Ishinomaki was the most devastated area by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, both in terms of economic and life losses. However, this city has transformed itself from a disaster stricken area into a innovative hub with startups engaging in various industries ranging from fishing to craftsmanship. This program also allows participants to meet and interact with friendly locals and inspiring entrepreneurs. Below is a summary of the activities and what you can expect from this program.
Ishinomaki Info & Community Center
On the first day, we learnt about the disaster and recovery history of the city at the Ishinomaki Information and Community Center. The Centre Director Richard, a former English teacher who has lived in Ishinomaki for close to 25 years, experienced the disaster first-hand and decided to stay to help with the recovery. The photos do not always show the spirit of the survivors; the stories can.
Ishinomaki Lab was established after the Great East Japan Earthquake when the tsunami swept away most parts of the city. It started off with the purpose of teaching residents how to build furniture by themselves, with the available materials in a spirit of DIY. Workshops were organized by Chiba-san, a former sushi chef. It enabled people to gather together, to gain sustainable knowledge, and to rebuild a “home” with the furniture they needed, instead of relying on government support or external help.
He called a team of 20 designers from all over the world to design models both simple, strong, using only one kind of wood cut in only 3 different sizes (the most common in specialized stores). Ishinomaki Lab is not here to give people the furniture they need, but to give them the opportunity to answer their own needs..
Because of their concept and unique designs, Ishinomaki Lab gained media attention from around the world. Today it has become a profitable and sustainable business with their products sold all over the world in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Zurich and New York. Despite its success as a DIY furniture company, their initial goal of teaching the DIY spirit has not changed as it continues to organize workshops for participants to make their own furniture.
After being introduced to the workshop and laboratory by Chiba-san, learning about the simple tools and materials used in the lab, we had the chance to try ourselves and make whatever we want with the unwanted wooden pieces. The idea is to make use of the available resources to create something useful by hand.
Chiba-san taught us how to use a drill and a screwdriver, and then gave us the freedom to make something based on our imagination. We could ask him to cut the wood for us, and were provided with everything we needed: paper and pencils for the design, screws, rulers, glue and strings for the realization, and glass paper for the finish. We could even put Ishinomaki Lab’s seal on our final product!
All the participants came up with different ideas and products. Some made key holders, some made decorative accessories. Others made a cute decorative swing, book shelves, and even a Japanese traditional lucky charm replica.
Onagawa: the entrepreneur town
Onagawa is a town located about 1 hour by train from Ishinomaki. It is one of the towns most severely affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake. It lost approximately 8% of its popuation and more than 50% of its central district was completely destroyed by the tsunami. After the disaster, people of Onagawa elected one of the youngest mayors in the history of Japan: Suda Yoshiaki, 39-years-old when elected. He believes that effective city planning requires not only building infrastructure, but also a close-knit community for the next 20 years. Therefore, he particularly encouraged young people to join the discussion about the future of their hometown. The Sea Pal Pier promenade, the effect of their combined ideas and wishes, opened in 2015. It embodies a concept of a compact city, with basic public facilities, such as post office or bank, located within walking distance from the commercial and residential areas. The Sea Pal Pier is also housing Onagawa's many new innovative businesses.
The town is now future-oriented, with the non-livable area converted into an entrepreneur village, where both locals and former volunteers could try and start their little business. We visited several shops which caught our attention.
There was this shop owner who felt in love with Spanish tiles and decided to spread this colorful art through the city, to brighten people’s minds. Another shop transforms unwanted kimonos into various accessories from neckties to jewelry, and also book covers, purses, clothes and so on.
Another shop creates decorative soaps with various fragrances, made only from local and natural materials. There was also this guy who built a Lamborghini replica with cardboard before affording to buy his own, and this guy who created unique electric guitars.
We were impressed by the determination of these people, who made a business from their hobbies in order to renew the city. In big cities, everyone is rushing for job security in a big office. Here, the entrepreneurs build their future and give us the feeling that all one needs to succeed is passion and self-discipline.
During the program, there were many opportunities to meet locals and to listen to their stories. Although there was a fixed overall schedule, the program was flexible in that we had the freedom to explore the cities by ourselves and enjoy serendipitous encounters.
We spoke with two high school students and they told us about their plans for the future and their attachment to Ishinomaki. They are both part of “Ishinomaki school”, a local association who empower the children with giving them opportunities to realize projects and events of their creation.
