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A Tour of Japan with Hashimoto-san

This morning, I was invited by Hashimoto-san, an older Japanese resident who has remained in the area even though she has lost her husband and much of her home to the tsunami, to go on a tour. She wanted to give me a tour of areas of importance for her, as well as areas that were not affected by the earthquake and tsunami.  She wanted me to remember beautiful areas of Yamamoto, as well.  I was given the morning off to join her and would join the team later in the day. Yui, who is Japanese and is bilingual, is a new addition to team at the Nozomi Center and came with us. Hashimoto-san was quite apologetic that her car was old and in poor condition. She is very humble and although she has never finish high school, she is well respected and loved in the community. I am so blessed that she has chosen to befriend me and share her heart and love of her community.

We started at the Yamashita train, which was not around when she was young. At that time, she had to walk four kilometres to another train station to go to other cities. Many homes across the station were in various states of disrepair, much of which will not be fixed up. There were countless homes where only the foundation remained.  The city government will not allow many of the homes to be rebuilt, due to location. Many of the inhabitants had to be relocated to temporary housing centres and remain there to this day. Some of these people do not have the means to rebuild. Others have moved away for jobs in other cities. Many try to return home on weekends or when transportation is available so that they can work on repairing their houses, if they can afford it. Some continue to maintain their gardens to give calmness to their lives.

The Yamashita train station is right in front of  Hashimoto-san's home. There are still dozens of bicycles that remain which noone has claimed.  The train line will not be reopened and another new line will be built farther away. This hurts the town's economy and the resources it provides. We then drove to an area where Hashimoto-san used to go to school and a park where she used to play when she was young.  The school is beyond repair and will eventually be torn down. The park is no longer distinguishable. Across the street is what looked like an open field. Hashimoto-san said in that location alone, there were over 150 homes. A little further down, we drove by a school that was just built, with a large clock on the roof which was stopped at approximately 3:20, a few moments after the tsunami stuck.  There are many homes and buildings in that area that will be condemned and torn down, but with the magnitude of devastation, the government still has not gotten to the point of removing them.  There are still mountains of debris waiting for proper disposal or relocation.  Other prefectures (similar to a state or province), have agreed to accept some of it. Unfortunately, many others still refuse for fear of contamination.

We drove on to where one of Hashimoto-san's friends used to have a hotel near the beach. The only thing remaining is the driveway and her friend is no longer around. We passed a place where a home of some famous person lived that was high on a mountainside. The foundation had washed away and the home had collapsed. It reminded me of the parable of the house built on the sand. We proceeded to what used to be a popular beach area. The road was roped off, but Hashimoto-san is a determined woman and she drove us to see it. There, you could see a section of the tsunami wall had collapsed and the road was washed away. Along the beach there was debris; reminders of the lives of those who used to live there. We also saw walls being built in parallel for the next tsunami, approximately three to four meters high and hundreds of yards apart in one location. Hashimoto-san just shook her head.

We proceeded to a place that used to be a famous shrine.  This is where Hashimoto-san's family own a plot which contains the ashes of her family. Hashimoto-san shared where was written on the headstones of her parents and other relatives.  The shrine is in the process of being rebuilt but the only thing that remains at this time are the plots, most of which have to be repositioned to original locations.  In Japan, cremation is required.  Along the way, we saw a part of the old road which had collapsed from the earthquake.

We then pulled into a convenience store, owned by one of her relatives.  It is further away from the beach area and is surrounded by beautiful farmland and foothills covered with trees.  She picked up a few things and we thing proceeded to an area where a friend of hers operates a place that prepares horses and jockeys for races.  By looking at this area, you would not know of the devastation that took place only a few miles down the road. We had breakfast there with the food she had picked up earlier. She said she wanted to show me places she held dear and share beautiful things in the area that she wanted me to appreciate since I would be leaving soon and would not be able to take time off to tour around.

Next, we visited some of her friends. One of them lived by a golf course and had beautiful plants and bonsai. The husband had a stroke not too long ago, but was happy to see Hashimoto-san and welcomed us into their home. We proceeded to visit some other friends who were also delighted to welcome us to their home and farm.  Hashimoto-san gave the husband a little bit of a hard time for not taking better care of his bonsai. She went to their garden and said she needed a bag of produce to share with our team.  She proceeded to pull out radishes, cabbage and other items to share with us.  The husband just laughed, it was quite obvious they are close. It's also clear that her friends appreciate her work to support the community. 

Although our visit in Japan was short, they appreciate people like us who come to help, although they prefer help that is more long term.  Yui was questioned during our tour by one of the residents on what her plans are. They want to know who is really going to help long term. Relationships and community are important; with so many not coming back and the disappointment in the government regarding the clean-up effrots, people feel abandoned and I don't blame them.  They want their community back. Once Yui shared that she was staying on a more long term basis, the resident's face changed. Her eyes filled with tears and she smiled.

Our next stop was at one of the shelters that the government had set up for the victims. It looked like small train cars pushed up against one another. Clothes lines hung outside the windows. There was no yard, no garden, and not much privacy. Although they had their basic needs met, there was no place available where they could meet to socialize or for children to play. Hashimoto-san walked us to one of the units where her younger sister lives. She is also very pleasant and accepting. We chatted for awhile and after I bit, I motioned to a baseball poster of a Japanese player playing for the Oakland A's. She said that was one of grandson's favorite players. Then she looked down and said she did not get back in time and he was lost in the tsunami. My heart dropped like a rock. You never know what may trigger the emotions. Her sister told her its time to move on. They have mourned enough. As I looked at their current homes, my heart ached for them.

Hashimoto-san then drove us to an area referred to as "Apple Lane" where acre after acre is filled with Fuji apples. Close by the groves was a place for families and children to walk along a small mountain trail and play. It was beautiful and I appreciated the time to walk and reflect on the morning.

Following that, we drove passed a couple places where buildings were once used by members of community old and young alike. People used to fellowship, play, teach cooking and other activities. Now, none of this happens. Hashimoto-san said she really misses these community activities. She hopes the Nozomi Center may be something like that. So do I.

We finished up late morning and proceeded to join our teammates after Hashimoto-san dropped us off.

Written by Herman Iriye, Team Member for Japan Team - June 2012 (Crosspoint Church - Chino, CA)