More than five years have passed since the earthquake and tsunami devastated much of eastern Japan in March 2011. Looking back on the past half-decade, we are listening to some of the stories and recollections of those we have been “walking together with,” one by one, since the devastation.
Below is a story from our third speaker in this series, Ms. Chikako Nishihara, a resident of the Izumi-Tamatsuyu Emergency Temporary Housing Complex. St. Timothy’s Support Center, located in Onahama, Iwaki, Fukushima, has been providing help to this complex, and Ms. Nishihara has been working with the support center as a volunteer.
“Here in a Comfy Café”
Resident of the Izumi-TamatsuyuEmergency Temporary Housing Complex Member of a group of volunteers
named “Hokkori (comfy)”
Five years and two months have passed since the tragedies of March 2011. Following the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11th and the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, we, the citizens of the little town of Tomioka, without any significant information as to what was going on, were forced to evacuate on the following day, without any known destination. Some of us had to travel between different shelters, living separately from our families, and enduring days and days of bitterness and anxiety.
Then, in September 2011, some of us began to settle down here, at the temporary housing of Izumi-Tamatsuyu. By then, we were exhausted physically and worn out mentally. We had endured months of life in shelters, where anxieties and inconveniences were the keynote day in and day out. Once we were resident in this temporary housing complex, St. Timothy’s Volunteer Center, Onahama, of the Anglican-Episcopal Church in Japan, launched a comfy café for us, a regular event of comfort and consolation. Carrying cups of fragrant coffee, the church’s volunteers spoke to us with gentle words of comfort, such as: “You’ve gotten over so many rainy days. Now, please rest.” They certainly relieved me of the emotional tensions I had untill then, and I almost shed tears.
The comfy café became a good place where neighbors and ex-residents of Tomioka came together. Since the little town consisted of different districts, some people met each other for the first time here. “Nice to meet you” was often followed by a conversation like: “Where were ya livin’ before the disaster? Oh, there? Mah former neighborhood! Great to see you!” Tomioka had its own dialect, and hearing it made me nostalgic.
Thus, the café became so cheerful and noisy that we often had a hard time understanding each other. Among all those cheerful voices, the church’s volunteers went around serving coffee and sweets. While being very thankful to all those volunteers, I knew, since it was something good for us, that some of us should also be helping. When you know you should help, just get into the action! So I asked the volunteer center if could help, and joined the café volunteers.
I am very thankful that they welcomed my offer to volunteer. Since then, helping two comfy cafes every week has been part of my life. I also asked for more of my neighbors to volunteer. Now, we have two groups of volunteers to keep the cafes running.
“A comfy day”
9:30 in the morning. Someone says, “May we come in?” Two come in hand-in-hand. “Here, you take off your shoes. Hold on to my arm.” The two are both aged, yet take good care of each other, bringing a smile to our faces and kicking off the comfy café of the day. By now, they are excellent coffee connoisseurs. “You serve good coffee here. Tastes great!” Also, many churches all over the nation send us sweets which bring lovely smiles to their faces. Often, they do not eat these sweets at the comfy café—they take them home when sweets are hard to find here in Fukushima. Also, when a neighbor does not show up at the café, those who do worry about them and later pay them a visit. They are nice people. Sometimes they teach us lessons as well, out of their experiences—how to make pickles, how to prepare good boiled foods, etc. Talking with people at a comfy cafe gives them some peace of mind and happiness, they say. Many who attend the cafes are now helping each other like a big family, though they used to be strangers in Tomioka.
Also, at the comfies, some people will describe their experiences from the 2011 disaster to a visiting volunteer, who listens to them with a warm heart of acceptance. Today, the comfy cafes are an event they cannot do without. We, the volunteers, are ever striving to make those cafes even more comfortable, happier occasions for the guests, and we find great joy in that.
“Tomioka Town song”
“♪ Cherries in blossom, azaleas too, now the Forest of Night (*) is in full blossom — -“ Sogoes a song sung at the café amid the fragrance of coffee. Each one present hums along.This is the “Tomioka Town song,” led by its Social Welfare Council. The lyrics describe scenes from the town—the hometown that they can never return to due to the radioactive contamination.
** “The Forest of Night” is a forest belt between the towns of Tomioka and Okuma, both in Fukushima. Since the zone consists of no-return areas and restricted habitation areas, both of which accommodate high radioactivity, some roads into the forest are still barricaded. It used to be a renowned place of azaleas, cherries, etc., cherished by most citizens of Tomioka and thus stood for the town.
Earlier, many of the ex-Tomioka residents at the café wept, hearing this song, and were unable to sing it. Some even left the café, unable to stand just hearing it. Back in Tomioka, they broadcast this song every day at noon. Now, its citizens will never be able to return to that cherished town of theirs. Thus, the song can make them despair. Still, they sing it together, to keep their hometown alive in their memories. Recently, they have become able to sing it without weeping. Still, they can sing only verse 1. Some say, “I can sing it only here, at this café.” Maybe all of us share that feeling.
“Moms are great!”
Our comfy cafes are also where mothers make friends. In addition to the café volunteers, many other mothers voluntarily come to help the café, from site preparation to cooking to dish washing, as well as other activities such as rice cake making parties, outdoor lunch parties, cherry blossom parties, etc. Some events are organized by a neighborhood community, some by the café, yet that does not matter to those moms. No one tells them what to do; each mother does what she enjoys doing while respecting the others. Mothers are great! Also great are their husbands, who help them in all these events.
We met each other for the first time here at the cafe. During the several years that followed, we have become close friends. Once the cafes became so heavily crowded and noisy, we had a hard time having a conversation. Today, after many former neighbors have moved into permanent houses for refugees, some 20 people enjoy themselves at each café.
Some residents of temporary housing have built their own houses, and some others have moved into public-run houses. These are good things, and yet we miss those ex-residents and they miss the cafes. So, some of them come all the way to our cafes from their new houses for conversation, coffee and sweets. Our cafes have provided coffee and words of welcome and warmth, and now happy memories. The comfy cafes have been so precious to so many, and we are all thankful to St. Timothy’s Volunteer Center for all the happy memories.
A new song – “Cherry petals are dancing in our town”
“Cherry petals are dancing in our town” is a new song, written to cheer up those hoping for the town’s rebuilding. It is sung by many citizens of Tomioka today.
Each flower knows when to blossom, and it gracefully follows the right timing. Today, no one is in the town to watch the cherry trees blossom. Still, they clad themselves in lovely blossoms as if they were saying, “Don’t worry, we are waiting for you to come back here.” If—if ever—comes a day when we can return to Tomioka, why not hold a comfy café under full-blossoming cherry trees in the town??