After arriving in Japan, we had basically got the ball rolling right away. Upon arrival we successfully got dinner and used the public transit with a few other students. We were all glad to see that despite not speaking the language we were able to work through things and find what we needed. Being in a new place for me personally brings so much life and joy to my heart. I find there is not enough time to take in each moment. Before we get into it, let me explain a bit about this unique program called HELIO.
The HELIO program includes 22 students from all over the world, studying different disciplines. We also have 3 faculty advisors with us, Jay, Ken and Jodi. As well as two brilliant TA’s, Aoi and Mako. So far, the people have been amazing, and I enjoy the individual conversations almost more than anything else we’ve done. The program is a little hard to explain, its been running for four years and from what I understand, each year is very different from the next. Essentially there is a group of individuals who are looking to start a higher education institute on the island of Osaki Kamijima. Us as students, are here to propel that vision by demonstrating the value of non-traditional learning.
You don’t know what we’ve done yet though. So here is a brief recap, I landed in Tokyo with two other students from Georgian. We headed directly to a hotel where all the other students were told to stay. After meeting a few people for a quick orientation, everyone headed to bed as our bus left early in the morning the following day. Breakfast here is very different from North America, so the first one was a little surprising. For example, most mornings I have rice, a salad, sometimes eggs, tofu and miso soup.
So, after trying everything at the breakfast buffet, we all loaded onto the bus. Our large group was split into two groups prior to the trip. One group was headed to Teshima, and the other to Fukushima. I was in the Fukushima group, with 17 other students. Our day was jam packed to the brim. We headed to the airport to get a train to Tokyo. Then from there we got onto a bullet train to Sendai Station, this trip was an hour and a bit. It gave us lots of time to get to know one another and take in the countryside of Japan. Once at Sendai I got some delicious Matcha ice-cream (Matcha is green tea & also my favorite thing ever). Then we met our contacts for the Fukushima community, we loaded into a few cars and drove a few more hours to our next place.
While in Fukushima, each day was loaded with lots of driving, hearing people’s stories and learning more about the 3. 11 accident. The 3.11 accident also known as the TEPCO nuclear disaster occurred March 11th, 2011. To summarize the events, a large earth quark caused a tsunami to hit the coast of Fukushima. Directly contacting the nuclear power plant, causing a power outage and then impacting the generators. As a result, high levels of radiation were released into the environment. The government then forced those in the community to evacuate the area until further notice. Leaving many places abandon to this day.
Some crazy things about Fukushima are the large fields filled with black bags. These bags are filled with soil contaminated with radiation. We drove through what is called the “red zone” several times. The presence of disaster is earie, frightening and aggravating. As a foreigner we often feel so removed from these events that are out of our control. Earthquakes happen all the time right? Life moves on. At least that is what I thought. Until I saw cars overtaken with weeds and grocery stores with broken glass and shelves full of food. Until I realized someone’s world stopped, someone lost a pet and maybe even their mom.
However, the last five days we have heard so many stories of different individuals who shifted the norms. Showcasing this place is alive and thriving in many ways. Some took opportunity in the hardship and others just stuck to who they were. When we listen to people talk an interpreter usually translates for us. I find it amazing however, that even through a foreign language I can see the motivation and the pain they have in each word. These people have worked hard to get where they are today. Some have lost everything, and others left everything to join this community.
One man who stands out to me the most is someone we often refer to as “the flower guy”. This man had a face gracefully kissed by the sun and a soft glow around the edge of his cheeks. He used to be farmer, rice and vegetables. After the nuclear disaster his land was no longer deemed safe to harvest, due to the radiation. So, while he patiently awaited the day, he could farm food again, he planted some flowers. The flowers grew so abundantly and beautifully that people on the highway would stop to take photos of his blossoming fields. He then decided to plant a well-known flower called the “Texas Blue Bell”, which is used at ceremonies and festivals. His mission was to create an image of wonder and growth in Fukushima. Motivated to change the stigma that it is unlivable and full of hardship. His gardens began to grow so quickly that he needed help. His workforce now is made of mainly senior citizens with minimal family and individuals with disabilities. He believes that just because your right hand stops working, you don’t have to. You can train your left hand to do the same thing.
I could talk forever about this man and all I learned from him. How his eyes shown sunshine and his face crinkled when he laughed. He said one thing, written below, that stuck with me, and has inspired me greatly.
“Many people see life as it happens as a direction. The best people see life as it happens as motivation”
This whole idea that just because things happen, sometimes unbearable things, it doesn’t dictate our lives. This concept that life moves upward towards the end in a specific pattern is so unrealistic. Life is not a pattern, and flowers can grow in a radiation zone. Often, I find we’re just too scared to see things from other perspectives.
I also had the privilege of listening to a cattle farmer who decided to keep his cows alive after the government told him to abandon them. Staying tune to his roots and stoic in his beliefs. Just like him we met a woman who left her lush lifestyle in the city to move to Fukushima to start a tourism business for people visiting Japan. She wants them to see the real culture versus what has been blasted on the media. We talked to people who started shared workspaces, charities and social initiatives.
We have also been able to experience the more historical parts of Japanese culture. Traditional dinners, with incredible sushi and fresh seafood. Each night is filled with laughter, comfy robes and tea. The views are incredible and I have fully adapted to the little things I may have found strange at first. I love the natural hot spring, the way strangers smile and the lush floral gardens everywhere. After five days I can already tell leaving this place will be difficult. Yet I am so excited to see what the future holds.