You might think, "Didn't you do something similar last summer?"
Last year, I went north to visit an area affected by the Tohoku Disaster in 2011 to interview victims who had survived the terrible earthquake and tsunami. (Shameless self-promo: Check out my documentary and award-winning article)
This summer I went south.
On April 14th and 16th earlier this year, the people of Kumamoto and its surrounding prefectures suffered multiple earthquakes, the strongest being a magnitude 7.0. Many homes and hearts were broken and three months after the disaster when I visited, there was still a lot to be done.
I took a trip alone in mid-July to Kumamoto to volunteer and contribute to disaster relief (and also create some journalistic work). This trip turned out to be a huge collection of life lessons and stories learned from the different individuals that I had the privilege of meeting throughout my five days there.
Day 1: Arriving in the rain
It took a plane, a train, a bus, and a lot of walking in the rain to get to my destination, Kumamoto City.
I had never traveled alone, especially in such an unfamiliar place, so my mind was full of both fear and excitement; the fear of messing up and getting lost, but the excitement of being independent and taking on a challenge.
The weather forecast for Kumamoto during my stay did not look good due to an incoming storm. I was welcomed at the airport by pouring rain. From the airport, I took a local shuttle bus to the stop nearest to my hotel. I thankfully found my way and figured out how the buses worked.
I got off the bus at my stop and entered an outdoor 'arcade' as they called it in Japan. The 'arcade' is a collection of small shops, cafes, restaurants, and karaoke bars in a closed area. My hotel was right at the end of the arcade, which made it very convenient. The rain didn't seem to go away, but as a LA native that rarely sees rain, I throughly enjoyed the cool weather.
After settling in at my hotel, I decided to walk around to explore the surrounding area. Fortunately, my hotel was only five minutes away from Kumamoto Castle (熊本城), an old Japanese-style castle built in the early 1600s that is a major tourist attraction of the city. But unfortunately, the castle also suffered from the disaster. The main castle suffered damages in the roof, while the some other structures around it were completely destroyed. Due to the damages, the castle's surrounding park was completely closed off to the public, so I had a limited view of the historic site. Cones and barriers blocked the entrances with signs saying, "Warning: Do not enter due to earthquake damages." Seeing such a historical and prominent structure damaged so severely left me speechless; all I could do was stare and imagine what the disaster must have been like.
I stopped by the local convenience store down the street (one of the best things in Japan) to grab some dinner: a rice ball wrapped in seaweed (onigiri) and cabbage slaw in a bag. I prepped my things to start volunteering the next morning.
Day 2: When the bad leads to the good
I woke up at around 5:30AM while waiting for the Kumamoto City Disaster Volunteer Center to post an update on its website on whether it would be open or not. At 6:00, the notification came that it would be closed for the day due to heavy rain and flood warnings. I was disappointed to say the least, but didn't give up there, it was time for plan B.
I took a bus from the closest station to me towards Mashiki (益城), one of the towns hit hardest by the earthquakes. I had no knowledge of whether the town had any volunteering opportunities or not, but I decided to head that way anyways to see the aftermath of the disaster myself.
It had started to rain harder and the bus was incredibly crowded. Half an hour later, After I was waiting to get off at my destination when I realized that I had already missed my stop. I panicked briefly, but it wasn't the end of the world. The next stop was the airport, so I decided to get off there to get more information on the volunteer centers in the area. Mashiki was not too far.
At the airport, I went to the information counter where the workers assisted me and even made phone calls to volunteer centers to check of their availability. Thankfully, we found Mashiki Town Disaster Volunteer Center, which was open despite the weather. I thanked the workers and quickly got into a taxi for the center.
I spoke with the taxi driver, a quiet old man, about his experience with the earthquakes. He said, "At the time, I was driving and felt the earthquake from the car. I had never felt anything like it before. After the shaking stopped, I knew I had to go home, but all of the roads that I had taken everyday were so crowded." His wife was safe at home, but the house had suffered cracks and damages to the foundation, which is costly to fix. He continued, "I'm worried for Kumamoto. More and more people are leaving, so the population is going down when we need the most help." When I asked him how far Kumamoto has come in its recovery, he said, "まだまだ," (Mada mada) meaning "There's still a long way to go."
I arrived at Mashiki Town Disaster Volunteer Center. I signed in, got my name tag, and sat down to receive instructions from the workers. The volunteer center was nothing but chairs, tents, and wooden boards on the ground. I sat in one of the chairs, along with about ten other volunteers, while waiting for our assignments. At the center, I coincidentally met a fellow half-Japanese volunteer from France who happened to stop by Kumamoto in the middle of his hitch-hiking trip. He had so many incredible stories that made for great conversations, in both English and Japanese. (If you want to know more about his hitch-hiking endeavors, I recommend checking out his blog!) After talking to more volunteers, I realized that people came from near and far to contribute their time. Some volunteers came from five minutes away, while others came from as far as Tokyo or from outside of the country. The volunteers' commitment to this cause was honestly so inspiring.
The ten of us volunteers waited for over two hours before finally receiving our assignment. We were assigned to go to a home of an elderly couple who needed help to get rid of some of their damaged and unneeded belongings. We collected different items and divided them into different categories such as wood, metals, and electronics. We packed them into multiple trucks and and took them to a disposal center. In total, the volunteering took less than an hour so it made it seem as if I didn't contribute much.
