Destin-Nation Japan: Voluntourism After The Disaster

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After the earthquake triggered the tsunami and the tsunami sparked the nuclear meltdown, the world looked towards Japan - long an economic overachiever and regional powerhouse - with concern and wondered what could be done to help. Disconcertingly, the reality was that those without prior experience containing radiation weren't in the position to do very much good at all.

After the earthquake triggered the tsunami and the tsunami sparked the nuclear meltdown, the world looked towards Japan - long an economic overachiever and regional powerhouse - in a way it hadn't in quite some time and wondered what could be done to help. Disconcertingly, there was little anyone without an expertise in containing radiation could do.

Civic-minded above almost all else, the Japanese volunteered in large numbers to help their displaced fellow citizens and to clean up the mess in Fukushima. Westerners weren't needed and weren't necessarily welcomed. Many organizations were understandably loathe to have people on the ground who didn't speak Japanese.

Now, as the clean up enters a calmer stage, visitors to Japan can do more to help what has become a two front war. There are opportunities to help the area affected by the tsunami and, just as critically, to help in unaffected areas where critical issues were put on the back burner during the national disaster.

These voluntourism opportunities offer travelers a chance to see beneath the sometimes opaque surface of Japan, to get to know locals (many of whom will speak English) and to experience the country, briefly perhaps, from an insider's perspective.

For all the size of the Pacific, getting to Japan is not terribly difficult any more. There are direct flight from the east and west coasts to the country's major cities than generally don't exceed $1,500 per ticket.

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Destin-Nation Japan: Voluntourism After The Disaster

One of the areas most ravaged by the recent 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami was the coast of the Iwate Prefecture. The U.S.-based non-profit All Hands Volunteers is running Project Tohoku, which works with hundreds of volunteers in the cities of Ofunato, Rikuzentakata and Yamada to clear debris from homes, canals, and public areas and to repair houses so that evacuated families can return to their homes on the graceful, hill-backed ports.


Getting there: United and Continental offer flights under $1200 to Sendai Airport. From there, you'll have to rent a car because the public transportation lines in these three areas have been cut off since the March disaster. The trip should be around 3 hours to Ofunato and Rikuzentakata, and around 5 hours to Yamada.

Post-tsunami, there was an outpouring of concern not only for humans, but for animals as well. Animal Refuge Kansai deployed search teams around Fukushima to rescue lost pets, bringing them to local government officials for radiation screening, then taking them to the organizations headquarters in Osaka. As of April, the organization had collected 71 dogs, 15 cats, and a masked lovebird. Now, they need volunteers to help walk and feed the animals as well as examine them for diseases.


Getting thereDelta offers non-stop flights for around $1,000 from New York to Tokyo and China Airlines has non-stop flights to Osaka for around $1250.

Smile Kids Japan partnered with Living Dreams to form the Tohoku Kids' Project, which aims to build strong relationships with the 18 orphanages in the Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures, three of the locations hardest-hit by the March disaster. The project hopes to extend its services to all orphanages throughout Japan and needs volunteers to help foster connections between the organizations and the individual orphanages, as well as to help distribute various donations.


Getting there: Fly into Tokyo on Delta for around $1000, and then take JR Bus's Abukama line — which runs five trips daily — to Fukushima. For either of the other two locations, visitors will have to drive since public transportation has been cut off by the disaster.

The island of Yakushima is one of Japan's greatest biodiversity and wildlife hotspots — it houses some of the oldest cedar trees in the world, including a 7,200-year-old one — and is currently in a precarious condition due to excessive tourism. Conservation Volunteers Australia needs volunteers to help with its preservation efforts as well as assist in monitoring research of local monkey, deer, and sea turtle populations. This is an opportunity to enjoy a spectacular landscape without taking away from it, or degrading it.


Getting there: United and All Nippon Airlines offer flights to Kagoshima Airport for around $1500. From there, it's about an hour's flight to the island. Check the program's website for more information on specific travel arrangements. 

Far away from the tsunami damage, in snowy Hokkaido, sits Kenbuchi Nishihara Gakuen, a school that provides the mentally challenged with workshops for activities such as processing agricultural products, ceramic art and woodwork in order to offer them a better way to interact with society. Volunteers are needed to interact with the school's students, help them with their activities, and administer routine services such as serving meals and organizing the facility.


Hokkaido, Japan's northern main island, is a rugged and popular with hikers and climbers. The school can be a calming stop between expeditions.


Getting there: United and Continental offer flights around $1200-1300 to Sapporo Chitose Airport. From there, take JR Bus to Kenbuchi. The trip should take under 3 hours.

Showa-mura, a small village in the middle of a the vast countryside, is facing considerable depopulation and a significant increase in the number of abandoned houses and farms. Concordia Volunteers, together with Chroma Club — a local organization that facilitates community development and youth empowerment efforts — is aiming to "restore and animate the community," according to its website. Volunteers can help cultivate abandoned farmland, plant up vegetable and flower farms, and repair abandoned school buildings where future communal activities will be held.


Japan is often imagined to be a gleaming, metal and monolithic - technology-obsessed or hypermodern - but the culture's root are planted in small villages, making this a worthwhile visit.


Getting there: Delta offers non-stop flights around $1000 to Tokyo. Then hop on a bus for six hours to Fukushima — JR Bus' Abukama line runs five trips daily.

Takatsuki-so is a nursing home for the elderly in the Osaka Prefecture that houses roughly 100 disabled patients. The home also offers a day care services that provides care for around 130 elderly and 50 handicapped people per day. Volunteers can interact with patients, help them in their day-to-day routines and assist in the rehabilitation and recreation services the home offers.


Osaka is a sprawling metropolis, which often goes overlooked by foreign tourists set on spending time in Tokyo. Head to the National Art Museum, then take in an Orix Buffaloes baseball game.


Getting thereChina Airlines will fly you non-stop to Osaka for around $1250. From Osaka Itami Airport, it's about a 40-minute trip to the city center by bus or car.

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