In the Land of the Rising Sun: Memoirs of a Philippine – Tohoku Goodwill AmbassadorSubmitted by warliezdiaz at July 13, 2012 - 9:32 am
From the first glimpse to final farewell, Japan had never failed to impress me. The moment I saw the Land of the Rising Sun high above the sky, I knew I was charmed by its magical aura that have thrilled me to deepest part of my heart. A hearty greeting, “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome) started our journey of endless discoveries to the myriad of incredible beauty.
When we stepped out of Narita Airport, we have witnessed a prosperous, clean and organized country. Japan is a place that has encouraged us for a quest to reveal to ourselves an alluring blend of breathtaking natural beauty, inspiring temples and shrines, and eye-popping modern architecture. And always, everywhere, there are amazing surprises that keep us from saying “grabe!” (awesome).
As one of the Philippine-Tohoku Goodwill Ambassadors under the Japan East-Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) Programme, I discovered not only a place of splendor but also a nation of hospitable people. I was also able to gain a more profound understanding of the rich Japanese culture and their disaster risk management and rapid recovery efforts from the Great East Japan Earthquake.
VISIT TO THE TSUNAMI STRICKEN AREA
The dire images of earthquake and tsunami disasters in the Karakuwa Peninsula Visitor Center and Tsunami Museum which have devastated Japan since the early 19th century showed us the grief of families torn apart from each other, houses turned into rubbles and communities left with the almost insurmountable challenge towards recovery.
The museum showed us the life of Japanese people who live in abundance of the sea and the threat of tsunami in the coastal town of Karakuwa in Miyagi Prefecture.
Half an hour from the museum in the city of Kesennuma, on the Sanriko coast of Pacific Ocean, we visited a temporary house. And with the Suzuki family we shared a cup of hot tea and words of optimism. There is a great pride in the individuals who produce foods in this region. “We are simple people,” Mr. Suzuki said, “We cultivate oysters and scallops as our livelihood.” But the tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake washed away what they have worked hard in the past years together with their ships and seafood processing buildings.
Later we joined them onboard one of their ships. In the coldness of the morning, we enjoyed cultivating scallops while feeling blessed to witness the wonders of the mountainside at a distance. One sight I will always remember is the smile on Mr. Suzuki while pointing to the sea which signifies hope. “Before the tsunami happened, there were more than five hundred rafts which hold what we have cultivated but now only a hundred left.
When they talked of their experience, we saw not the pain of devastation in their eyes but the courage to rise victoriously from the wrath of nature. “It’s a challenge. We will totally recover soon.”
Our destination that afternoon was the Saito-seika Co. Ltd. In Ofunato City, Iwate Prefecture. The confectionary company welcomed us with their delicious “Kamome no Tamago” and tea which we truly enjoyed while trading thoughts and listening to their experience.
From its humble beginning of enriching traditional cuisines, the company was able to grow their business and help the community. They were able to establish seven buildings including a shop to where residents and tourists can see, experience and take home their products. But when the tsunami pounced, only one of their buildings survived.
“It was hard seeing the business established by my father and realized through the hard work of our employees swept by the tsunami in just a blink of an eye,” Mr. Toshiaki Saito, the CEO of the company said as he shared to us the video of the disaster he captured. “But we were able to overcome the challenge even though it has been hard for us and to some of our employees who lost their homes and family members. We never surrendered. The encouragement we received from people all around the world gave us the strength to carry n and become firmer.”
We also visited one of the company’s devastated buildings in the middle of the city. To the countless buildings and houses left with nothing but their foundations and mountains of recovered materials, I have not avoided asking myself “why?” With the sudden drops of rains, imaginings on the notion of life came at a flash. It lasted for about a minute before it subsided but I never forgot the message. I’ve realized that I’m in a journey to understand the place that holds not the sorrow that I’ve once thought but of so much hope to those who struggle hard to surpass and share the story of resilience.
Fortunately, not all the tales of the Great East Japan Earthquake were all about lamentations. For Mr. Saito, the disaster had awakened the compassion and unity among Japanese people. We’ve left the place before the sunset but his words continues to reverberate in my ears while riding the bus, “People who were less fortunate are those who are willing to share even how little they have to ease the suffering of others.”
Traveling on a local train, we headed to Downtown Dotonbori. Around stores and shops along the busy road, I’ve rushed past a thousand of impression and was deeply amazed to the lively and joyful attractions. Even the plainest eatery has the style to entice tourists and local residents. In every store entrance, the images of the smiling Belliken-san, a charm doll believed by the residents of Osaka to bring luck and prosperity to whomever touches the sole of his feet, warmly welcomes everyone. The smile of the God of Good Luck, his upturned eyes and pointing head is something charming for me.
From time to time, my host family would stop to point the majestic Tsutenkaku (Tower Reaching Heaven) Tower, known by tourists as the Osaka Tower. In hesitant but clear English, they explained to me the history of the structure which had long been an authentic symbol and major attraction of the Osaka City. The original tower that was built in 1912 was the tallest structure in the Orient at that time with a height of 64 meters. It has the eccentric design that combined the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower of Paris. The current tower was built in 1956 with a height of 103 meters.
