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Japan, November 2011 | Tokyo in Photographs

I spent a few days in Tokyo prior to and after volunteering in Ishinomaki (see posts in PART ONE and PART TWO for images) with a friend’s tsunami relief group. This was my fourth visit to Japan, and I was already very familiar with Tokyo after studying there for a year in college. There’s always so much I want to do whenever I’m in Tokyo– visit my old haunts and let the nostalgia and “otherness” of living abroad just wash over me. Because I only had a few days and I wanted to save most of my energy for the hard work I would be doing as a volunteer, I contented myself to casually wandering the neighborhoods surrounding the Japanese Inns where I was staying. [SIDE NOTE: For anyone interested in travel to Japan, I highly recommend staying at the Homeikan Ryokan in Hongo 3-chome and the Andon Ryokan in Taito-ku. Both are simple, inexpensive lodging with fabulous breakfast. Where Homeikan is traditional, Andon is modern. They see their fair share of tourists and will take good care of you.] I find some time alone to be energizing while traveling, but happily, I had the chance to spend time in the evenings with old friends and my Japanese Host family over good food and drink.

I love Tokyo, especially the shitamachi (low town, or old town). Most of the following photos were taken wandering around Asakusa, Ueno, Jinbocho, Kappabashi. As usual with travel posts, I’ve captioned them for context. Enjoy!

Tokyo Sky Tree over the Sumida river in Asakusa, morning

The Tokyo Sky Tree tower, the world’s highest broadcasting tower, over the Sumida river in Asakusa, early morning

Guest room in Homeikan Ryokan Japanese Inn in Hongo San-chome

Sitting area in a guest room at Homeikan Ryokan, a Japanese inn near Tokyo University

A Buddhist Monk asking for alms outside Ueno station

A Buddhist Monk asking for alms outside Ueno station

Japanese schoolgirls in uniform enjoying the sunshine in Ueno Park

Japanese schoolgirls in uniform enjoying the sunshine in Ueno Park

More than 50 stone lanterns line the walkway at Ueno Toshogu Shrine

More than 50 stone lanterns line the walkway at Ueno Toshogu Shrine

Sign for a designated-hours women-only car on the Hibiya line of Tokyo Metro

Sign for a designated-hours women-only car on the Hibiya line of Tokyo Metro

Passengers riding a Tokyo subway train

Passengers riding a Tokyo subway train

Left, my Japanese host mom, right, a skyscraper in Shidome

Left, my Japanese host mother, right, a skyscraper in Shidome

Graffiti on the wall of closed businesses in Jinbocho at night

Graffiti on the wall of closed businesses in Jinbocho at night

The Jinbocho antique book district in Tokyo, Japan

Construction in the Jinbocho antique book district in Tokyo, Japan

Antique books for sale in Jinbocho, which is full of stores that specialize in old and rare books

Antique books for sale in Jinbocho, which is full of stores that specialize in old and rare books

Japanese schoolboys and their teacher strolling through a side street in Asakusa near Senso-ji temple

Japanese schoolboys and their teacher strolling through a side street in Asakusa near Senso-ji temple

A persimmon tree laden with fruit in Asakusa

A persimmon tree laden with fruit in Asakusa

Pigeons flock over the roof of Senso-ji Buddhist temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Pigeons flock over the roof of Senso-ji Buddhist temple, a popular tourist destination in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Visitors to Senso-ji temple wash themselves in incense smoke for luck, blessing, and healing before entering the temple

Visitors to Senso-ji temple wash themselves in incense smoke for luck, blessing, and healing before entering the temple

The outer vestibule of Senso-ji temple with giant lantern, and a nearby pagoda framed by Tokyo Sky Tree tower

The outer vestibule of Senso-ji temple with giant lantern, and the nearby five-storied pagoda framed by Tokyo Sky Tree tower

The Five-Storied Pagoda and Tokyo Sky Tower from Senso-ji in Asakusa

The Five-Storied Pagoda and Tokyo Sky Tower from Senso-ji in Asakusa

The private garden behind the five-story pagoda

Taken from the private garden behind the five-story pagoda

Immaculately manicured Japanese black pines in the Senso-ji pagoda garden

Immaculately manicured Japanese black pines in the Senso-ji pagoda garden

A young man in yukata modeling in an Asakusa alleyway outside Senso-ji

A young man in yukata modeling in an Asakusa alleyway behind the shops that line the path to Senso-ji

Bicycles outside a shop in Asakusa plastered with posters for traditional Japanese entertainers

Bicycles outside a shop in Asakusa plastered with posters for traditional Japanese entertainers

