Koamikura Update

I spent this morning in the nearby village of Koamikura, home to Kameyama-san, the eighty-year-old who built his own house from scratch soon after the tsunami rather than live in temporary housing (despite having no carpentry experience), and Masayo-san and Keiko-san, who had made little vegetable gardens on the land where their homes used to be. Thanks to you, we provided home furnishings for Kameyama-san (I’m not sure I’ll ever let Kameyama-san drive me anywhere again after that shopping trip), and garden sheds for Masayo-san and Keiko-san, for them to store their tools rather than carry them the long walk back to temporary housing.

All three are doing well, and now have permanent homes along with the other residents of Koamikura. The last person left temporary housing on December 20th, and they all live in a new village that has been built high on a nearby mountain, with stunning views, that also bring about some sadness because the new village overlooks where their homes used to be.

But this morning was all about celebration, as the young men of the village played taiko and danced around under the shishimai, to entertain older residents, as well as their young wives and children. I counted seven children who looked like they had been born in the years since the tsunami, and while I recognised the fathers and the older residents, the mothers’ faces were unfamiliar to me. Many people on Oshika were forced to leave the peninsula while waiting for the temporary housing to be built. Some came back to live in temporary housing but found the wait for permanent housing to be too long (six years) and left the area. But now they have returned, and these young children give this little village so much hope for the future.

The New Year rituals, as well as other rituals based around the numerous shrines and stone monuments on Oshika are an important way of connecting the young with the old, the past with the future. The stone “jizo” that used to be by the sea have been relocated to within the new village. And the Koamikura shrine has had significant improvements done to it since it was damaged first by the earthquake, then by the tsunami, and then by the landslides that occurred during the heavy rain that occurred right after the tsunami. Tokyo-based Shelley Sacks has always felt a personal connection to Koamikura, and with her team at Ohana International School, the British School in Tokyo, and Miyabi Arashi Taiko Group, she has provided funds to re-erect the stone tori that lay broken on the ground when I first came here, to repair the stone steps leading up to the shrine, to build new walls for the shinden part of the shrine where the god lives, and more recently to stabilise the hillside upon which the shrine stands. The latter improvement has been completed since my last trip, for which the Koamikura village is very grateful. And they still remember when Shelley and the Miyabi Arashi Taiko Group visited them to give a wonderful taiko performance in front of the temporary housing community. Something that nobody — performers and audience alike — will ever forget.

As for the future of this village, the children are key. The local government will be creating a playground within the new village, but that is the extent of the support while there is so much reconstruction going on throughout the peninsula (and of course the all-important Tokyo Olympics to bear in mind, and yes I am being a little sarcastic). The school uniforms continue to be a great support to this area, and any projects involving young people would be welcomed … I’m at the very early stages of discussing a big project for the local teenagers here, which I’ll write more about as plans come together. But please let me know if you’re particularly interested in knowing more about either the uniforms or the project to benefit teenagers.

In the meantime, when I asked the head of Koamikura what the village needs right now, he just had one small request. They would like to repair the floor of the shrine, which underneath the mats that cover it during ceremonies, is completely falling apart. I can see by looking at the shrine that more needs to be done, but people here are modest with their requests, and will only ask for something when gently encouraged. To repair the floor will cost just ¥100,000 and they have the human resources but not the funds. Shelley hopes that her team will be willing to support this.

As I’ve often said, it is perhaps human nature to want to rush in and fix everything right away, and is often the response that is encouraged after any disaster anywhere in the world. But the clearing up, planning, and rebuilding takes time, as does the healing. People directly affected by such disasters need time to build the strength to be able to make their own decisions about their communities instead of being told what to do, and I think that those of us that want to help should just gently remind them that we are here for them if they need us, and that we are still willing to help, years after. I was touched that Shelley contacted me as soon as I announced this trip back to Oshika, and asked for me to find some way for them to help. But as many people who come here find out, once Oshika gets into your heart, it stays there.

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