Sunday, April 17, 2011

Helping our furry friends (Part II)

On our first day at Animal Garden, the name of the hotel/shelter in Niigata, I offered to help with whatever they needed. It turned out that the next day, Toshi, one of the co-owners of Heart Tokushima, another shelter that is part of JEARS, was heading across the island to Fukushima Prefecture on the east coast. A homeowner had contacted JEARS about a stray cat. Also, a rescue team on an earlier trip had spotted a group of dogs inside the evacuation zone but had not been able to catch them.

As it was a eight-hour round trip and potentially many hours searching, I was offered the chance to accompany Toshi and provide what help I could. Joan and I both looked at each other; we had talked about this as a possibility and had decided it would be ok to go if given the chance. To be honest, as much as I wanted to help with the animals, I was also very curious to see the situation on the ground in Fukushima. Other groups had gone in before with Geiger counters, and the authorities were letting residents return briefly to their homes to retrieve belongings and animals, so we were not greatly concerned with the short-term risks. The majority of radiation had been released in the first three days of the reactor failures, and we didn't plan on staying inside the evacuation zone for more than a few hours.

So, with a van full of animal food, cages, and other supplies, we left on our long journey. The drive to Fukushima through the mountains was beautiful. I could tell we were headed in the right direction as we joined all the convoys of utility and other emergency vehicles going the same way. At every rest area, we saw tankers full of drinking water, power line trucks, military vehicles, etc.

The first sign that something had happened were the many blue tarps on the roofs of many old homes. The earthquake dislodged many of the heavy, clay ridge tiles, exposing the crest of the house to rain and snow. Also, the roads would occasionally have a strange pitch or a bump/dip that seemed more than the usual.

Our first stop was near Minamisoma, north of the evacuation zone by about 20 miles and two miles in from the ocean. We attempted to contact the homeowner and/or spot the cat but with no luck. This is not an atypical occurance. While not directly related to the earthquake , it is the type of rescue that Animal Garden does on a regular basis. The disaster(s) obviously increased the need.

We turned south and drove closer to the coast. At first, the area looked fine, and I had to
pay careful attention to notice anything amiss. Then suddenly we came around the corner of a road, and there in front of us was a huge, flat basin of destruction. There was nothing left but mud, ridges where road and embankments used to be, and a horrible, jumbled mass of flotsam and jetsam of what used to be farms, houses, and people's lives. The photos don't really capture the scale of it all. We were silent for quiet some time as we drove closer to it and through it on roads that had survived. Crushed cars, tractors, even a fire engine were scattered about. I'm sure we've all seen the footage on
television and the Internet.

As the land rose and fell, the watermark of the tsunami was clearly visible. It seemed that luck and topography made all the difference.

Using a map and Toshi's Iphone Google Maps, we carefully made our way through and out of the tsunami affected areas, heading toward the evacuation area.

On a related side note, we spoke with our friend, Shuji, about why so many people died in the
tsunami. "Why didn't they evacuate? Did the tsunami come too fast? What happened?" we asked him. He pointed out that there are many tsunami warnings in Japan and that many people had not taken it seriously. However, the largest factor was the sheer size of the tsunami. It exceeded all the projections and planning. People had evacuated. They ran to predetermined safe areas. And the waters still took them.

As we approached the evacuation zone, we encountered our first police check point. After Toshi explained our purpose, we were told that only residents and those on official business were allowed in. We drove further inland and met another check point. After that, Toshi turned onto a small road and drove up into the hills. Scouring the map and zooming in on Google Maps, he found what turned out to be a gravel, two-track road across a forested hillside that connected with a paved road on the other side. As we drove down the valley, passing many empty and shuttered houses, we wondered if we would find any animals.

Almost immediately, we spotted a dog trotting up the road toward us. We stopped and fed the
dog but were unable to determine if he was a stray. It was also obvious that he was not interested in being rescued. We checked the nearby houses, but no one was there, so we pushed on to the town of Odaka. While in the evacuation zone, we saw almost 10 dogs, most of which we were able to feed and none of whom we were able to capture. None looked emaciated or injured; they had been able to survive for at least a month already.

If you want to see a map of the route from Niigata to Odaka, try this link. The fourth and southern marker is the location of the Fukushima Daichi power plant, about 12 miles south of Odaka.

In downtown Odaka, we saw some serious earthquake damage, with many houses collapsed or tumbled into the street. The power was on, so the traffic lights eerily changed as no cars passed by. While not completely empty, it was quite eerie and felt like a ghost town. We finally reached the train station and cast about for the dogs. It was obvious from the mud on the road that the station, near the river, had flooded but not too deeply. We called out for the dogs and shook bowls full of food but to no avail. As it was growing dim and starting to rain, we decided to head north back out of the evacuation area. We had been warned about not being out in the rain with the potential fallout being collected in the drops of water.

We traced our route back, peering into yards and at houses, looking for animals that might need help. We were not comfortable with potentially trespassing, and media chatter of looters made us even more uncomfortable with our position. Once we scrambled back up the much more slippery two track, we breathed a sigh of relief as we left the evacuation zone.