A tsunami relief campaign poster subtitled in English

A tsunami relief campaign poster subtitled in English “Ain’t Gonna Take This Anymore,” showcases fishermen and farmers working to clear tsunami debris

Sights from Kappabashi kitchen town include the Niimi kitchen store building with teacups for landings and plastic food manufactured for restaurants to display

Sights from Kappabashi kitchen town include the Niimi kitchen store building with teacups for landings and plastic food manufactured for restaurants to display

Plastic food samples,

Plastic food samples, “sampuru,” on display on Kappabashi-dori where speciality kitchen shops sell directly to restaurants and tourists alike

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Nishi Shinjuku, night

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Nishi Shinjuku, night

Japan, November 2011 | Part Two: Tsunami Relief in Ishinomaki

One of the things I loved most about volunteering was listening to the stories people told. My Japanese was more than a little rusty after six-ish years of disuse, so it took me a while to get back into conversing. But because I understood better than I could speak, I spent a lot of time listening. Using context clues, body language, and watching other peoples’ responses, I could even often glean most of what speakers of regional dialects and elderly people were saying– which is always a challenge.

Most of the stories we heard were terribly, terribly sad. Beyond the destruction in its strange half slate-wiped-clean state, the stories were what weighed heavy on my heart. No matter how quickly the debris is cleared, it will be a long time before these people are healed.

This post has a lot of stories to go along with pictures, and I’ve paired each snippet with a corresponding photo as a caption. I’ll leave it at that and let the pictures and captions do the rest of the talking. This is the last of my tsunami photos… I’ll be sharing a couple from my second hometown, Tokyo, after this, and an engagement session I photographed with an ex-pat Seattlite couple there. If these photos or the stories therein touched you, please share this post, and the photos in Part One.

Ishinomaki City, where a huge wave blasted through buildings along the coast

The center of the damage in Ishinomaki City, where the huge wave blasted through buildings along the coast

An elementary school opposite the coast in Ishinomaki city, which was destroyed by the tsunami and burned by oil that leaked from a tanker swept inland. Students were safely evacuated before the wave hit.

An elementary school opposite the coast in Ishinomaki city, which was destroyed by the tsunami and burned by oil that leaked from a tanker swept inland. Students were safely evacuated before the wave hit.

A small marina in Onagawa, downhill from temporary tsunami refugee housing.

A small marina in Onagawa, downhill from temporary tsunami refugee housing. Many residents depended on the fishing industry for income. Now this marina and others are ruined by water and quake damage and cannot support the industry.

A young girl talks to a tsunami relief volunteer in Onagawa

Yuria, 4, talks with a volunteer about what happened on the day of the tsunami. She was at daycare and her parents were at work when the wave came and swept up from the marina to destroy her house.

A young refugee and survivor of the March 2011 tsunami in Japan

Little Yuria lives in temporary housing with her parents and grandmother. She doesn’t seem traumatized by the events of the past year, even when we walk by the gravel pit that stands where her house once did.

This elderly woman was swept away when the wave hit Onagawa. She survived by swimming in the frigid waters. Now she lives in temporary housing and is making zorii (right) to sell with the other

This elderly woman was swept away when the wave hit Onagawa. She survived by swimming in the frigid waters. Now she lives in temporary housing and is making zorii (right) to sell with the other “aunties” and “grandmas”

A lone building stands where there was once a vibrant community.

A lone corporate building stands where there was once a vibrant community. In this area, the wave was funneled inland by hills, causing it to be up to 60 feet high. This building has windows blown out on the top floor.

A tsunami-damaged TESCO gas station. The hillside was washed away by the wave and the September typhoon, which devastated the already damaged area and fragile soil

A tsunami-damaged TESCO gas station. The hillside was washed away by the wave and the September typhoon, which devastated the already damaged area and fragile soil

Left, the devastation in Oshika whaling town from above and, right, earthquake damage to an unrepaired section of road

Left, the devastation in Oshika whaling town from above and, right, earthquake damage to an unrepaired section of road

Led by a local resident, volunteers walk down a washed out beach to survey the tsunami damage

Led by a local resident, volunteers walk down a washed out beach to survey the tsunami damage

Looking up from the raised beach at an apartment building wrecked by the wave. The water reached the top of its second story.

Looking up from the raised beach at an apartment building wrecked by the wave. The water reached the top of its second story.

A fisherman stands on a sea wall and looks out at the ocean, his friend and his enemy.

A fisherman stands on a sea wall and looks out at the ocean, his friend and his enemy.

