the bus to make another round trip, or just leave my bags behind?'" The bus loads up, all the seats are full as the last eight people get on the bus. In unison, they all reach below the armrests to their right and with a couple of magical flips, extra seats fold down into the aisle and they all sit down.
As we're pulling out of the last Ishinomaki stop before Sendai, a little kei (keijidoosha mini vehicle class) truck seriously runs the red light with the bus just missing it, the bus driver honks and the whole front half of the bus lets out an "oooh" of disapproval. We leave the hills behind, driving into Sendai with the flooded rice fields reflecting both the blue sky and the office buildings, and the white diakannon (buddhist goddess statue--image shown is a much smaller one near the BeOne house) is gleaming against the hazy hills.

Leaving the bus, thankfully I remember to grab my suitcase before I walk up the steps onto the elevated walkways
(wonderful inventions) over to the station for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo/Ueno.
Now I have some time to reflect on what Jonathan told me about conversation styles. For Americans, talking is like tennis; we lob responses back and forth at each other adding our 2 cents' worth, your story, my experience, her opinion, and so on, changing subjects with each shift of the wind, until everyone's had a say. In Japan, however, conversing is different. You know how with volley ball, the first two hits are supposed to be "sets," so the teammate at the net can shine with a brilliant offensive shot? And so I'm learning the Japanese way to listen, responding at the significant points with "oooh," and "soo, soo," and "soo desu ne," and if they pause asking leading questions to draw the speaker out until they have said everything there is to tell, and even then at the end, everyone nods and there's a long pause just to make sure. Of course the drawback is if you get someone who likes to talk. . .

Checking my bag at the KAL counter at Narita International, I use a little Japanese, so the agent asks me in Japanese to place my bag on the belt, and I ask her to say it again slowly so I can make out each of the words, but she says it again slowly in English, gently reminding me that "time is money," which is fair because she's not paid to be my tutor, and she also warns me that I'll have to claim my bag in LA and walk it through customs before rechecking it for SFO. After immigration, I'm confronted with what seemed like a mile of duty-free purses, watches, jewelry, cosmetics, fashions, liquor, tobacco, gifts, and souvenirs, and all I want is a ball-point pen and a package of dried fruit.

Waiting to board, I think about what Jonathan said yesterday, that you study your comparative religions, but then you don't accomplish much if you try to have a debate between religions, because it's not so much a Buddhist or whatever that you're having a conversation with, as it is a person who may believe this or that, or have a certain set of experiences or attitudes, and what you want to know is what they care about, and you hope that your example is (mostly) blameless and that you have something to share in winsome words that intrigue or challenge them about those things they care deeply about.

I'll finish with some random pictures: clusters of cemetery monuments found anywhere and everywhere--on hillsides, in the middle of rice fields, in the middle of the city.
One day under an old shrine near the oyster farm, we found rows of wooden tablets. Both Shinto and Buddhist traditions use names for honoring the dead. Included on the shrine shelf in the home are the ihai tablets.
In addition a Buddhist monk may bestow a kaimyo (posthumous "commandment name") for the deceased.
Initially written on wood sotoba sticks, then engraved on the grave marker, the best/longest names cost thousands of dollars. Shinto ihai (namestick) tablets are smaller and only carry the name of the deceased plus the word "spirit." One of the sad results of the tsunami is that thousands of ihai tablets from homes and shrines were washed away. Worse--in Onagawa and Minami-Sanriku almost as many tsunami dead are missing as those whose bodies were recovered.
This is devastating in view of the deeply felt duty to properly care for and respect the dead. Note: temples are Buddhist; shrines are Shinto.

In the fishing village past Okawa, we all commented on the sad sight of a house and a once-beautiful garden, ruined by subsidence and dead from salt-water. Compare it with gardens it must have once resembled.

Ahh, the trains. Local, express, bullet trains. All electric powered. Run like clockwork. Innumerable tunnels. More than the tollways or highways, they are what tie Japan together.
I couln't help taking more pictures of train stations including the three story escalator at Ueno.

Can one tower support any more power lines? Japan is having a major national debate now over the possibility of continuing forward without nuclear power. Some new homes are being built with solar power installed.
For every main street in the cities, there will be 3 or 4 narrow lanes that look like an alley in the U.S.; it is hard to see how two cars could pass, but they do.

In the Ibarazu neighborhood, a strange spectacle played out each workday. Hanging on cables, an unmanned yellow demolition tractor crawled down the face of a sheer cliff and began hammering away at the rock face, while a human (operator?) lowers himself on a rope above it.