As we came nearer to the entrance of the tower, we joined the sea of people who were gathered in lines, waiting to enter and reach the peak. We’ve waited patiently until our turn came. Every floor of the tower did not only offer an excitement to me but it has also imparted knowledge on life of Japanese people during the late 18th century with the miniatures that was exhibited to retell history and impress. There were also shops of local delicacies to satisfy the palate and seats for weary knees.
At the peak of the tower there were comedians dressed in colorful attires to entertain visitors of their short plays and tricks. But I was more astonished to the view I have witnessed. I have seen the panoramic view of the entire Downtown Dotonbori and its magnificent colors. Together with my host family, we took our pictures with the giant statue of famous Belliken-san while rubbing its feet. Then my Okkasan suddenly whispered to me, “May you have good fortune and luck in life.”
We were lucky with the weather. After a sumptuous lunch, we strolled around the Osaka Castle Park. I may call it, love at first sight, the park have captivated my heart from the very first glance. Fast moving clouds played light and shadows across brilliant spring flowers and lush greenery. At first, we followed the trail of the outer moats which were once used as a defense to invaders. The moats were reflecting pools that paint the castle and skies above. Birds of different colors welcomed us as we entered the Sakura-mon (Cherry Blossoms Gate) with their staccato melody. The unique atmosphere was a step back in time for me.
I’ve took a deep breath. Then gently, I continued walking until I started my first step in the stairs leading to the main door of Tenshukaku (Osaka Castle). My mind wandered on the elegance that I have seen, when my Ottosan suddenly handed an audio guide for me to understand better the history and legend of the castle. It was a great relief for me. I have always believed that visiting a place is not enough without tracing back its roots whether it speaks of reality or mystery.
Osaka Castle is the emblem of the power and fortune of Hideyoshi Toyotomi who succeeded in unifying the entire nation. The magnificent structure was built in 1583 as the stronghold of the Toyotomi clan. After Hideyoshi’s death, the throne was passed on to his son, Hideyori Toyotomi. In 1615, Ieyasu Tokugawa who worked for Hideyoshi as chief retainer ruined the Toyotomi clan and destroyed Osaka Castle in the Summer War of Osaka. Thereafter, the Tokugawa shogunate reconstructed the castle and held it under direct control until 1868. Since its construction, Osaka Castle which was reputed as being unparalleled in the country has been the battleground of the major wars in Japanese history.
As I suddenly took a look on the artifacts and folding screens, the sounds of gongs and swords played on the background rang into my ears as if I’m in the middle of a turbulent battle that the place have witnessed in the past. I was also given the chance to wear the replica of Hideyoshi’s armor and weapon which in an instant have given me the nobility of a 16th century ruler.
I’ve marveled on the magnificent view of the city when we’ve reached the castle’s observation deck. In image after image my eyes have caught, I was drawn nearer to the enchantment of Osaka. It was an awe-striking, exhilarating and breathtaking sight. Wearing a grin as warm as the sun above, I can’t keep myself from looking back to the golden glittering castle as we walked away. It was a glance that has stayed in my mind until now.
“Tadaima,” (I’m home) was the first word I’ve shouted upon reaching the home of my host family. Hastily I removed my shoes and put on the sandals before entering. There is a great respect between family members, like Filipinos, Japanese were also closely knit with each other. In a warm kitchen, my Okkasan prepared the dinner while I set the plates on the table. Smiles and thanks conquered the air while we exchanged our omiyagi (Gifts). That evening, we also recalled the places we have visited.
It was a pride for me to talk them about my country’s rich history and culture. They were amazed when I’ve shown some photos of our famous sceneries. I have seen in their face how they were moved by the uncommon beauty they have witnessed. I was more inspired to share what we have when they said, “Someday we will travel to the Philippines. We love diving and we want to see the paradise hidden underneath your country.” We stayed late but the laughter and stories we’ve shared were worth.
On the following day, we woke up early to set out to Nara City where the 7th century capital of Japan, Heijokyo was located. “You will really enjoy Nara. It is a treasure house of Japanese history in a beautiful environment,” my Okkasan told me before we leave. Our one and half an hour ride was a journey of appreciation. I had been drawn to the living landscape and grand scenery of mountains and forests which had given me the reason to stay awake until we’ve reached our destination.
The first scene which has caught me in the vast green area of Nara Park was the wild deers roaming around freely. Like a child, I started chasing them and I was surprised that they were so tame and friendly. Deers were highly protected and respected as an old legend says that they were divine messengers of the gods to people. Several spots in the park sell Shika Senbei (Deer Crackers) which can be fed by fascinated tourist to the deers who politely bow when asking for food.
Chasing the wild deers led us to the Todaiji Temple, a Daibutsuden hall which houses the famous Vairocana statue (Great Budhha). The temple was founded in the 8th century but was burned twice in fires that broke out as a result of war. The present structure which was rebuilt in 1709 and was scaled down to two-thirds of its original size is the largest wooden structure in the world.
