HANDs! Project: Looking back and looking forward

People often choose to forget the past as looking back can be painful. But when it comes to disasters, lessons from history should always be remembered. This could help you survive when disasters strike again.

This is one lesson I got from the second and final leg of the HANDs! (Hope and Dreams) Project, a research trip organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, focusing on disaster and environmental education + creativity.

In 2016, the HANDs fellows visited Manila, Philippines and Bali, Indonesia. This year, we headed to Phuket and Phang Nga, Thailand and Kobe, Japan.

The Thailand phase started with a site visit and dialogue at the Bangla Village Mangrove Forest. Members of the community expressed how the mangroves helped protect them from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and are therefore very motivated in preserving the forest.

We then headed to Baan Nam Kem where we listened to stories of the tsunami survivors and learned about community based disaster risk management.

The rest of our stay in Thailand was spent in Yaowawit School, a real-life education facility for orphans and less privileged, which was founded by German philanthropist Philipp Graf von Hardenberg initially meant to help tsunami victims.

Lectures and workshops on sustainability and gamification were given by Robert Steele, a sustainability expert, and Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, a game designer. After which, fellows had to design games and activities for the “Alarm Cat,” a disaster and environmental education program for students of Yaowawit. It was a joy to interact with the children of the school and be able to promote disaster preparedness and environmentalism through creative means.

We said our khop kun krap (thank you) and bid goodbye to the heat of Thailand as Kobe, Japan’s cold embrace welcomed us.

The trip in Japan began with a tour of the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institute (DRI) which was established to archive and preserve the memories and lessons from the 1995 Great Hanshin-awaji earthquake. Hearing stories and going through the interactive exhibition of DRI was emotional but the importance of learning from the past to minimize risk and damage in the future is further emphasized.

A session and site visit of another disaster, the Toga River flash flood highlighted how providing sufficient information and education on disaster could save lives.

We learned about local initiatives on disaster prevention and environmental education from non-profit organizations namely Plus Arts, Kiko Network, and Tamba Greenpartner. We also participated in the “Iza! Kaeru Caravan,” a disaster drill program of Plus Arts, and facilitated games and activities for children.

Guided by HANDs adviser, Hirokazu Nagata, the fellows developed disaster and environmental education action plans to be implemented in our respective countries. We got additional inspiration to be more creative and to think outside the box from Kiito, Design and Creative Center in Kobe, which served as our work station.

HANDs Project provided a rare opportunity of visiting many places, learning from various experts and institutions, and forging friendships with co-fellows. And though the research trips ended, this is simply the beginning of more collaborations as we continue building our hopes and dreams towards a more resilient and more environmentally sustainable future.

Photos from HANDs! Project for Disaster Education Facebook Page.

Learn more about HANDs! Project here.

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The Land of the Rising Sun

The chilly wind blew against my skinny frame. I was just wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt with a scarf wrapped around my neck but I welcomed the cold. This is really not new to me. After all, my hometown, Baguio, is also cold.

I took a deep breath. The smell reminded me of England. My eyes became busy trying to take in all the details of my surroundings – the color, the structure, how things are arranged; my senses on a hyperactive mode as I want to re-create the image in my mind when I’m not in the place anymore.

Autumn in Japan is how I have visualized it. Trees changing its color, leaves gently falling like feathers, people rushing by in their gray and glum coats in consonance to the season.

My mates and I took a stroll around Tokyo. Where are the people? So empty. Deserted. Then I realized it’s around 8:00 AM. It’s Wednesday. People obviously are in their offices and their workplaces. We took pictures of anything and everything. Like a typical tourist would do. Pictures of trees, rocks, people, places, of each other. Serious pose, model-esque, wacky or free style. The locals would stare, maybe wondering why, in the world, are we taking pictures of signage, buildings, stores, etc. But for someone new in a place, everything is fascinating.

Lunch time came. People started emerging from their nooks and began to line up in restaurants. They are so… behaved, not impatient at all. No complaints about the long queue. And they eat their food in peace, without so much chatter, which is the complete opposite of what most Filipinos do.

We managed to order our food. Thanks to the universality of gestures and body language. We would point to the menu. The waitress would speak to us in Japanese. We would nod in agreement thinking, hoping, we understood.

Itadakimasu!” I love saying that all the time. It’s the Japanese way of showing appreciation for the food. Trying out the cuisine of other countries is exciting. For me, the first bite can be a surprise, a pleasant one or otherwise.

“Oh, that’s a familiar taste. Similar to what we have back in the Philippines.”

“I can have this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!”

“Er, I think I’ll eat something else, thank you very much…”

Japanese food is very simplistic. A reflection of how the people are like. The Japanese, in fact, are minimalist. Their flag as a big statement of that, and I really appreciate that about them. I’m also amazed at how they do things, like everything’s all planned out, no room for mistakes, so efficient… so Japanese. And talking about being precise, being late would be unacceptable. It’s not even about being right on time. You have to be there 15 minutes before an appointment or else you would be considered late.

I have observed the way they work. Now I know why most concepts on quality in the workplace which we study in my Management Class originate from Japan. For a result-oriented person like me, the Japanese work ethic is ideal which I wish to see in companies and organizations I would want to be a part of in the future.

***

The five-hour Shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Nagano Prefecture wasn’t as eventful as I hoped it to be. Nagano is this quiet, peaceful place where I met my new family. Yes, we’ll be having homestay here, a chance to get to experience the real culture of Japan! The Yazawa family welcomed me, together with an Obama look-alike Indonesian lad, Jusak. We stayed with the family for the two nights and two days.

At first, I was concerned about the language barrier. The only Japanese I knew, aside from itadakimasu were ohayo (good morning), konichiwa (good afternoon/hello), konbanwa (good evening), ogenki desu ka (how are you), and arigato (thank you). So how in the world would I be able to communicate to them?

Surprisingly, I was able to connect well with the Yazawas – the grandparents, Boss and Baba; our homestay mom and dad, Shinya-san and Yumi-san; and the kids, Tatsuki, the quiet one, Hana, the bundle of energy young girl, and Keita, the curious little boy.

Baba would speak to me in Japanese, I would answer back in English and for some reason, we would understand each other. I showed pictures and talked about the Philippines. They did the same thing sharing their culture and I could feel their genuine interest in getting to know me more.

We discussed and compared how things are culturally done. Whoever gave us the idea that people from another country would be any different? I mean, yes there are little nuances here and there but that’s all there is to it. Big differences if you wish to see it that way but for me, I see it simply as diversity.

We walked around the neighborhood, had soba for lunch (noisy slurping required), went to a monkey park, had a feast for dinner and ended the day with conversations, music, and laughter. I hated to think that we’ll be saying good-bye the following morning.

And so the day came. The inevitable. We had to bid farewell to strangers turned family, whom we have met for such a short time but felt like we’ve known each other longer. I hugged everyone and when it came to my oka-san (mother), she started crying and then tears began falling from my eyes, too.

“Don’t cry…” I said, which was funny because I was also crying. People call me cold-hearted because I don’t usually show my emotion specially when saying good-bye. But I don’t know what happened that day. Maybe they were tears of gratitude for the warm Yazawa family, for sharing their home, their lives to me, even for a brief moment.

Home is where the heart is. I certainly left a piece of mine back in Nagano.