Monday, June 13, 2011

Dorokaki At Meiyukan Of Ishinomaki

"Only the genuine human bond can sooth us and strengthen 
our will to start anew. The ultimate loss cannot be redeemed, 
but the bond of humanity can help absorb the pain and grief."

Dr. Surin Pitsuwan
ASEAN Secretary General

The day started early for everyone as we left Sendai for Ishinomaki at half-past seven in the morning. There would be three main events through the day - dorokaki (mud-digging) and takidashi (cooking and providing fresh food) in the day time, and the program would be wrapped up with a thank-you party at the hotel we stayed in the evening.

The Caravan members were mainly divided into two groups - the younger and more robust ones volunteered for the physically demanding job of shoveling and removing mud and debris from one of the evacuation centres, while the second group was tasked to prepare ASEAN food and serve the 150 to 300 residents expected to turn up for the colourful event. Some of the Caravan members would also perform dances and songs for the local residents.

On the previous nights, we were each distributed with a pair of light blue t-shirt with the ASEAN emblem smartly printed in front, caps and ASEAN flags. Members who were going to do the mud-digging were issued with heavy-duty rubber gloves and boots, face towels, and protective dusk masks to ensure the highest standards of hygiene and safety were observed.


Team Malaysia with our extra-large size Jalur Gemilang. Even the Singaporeans lost to our kiasu-ness haha!

The journey from Sendai to Ishinomaki took us approximately two hours. Just like the previous morning, everyone was in high spirit and enthusiastic, with a clear sense of purpose and dedication. It is amazing that despite the fact that all of us met up with each other just less than twenty-four hours earlier, we were already clicking as a dedicated unit. Any potential language barrier was dissolved, and the members of the Caravan converged as one.

We didn't know what to expect in a couple of hours' time. Will the scale of destruction as bad as Natori we saw on the previous day? Are there still houses standing in the town? There were many uncertainties that came around our minds. One thing for sure however, we told ourselves that however bad the condition is, we would give our everything to help out the local residents in Ishinomaki, in whatever ways we can, physically and mentally.


Sweet smiles on everyone's faces as we headed to Ishinomaki.


A signboard by the road that reads "Ganbaro Tohoku! Ganbaro Miyagi!"

As we reached the outskirts of Ishinomaki - the area closest to the epicentre of the earthquake, the view changed dramatically.

Ishinomaki is one of the city that most seriously affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Tsunami waves as high as 10 meters traveled more than 600 meters inland, washing away houses and anything that came along its way. It left more than 3,000 people dead with more than 2,700 more still missing. The earthquake shifted the city southeast and downward and the city sunk nearly 1.2 meters at certain areas.


Ishinomaki City Civic Centre.

However, the magnitude of the destruction was not as bad as what we saw in Natori a day earlier. Here in Ishinomaki, there are still life, hopes, smiles and joy. I am not so sure about other tsunami-ravaged areas, but deep in my heart, I hope these important elements still exist in those areas as well. They certainly need these elements to stand up again, stronger than before.

I was placed in the first group with another forty people or so of us for the mud-digging and clearing the debris task at Ishinomaki City Labours' Leisure Center (石巻勤労者余暇活用センター) called Meiyu-kan (明友館), which has been designed as one of the evacuation centres in the city.


Upon arrival, we were immediately divided into four groups and I was placed in the second group. As you can see, there were reporters and cameras 
at every angles to cover this momentous event.


Picking up our gears such as protective helmets, dust masks, and goggles before being assigned to our working site.


Shovels and long-handled brushes were provided at the site too.

We were joined by some part of the sixth group of Gakubo, which is a abbreviation of "gaku" from the word "gakusei" (student) and "bo" from the word "borantia" (volunteer). Gakubo is a voluntary group under the Nippon Foundation, which mainly consists of Japanese and international students who are studying all around Japan and volunteer to help in Ishinomaki city in Miyagi prefecture or Tono city (遠野市) in Iwate prefecture.

Our attention was to clear the mud and debris around the vicinity of the evacuation centre, to provide a better environment for the residents currently seeking shelters on the first floor of the building. There were no divisions between male and females, teenagers or adults. Everyone just clicked together as one dedicated unit.


Young volunteers of ASEAN showing that manpower is more effective where heavy machines can’t enter.


I requested a reporter to take this shot for me *hehe* He actually asked me to position myself properly to get the right angle lol!

Before we began our work, we were given a short briefing by one of the on-site staffs from the Nippon Foundation on what were we supposed to do. Basically, we had to shovel the mud around the building and carry them in wheelbarrows out into an open space next to the building, where we would pile them up. At the same time, we were reminded to separate the glass and steel materials from the rest of the debris while we shoveled the mud away.

It is hard to describe the sludge and to do its foul stench any justice. But imagine the ancient black seabed of decomposing plant and animal remains set free from the ocean and then mixed with all that washed up in the waves of the tsunami - oil, dead fish, rotting food and vegetation, sewage - and then factor in twelve weeks of festering. Nasty stuff.

The place was covered with heavy black sludge and it really takes up your energy very quickly. There was one time when we tried to remove a tatami mat; it was so damned heavy that we needed about five to six guys to lift it away.


Poor Minnie Mouse laying in between the piles of tsunami debris.


We may not have any blood relationship, however the Japanese culture was part of the formation of each one of us, 
even if we are thousands and thousands of miles away.


Sometimes, we would encounter photos and family photo albums in the middle of the mud.


And also negative films buried under the mud. The question is, how would you handle it?