Across grassy fields, we headed to Kasugayama Primeval Forest where the air is moist and cool. The sacred forest which is a sanctuary for various protected species has been preserved since 841 A.D. Its tranquility brought my heartbeat near to my ears. We strolled through the aisles of fragrant spring flowers and symphony of wild birds.
“A good place to relax,” I’ve said to my host family while we pass the Gongoji Temple going to the Kofukuji Temple. I first saw the tip of the half-millennium old Pagoda which is a prominent symbol of Nara City. Few people washed their hands and drank water from a distant sacred well before praying inside the temple.
A few steps before we reached the temple’s door, my host family gave me a coin, “Drop it on the wooden box and then you can strike the gong.” I held the cloth and repeatedly striked the gong until I successfully rang it, a reverberating sound that heralds my desire of coming back to the land of the rising sun. “You will be back here in Japan. We will see you again. Just believe,” my smiling Okkasan told me.
CAMPUS VIST AND EXCHANGE PROGRAM WITH OSAKA PREFECTURE UNIVERSITY STUDENTS
It is not possible to fully describe what we felt at that moment. We hurriedly disembarked the bus as soon as we’ve reached the portals of Osaka Prefecture University (OPU). In front of us was the proud monument of the institution, a symbol of its engagement in bold innovations and high-level research for sustainable future. We roamed our eyes wide in the excitement and joy. It was the fragrance of flowering trees and beaming smile of students greeting, “Ohayou gozaimasu” (Good Morning) that have warmly welcomed us.
After the vice president, Prof. Masahiro Terasako greeted us, we took a leisurely walked around the campus until we’ve reached the Research and Development Center for the Plant Factory. “This is where we produce vegetables all year-round,” Mr. Takehiro Kawai, the general coordinator of the factory said. At first we were puzzled on his statement. But our questions turned into amazement when we saw the lights of yellow and violet that bathe the lettuces and mosses.
The fully artificial light-type plant factory enables a continuous production of vegetables and ornamental plants through advance and precise control of the environment by monitoring cultivation conditions and growth. “The foods we produce here are safe and pest-free,” Mr. Kawai answered when asked of the difference between plants grown on the factory and farm. “Our aim is to have a stable supply of food and provide solutions on the shortage of food, energy and natural resources.”
Lightings which enable plants to continue the process of photosynthesis even without sunlight uses efficient and power-saving LEDs. On the rooftop of the building, we saw numerous solar panels and air-quality control systems to properly regulate the growth of the plants. “Most of the power we are using is from the solar energy which is a renewable source. We take highly into consideration the sustainability and protection of our environment,” Mr. Kawai said, “we conduct routine researches to yield better results. Our aim is to promote this factory to the public for widespread adoption and use.”
The place where we have lunch is a wide room conducive for fostering friendship and exchanging thoughts. Together with OPU students, we sat down and enjoyed a sandwich filled with fresh ingredients. “It’s good food, the vegetables were harvested in the plant factory,” Mr. Terasako told use with delight. And indeed, good food served in unique style and flavor is a way of life for Japanese, a life which has also given us pleasure and satisfaction.
Sitting in silence, we listened to one of the OPU students, Yuki Haramoto who shared her experiences as a volunteer for two months in the Great East Japan Earthquake recovery operations. She witnessed how the tsunami survivors remained strong despite of the loneliness and hunger they’ve felt on the evacuation centers. “Women and children slept with empty stomachs while others cry in the middle of the night yearning for the loss of their loved ones. Students need to stop their studies because their schools were also devastated,” she told us with a teary eye. She stayed in the tsunami-stricken area to help ease the sadness of the survivors as well as to help in distributing foods and cleaning the classrooms. “We need to make them feel that they are not alone. After the disaster, we’ve realized a lot of things. We have asked ourselves, what does true richness means?
I was stunned to learn the number of lives which has been lost and the sufferings the survivors have endured. “We have been different from who we are before. For us, true richness is not the materials we possess but the will not to give up because of our family and friends. The affected people held strongly on their families. We also felt the grief and loss that they have experienced,” Yuki said. Then I’ve realized that natural disasters swirled around us, they do not choose where or when it will bring its destruction. “We will always struggle with this reality. It’s emotionally painful but we also learned from it to make every moment of our life worthy.”
After we exchanged our opinions on Disaster Management and Recovery Efforts with OPU students, we were able to come up with a conclusion. Disasters have two faces. One is natural, a part of our planet’s cycle and ultimately inevitable like the Great East Japan Earthquake, while the other one is man-made for it is something with which man, not nature brings down misery upon himself like floods and landslides. And since the population is the key role-player in times of disasters; public awareness, preparation and training is important.
They would like to talk to us for longer but we finally had to leave. “Till we meet again,” we bid them goodbye. We left OPU with a whole new understanding on the reality of disasters. And we will also never forget the friendship we’ve fostered in a short period of time. Memories will always run deep into us.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.