Masayo & Keiko’s gardens

I met Masayo and Keiko during my last visit to Oshika. They live in the temporary housing shelters just behind what used to be the town of Koamikura. There are only two buildings left there now — almost the entire town was completely destroyed by the tsunami. I drive through this area pretty regularly, on my way to see Mika in Tsudachi, and every time I come it is so hard to imagine that there were once people living here.

Masayo lives with her husband, daughter, and two grandsons, all in the same kasetsu. The daughter is the same age as me, and also divorced like me, which I whisper here to people I am still getting to know. Masayo also whispers about her daughter being divorced — it’s a big taboo here but actually I hear quite a lot of whispers of such things happening after the tsunami. The two preteen boys are pretty typical preteen boys — mooching around on their bikes; developing just a little bit of attitude; and shovelling down their food as we sit to eat dinner together in the kasetsu. Despite the shovelling, the boys are shy and don’t say a word to anyone, least of all the foreign stranger who says they can practice their English if they like.

Keiko lived next door to Masayo before the tsunami. She is a tiny little old lady, in her seventies like her friend, but absolutely full of beans and incredibly cheerful. She lives alone in her kasetsu, and often joins Masayo’s family for dinner. I am told that she lost her husband in the tsunami although I don’t ask for details. Somehow every time I see Keiko laugh (which is a LOT) she brings a lump to my throat.

The three of us went for a walk around Koamikura last week. They showed me the places where their houses used to be, which they have now turned into vegetable and flower gardens. They tend to their gardens every morning, picking the food that they will eat during the rest of the day — it is incredible how self-sufficient people on Oshika are. They have made fences out of fishing net to keep the wild deer away — the deer have become a real nuisance to everyone since the earthquake. Now they wander freely around the places where people used to live, looking for food. I don’t quite understand why, but it is explained to me that the natural vegetation has been disturbed to the point where the deer can no longer feed higher in the hills as they used to, so have grown bold and venture to areas where there are people, whereas previously they would stay away. In fact, every night I go to sleep here with the sounds of the wild deer right outside my window.

We walk slowly toward the shrine in the distance, high on a little hill like all the shrines here, overlooking what used to be the town. The people of Koamikura are especially sad about the fate of their shrine — the steps to which were firstly badly damaged by the earthquake, and then by the tsunami, and finally by a landslide after the typhoon that blew through soon after the former two forces of nature. You can’t get to the shrine anymore and this is a great cause of distress to everyone. The town’s community centre was washed away, along with everything important to the shrine and its festival. The stone torii lie on the ground in the same place where they fell over a year ago, and nobody really has much of an idea of what to do with Koamikura. There is very little hope for the future here.

But Masayo and Keiko, in my opinion, are creating hope for Koamikura in their own way. They are using the land they own but are not allowed to build on, to create something that gives them food, a sense of achievement, and exercise. They are creating life, and watching that life grow, and others around them are watching that happen. Who knows who else might be thinking that they could do the same? If enough people did, perhaps a new Koamikura could grow?

I want to do something to help Koamikura, and Masayo and Keiko are the kind of people you really want to recognise and encourage. They need sheds to help them with their gardening — a place to store the items they need, to shelter when taking a break, and to perhaps help others start off their own gardens.

The items needed for the sheds aren’t very expensive at all, and the wood can be purchased at the woodshop just past Kobuchi, keeping the business within Oshika, which is great. It turns out that this is the woodshop where Kameyama-san used to work, run by his relatives — everybody is related somehow on Oshika. Kurosawa-san’s team from The Nippon Foundation agree to build the sheds so I go shopping with them for everything we need, and we started work yesterday.

It’s amazing how the actual construction of something like this attracts so much attention in what appears to be an utterly deserted area. People stopped on foot, on their bicycles, or in their cars or trucks, and asked what was going on. There would follow a long conversation about what we were building and why, and word about the garden sheds soon got around. One man I swear I have never met before sat down and watched us, telling Kurosawa-san that he was worried that I was here building sheds in Japan when I should be planning my wedding and not leaving my husband-to-be alone for very long because he would get lonely. It always surprises me to find out how so many people know so much about my life, but it also always makes me feel very cared about.

Masayo and Keiko popped down to tell us when to take breaks or have lunch, and to make sure we weren’t working so hard. I had lunch with them in Masayo’s kasetsu yesterday, and dinner there tonight — I think the organisations that coordinate volunteer activities here discourage people from going inside the temporary housing shelters, but I’m not part of an organisation so pretty much do what my instinct tells me is the right thing to do and I’ve always gone in and out of the kasetsu pretty freely. I felt a little uncomfortable at first but was always so welcomed that actually I realised that by just going in and out of the places that are now their homes, I was just like being a friend rather than somebody here to “help” because of the disaster. I honestly feel like a part of the Oshika community now and that’s all because of how everyone has been so welcoming so I’ve kind of stopped seeing the people here as any different to me — they are just people and, well, shit happens. Granted, an unbelievably large amount of shit has happened to them but you just get on with it as best you can, and in Keiko’s case, with a massive smile.

So I decided to paint a massive heart-shaped Union Jack on Keiko’s shed, to match her smile, and because I thought she needed an extra big heart full of love. Kurosawa-san knows I like to put the names of the people who paid for projects on the projects somehow, and had suggested that instead of putting plaques like I did during my last visit, I painted the names on the sheds. So of course I had got all carried away and made a big design on the sheds that you can even see from the road in the distance. Everybody loved them, especially Masayo and Keiko, which was just great. I explained that the people whose names I had painted on the shed would always be thinking about them. They said that every day, when they came to their gardens, they would be thinking about the people whose names were painted on their sheds.

A shed doesn’t sound like a vitally important item but when you’re putting that shed in the middle of a wasteland like this, it is surprising how important that shed becomes. It’s practical yet inspirational, and also quite social as I later found out that Masayo and Keiko would like to have their friends join them for “tea parties” by their gardens. This was yet another way of getting more of the community out of the kasetsu and perhaps in doing so they may feel encouraged to try to get the town back together, in whatever form that may be.

And on a very individual level, I cannot tell you how much of a boost these wonderful gifts are to these lovely old ladies. Thank you so much to Cindy Price, George Karger, Erin Levine Nakamura, Lorna Nagamine, Bonson Lam, Lucy Sturman, Anita Symonds, Sam Woodgate, Kathleen Kano, and Alastair Taylor for your kindness and generosity ….. you are indeed, a little part of the future Koamikura.

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