News stories around the world reveal a deluge of incomprehensible sameness, the debris of aggregate destruction overshadowing an area known for its rugged beauty and strong individuals.
Annamarie Sasagawa, a 29-year-old travel writer and co-owner of Sasa Trails, a tour guide company based in Tokyo, knows many individuals from the Tohoku region, an area she has visited often over the last eight years both for work and pleasure.
There’s the marshmallow-loving mountaineer, distinctive in his bright red parka, who studied fashion design in Paris before settling down to distribute newspapers in Sendai.
Or the obaachan (old ladies) at Osawa Onsen near Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture, part of a sprawling group of tojiba onsen in the mountains, where patrons can enjoy extended stays for medicinal benefits, share a communal kitchen and take the hot springs three times a day.
Sasagawa visited the place just two weeks before the quake and devastating tsunami: “It was paradise — clean air, five different baths, afternoon walks in the melting spring snow and the friendly staff.”
Since March 11, Sasagawa has spent much of her time mapping out a way to help the individuals in Tohoku. She has organized “Write for Tohoku,” an e-book gathering work from artists and writers based in Japan with all proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross.
It was the fierce beauty that first attracted Sasagawa to the Tohoku region, herself a native of British Columbia, an area also renowned for its stunning natural splendor. It was the friendliness of the people that beckoned her repeated returns and inspired her to organize the e-book to raise money.
Sasagawa feels humbled equally by the instant support and response she received within the writing community. “The response of the expat and Japanese writing-artist community has been amazing. People I do not know contacted me, volunteering to help. Like most people after the quake, I felt so helpless and sad for the people in Tohoku, especially since I traveled there so often and the people have been so kind. I thought, the only thing I can really do, besides donate money, is spread the word about what it is actually like in Tohoku, and talk about the people I have met.”
With her husband’s encouragement, Sasagawa posted an article, “Tohoku, Behind the Headlines,” on an online writing forum a few days after the quake. The response led to the bigger idea of uniting the writers community. “A lot of people said the article really helped them understand the region beyond the headlines, and I realized, maybe there are a lot of people in Japan who could do the same thing, and if we could gather everybody’s stories together, it would be an effective way to not only raise money but also to raise awareness about what the region and country is like on a deeper level than what people are seeing in the news now.”
With more than 20 contributions from writers across Japan, from Osaka and Shikoku to Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, the project has exceeded its original boundaries to include writers and illustrators based in North America and Europe.
“The book is shaping up to be a beautiful mix of personal essays, funny travel stories, poetry and short sketches on daily life in Japan. Although it wasn’t among our original goals for the project, I hope the e-book will strengthen the sense of community we feel as writers and residents in Japan.”
Illustrators Hiyoko Imai and Luis Mendo (www.goodinc.nl), based in Amsterdam and Tokyo, respectively, immediately volunteered their creative expertise. According to Sasagawa, Imai wrote “Our Headquarters are in Amsterdam, but my mind is mostly based in Japan.”
Tokyo software developers Mark McFarlane and Robb Satterwhite are assisting with the technical side. They will make the e-book available as an application for the iPhone and Android smart phones.
Japanese writers have joined the group, adding humorous perspectives on traveling in Japan as an “Americanized Japanese woman” or providing a glimpse from the eyes of older Japanese, who remember a time of more frightening blackouts, food shortages and grave uncertainty.
Kelly Luce, a California writer who had earlier spent three years in Japan and wrote a collection of short stories set in Japan, will edit and proofread the final piece. From far afield and close to the epicenter, writers and artists have become part of the “Writers for Tohoku” journey.
Sasagawa’s own journey in Japan started when she was 22, nearly eight years ago, an inevitable destination charted by a book and a scholarship. “Growing up in Vancouver, we were all aware there was a wartime internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II; there’s a book we have to read in high school, Joy Kogawa’s ‘Obasan.’ It is a really powerful book and it really stuck with me.”
Upon graduation, Sasagawa received a scholarship from the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. “The university awards scholarships based on your high school grade point average, but there are various endowments and it is just chance what organization you are matched with. My scholarship was funded by Japanese-Canadian schoolteachers who had been interned. UVic just happened to give that one to me. I thought it was a funny, this book being one of things I remember most about high school English, and the scholarship from the same source. It was either a coincidence or a sign, and I took it as a sign.”
Sasagawa settled her roaming mind on studying the Japanese language and English literature. It felt natural to rove across the sea to Japan upon graduation. She came to Shikoku in 2004 on a working holiday visa and quickly found a job teaching English conversation for two years.
She moved to Mie Prefecture for a year to work as an assistant language teacher before joining Australian company Intrepid Travel, handling tours all over Japan and Asia.
“In addition to Japan, I briefly led tours through China with Intrepid, and have traveled throughout Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. I found Japan to be the most hospitable country. It is such an easy country to travel in, especially for foreign women.”
Sasagawa also motorbiked throughout Vietnam with her brothers, and after five years of professional and personal experience in the travel world she mapped out a plan. Part of her plan included Tsuyoshi Sasagawa, a lawyer and musician originally from Niigata Prefecture who shares her love of traveling, hiking and trekking.
They married last July and opened Sasa Trails the following month. Sasa Trails specializes in private tours for foreign tourists, educational tours and special travel tours for musicians. The company gives Sasagawa the chance to put down roots.
“Working for Intrepid, I typically traveled four weeks with two weeks off. It was a wonderfully nomadic lifestyle, but I wanted to be more settled. Now I travel a couple of days a month instead of 60 percent to 70 percent of my time.”
Her new stability gives Sasagawa a solid base to extend assistance and unite fellow writers, but she has already planned her next trip to Tohoku, a visit to her beloved tojiba onsen in May with her brother and sister-in-law.
Despite the tragedy, Sasagawa feels hope and continued inspiration from historically one of Japan’s last unsettled regions. “They are strong people. Life has always been hard in Tohoku, with its harsh climate and breathtaking, unforgiving scenery, but the people are strong.”
For more on the e-book “Write for Tohoku,” see www.writefortohoku.wordpress.com