Despite having to sort through the wreckage of their own homes and being up to their knees in mud, many people we met were all smiles, glad to meet the day

Despite having to sort through the wreckage of their own homes and being up to their knees in mud, many people we met were all smiles, glad to meet the day

Washed in from sea, the wreckage of local houses rests above an ocean sea wall in unsorted piles of debris

Washed in from sea, the wreckage of local houses rests above an ocean sea wall in unsorted piles of debris. A volunteer takes in the scene.

Pieces of a roof ripped from a local home and deposited on the beach amid car parts, clothing, dishes, and other debris

Pieces of a roof ripped from a Japanese home and deposited by the March tsunami on the beach amid car parts, clothing, dishes, and other debris

Left, the center pole of the roof of the area

Left, the center pole of the roof of the area’s oldest home (made with traditional joinery) destroyed by the March 2011 tsunami. Right, a soiled tatami mat (traditional flooring) washed up by the wave

Flotsam and debris on a damaged section of Japanese coastline

A second of damaged coastline is home to debris and flotsam collected as water washed through homes and businesses and back out to sea. Most is too damaged to salvage.

A lone boot filled with mud and seawater

A lone rubber boot, filled with mud and sea water. All of us wore rubber boots and gloves while volunteering, and no matter how careful we were, we ended the day with mud in our shoes and under our nails.

A man hunts for the gravestone of his family dog, near where his home

A man hunts for the gravestone of his family dog, near where his home’s foundation remains. He explains that he wanted to find the rock to reassure his daughter that it was still there, and that it is a special type of stone that is only found on a nearby island. Right, a hard hat rests on a foundation wall near his home.

A child

A child’s bike, covered in mud, sits atop a pile of “non burnable” garbage collected from a washed-out area

Looking toward the beach, the remains of a residential area. Only foundations and detritus are left where Japanese homes once stood.

Looking toward the beach, the remains of a residential area. Only foundations and detritus are left where Japanese homes once stood.

Newly painted fishing floats laid out to dry

Newly painted fishing floats laid out to dry. We were asked to stencil these floats by a local fisherman in need of help.

Left, fishing floats laid out to dry after stenciling. Right, the remains of incense urns for a home Buddhist altar on the empty site of a bulldozed house.

Left, fishing floats laid out to dry after stenciling. Right, the remains of incense urns for a home Buddhist altar on the empty site of a bulldozed house.

Toys left by local children in the foundation of a wrecked building near the marina of a Japanese town. Note the newly graded road and reinforced sea wall in the background.

Toys left by local children in the foundation of a wrecked building near the marina of a Japanese town. Note the newly graded road and reinforced sea wall in the background.

A stray cat sitting in tsunami wreckage including cement and rebar.

Amid smashed cement and torn-up rebar, a stray cat sits, begging for scraps.

Fish caught by Japanese fishermen near Ishinomaki, Japan

A day’s catch of mackerel sits on the cracked marina near Ishinomaki, Japan

Fishing boats tethered in a marina near Ishinomaki, Japan

Fishing boats tethered at sunset in a marina near Ishinomaki, Japan

The local port/marina, cracked by the earthquake and nearly sunk by the tsunami, is scattered with rebar and wreckage and nearly floods at high tide.

The unsafe local port/marina, cracked by the earthquake and nearly sunk by the tsunami, is scattered with rebar and wreckage and nearly floods at high tide.

A Japanese fire truck and fire station, casualties of the March 2011 tsunami

A Japanese fire truck and fire station, casualties of the March 2011 tsunami. The fire truck, like a good portion of the tsunami-affected area, is covered in a tangle of fishing nets.

Tsunami damage to a pier in a small Japanese town

Rebar and smashed cement, along with sections of the old road, rest on part of the sunken pier in a small Japanese town

A Japanese pier, sunken by the March 2011 tsunami, and remains of fishing industry outbuildings

The sunken pier and ruined foundations of fishing outbuildings, framed by grass.

Japan, November 2011 | Part One: Tsunami Relief in Ishinomaki

Fishermen

A fisherman’s floats with the kanji for the family name sit unused outside a port near Ishinomaki, Japan. The area was a vibrant fishing and farming community that could not practice its industry during 2011.

It’s been a challenge for me to get through editing these photographs from my November trip to Ishinomaki, Japan. It’s not so much that the subject matter is emotional, thought it is, but that I struggled to feel that I adequately captured the experience of volunteering in a disaster area. There were a lot of things I saw that I just couldn’t photograph… or that simply didn’t come out in a way that I felt fairly represented the situation in Japan eight months after the tsunami. There were a lot of images I still feel just don’t mean much out of context. [NOTE: With that in mind, I’m going to provide captions for the images below.] And, simply, there was so much that I saw only through a car window, just barely able to gape, as we drove by.