As we drove away, sharing our thoughts and observations, we saw a bedraggled, wet dog walking down a sidewalk. Quickly stopping, we gave him some food and tried to assess his status. He had a collar but no tag. He was hungry and had an injured paw; he also had a cut above his eye and a gash on his nose. He was friendly and did not object to a leash. Again, we tried to contact nearby homeowners to see if he was a local dog but with no luck.

So we decided to load him in a cage and take him with us. It is a difficult decision. There have been cases where volunteers have accidentally rescued dogs that didn't need it. An irate phone call from an owner can result in a long and embarrassing return trip.

We turned west toward Niigata for a long trip home. It was even
longer thanks to the slow-moving convoy of Kobe police vehicles that completely hogged the road. Then the horrendous traffic jam in Fukushima made it worse. We didn't get back to the shelter until 1:00 am; a 16-hour round trip.

And, to top it all off, while we were stopped at a convenience store to get a drink and use the rest room, there was a 7.1 earthquake right under our feet that violently shook the van back and forth.

While it was a long and stressful day and we were only able to rescue one animal, I'm glad I had the opportunity to help and to see that area of Japan. It is definitely the strangest road trip I have ever taken...

Oh, you're probably wondering what they're calling the dog. It's "Benji" - short for "benri" (convenient) because he was rescued in the parking lot of a "conbini" (convenience store).

And if you want to see more photos, click on this link.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Helping our furry friends (Part I)

In the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, many lives were destroyed and many families were torn apart. Just as in many other countries, the Japanese people have pets that are considered as members of the family. Both owners and pets lost each other to the onrushing, unstoppable waters.

Then the nightmare of Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant occurred. Thousands of households suddenly had to evacuate, leaving everything behind in the belief they would return very quickly. Pets were left with a bowl of water and a bowl of food, or they were turned loose. It has been almost a month.

Obviously, this has created a situation where many animals need help. Our friend, Ulara, first made us aware of this when she went north with a group of animal activists a few weeks ago. They rescued the animals they could and provided supplies to overwhelmed animal shelters and vets. A Facebook page was created, and suddenly, a coalition of animal shelters came into existence: JEARS (Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support).

When Ulara's work as a journalist took her out of the country, she asked Joan to take over her duties with JEARS. One of the main organizers of JEARS, Isabella, who runs an animal hotel and shelter in Niigata, was on the phone to Joan almost every night, downloading the information of the day, with Joan frantically scribbling notes.

Like many foreigners in Japan, we desperately want to help. However, with our limited
Japanese, there is little we can do that the thousands of Japanese volunteers can't already do better. Obviously, in the face of these overwhelming problems, most of the rescue, recovery and restoration efforts are going towards helping humans, and not animals.

As Joan wanted to personally interview Isabella and others involved with JEARS and get better photos of the operation and animals, we asked if we could come up to Niigata and volunteer for a few days - maybe we could at least help a little bit in our own way.

An early morning express bus soon got us to Niigata where Isabella picked us up and drove us to
Animal Garden, her hotel/shelter. We quickly realized how serious the situation was as we saw their modest facility overwhelmed with more than 200 hundred animals: cats, dogs, and yes, a chicken. We helped as best we could with walking dogs, petting cats, and other chores.

I cleaned the cages of eight cats that had been left in a house in the Fukushima evacuation area by a "hoarder". I won't go into the details, but after a long time trapped in the house with no food and water, it was about as bad as you could imagine. Apparently it was a very difficult and traumatic experience for the rescue team.

These poor cats, now kept isolated due to fear of radiation, were
desperately unhappy and wanted affection. As I changed the absorbent pet sheets from the bottom of the cages and cleaned up any other mess, they frantically pressed themselves against the wire, meowing and crying. I started to cry. I'm crying now as I type this.

But, to be honest, it is hard to clean up cat pee and poop while crying, so I had to shut down that part of my heart. Similar to when I worked for the ambulance service and fire department, you cannot let the pain and suffering interfere with your work. You have to compartmentalize and do what you have to do. I couldn't stop the cats suffering, but I could damn well make sure they didn't have to crouch in their own urine and feces. It wasn't fun, but it felt good.

We spent the night in a simple, unheated cabin down the road. A good neighbor had donated the use of it for volunteers.

The next day was to be a big one for me as we were driving across the mainland to the earthquake and tsunami affected areas to rescue animals.

I would like to write more in this post, but it has been extremely difficult and somewhat painful, and has tired me out. I'll continue tomorrow.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Weirdest. Hike. Ever.

Our plan was to go backpacking and snowshoeing when we got back from our month's trip to America, but Joan's leg injury from walking in bad boots and then an impromptu Nitendo Wii Dance Party competition put her out of commission.

I had been chafing at the bit to get out and do some backpacking as the weather was quite warm and pleasant. To the west of us, still technically in Tokyo, are some mountains (really big hills) that have a lot of trails and some mountain huts. Hiking is very popular in Japan, and on weekend mornings, the west-bound trains are full of people fully decked out in way too much gear on their way to day hikes.