On the destruction site, everything seems to touch our heart deeply. As I digged and put the mud away, I encountered so many little things, all dirty in the middle of the mud. However, these things are not trash or rubble; once these were someone's precious possessions which made up a huge part of their lives. It was so heartbreaking to see those private items and lost memories that laid in between the mud.

From the several hours clearing up the area, I came across just about everything you can think of - name tags, electrical bills, textbooks, thumb drives, VCDs, plates, name cards, keyboards, mouse, photo frames, gaming cards, report cards, cans, soft toys, mugs, pens, tumblers, etc.


During our breaks, we took time to snap some group photos as well. Smile is such an important element that we made sure 
we showed it all the time when we were in Ishinomaki.


Part of the Gakubo volunteers who worked at the same site with us.

Every fifteen to twenty minutes, we will take a five-minute break to recharge ourselves with liquid, some rest and sometimes, toilet breaks behind the bushes as there are no proper toilets around the area haha! We also took this short time to chat with other volunteers from all around the world such as Canada, United States, and Brazil. I have to say it's a hard work, heavy and exhausting. However, when you do it with a group of people, all working as a group, all sweating and working their asses off, it didn't seem that heavy at all.
None of us in the group knew each other prior to volunteering, but we clearly have a common purpose for being here and really clicked as a team from the beginning. It makes working together a lot of fun and a great pleasure.


This was how the place looked like before we started digging away.


Several hours later, we managed to make the place look much better.


Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the ASEAN General Secretary, Mr Sasakawa Yohei, chairman of the Nippon Foundation and Pancake, 
a Thai famous actor came to visit the site in late afternoon.


Dr Surin scooping out the remaining debris into the wheelbarrow.


This is the current condition on the ground floor of the Meiyu-kan. The water level that crashed into this area is still visible 
from the watermark lines on the while wall that measures about 1.5-meters high.


This is how the first floor of the evacuation centre in Meiyukan looks like.


Life still continue as normal, although they are living with limited resources.


We did not go up there to visit these kids and residents currently staying here, as the group will be too huge and it will disturb them.


The local residents lining up for the food distribution in front of the Meiyu-kan.

While I was sitting down, taking a rest, I suddenly felt a mild quake; just a short one for about a few seconds. I almost panicked, but I made sure I kept myself calm. The pole standing just a few meters from me swayed a little and the sound was quite scary. The locals who were lining up for food didn't seem to be affected by that tremor. I am sure they are immune to the shakes already by now.

The town people who walked passed the area we where working were all in good spirits and obviously very appreciative of our clean-up effort. They seemed particularly surprised and grateful that foreigners are here, as do our Japanese volunteer colleagues, who regularly thank us for being here.


One of the grandma who waved at us after we had completed our work.

According to Mr Yoshikawa who was one of the leader of this voluntary work, it is very rare to see those people who are still seeking shelters at the evacuation centre to wave at the people outside with a smile. They usually prefer to stay inside and avoid from coming out. However, probably the well-done job by the young people like us had touched the heart of that grandma.

These heart-warming words just cannot describe how much we felt our simple deeds were appreciated. Personally, even if we managed to place a smile on just one person from our actions, it is really an amazing thing. At the same time, it was not through monetary-gains, but it was from our sincere heart to volunteer that we got our energy to do something for these people.


With Boon Hwee from Ang Moh Kio, Ly from Phonm Penh and Azizul from KL.


Thanet from Bangkok and Worawit from Phuket.


With Ly, Azizul and Ariffin from Brunei in front of the Nippon Foundation banner at Meiyu-kan.


Another group photo with Dr Surin after a long tiring but incredibly fulfilling day.


Sowing the seeds of hope all around the world.

The role we, as volunteers, play here was to clear the parts of town that are still standing in mud and rubbish so people can get back to work and return their lives to some semblance of normality. Yes, the city is sure to slowly set off on a long road of recovery. However, little by little, step by step, if we give our hands and start doing something together, though little it might be, we can make a huge difference; we can make this world a better place, for everyone.


tia said...

picture worth a thousand words...from the picture which the grandma waved her hand with a wide smile...we can tell that how grateful she was...after she had been through such a hard time... i really2 love that picture..

Robinn T said...

majin buuuuuuu!!! haha you are definitely building great karma there. no wonder you life is so beautiful

reena said...


Anonymous said...

im really proud of you calv on your effort in helping others just like tempus said no wonder your life is beautiful :)

calvin said...

@ tia:
very true. although it was just a very simple shot, the photo holds a deep meaning. credit must go to the person who has taken such a wonderful shot.

despite a hard-day working on the mud-digging and clearing the debris, it is during such moments that we felt our efforts were appreciated and it gave us a great feeling of satisfaction =D

calvin said...

@ tempus:
well, joining activities like these are something which i have a lot of passion for. building good karma wasn't the main intention when i decided to take part in such activities, but yeah, they do come along ; )

calvin said...

@ reena:
thanks, my ka chng =D

calvin said...

@ anonymous:
thanks for your motivative comments. like i said, i really enjoyed and grateful to be part of the voluntary team to help the tsunami victims in tohoku : )

sakura said...

heartwarming.. great job u guys! :D

AriesBoy said...

i also believe that the voluntary team is grateful to have someone like you taking part hehe :D..btw are you still in tohoku?

Triton said...

1st time saw ur blog heree..
u r my eyes

calvin said...

@ sakura:
thanks sakura! =)

calvin said...

@ ariesboy:
i will be very glad if our trip had cheered them up. nope, i am now already back to chiba. i was in tohoku for three days only ; )

calvin said...

@ triton:
hi triton. thanks for your comments. glad that you enjoyed reading my blog =)