Last Saturday I spent a day and a night in Rikuzen-Takata, one of the towns in Iwate Prefecture worst affected by the 3.11 tsunami. I went up with AAR JAPAN, the NGO I edit for, to participate in a Children’s Day festival for the kids in the area.
May 5th is Children’s Day in Japan, part of the annual Golden Week holiday. In anticipation of the day, carp-shaped flags called koinobori, or “climbing carp”, are hung in public places, representing the desire for children to grow strong and healthy. The carp is believed to become a dragon when it reaches the top of the waterfall, and the koinobori represent the dragon and the male members of the family.
The event’s principal sponsors were the Peace Project and, oddly enough, a variety of local boxing gyms. The current WBC super flyweight champion, Sato Yota, is an Iwate native, and he was on hand to participate and sign autographs, TV cameras following him avidly throughout the day.
AAR managed a yakisoba booth and an oden booth (oden is a series of reconstituted fish-based products fried in oil—like Bovril and Vegemite, a wartime relic that some people still like), as well as some games for children. We had take-uma (Japanese stilts made out of bamboo) and a typical festival game where kids get a paper scoop and try to pluck out as many toys as they can from a pool of water before the paper disintegrates. As our toys were extraordinarily light and not nearly pointy enough, the kids collected massive piles of superballs and floaty figurines in a single go. Our stock of toys was really just leftovers from the last festival, and we’d worried about our lacklustre collection, but the kids just kept coming back again and again.
When the floaty toys ran out in the afternoon, we tied strings to stuffed toys, put them in a big jumbled pile, and let the kids pull on a string to select their prize—after beating two of our staff at paper-rock-scissors (“janken”). The game idea was my major contribution to the day.
We had quite a surplus of enthusiastic volunteers, so I spent most of my day wandering back and forth between the stilts and the toy giveaway, taking photos, playing with kids, and only partially commiserating with the people stuck trying to sell oden to a disinterested audience. Three of our number had been even less lucky—they got relegated to the parking lot several kilometers down the hill, where they only fun they got to have was directing people to the shuttle bus.
The boxers seemed to be particularly enthused about me, insisting that I take photos with them and come over to try punching their hand pads. While I revealed that I had never tried an uppercut—and was a little disturbed when my 5-foot opponent put the pads at his waist and told me to kick him—my two months of boxing experience otherwise acquitted me fairly well.
A group from Tokyo presented a Power Rangers-style ninja show, complete with swooshing and clanging sound effects, a masked villain, and a “Captain Rikuzen” who appeared to save the day. Then the evil ninjas all hung out and played shippo-tori with the kids (essentially tag with little tails you pull from someone’s belt). I found out they were all associated with the appropriately-named Kick-Back Café just west of Shinjuku, and they host regular live events. I may have to check them out again.
The leader of the Peace Project is a retired CEO, a classic growly old man with a good heart. He showed up driving a massive military-style truck full of toys, and I snapped a few shots of him grim-grinning as he raffled off dozens of Rirakkuma toys to children (incidentally, “Rirakkuma” is a conflation of “relax” and “kuma”, or “bear”).
In the morning, our bus driver took us on a tour of the disaster area. The parts of town that were rice paddies are mostly back together; the actual centre of town is still a vacant field piled with debris. A third of the city’s municipal employees were lost to the tsunami. In the initial aftermath as many as 10,000 of the city’s 26,000 people were listed as missing. The number is now down to 1,300 missing, with 1,000 confirmed dead. Dozens were lost attempting to manually close the tsunami barriers along the shore. Rikuzen-Takata itself sank 84 centimeters.
Our driver, an energetic old man, now seemed almost excited to talk about the damage and the clean-up. I wasn’t sure if memories had faded over a year, or if, at his age, this was all just part of the cycle. The area was last devastated by a tsunami in 1933.
It was a long trip out—two hours on the shinkansen, then another two hours by bus. The mountains and coastline of Iwate are always stunning to see, and it is an area that deserves so much more tourist attention than it gets. I continue to hope that part of the reconstruction will include a better transit infrastructure that links the region directly to Sendai, the nearest major population center. On the night of our arrival, we were treated to a proper enkai-style meal on site, reminding me just how superb Tohoku food is.
I offered to pay my own way for the trip, and though I had expected the organizers to refuse my attempt to disrupt thier system, to my surprise they accepted. It was about $250 with the bullet train fare included. I certainly wouldn’t say I did $250 worth of work—I would have felt like I'd stolen someone's donation. I did at least offer my photo services as partial compensation.
At the end of the festival day, I scampered up the hillside with some of the volunteer moms to try out the 1 km-long slide they’d built on the hill. They also had a play fort shaped like a pirate ship. Out-of-the-way towns have some of the coolest things hidden in their hills.