Greetings from a cafe in Sendai station. I left Tanohata yesterday, and I feel a little out of place now that I am back in modern Japan with all of its conveniences and expenses.
I have spent the past 3 ½ weeks in Tanohata, which is a relatively rural fishing and farming village in northeastern Japan. I was born there when my parents were teaching English at the local schools. My middle name “Ryden” which means “thunder and lightening” comes from a local shrine.
I visited the Ryden shrine on the day I arrived, and on the day that I left. There are two towering horse chestnut trees that stand in front of the shrine, and red torii gates line the walkway. According to local legend, there was a large forest fire many years ago that stopped right in front of the Ryden shrine. So Ryden is revered as a spirit that protects people from forest fires.
During my time in Tanohata, I stayed at the home of an amazing woman who I endearingly call “Bayan” which means grandma, and her wonderful husband, who I call “Jiyan,” or grandpa. They have a full house, with seven people in total (+ me made 8) all living under one roof. The household includes Jiyan and Bayan, their oldest daughter, her husband, their 3 year old son, Bayan’s niece and her 16 year old son. It’s an incredibly lively household, with lots of laughter, food, and movement. We were rarely all gathered at once, with people coming in and out of the house at all hours of the day.
Everyone in the family has been especially busy ever since “3.11,” which is one of the terms they use to refer to the great earthquake and tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011. The tsunami washed away Jiyan’s large fish processing facility, which represented the majority of the family’s income, as well as Bayan’s smaller fish processing facility.
While Jiyan was fortunate enough to be able rebuild his fish processing plant in a new location, there is still a lot of work that needs to get done before things can run smoothly. While I was there, Jiyan was working every day of the week, from the early morning until late at night. One of the challenges has been stabilizing the bacterial colony that processes fish waste. For the past month, he has had to tend to the bacteria every six hours, which included 6 in the morning, and 12 at night. I decided to join him and Bayan one evening, and hopped into his truck at 11:30 PM. When we arrived at the plant he said, “This is bad.” The car headlights illuminated an overflow of sand-colored steaming foam that was slowly crawling across the ground. It felt like a scene out of the sci-fi horror film The Blob. He jumped out the car, and starting sweeping the foam back into the underground tanks and adjusting knobs on the machines. Without rainboots, I couldn’t be of any use. Bayan and I slept in the car, and stepped outside once to look at the strange foam and gaze at the stars. We didn’t leave until 2:30 AM. Fortunately, Jiyan reassured me, that was the worst night. Most nights he was done within an hour.
While this demanding schedule put a lot of stress on them, there was at least one benefit: Bayan and I got to spend a lot of time together every evening sewing, doing yoga, and exchanging stories. She taught me how to sew a small handbag, or kinchaku, using silk cloth, and told me stories about the great tsunami of 1933 and 2011. I have always felt a special connection with her, and our one-on-one time together during this trip truly solidified our bond.
In addition to getting to reconnect with Bayan, I also got to visit with many old family friends. The first day I was in Tanohata, I volunteered at a ‘safe-driving campaign,’ where we handed out bags of goodies to drivers and politely requested their commitment to safe driving. While I was there, two older women looked at my name tag and then looked up at face. With a puzzled look they asked, “Are you possibly….Ryden!?” When I confirmed their suspicions, with big grins they recounted stories of holding me when I was a bald and chubby baby. It was touching to meet people who I didn’t even recognize, who were so excited to have held me as a baby, and to meet me as an adult.
A few weeks later, Bayan told me there was someone I had to meet, and she took me to their house. When we knocked on the door, an older woman answered, kneeling seiza-style on the floor. When Bayan told her who I was, the woman grabbed my hands, squeezed them, and with teary eyes told me about when she first met me as a baby. She held onto my hands for a long time, and pressed them into her cheek. I was so moved, I didn’t even know how to respond.
One last story I have to share: When my parents lived in Tanohata they were close friends with the village priest. He was an incredibly charismatic and vivacious character, who played the drum set and had a big smile. After I was born, my parents and the priest made a lighthearted pact that I would marry the priest’s son (who is only 3 years my senior) in the future. Although the agreement was made in jest, my parents do not hesitate to remind me of this pact. Since the priest was a dear friend of my parents, I made a visit to the temple.
Sadly, the priest passed away seven years ago due to stomach cancer, but his son is now the priest. It was good being able to pay my respects to his father, and to connect with him as well. His son was initially a little confused as to why I was visiting, because he does not really remember my parents. I assured him that he and I had actually met before, when I was a newborn and he was three (I omitted the story about the agreement, which fortunately, I do not think he is aware of). He grabbed a pile of old family albums, and as he was flipping through the pages, I spotted a confused looking white face, and said, “that’s me!” Sure enough, it was a photo me in his father’s arms, with his son in the far right side of the shot. Once we discovered that photo, he really warmed up to me and we had a great time talking about his father and his own journey of becoming a Buddhist priest.
Now I am in Sendai, the Boston-sized city where I lived with my family for three years. For the next three weeks, I will be assisting the Canadian film maker, Linda Ohama, with a documentary about the resilience and hope of individuals in the tsunami-stricken coast, as well as Fukushima and the surrounding areas threatened by nuclear radiation. She has volunteered in Tohoku for the past year and a half, and as a filmmaker, she has been inspired to share the powerful stories of the people that she has met.
I will be raising funds in order to cover travel expenses associated with volunteering for this project as well as others, and would greatly appreciate your support. I will be sending a link to the fundraising site in the next few days, so please stay posted.
I had a lot of catching up to do in this entry, and I appreciate you taking the time to read it!
Sending my love,