On topographical maps I had purchased earlier, I had identified some emergency huts where one can stay for free. We had stayed in similar huts up in Hokkaido and wanted to see if it was the same down here. Eventually, there is a four or five-day backpacking trip that I want to try in the Okutama region. I also had bought new hiking boots - big, Italian, full-leather monsters - that needed to be broken in. I had done hours of walking in flat Musashisakai but nothing uphill.

So, with a good forecast, I picked out an ambitious overnight route that would visit a hut midday with an overnight in a second one. The next day would stop by a third hut before descending back into the valley to catch a train home in the afternoon. This would be perhaps my first solo trip.

I will let the photos do most of the talking about what I saw. They can be seen here at this link:

The main problem was that I started developing a blister on the heel of my right foot from the new boots - rats! I decided to switch to my Teva sandals and kept pushing up the trail. It was fine until I hit the snow; the sandals don't have much traction. So, I put the left boot back on and struggled up the steep trail, slipping and sliding. This combined with about a month and a half of not much exercise and a backpack was quite slow and exhausting. When I finally made it to the top of the snowy, icy ridge, at least two hours behind schedule, I was tired and a little shaky. I decided to change the plan and just continue to the first hut to spend the night. I could reassess in the morning and decide then.

Well, when I reached the area where the emergency hut was supposed to be, on the side of the mountain, it wasn't there. However, there was a newer toilet hut, as well as a lot of weird buildings and structures - but no people. I pitched my hammock on what I assume is an old helicopter landing pad, based on structure and painted markings to catch my breath and enjoy the last of the sunshine - also to experience some of the most excruciating leg cramps I have ever had.

After awhile, I put my sandals back on and started spooking around, thinking about where I might sleep. I had not brought a tent, just a sleeping pad, bag, and hammock for relaxing. The mountain tea hut looked all raggedy and run down from the outside but seemed functional on the inside. Almost everything was still in place; it really felt like aliens had suddenly abducted everybody. Nothing was locked. Just down hill, there was another building that was a small ryokan (inn) with a dining room, dismantled kitchen area and sleeping rooms upstairs, with closets full of futons and blankets. I initially thought about making a nest up in one of the rooms.

Then I went down to the larger building, which looked like a 1970's commune retreat center.
From what I could see, I think it is a temple or retreat center for a Daoist religious group. While mostly empty, most of the building is in fine shape. However, in the central, round tower room, where many alters and other religious items where still on full display, the roof was leaking and causing extensive water damage. It was weird, weird, weird!

I spent a full 30 minutes exploring the warren of rooms and hallways before decided to stay in a
sun-warmed, carpeted and dry room with a fantastic view of Tokyo and closets full of futons and blankets. The room had some items (rolls of toilet paper, flashlight, box of clothes, etc.) that made it look like some had been staying there somewhat recently. I found some religious publications from as recent as 2008.

With my stove on a low table in front of the windows and sitting in a lawn chair I found in a storage closet, I made a dinner of instant ramen and watched the night fall on Tokyo. As it grew dark, the lights below began to create a sea of sparkling colors. It was completely silent and weird, weird, weird.

Finally around 8 pm, exhausted and, quite frankly, bored to death, I crawled into my nest of futons and blankets and fell asleep, listening to the unknown creaks, drips, bangs, and other sounds of the building.

I awoke at dawn and made coffee. Wrapped in a blanket, I watched the sun rise over Tokyo and
enjoyed its heat. Feeling much about the prospects of the day, I made a plan to hike to the second hut to check it out and head down from there. It was too far to make it to the third hut, and I didn't want to push my luck with the new boots. I had found a roll of duct tape in the tea house and was able to tape up the heel enough to hike the rest of the day.

Starting around 7 a.m., it was a great hike along the snowy ridge on a beautiful and sunny day. After about four hours, I reached the other mountain, where I cooked lunch and tended to my heel. From there, I headed down a trail

to the Okutama station, about three hours away. The downhill section was great as it took any pressure or friction off my heel, and I made good time.

Along the trail down the valley, I found some other excellent waterfall swimming opportunities and other interesting sites. And yet, another weird thing. I was striding along a flat section of the trail, at the base of a cedar-covered slope alongside the river, when seemingly out of nowhere, a large dead animal was just lying on the side of the trail, really
startling me. It turns out it was a "kamoshika"- a rare goat-antelope. There were no obvious signs of injury or decomposition: old age? sickness?

Eventually, I reached the end of the trail and started hiking along the road down to the bottom of the valley. It eventually joined a larger road that followed the Tamagawa river and led to the train station. With relief, I caught a train and sank into a seat.

Overall, it was a good but weird trip. I am excited to go back to explore the area and go deeper into the mountains. However, I need to figure out the boot situation and will try to drag someone else along next time. Many of you will not be surprised to hear that solo hiking is not for me!