We also had the chance to attend a “Takoyaki Party” with both high school and university students, and young workers. It was great to be able to chat with all of them in such a friendly atmosphere.
We were surprised how smiling, warmhearted and open-minded the people here are. Even though the first few year following the disaster were probably terrible for everyone, it seems that people preferred to look forward to heal their wounds, together, step by step. Today, without the signs across the city marking the 03.11 tsunami’s height, one would never guess such a disaster ever occurred. The streets are just filled up by people smiles and hopes for the future.
Fishing is an endangered industry, especially in Japan. Fishermen are getting older and have less people to take over the business, demand and production decrease, climate change makes quantities harder to anticipate, etc.
However, Tohoku (the northern part of the main island of Japan, where Ishinomaki is located) is one of the world’s biggest fishing ground. In order to preserve this valuable resource, some fishermen and locals formed Fisherman Japan, whose main goal is to revive the fishing industry in changing the fishermen image across the country. Their goal is to increase the number of fishermen by 5000 by 2024.
In this regard, Fisherman Japan established a certain number of goals, such as increasing fish value (in terms of quality), creating fishing-related tourism, providing support to new fishermen, influencing distribution processes to reduce the number of steps between fishermen and customers, export, etc.
There are 15 members (fishermen and former volunteers) but their motivation enabled them to start numerous successful projects since the creation in 2013. Among these, the renovation of old Japanese houses into shared apartments for new fishermen, two-day trainings for people who wish to try fishing (both adults and children), a matching system between new fishermen and those looking for a successor, a fishing school, two restaurants in Ishinomaki and Tokyo, export contracts, etc.
After the presentation on their activities, we met a fisherman and his son. They explained us the processes of oyster breeding (their specialty), before bringing us on their boat so that we could see it for ourselves. Once well equipped with safety jackets, we jumped onto the fishing boat that brought us to the oyster breeding grounds.
The fisherman first showed us the process to gather oyster eggs, before bringing us further towards the matured oysters. He took a bunch of oysters out from the water using a small crane attached to the boat. He then cracked open the oysters and passed them to us. Eating fresh oysters right out of the breeding grounds was a refreshing experience for everyone. Thereafter, we learnt how to crack open an oyster under the guidance of the fisherman.
Through this program, we learnt about fishermen’s everyday job, and realize that before reaching our plates, seafood go through numerous processes. Being able to visualize the entire process from catching to processing to distributing, it made us more appreciative of the food we get on our plates.
Peace Boat Ishinomaki
Peace Boat Ishinomaki first came into Ishinomaki to administer temporary help for the immediate disaster relief and reconstruction of Ishinomaki, right after the disaster. As time passed by, the disaster recovery progressed onto different phases and they realized the importance of a long term reconstruction. Peace Boat Ishinomaki started to broaden the organization’s activities to help repopulating the area and bringing support to local industries.
Peace Boat Ishinomaki sends volunteers on various reconstruction projects, such as mental health and administration support to people who are living in temporary housing, manpower for fishermen, and tourist information providence.
Established after the tsunami with the aim of providing children from 0 to 18 years old a place to gather and to express themselves, Raitsu is an unusual children center. It is free, there are no strict rules, children were encourage to actively take part in its construction, and still gather every month to discuss for future projects or changes to bring to the center.
The idea is to empower the children, give them a chance to express themselves and to think by themselves. In Japan, most of children go to school all day, and then maybe to private lessons, or in children centers where they have to participate to organized activities and stick with a fixed schedule. In Lights, or “rights”, they have autonomy and freedom to do whatever they want: playing, chatting, reading books, playing sports, playing music, organizing projects, or even not doing anything. This center treats the children as adults who are able to judge what is good for themselves, and thus give them the opportunity to have time for themselves, to do what they wish.
The Ishinomaki Learning and Experience Program offers a whole series of fun-packed and enriching activities that not only allows you to meet interesting and inspiring people, but also learn about the innovation and entrepreneurship that sprung up after the disaster in 2011. Ishinomaki is spearheading the regional revitalization movement in Japan as it creates a new model based on innovative thinking not bounded by traditional ways of thinking. Join us in Ishinomaki for an unforgettable experience in rural Japan!