When we returned to the volunteer center, it started to pour again. Fortunately, I was able to get to a bus stop to get back since one of the volunteer workers kindly dropped me off. I waited over two hours for a bus, and I got off the bus after an hour. At the end of the day, I was exhausted from all of the waiting and traveling. But I was glad that I had not wasted my day and took the initiative to make it productive. Missing that bus stop earlier in the morning was definitely not the worst thing to happen, after all.
For dinner, I ate a rice ball (again) from a convenience store along with a bowl of hot vegetable curry.
Day 3: Being a tourist
I got up early once again to the update that all of the nearby volunteer centers, including the one I went to yesterday in Mashiki, were closed due to the weather. I was frustrated, but decided that I would just tour around the area for the day.
I took a local train at around noon to Suizenji Jojuen Park (水前寺成趣園), a famous traditional Japanese garden in Kumamoto. Inside there are grassy hills, bonsai trees, koi fish ponds, shrines, and a teahouse. that is home to many beautiful bonsai trees and green hills, Buddhist shrines, and a large koi fish pond. It rained the entire time I was there but that added to the peaceful atmosphere of the park. Around the park were narrows streets lined with shops selling souvenirs for tourists. The owner of one of the shops I went into told me that I was the first volunteer from America that he had met in Kumamoto.
I was soaked by the end of the day and froze on the train back to my hotel. After getting back I walked around in the outdoor arcade before getting dinner which was a chicken sandwich and side salad from McDonald's.
Day 4: Being the 'LA Girl'
After getting up, I headed to the Ozu Town Disaster Volunteer Center (大津) since I had no luck with the one in Kumamoto City. I took a local train to a bigger train station, and from there rode for about half an hour till I arrived in Ozu. The workers at the volunteer center welcomed me with smiles and open arms.
I signed in and got my name tag, and one of the workers immediately drove me to the location where the other volunteers had already been working. Our assignment was to help clean and clear out a room of an apartment where an elderly woman had lived until the disaster. The apartment complex was to be destroyed because of the damages, so the residents had to move out. I collected trash into bags, cleaned furniture, and packed the woman's belongings into boxes. I volunteered from 10:00AM till 12:00PM, when we took a break for lunch at the volunteer center.
At the volunteer center, I became the "LA girl". I was bombarded with different questions regarding the differences between life in Japan and America. I was asked about everything, ranging from high school Prom and the presidential candidates. As much as they learned from me about the United States, I learned about the culture in Kumamoto, such as the different dialects of the prefecture.
From 1:00PM till 3:30PM, we went back to the apartment to volunteer again. Some creatures like mice and cockroaches made an appearance while we worked. Despite the cloudy weather, it was still extremely hot and humid, making it a difficult environment to work in.
Back at the volunteer center after we finished our work, the workers had asked me to draw something for their bulletin board. Since there had been rain in the previous days, I drew a bluish purple hydrangea and a little snail, with my name signed at the bottom. I purchased a T-shirt with Kumamoto's cute mascot, Kumamon, from the volunteer center to wear the next day.
I took a train in the afternoon back to my hotel, and I was exhausted after a full day of volunteering. For dinner, I went to a very small local ramen shop and had a bowl of delicious tonkotsu ramen.
Later on, I was happy to see that me and my drawing had made an appearance on the volunteer center's blog. I was excited to go volunteering again the next day.
Day 5: Good byes and heading home
I packed up my belongings and checked out of my hotel at around 7:30AM. Proudly sporting my new shirt that I purchased at the volunteer center, I carried my bags onto the city train. I arrived at the Kumamoto station to transfer onto a larger train to go to Ozu again. I got to the volunteer center right on time at 9:00AM.
It had only been my second time at the Ozu Town Disaster Volunteer Center but the warm atmosphere made it feel as if I'd been there for months. The workers were glad to see I wore my new shirt. Along with four other volunteers, for the morning shift I went to another apartment complex to help an elderly woman unpack and settle into her new home. I put away dishes, clothes, and other items into their designated places. I worked there until 12:30PM.
After having lunch again at the volunteer center, I went on to my afternoon assignment with another group of volunteers. We went to a home of an elderly couple to help move their bigger furniture into their new apartment since their old home fell apart due to the earthquakes. Until 4:00PM, I was able to commit my time to volunteering.
My flight back home was not until 8:30PM, so I had several hours to spare. Luckily, one of the workers were kind enough to offer me a tour of the surrounding area. I requested specifically to go see areas with homes that were heavily damaged in the disaster, for the sake of documenting and photographing. For about two hours, I was able to go around in a car to film and see for myself the frightening aftermath of natural disasters.
After my personalized tour, I said my last good byes to fellow volunteers and the workers at the center. I took a local shuttle to the airport. There, I had my last meal, a tatsuta (Japanese-style fried) chicken bowl with rice, cabbage, and tartar sauce. Until my flight, I waited around at the airport reminiscing on my experience and all of the selfless people I met on my trip.
I saw my last sunset in Kumamoto and went on my airplane. That was the end of my Kumamoto adventures.
My intention of writing this was to show not only what I did day by day throughout my trip, but also to prove that we are all capable of accomplishing anything as long as we're up for the challenges to come. If you're able to take away anything from this blog post, I hope it's the lesson that if we want to make a difference in the world, each one of us has to play our own part to make a greater impact.
Please support Kumamoto in their recovery from the disaster.