I didn’t spend nearly as much time photographing as I did working. The work that we did wasn’t very conducive to cradling a camera either– mostly hard labor and restorations digging out overgrowth, debris, mud, and other detritus from the former sites of homes and farm fields. It was a lot of shoveling, wheelbarrowing, pulling up weeds, sorting, lifting, and searching. The big cleanup– rebuilding roads, salvaging boats and big debris, the demolition of buildings too damaged to be saved– is finished in some areas and well under way in other areas. Most of the towns and villages hit by the tsunami have simply ceased to exist, bulldozed into a state more reminisce of a vacant lot than a Japanese city. So where there once were tightly-packed communities teeming with farmers and fishermen, there are now desolate stretches of washed-out soil embedded with the bits and pieces of the lives that once called that area home.

It’s strange to see the coastline in this state of perpetual transition. In some ways, there has been remarkable progress. The Japanese Self Defense Forces have repaired and built new roads to make the area accessible to relief workers. Those who lost their homes have been given transitional housing. There are a variety of staple donations available to those who need them. There is no longer a search for the dead or missing. It is a time to repair and rebuild.

But… not everywhere CAN rebuild. Some areas of the coast sank more than four feet after the tectonic shift of the massive quake. These areas may be subject to tidal flooding (like large parts of Ishinomaki city), unstable soil, or simply unsafe for future building. The government has provided a stipend for those who have lost their homes, but it is often not enough money for a new piece of land and a new home. Where can they build? Land is at a premium in Japan.

Plus, there’s a whole level of unseen politic beneath the surface: What about those who still have their homes? They have mortgages, but they may not have jobs. The people in temporary housing can at least receive relief donations, but those who still have their homes cannot. This area had a vibrant fishing and farming industry, neither of which functioned at all during 2011. How are the remaining residents supposed to make income? Some are volunteering rebuilding the industry, but some have had to take other jobs in areas that weren’t ruined, leaving tension between them and those who are shouldering the burden. It’s this sort of thing that photographs can’t show.

What I did see were a lot of bizarre wide-open spaces where land that once often held scores of houses is now vacant. I saw wrecked and washed-out homes and schools in various states of decay and demolition. I saw memorials for the dead and for the missing. I saw lots, and lots, and lots of volunteers– some coming from hours away on tour buses over the weekend to spend Saturday volunteering and the night on the bus home. I saw strange portents, like the tiny wooden Shinto shrine that survived the flooding of a river delta where 27 homes did not. I saw the bits and pieces of lives destroyed, embedded in a thick layer of mud. I saw tragedy and destitution and hope being rebuilt. Eight months after the disaster, the horror is gone, but the sadness remains, haunting the quiet, vacant lots.

This post is as much for me as it is for you. Looking at these images helps me remember the important things in life, and not to get too bogged down in details. I hope they do the same for you.

An elementary school near the river bank that was completely covered by the wave. All students evacuated safely.

An elementary school near the river bank that was completely covered by the wave. All students evacuated safely before the tsunami.

Clothing, dishes, roof tiles, and more debris removed from under the mud and millet in a field we cleared

Clothing, dishes, roof tiles, and more debris removed from under the mud and millet in a field we cleared

Salvaged from beneath the mud in a field we cleared, this ping-pong paddle had a child

Salvaged from beneath the mud in a field we cleared, this ping-pong paddle had a child’s name written on it. We cleaned it off with the hope of reuniting it with its owner or living relatives.

A car wrecked by the tsunami sits in a field near Ookawa, Japan

A car wrecked by the tsunami sits in a field near Ookawa, Japan

Brooms in an abandoned shed near Ookawa in Ishinomaki, Japan

Brooms in an abandoned shed near Ookawa in Ishinomaki, Japan

My friend, Kyoko, who helped organize our volunteer effort in Ishinomaki

My friend, Kyoko, who helped organize our volunteer effort in Ishinomaki, taking a break during field-clearing

Volunteers from our team take a break in the sun during a day spent clearing millet and debris from a farm field.

Volunteers from our team take a break in the sun during a day spent clearing millet and debris from a farm field.

Volunteers clearing a field of millet and debris so it can be re-plowed for use in 2012

Volunteers clearing a field of millet and debris so it can be re-plowed for use in 2012

Tsunami damage to the inside of a Japanese home near Ookawa. Paper doors, futons, and wooden floors destroyed by the wave.

