The devastation along Japan’s northern coast was near total after the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku quake. Four hundred and sixty five thousand people were displaced by a gigantic surge that spawned 40 meter waves towering 133 feet – higher than a 12-story building in some inlets. The toll in lives exceeded 18,000 and the 40 trillion yen in damage that day makes the 9.0 quake the costliest natural disaster in human history.
A Story of Resilience after the Tōhoku Quake
Five hundred miles south of the destruction, Yasuharu Matsumoto, vice president of the Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, called for volunteers to travel north on a mission motivated by kindness.
Ten months after the tsunami the flotsam and rubble remained, with buses and boats precariously balanced on the roof tops of multi-story buildings.
Moved emotionally by the continued suffering of his fellow countrymen months after the quake, he traveled 2,000 kilometers in a packed van in the middle of winter with a merry group of tea growers and volunteers. Their route was haphazard, their days jammed with scheduled and unscheduled stops in villages, nursing homes, relief centers and parking lots. They brought to all the warmth of tea and asked nothing in return.
Matsu: The Caravan continued for three weeks. I visited around 40 places traveling 2,000 kilometers. During the tour I met a lot of victims, I would say casualties, of the Tsunami and I poured for hundreds, sharing more than 1,000 cups of tea with them.
This is what he saw along the way.
Elyse Petersen, a former Peace Corps volunteer, was a student in Hawaii completing work on an MBA with a focus on Japan and a deep fascination with tea when she heard the call for volunteers.
Elyse: The tea Relief Caravan was my first trip to Japan. I landed in Osaka, spent the night with a friend and the next morning I took six different trains to make my way up to Tohoku to a small island village where I met Matsu.
We brought no propaganda, no message, just purely a tea party. We had gone to a nursing home. I remember that it was freezing cold. That was always recurring in my head. How not only sad the event must have been, but just how cold and empty feeling it was during that time.
We were still traveling through places where the damage had not yet been cleaned up so that sadness was in your face every day.
The tea parties brought so much light and happiness to all these communities. We were doing presentations in school classrooms with the children. We were doing them in community centers, having big dance parties and singing parties.
They had so much capacity for happiness. There was not one frowning face at any of these tea parties,” she said.
Petersen has since made tea her life’s work, beginning as an intern at a tea farm in Kyoto and later founding Tealet, a direct-trade tea supplier in Las Vegas.
The ad-hoc relief effort was both chaotic and cathartic. Matsu packed 10 into the van with chase cars joining. He said that he would phone ahead to speak to emergency services providers in the next village. Local media covered the adventure. Some calls were direct from victims, inviting them to visit. The caravan might stop at a bazaar, or brew tea at tables in a parking lot.
At the Namche Bazar, Shunsuke Matsuo, a student skilled in the violin, played selections for the crowd, leading Matsu to dance about in joy.
At each stop grateful recipients signed their name on a poster that was covered with the names of hundreds of survivors by the time the caravan pulled into Tokyo for its final stop in February 2012.
Matsu was 36 at the time. A decade later he poignantly recalls a conversation with one elderly victim.
“I now understand how tea is totally different from water,” he said.
Matsu: One of them told me so. She said that she drank lots of water in the evacuation places. ‘Since the tsunami days I survived, water is essential to life, but today when I drank tea with you, I felt a totally different feeling than drinking water. Just sitting next to you,’ she said, ‘I drank the tea and the tea absorbed [entered] my heart. So, I can live with water, but with tea I can open my heart to you, and I can tell this story to you.’ “
“That’s why tea and water are totally different,” she said.
“That story changed me,” said Matsu, now 47.
“I now know the difference between tea and water. My perception is totally different,” he said. Among the many encounters he recalls, “that conversation had the largest impact on me during the caravan,” he said.
“I now believe more in the power of tea.”
The group spent its last night in Minami-Ashigara before stopping in Tokyo to hold one last tea event “to share our love and hope with the victims in the area,” says Matsu who kept a digital journal from those days. In researching this post I discovered an archived tweet or two.
When I last interviewed him in 2012, Matsu told me that tea is restorative, that it brings relief in difficult times. I now see how he gained this wisdom by serving a thousand cups for a few weeks during a dreary winter as he listened to the venting of the sorrowful stories of those who survived.
A decade has passed and those who survived still live with the ghosts and grief of losing so much on a single day in a single hour. In these trying times I am certain they continue to turn to tea for solace and warmth.
“Tea is relief,” Matsu explained. Sharing a cup of warm tea is sufficient in crisis. Nothing more needs to be done.
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