We have a tight schedule for the morning. Our bus is waiting, as is a group of students from Tohoku University who will be joining us for the trip. On the way to the Ishinomaki convention center (about one hour), Hikari, a 19-year old student of English and Chinese, sits down next to me. Her mother works in insurance, she tells me. When I ask about her father, she takes out her Casio EX-Word, a portable electronic dictionary which appears to be a common commodity among Japanese students. "Office-worker." What kind of company? She doesn't know, she says with a smile. The smile gets fainter, but doesn't disappear, when I ask how she experienced the earthquake, and I start to fear for the worst. One of her sisters was in a car as a wave came crashing along the side of the highway, but she escaped. Her other sister made it to the eighth floor of a nearby building to witness a wave that flooded the sixth. Hikari herself survived after spending a few hours in the basement of her school. Hikari, by the way, means 'light.'
We are greeted by rows and rows of bowing and glowing Japanese people, lined up so we can follow the impressive sounds to the organ in the middle of the spacious, modern community/convention center. Of course there is a large pipe organ in the community center, built by an Ishinomaki local. Personal, first-hand accounts of the earthquake follow in a presentation by Ken'etsu Takahashi, the local superintendent. "Personal" is relative – while one of my colleagues laments that the slide show and videos read somewhat like an Associated Press report, our in-house interpreter/concertmaster says that a lot of the genuine and passionate personal touch was lost in the lackluster translation.
Regardless, what remains unaltered is the emotional effect of being in an area and among people who were affected as directly as imaginable by the events we are used to seeing on YouTube from thousands of miles away. Many of us are deeply touched by the stories and accompanying images shared with us in elaborate and dedicated fashion. The underlying tone, however, is not one of devastation and despair, but of moving forward. Some of us are struck by the restraint, calm and focus with which these tragedies are relayed, but it seems to be rooted in an intrinsic resilience and care for one another. The final slide has the word KIZUNA on it – Japanese for 'bond.' (As I check online back at the hotel to verify I remembered the word correctly, I find out that it was Word of the Year in 2011.)
We are hurriedly sent off with bottles of green tea (unsweetened!) and skewers of red, white and green mochi balls. Back on the bus, another hour or so to go to our next programmatic destination. The trip itself is a trip. Takahashi san now is at the helm of our bus, talking about sites as we pass them. Mark, our tour guide, translates, somberly and calmly enunciating as he points to the rows and rows of piles and piles of imported logs at the harbor, asking us to imagine the effect of all of these being swept into the city by a monstrous wave. To the left and right out of the bus, we see open areas with only foundations of houses left (generally Japanese houses don't have basements, we are told) – in a way it is encouraging to see that nobody is blindly rebuilding their home in the same place like they have in other places I know. Right in our line of sight the Japanese air force, 'blue impulse', happens to be putting on a show for us, practicing delightful formations and maneuvers, as though to balance out the kind of sight-seeing we're currently on. I am additionally distracted by the sound of all of the camera shutters – both authentic and electronically simulated – closing and opening excitedly every time we pass a spectacularly devastated building. The cameras aren't too interested in the soccer field that served as a temporary burial ground after the tsunami until it was appropriate to exhume the deceased victims and move forward with the traditional cremation process.
Meanwhile, I am intermittently trying to exchange some cultural wisdom with my new travel companion, Yurina. A unique Japanese name, she tells me. She studies phonetics, specifically differences between Japanese and English pronunciation. Yes, English is hard to pronounce for the Japanese. Her example: when Japanese people try to say "get it", they have to say "get-uh it-uh." Her impression of America? "High cholesterol. Everything big-uh." But she likes McDonald's, amusedly noting that the Japanese 'large' drink is smaller than the American 'small'. Probably true. She's happy that the Backstreet Boys are back together (did I know this? omg!), and her fave is Nick Carter (omg). When she finds out I grew up in Germany, her face lights up and we talk about soccer for the rest of the bus ride. Did I watch the Champions League final? Of course, I'm from Munich and a dedicated Bayern-fan of over 20 years. Her favorite player is Marco Reus – incidentally, it occurs to me he looks kind of like Nick Carter. (Ich hätte mir nie träumen lassen, dass sich ein Marco Reus und ein Nick eines Tages in meinen Blog reinschleichen.) Marco Reus cried after the final, so Yurina was sad. I make her laugh when I tell her I really like Thomas Müller.
It's been an unexpected morning with much to process. Back on the bus, final goodbyes and photos with our new Japanese friends at Furukawa station. Three trains bring us to Kyoto. (N.B.: so much for representing our home country gracefully!)
A long blog for a long day.