Pictures of Kadonowaki Elementary School have become iconic images of the disaster in Ishinomaki. Located at the base of the hill below hiyoriyama park about a kilometer inland from the waterfront, it became an evacuation point during the tsunami.
But a wall of cars and debris were jammed up against it and the hill and later that night, along several blocks a fire began, fueled by the car gas tanks. Today, with several square blocks in front of the school completely cleared, it has become a venue for nighttime morale building concerts. In addition to these photos, see the link to a picture from inside the school.

I couldn't leave out a picture of the typical Japanese letter carrier delivering the mail by motorbike. I will leave you with a picture of one of the ubiquitous Japanese driving ranges and links to Boston Globe 3 month and 1 year before and after pictures:,

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012 A Finished Fence, An Untold Story, and Crazy at the Mall

Marissa invited me on her 6:30 run to the top of the main bridge and back; the last three blocks home I start to fade and she makes me look like an old man. This morning Chad prays for the leaders at the kasetsu (pl) we met yesterday. Jonathan talks about the Sabbath, the Jubilee in the Leviticus Ch. 25, and Jesus' teaching of forgiveness in Matthew 18. He suggests that returning the land to the original owner, leaving it fallow, freeing the slaves, forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, and rest are all related principles with a powerful message: release from "bondage" is possible and starting afresh is possible. He prays about how we are seeing through this tragedy, that people are learning to be more open and trusting, more genuine and dependent on each other.

Eric prays that we would let go of the idea that this is a puzzle that we have to solve, but that we would place all of our "stuff" in God's hands and simply let him use us today.

We finally head back to the oyster farm where I see that Cody and my efforts on the sign post base have resulted in the retreat sign set back in its place. Someone says it translates to "take it easy."
We load a stack of fence rails on the truck and Jonathan gives us the outline of the tasks and tools we have to finish the job.
Instead of assigning jobs, he show how the bolts should go and lets us kind of randomly grab tools and trip over each other for the first few minutes,
until amazingly a system comes together and while not exactly a surgical team, we've got a system, and you hear "drill," "sledge hammer," "stain," "need a 255mm bolt," and we're gettin' it done.
Josiah came along and he's pitching in, and Maria tries her hand at all the tools and says a photo will show her family that she's really getting dirty today.
Mike gets us going while we're eating lunch on the sea wall with "why do the fishermen fish this way?" (so they get bigger mussels) and "what do you call a oysterman who keeps his catch to himself?" (shellfish).
Eric chimes in with "what do you call someone who steps right off into the water?" (without a pier/peer).

Done! And as we're leaving sakashita-fusai (Mr. and Mrs.) approach the dock in their boat and we get out to say goodbye.
She asks me if I learned any Japanese words during my stay and I say "makudonarudo" (McDonalds). (Mr.) sakashita-san is smiling, but he tells Jonathan in kind of an aside, "harder than you thought it would be, huh?"

On the drive back to Ishinomaki, I remark to Jonathan that while in the US we have heavy concrete "k-rails" to protect the road workers, here there are just plastic supports with horizontal metal poles--no protection from an out-of-control vehicle.
But I guess it's the visual warning they're going for.

Each section in the rice fields seems to have its own egret. We're treated to the sight of white wings spread wide before touchdown. (Couldn't get the shot from the moving car, so borrowed one from stock pictures.)
Jonathan tells about how his father-in-law, a non-believing newspaper executive, was down from Hokkaido for Easter, heard the speaker and wasn't impressed. But he said this, these volunteers who keep coming and all the donations, this story needs to be told. He said the foreign workers, especially Christians, have almost no exposure in the Japanese media. So Jonathan tells him, well, do something about it. Jonathan tells me over 1000 volunteers, and through BeOne, Helping Hands, and the White's Ferry Road church, over 2 million dollars, have passed just through this one small ministry in one small area. And multiply that by all the other aid missions.

The Let's Start Talking get acquainted coffee at the guest house is just breaking up and neighbors are talking and milling around outside; there were about 20 guests. Someone's sitting in the window just enjoying the beautiful afternoon. I say hi to the obaasan across the street and I thinks she's telling me that she has never left Japan so I ask Chad to translate and he says actually she's been to 6 countries including Paris, but doesn't travel that far anymore because her daughter worries, so now she just visits all the famous hot springs/onsen(s) all over Japan.

