Tokyo homestay & Disneyland trip for Oshika families

Organizing this trip has been a logistical nightmare and definitely one of the most challenging of all the projects I have done on Oshika — but any stress I had disappeared as soon as the first child turned up on Saturday morning, pushing his family’s suitcase through the car park to the bus waiting next to the Tsudachi temporary housing community. 28 of us set off from Oshika, including 19 children aged 2–12 years.

The bus driver was lovely — with the foreign name written on the front of the bus he had thought he was picking up a bunch of volunteers and taking them back to Tokyo. But when he saw all the children get on the bus and I explained what we were doing he couldn’t stop grinning. For the entire journey.

The kids were also in very high spirits throughout, and the mums sensibly stuck together at the back of the bus, and let their kids get on with it in the middle section. I joined the mums and went through the details about their host families again — I had done this a couple of weeks ago but just wanted to confirm what we had talked about before. They also wanted to check they were pronouncing “please” and “thank you” correctly and also to find out how to say “I need a wee/poo,” which then led to lots of hilarious gestures they could use in case they forgot. The Tsudachi girls are quite a naughty bunch and had me in fits of laughter.

Most of the host families had made contact with their guests either by phone or on Facebook during the past week, so they were already feeling very welcomed. I called each of the host families from the bus and passed over the phone to anyone who hadn’t had a chance to say hello to their hosts yet.

As we got closer to Tokyo everyone started staring out the windows at the sprawling city — for quite a few of the children it was their first trip to Tokyo and they were glued to the windows. It was lovely to point out Tokyo Tower and the groups of cherry blossom trees still in bloom.

Finally, after nine and a half hours of travelling, we arrived at Tokyo Station, and were greeted by the host families, who had very patiently been waiting because of our 90-minute delay. There were 15 minutes of chaos as I tried to introduce everyone and then each group went their respective ways. Later that night photos started appearing on Facebook, showing what fun everyone was having together, and each one got me a little teary — this whole trip wasn’t just about Disneyland but also about the time with the host families, and I could see from how the children were having so much fun together that friendships were definitely being made.

The next morning the hosts handed off their guests to me at either Tokyo Station or Disneyland, and some decided to stay for the day too. I handed out the tickets and maps to everyone then waved them off, found somewhere with wifi and settled down to work and enjoy the photos they were posting on Facebook throughout the day, until I was to meet them again in the evening. Needless to say, they had a fantastic day despite it being unexpectedly cold and a bit drizzly.

The weather as we head back to Oshika on the bus, as I type, is absolutely beautiful though — we’ve enjoyed an amazing view of Tokyo as we move from one world into another and back to Tohoku. And I find myself so deeply touched by the kindness of the host families and sponsors. I have felt like that for all of this weekend, actually. I am naturally very easily moved to tears anyway, and especially about anything to do with Oshika — but what usually moves me is seeing my new friends laughing and smiling and enjoying themselves. There is something about seeing the pure joy on their faces that really makes my eyes sting.

Instead this weekend I have been rather overcome by the kindness of the host families, and a little overwhelmed at knowing that some people, really are, very special. You made possible an unforgettable weekend for everyone involved, and already many of you have told me that this is just the beginning of a special friendship between you all. I can’t wait to hear all about it as time goes on.

And then there are the people who made the weekend financially possible — almost ¥600,000 was contributed in total, which paid for the bus between Oshika and Tokyo, and all the Oshika people’s Disneyland tickets. I had some extra so I was able to put a little bit of money in envelopes for each of the families to use towards their travel expenses around Tokyo, refreshments during the day at Disneyland, or any souvenirs from the weekend. And at the very last minute, I was unexpectedly given even more money to go towards the trip — one person literally stuffed money in my pocket and ran because I had my hands full handing out the tickets and maps at the entrance to Disney. After waving everyone goodbye I remembered it and was shocked to pull out ¥40,000. I was moved to tears.

With that and the other unexpected donations I decided to buy lightweight Disney jackets for all the children, and some fun pants for the mums and dads! Zip-up hoodies and underwear are always needed on Oshika so this seemed like the right thing to do — a souvenir that was also extremely practical! And great fun to see all the gift-wrapped packages being opened on the bus home.

Originally this weekend was about giving families a break, letting the kids run about and be …. well, kids, and about creating new, happy memories for people who had lost so much. Of course it was still about that, but it actually became something quite different as well.

It became a celebration of the kindness of people who opened up their hearts, homes (and wallets!) to complete strangers.

And for doing so, I have to thank Stephanie Kawai, Lorna Nagamine, Veronica Lonsdale, Jane McDonald, Kellie Fitzmaurice, Monique Strauss, Yoko Fukasawa, John Whetsel, Tair Mordoch, Grace Sekimitsu, Lara Chho and their families; and also everyone at Kids World and Happy Days.

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