Tsunami damage to the inside of a Japanese home near Ookawa. Paper doors, futons, and wooden floors destroyed by the wave.

Persimmons growing near Ookawa, Japan

Persimmons growing near Ookawa, Japan

Traditional Japanese hinamatsuri doll sitting in a damaged shed outside Ookawa

Traditional Japanese hinamatsuri doll sitting in a damaged shed outside Ookawa

A local farmer standing in front of his field, which we cleared earlier of debris and overgrowth that day

A local farmer standing in front of his field in Ookawa, which we cleared earlier of debris and overgrowth that day

Lettuce growing on a family farm plot near homes that have been repaired from tsunami damage in Ookawa.

Lettuce growing on a family farm plot near homes that have been repaired from tsunami damage in Ookawa.

Memorial for the lives lost in a residential area where 27 houses were washed away and the cement shell of a home shrine in the mud.

Memorial for the lives lost in a residential area where 27 houses were washed away and only a muddy flood-plain remains. On the right, the cement shell of a home shrine in the mud.

Flower memorial at Ookawa elementary school, where nearly every student and teacher died during the tsunami

A flower memorial at Ookawa elementary school, where nearly every student and teacher died during the tsunami.

Debris and garbage piled at the base of the slope near Ookawa elementary school, where evacuations were supposed to take place

Debris and garbage from the tsunami piled at the base of the slope near Ookawa elementary school, where evacuations were supposed to take place. Instead, teachers delayed evacuating before directing students to a nearby bridge, where they were struck by the wave.

Sunrise over Kinkasan Island from our cabin at the Oshika family campground

Sunrise over Kinkasan Island from our cabin at the Oshika family campground. Oshika was closest to the epicenter of the tsunami and parts of it sank 3.9 feet and moved 17 feet south.

Fishing boats off the coast of Ishinomaki, Japan

Fishing boats off the coast of Ishinomaki, Japan

Opposite a narrow beach, this neighborhood was washed away in the March 2011 tsunami. The small house in center frame washed off its foundation and settled there. It was demolished later that day.

Opposite a narrow beach, this neighborhood was washed away in the March 2011 tsunami. The small house in center frame washed off its foundation and settled there. It was demolished later that day.

Manhole cover in Onagawa, Japan, near temporary housing for tsunami refugees.

Manhole cover in Onagawa, Japan, near temporary housing for tsunami refugees.

Older women among the Onagawa tsunami refugees make zorii slippers from old t-shirts to keep busy and fundraise for their community

Older women among the Onagawa tsunami refugees make zorii slippers from old t-shirts to keep busy and fundraise for their community. The “aunties” and “grandmas” in temporary housing groups across the affected areas have taken up projects to support each other.

Kyoko making zorii from old t-shirts with the Mama Supporters in Onagawa

Kyoko learning to make zorii from old t-shirts with the Mama Supporters in Onagawa

A poster of Oshika Whale town in Ishinomaki, Japan, before the March 2011 tsunami

A poster of Oshika, a whaling town in Ishinomaki, Japan, before the March 2011 tsunami. Notice the apartment building in the upper right and look for it in the next photo (center).

Oshika town in Ishinomaki prefecture after the tsunami. The apartment building to the right of the blue sign is the same one in the upper right of the

Oshika town in Ishinomaki prefecture after the tsunami. The apartment building to the right of the blue sign is the same one in the upper right of the “before” picture. Eighty percent of buildings in Oshika were destroyed.

Apartment building in Oshika, Ishinomaki prefecture, damaged by the tsunami wave.

Apartment building in Oshika, Ishinomaki prefecture, damaged by the tsunami wave.

A small boat, washed about 1km inland, rests at near an apartment complex in Oshika town

A small boat, washed about 1km inland, rests at near an apartment complex in Oshika town

Clocks stopped at the time of the earthquake.

Clocks stopped at the time of the earthquake.

Bottles of beer, kitchenware, and other debris sorted and left behind at an apartment building in Oshika, where 80 percent of residences were destroyed.

Bottles of beer, kitchenware, and other debris sorted and left behind at an apartment building in Oshika, where 80 percent of residences were destroyed.

The owner of a liquor store in Oshika selling bottles with labels damaged in the tsunami at a local flea market.

The owner of a liquor store in Oshika selling bottles with labels damaged in the tsunami at a local flea market.

A young boy celebrates his fifth birthday at Hiyori-yama Shine

Life goes on, and a young boy celebrates his fifth birthday (the shichi-go-san ceremony) at Hiyori-yama Shine

Interested in seeing more images? View Part Two of my tsunami relief photographs.

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