Mike and Kioshi invite the LST teachers and me and an adult student named ueshima-san to the mall for dinner and when we get there,
they're having way too much fun making bad jokes and on the way home we're holding our breath through the tunnels.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012 Temporary Housing, Scenic Beauty and Bad Jokes

"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (John 3.16-18 NIV) Ben is with another Christian relief organization and he sends us Maria for the day. Maria is currently an exchange student in Tokyo, is also a graduate student in international law, and learned her excellent English from school and university in Estonia. Fifi from southern California is also with us for two days; She's been staying with her grandparents in Osaka for the last two years until her grandmother recently passed away. She says the relatives were very interested in the Christian message they heard at the funeral, most of them had never heard anything like it before.

Southwest-bound on the road toward Sendai, Chad pulls into a truck stop/soup cafe and we meet Mike and Koichi from Ibaraki in a room of blue work uniforms and coveralls. In the last year working with Chad as well as Healing Hands and CRASH, they have made 30-40 relief trips into Miyagi Prefecture.
In my tour guide persona, I mention something about all the huge gomi piles in the countryside and someone corrects me that gomi is actually household trash and these are mounds of gareki (rubble). While eating miso Jonathan pulls up and joins us.

We continue on to the national scenic areas of Okumatsushima and Miyato Jima. The Satohama/Joomon archeological and nature park had become a de facto administrative center in the weeks after the tsunami and we meet Chikako-san of the museum staff in one of the rooms where the kids on field trips make crafts and try their hand at fire-starting.
A short ways down the road we visit the kasetsu juutaku (temporary housing) which has taken part of a school parking lot and playing field.
Thanks to Vince Ng for an overhead shot of typical kasetsu.
Sato-san is a community leader now in residence at the kasetsu, and he tells us that people's phone bills are up as they try to keep in touch with former neighbors and family, and that with people finally going back to work, it's harder to organize community events. Here are links to intimate photos inside and interviews about the temporary units:,,

We take a break at a beach surrounded by sandstone bluffs. Across the highway were tourist shops, restaurants, and houses, now all gone. One side of the road beauty and the other side destroyed lives and livelihoods.
But for a few minutes we are diverted from from the losses; I find some unique shells and Fifi finds a "shell-phone."

As we approach the "greentown" kasetsu, a light drizzle is falling and Beth sits this one out in the car because of her cold. We meet utsumi-fusai (Mr. and Mrs. Utsumi) in the bright and shiny community center building and we soon find out why everything looks new--the previous one burned down in March, including computers and all the books and decorations that people had donated. The place consists of 3 areas, 900 units, currently has 750 residents, including 90 children.
(Mrs.) Utsumi-san, who was in charge of the community center, had met Chad last year at the Christmas program they put on at the dojo with songs, skits, hula dancing and Christmas carols, and had asked Chad to do the same for the kasetsu which she reminded him he hadn't done yet. She brings us coffee and tea and gives us samples of the phone tassels and miniature paper kimonos the women make for crafts to raise money for the families.

The units, while efficient, have flaws. The metal frames are exposed on both outside and in, so on the inside in the winter you can reach up and touch frost and in the summer it's too hot to touch at all. Even with the air-conditioners running in the summer some elderly people have suffered from heat-stroke. Utsumi-san remarks that at least he's busy; a lot of the other men just sit on chairs all day, although when planning for an event or visits from VIPs and volunteers, his phone bill goes way up.
The couple had spent 50 years improving and personalizing their house and adding to their property little by little so that it gave them a peaceful space many times larger than the average Japanese yard. The tsunami took everything except the foundation. Because his land is below the six meter above sea level zone, he cannot rebuild and his property is worthless. He says he and his wife can't make plans because the demand for land and restrictions have created a new shortage--no land to buy. He guesses they may be in temporary housing for 5 years. "Fifty years gone in one minute," utsumi-san says, and funny, as he's saying this, his expression--smile-crinkles at the corners of his eyes--doesn't change--only his words show the loss in his heart.

Driving away Chad translates some of his last comments. Saturday is undookai (school sports festival day) in Sendai for his grandkids, but he's too busy shepherding the various activities and needs in the temporary community to be able to go see them. He told the group: "I just want to be a grandparent again." Chad says "I can sense he's tired of all the responsibilities and is approaching burnout."
Mike is in fine form on the drive back, asking why you need a kickstand to hold a bicycle up? (because it's two/too tired).