At the end of August, I had an event in Iwate, so we took the opportunity to make a visit to Yamada. It had been six months since my last visit and a year for Toshiaki. We were excited to see his family and friends, present the funds that Renew Yamada had collected and see how things had changed over a years time, since the March 11th disaster.
We took the train to Kamaishi (the town where Toshiaki and I first met), where we noticed some improvements. Many buildings were either removed or the first two floors were being rebuilt. Our sister-in-law, Kazuko drove us along the coast through a dozen towns. While there were some noticeable changes and many places were cleared of debris, there were still mountains of trash, five and six stories high. Some places were completely untouched.
In Yamada, we drove by the temporary housing clusters (32 camps total). The town looked basically the same,with a makeshift ramen shop here, a provisional convenience store there. Future plans remain vague, except that nothing permanent can be built within the affected area and the evacuees have an additional year to stay in the kasetsu housing.
We arrived at Toshiaki’s parents house at dusk to find Ojiichan (his Dad), smiling at the door. Toshiaki brought our bags in, while I started to walk over to Kazuko’s house. From experience, I knew that she probably prepared some dishes to contribute to the dinner and I could help carry them over. On my way, I greeted Obaachan (Toshiaki’s Mom), who was watering her unusually dry batch of daikon, one bucket at a time. I quickly became her relay-woman, shuffling buckets of water to her fields of thirsty vegetables, as she grumbled on about not having enough rain this summer. I tried to be more helpful by gingerly attempting to join her in the field, but she warned that my ‘city-sleeker’ shoes would get muddy (my words, not hers). I shamefully agreed and stuck to water patrol.
Another sister-in-law, Miwako brought over some more tasty dishes to add to the feast. The women knew that the brothers would gather tonight to catch-up with Toshiaki and parents. After nearly 27 years, I have found my groove among the Horiai women. Somehow it was understood a while back that I was excused from any cooking duties (phew) and I have gratefully settled into the role of setting the table with the never-ending assortment of tiny dishes and then the washing and clearing afterwards.
After somewhat of a peaceful nights rest (with only two quakes to wake us), we woke up with the roosters and the sounds of chatter from a visiting relative. Aunt Setsuko usually made her rounds in the afternoons, but it is too miserably hot to walk around in August. She knew we were visiting and 6:30 am seemed as good a time as any. So our blessing-filled day in Yamada began.
Our whole married life I have wanted my family, specifically, my mom, to meet Toshiaki’s family, or at least his mom. We have tried for many years to get Obaachan to agree to make the journey to the U.S., to no avail. I still hold hopeful plans for my mother to visit Japan and escort her up to Yamada. However, three of my good friends lost a parent recently and the brevity and uncertainty of life is evermore clear. Therefore, I reverted to plan B, a Skype meeting. After contacting my mom via e-mail to set up a time and explaining what skype was to my in-laws, we all made our way next door to Kazuko’s wi-fi’d house.
As my Mom’s bright face and excited voice entered the room, she could see two sun-drenched, farmer women shuffle into the seats in front of the screen. My sister, Meighan stood beside my Mom and Toshiaki, his brother, Satoshi and Kazuko popped in behind Obaachan and her 90 year old sister, Setsuko. At first they all just smiled at each other, both sides commenting on how beautiful and young-looking their counter-parts were. After I made all the introductions, we ventured on to the three topics older people all over the globe are interested in. Can you guess? Most of my friends could, when I asked them. Health, weather and the grandchildren. After we established ages and when they recently stopped riding bicycles (late 70’s for Obaachan and Mom and 86 for super-Aunt Setsuko), we discussed weather conditions on both sides of the Pacific. There was a pause. We all took in the incredibleness of the moment. Then I asked Toshiaki’s Mom if she had anything she wanted to ask my Mom. After a moment, she leaned toward the screen and said, “do you get to see our grandchildren, Emi and Miki and are they well?” My mother gave a glowing, proud, grandmother report and I knew that nothing could top that connection. Everyone smiled and waved goodbye and I think both sides were changed. At least I was.
Later in the afternoon I visited Kita Yamada Elementary. The children were running relays on the vacant tsunami-cleared grounds in the melting heat outside the front office. They told me they were training for a track and field competition. I went inside the office to bring the money we raised from the generous donations made by all of you. I presented it in Japanese style, claiming it to be a small token, yet coming from many warm hearts. In light of the devastation it seemed so small as I presented the envelope to the principal, Mr. Onishi, until I looked up and saw tears in his eyes through my wet eyes. They were so very grateful and have plans to buy the necessary sports equipment to allow all the students to participate this year, in the areas track and field competition, to be held this month. They especially needed a tent to protect the children from the sun and rain. He will send us pictures of the event and I will post them for you all to see.
As if those two gifted moments weren’t enough, there was more. On my walk home I stopped by Aunt Miya’s temporary housing to bring a small souvenir of sweets from Tokyo, and pay our respects at her alter that displayed the three framed pictures of her husband and two adult children. I placed my meager souvenir on the alter and began to look for the matches to light the candles and incense. The majority of the evacuees were elderly and due to the risk of fires, the candles and incense were replaced with battery operated lights. She helped me find the switches and we both giggled at the somewhat silliness of the plastic toy-like contraptions, both knowing, ‘ better safe than sorry.’
I think Miya was happy to see me and seemed comfortable just chatting about daily life in the kasetsu. As I eased my wobbly knees to get up from the kneeling, seiza position, we heard someone ringing a cowbell outside. “Let’s go get some fish for everyone’s dinner,” she said excitedly. She grabbed her wallet and I followed her quick pace through the evacuee settlement. The entranceways of the homes looked more permanent then my last visit and life seemed more…alive. We almost got knocked over by other ladies rushing to get the best, fresh, pick from the display in the bed of the open truck. “What should we get,” she asked me, as if we did this together often. “Ah, aji?” I made a stab in the dark. Miya wrinkled her nose and suggested squid, knowing the Horiai’s would enjoy that. While she made her selections, several of the ladies looked up at me (I was quite tall in this scene, mind you) then at Miya, who unaffectedly referred to me as her relative. I smiled, then everyone smiled and went back to their fish trafficking.
We returned to her home, where she packed up a care package of sweets for Ojiichan, some leftover beer from an Obon present for the Horiai brothers and four packages of squid. Again, I felt that it was all backwards. Shouldn’t I be giving her more then these measly cakes, with all that has been taken from her? My friend, JoAnn reminded me that Miya had no one left to take care of and maybe allowing her to give something back was a gift. I walked back home with a full heart and distributed the gifts to the Horiai households.