I hesitated a little when it was about time to talk about this day, but decided to proceed in the end because this is my space, my words, my experiences, there's no other purpose for which this post will be written so yeah. It was a beautiful day, sunny and relatively warmer. This was back in June 2012 by the way, supposedly early summer but throughout this trip, the weather was generally cool with strong chilly winds.
Anyway, we met up with the other participants in the morning and took a bus to...an area in Fukushima that I seem to have forgotten. It wasn't a town or city nearby, it was a shelter built for evacuees of the Great East Japan Earthquake / Nuclear Plant Meltdown in Fukushima. It was a little more than a year after disaster struck and the evacuees are still living their daily life away from their true home. That's heartbreaking.
To be honest I didn't know what to expect prior to arrival - worn-out shelters? downcast atmosphere? lacklustre spirits? cold welcome? I had no idea. The group was separated into two busses which will be heading to different shelters. My group stumbled upon these vibrant colors upon arrival, I absolutely adore the colors and the delicate blooms in this shot. Seemingly thriving, the petals look almost fragile kan.
A quick look around revealed hints of a fairly-organized shelter system.
Before we had time to take look deeper, the team leader briefed the team on details of the day's objective. We were to provide a cheery company alongside a mini foot and hand spa in the common room, as well as to enjoy a meal together and learn on our own the stories of those living here. After a quick demonstration on the simple foot and hand spa techniques, we proceeded to the common room.
A wall decked with miscellaneous traditional items greeted us.
Vibrant color pops.
We introduced ourselves (or rather, the team leader did) to a small group of elderly ladies lounging at the common room. It was a warm and cozy atmosphere, and the ladies got friendly in no time as the others prepared the area for the mini foot and hand spa session. We prepared three seats, with a warm bucket of water sprinkled with bath salts (I think?) for each. All the residents were welcome to take turns in enjoying the warm soak as the participants (us) gave them a little hand massage and chitchat a little. As it was a work day after all, most of those who came by for this session were the elderly.
To be honest, that was an aspect in the Japanese culture that I was ignorant to until this experience. The foot bath and hand massage, I mean. Apparently during the cold seasons, a warm foot bath can elevate body temperature and the hand massage increases blood circulation which will result in an overall comfortable warm sensation. Across the country, there are tons of public foot bath facilities (called ashiyu) that actually welcome visitors to have a quick soak to keep warm in the cold weather. These are more often found around areas that boasts natural hot springs.
A little back-to-the-future mention here but last Autumn, we stumbled upon one smack in the middle of Arashiyama Station (Hankyu Line), Kyoto. It was such a cold night and we considered going for it because everyone looks so warmed up, but there was no person-in-duty (usually there's a small fee) and it was rather full and so close to closing time, so we gave up that idea and took the train back instead haha ok back to the original throwback now.
After the brief massage, we rubbed their feet with the towel to dry off and sanitized our hands to welcome the next resident. There was quite a few participants taking turns to service the residents so in total I had only two sessions. I don't recall exactly what we talked about (with the translator's assistance) but I do remember how warm their hands were, as well as the really appreciative thanks after the session (｡≍ฺ‿ฺ≍ฺ)
These ladies here also enjoy little activities to keep their mind and bodies active, and to while away time. Most of the residents came from a farming background. Having lost their lush farms, spacious homes, and wide lands to radiation exposure since the disaster, confined now in a small shelter space with barely an acre to call their own, time is of abundance. Who knew a simple little balloon toss-around could bring so much laughter though? The participants and residents had such fun together.
Lunch time came soon after. We brought bentos to share!
Did you notice the brown circles of decorations at the back? We asked them about it. Those decorations were weaved, decorated, and lacquered, all by hand, by residents of this shelter. Mostly by the elderly ladies though. They have contributed and kept a few pieces of of expensive, traditional fabrics that will be cut and used to decorate in patterns as they wish. I can't read it but I'm pretty sure those are poems written in the midst of the colorful motifs. These won't be sold off, just for keeps, I suppose to give a sense of purpose and achivevement as they keep their hands and minds busy. They're certainly beautiful to look at.
With prior approval of all the other ladies, a kind resident gave me (and few others) a decorative basket to express their gratitude to keeping them company today omg (´◕ ◡ ◕｀)
Hand-folded paper cranes, which are said to bring good luck and peace. The legend goes that if you manage to fold a thousand cranes, you'll have a wish come true.
After lunch, Ribon and I decided to go for a little walk around the shelter area and the translator joined us. We marvelled at the cleanliness and organized manner in which all residents managed their belongings. The shelters provided by the government are basic and uniform, but it's clear that the residents did their best to make it feel a little more like home.
Bright, beautiful flowers were grown in pots of various shapes.
As we walked around and greeted people, a friendly lady struck a conversation with the translator and next thing I know, we were invited into her home. It was a small space, incredibly compact yet warm, clean and cozy. I cannot imagine how the farmer residents who once lived in huge houses with multiple wide, spacious rooms get used to these narrow spaces. I've briefly lived in a house by a farm - though not at that time, that experience happened way after this trip but now that I've had that so talking about this now the contrast seem so much more distinctive does this makes sense - so I know how roomy that can be. But then again, perhaps they didn't really got used to it, after all it's not a choice to make anyway, right? That is heartbreaking.
The lady introduced us to her husband who was watching the tv. As we sipped on hot tea and chatted (or rather, the translator did) the old couple took out some woodcrafts to show us. According to her, there are more than enough spare time now so with what little materials in hand, they keep their hands busy.
From old clothes fabrics, she also turns it into tissue packet covers. As she shared the simple accomplishments in a variety of patterns and designs, she saw how much we liked it and just as we were about to leave, she generously gifted each of us some souvenirs. I got the wooden owl, acorn tortoise and fabric tissue cover. Isn't it madly incredible that those who seem to have so little, have the biggest kindest heart to give the most?
We said goodbye and joined the others at the common area to say goodbye to the residents.
All in all, we didn't spend as much time as we'd like to truly get to know the residents' situation and concerns, but it did provide glimpses into their lives that not many has seen. These kind souls have strong hearts, and an optimistic spirit to move forward to the uncertain future. Perhaps not all, but many, perhaps just enough to push the society to find their place in reality again. I don't know what the current situation is right now, that visit was two and half years ago, but I hope their courage still remains strong. Despite the unease many seem to show when I mention that I've visited Fukushima a little more than a year after the nuclear plant meltdown, I am truly grateful for the experience. Not matter what comes in the future, I will have absolutely no regrets.