The contrasts are enormous. From the beauty of the deep green tree canopied mountain cliffs hovering over amazing ocean vistas to unending acres of bulldozed civilization, infinity of man made hills of the tsunami’s debris. What I saw the first day was just the tip of the iceberg. Today, as we traveled through the peninsulas of Iwate prefecture, from one school to the next, there was one consistent theme, the destruction that the disaster has reaped. As we passed a vast expanse of flat land along the shoreline, with only a few damaged buildings still standing amongst the devastation, Ken-san informs us that this particular spot used to be a resort town. He points out a lagoon that used to be a popular beach. The ocean has claimed that territory, and what is left of land is a colorless grey, the shouts of joy and play long faded away.
From where I now type, the birds are singing in the trees, and soothing sounds of ocean swells far below the cliffs serenade my keyboard rhythms of the morning. How can it be? Such beauty so close to untold horrors? I remind myself that this catastrophe is not the only one on the planet, and thoughts quickly transport me to earthquake devastated Haiti, and countless other troubled spots on the planet. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Japanese are fortunate, that they have resources to rebuild that many other places do not. It is six months after now, and yet, they have yet to clear away the tragedy, let alone rebuild. It will be years before there is some return to a sense of normality here. I only wish that the speed with which they have responded, have built temporary housing could be magically transferred to the areas around Port-au-Prince where I know some 600 000 are still living in tented encampments, if they have tents…
I let the reflections fade, remind myself of all the laughter yesterday, sometimes explosive, sometimes gentle. Guy, Keiko, Ken-san and I traveled to three spots, performing a 30-40 minute show, and then doing short workshops. The children were thrilled, and so were we to have the opportunity to create a joyous environment for a moment or two. Experience has taught me that, thankfully, kids are incredibly resilient, and no doubt have been playing and laughing for quite some time now. Yet there are clearly some faces in the crowd where I see the joy explode, only to be followed by the return of too sober eyes. The resiliency is there, the ability to play and enjoy easy to surface, yet underneath, for far too many, the trauma of tragedy is still hiding under the surface. How can it not when wherever you look, there are powerful reminders of what took place just a while ago.
Over the course of three shows, the routines that Guy and I have mapped out in Tokyo are starting to take shape. We have never seen each other perform, and yet, we are quickly discovering great moments of funny as we share the stage. I have the most obvious toupee on my head at the beginning of the show. Guy bows to the audience in traditional Japanese fashion and his hat falls off, to the kids’ gleeful delight. A moment later he is reminding me to bow, and when I do, my toupee finds the floor. The kids, and the teachers, howl with delight. Guy picks the hairpiece off the floor by a minimal number of hairs in complete disgust. The laughter continues. Keiko, playing ringmaster, intervenes in the play, bringing me my hat. She takes the toupee from Guy with complete distaste, the laughs continue as Guy and I start playing with hats. He displays a mastery of hat tricks and I respond with the goofiest play that I can muster. The laughter continues throughout the show. I bring a volunteer up for a magic sponge ball routine; Guy follows with a juggling routine (baseball, hat and umbrella) out of a violin case. That leads to his playing a musical saw. We have developed a theme around the word ongaku (music) so I come in with a brown suitcase claiming it’s ongaku out of which I pull out a harmonica on a rack and launch into my cigar box routine. We finish the show playing the song “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.” Guy and I are on ukuleles, with Keiko is leading the kids singing the Japanese version of the song. The kids all know the song, and soon we have them all up clapping hands, stomping feet, and of course, laughing.
The second show is at a big elementary school where we are received by the principal in her office, sipping green tea during formal introductions. She shows us a number of photographs: the school just after the tsunami, and what it looks like after a massive clean up. The water there came into the school buildings up to about 5 feet high. Earlier, as we walked up the stairs to the office, the vice principal pointed out the watermarks on the wall. One can’t help but be shocked by the stark contrast in the before and after pictures. The kids’ playground is off limits for now as there is too much broken glass and debris, even after being cleared out. It will be a few more months we are told before the kids can run around and freely play, which no doubt will be a great outlet to release some of the stress.
It is heartening to see the efforts all around, to witness concern and compassion expressed, shared, offered. Not on any surface level, but from a place deep inside. All of this on the first day. Wow. It’s breakfast time, two school visits ahead today. Here we go !!