Post-tsunami volunteering

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Stephen Phelan shares a memorable experience from the road


On a sunny midsummer morning in July 2011, I took a motorboat across Onagawa Bay with fellow volunteers from Miyagi Prefecture’s post-disaster clean-up crew. Four months had passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, which annihilated port towns such as Onagawa and killed more than 18,500 people. The sea was calm now, and so clear that you could see submerged kitchen knives and sake bottles washed out from tsunami-stricken houses, glinting in the shallows. We landed at Izushima, a small nearby island where the local fishing community had been engulfed by the incoming wave.

Evacuated and deserted except for stray cats, it was strewn with wreckage that we set about clearing. Like most of our duties in and around Onagawa, this was hot, tiring work, carried out in thick black mud filled with dead fish and jagged debris. There was, of course, a heavy atmosphere of grief and loss all around us. But I can also say that I was sublimely happy to be there. I’d been living on the other side of Japan at the time of
the tsunami, and came east to report from the disaster zone. I stayed to help because I could. I had never felt so at home among Japanese people as I did on that crew. A new sense of camaraderie and purpose was forged. And when we took a swim at break time that afternoon, in cobalt blue water under thick green coastal mountains, I thought I’d never been anywhere so beautiful.

By Stephen Phelan

The take away
I had lived in Japan for years before the tsunami in March 2011, but I only got to know the place and its people by volunteering in Onagawa after the disaster. Cultural barriers broke down and customary politeness gave way to real warmth, in a gorgeous and relatively obscure corner of the country.

The build up
Regular Shinkansen train services run from Tokyo to Sendai, where local trains provide onward connections to Onagawa via Ishinomaki (¥6800). On arrival at the new landmark station, designed by award-winning architect Shigeru Ban, you’ll see that reconstruction work is still very much ongoing. A whole new town centre is being developed on raised land behind the main fishing wharf, while surrounding mountains are terraced to create space for replacement housing high above the tsunami inundation line.

At time of writing, there is only one hotel in this ‘new’ Onagawa – the basic but friendly and comfortable El Faro (, near the Seapal Pier shopping precinct. Conceived as a stylish modern version of a traditional wooden Japanese village, this precinct consists of various bars and restaurants, a diving store, a gourmet coffee house, a ceramic tile factory and a workshop where electric guitars are carved from local sugi (cedar) trees.

These retailers and amenities make Onagawa unique in the tsunami impact zone – the town is not simply being rebuilt, but entirely remodelled to make itself more vibrant, youthful and attractive both to residents and tourists. Izushima island is also inhabited again, with regular boat services from Onagawa port. Visiting is a great way to actively help this community return to life.

Reproduced with permission from Best Moment of Your Life, © 2018 Lonely Planet

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