Briton’s bus stop makeover in tsunami-hit area just a start

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

A bus stop bench, in a rather forlorn state, is situated against the backdrop of an idyllic, seaside landscape in Ohara, Miyagi Prefecture, a remote area devastated by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The sight of the small community on Tohoku’s Oshika Peninsula was too sad for Caroline Pover, a British writer and publisher who has made Japan her home since 1996.

“Buses run, but you don’t want to stand and wait there because water is coming up, and it’s cold and windy,” especially for the community’s mostly elderly residents, Pover, 41, said. “I wanted to do something for people probably looking forward to a quieter time in their later years and make it a bit easier for them.”

Pover, who started out in Japan as an English teacher and later launched a magazine for foreign women, discovered Oshika through a friend who volunteered there.

At the time of the earthquake, Pover said she was in Saipan writing a book about love between Western women and Japanese men. She put that book on hold and immediately flew to Britain, where she gave lectures about Japan and collected donations for hard-hit Tohoku.

Two months later, Pover was driving up to the peninsula with a friend and says she “fell in love with the place, which was beautiful even in the middle of all the debris everywhere.” She immediately knew the trip was far from being a “one-time visit.”

Pover, who is not part of a registered nonprofit group, seeks support for charity work through her own network of friends. In Britain, she continues to give talks about Japan and matches donations to potential reconstruction projects in Oshika.

The Ohara Bus Stop was one such project. Thanks to donations from the Summerhill International School in Tokyo and carpenters from Saitama-based firm Kigumi Co., a new bus stop was built in April on the side of the road opposite the bench. People can now wait inside for buses running in either direction.

Working under a tarpaulin, Pover and other volunteers braved a typhoon to build it in three days.

The Ohara Bus Stop was just as she had imagined it — a cozy place equipped with a sofa, stool, residents’ photos, plants and a bookshelf. Outside is a patio.

“Because it’s a wasteland, anything you do there has to be beautiful and done with extra love and extra care, and sometimes that means bright colors,” she said.

Behind the bus stop is a storage building belonging to Kiyoshi Takahashi, a 79-year-old resident who owned the land where the colorful bus stop now stands. His land faces the road with the bench, which stood on land owned by the government, which refused to build a bus stop there due to budget constraints.

Undaunted, Pover asked Takahashi for permission to use his land instead. He had operated a ramen shop there with his wife, who was lost in the tsunami.

Wanting to cheer him up, Pover gave a makeover to the storage building — which is now bright blue and covered with red and white hearts. Takahashi and his wife’s names are painted inside a heart on the wall.

Pover is also involved in a string of other projects there that include creating a playground and providing pink uniforms to women in the fishing industry. She has also been cutting her workload in order to have more time to help affected people.

Pover also updates a blog about her volunteer work and continues to find new and positive things to write about.

“Every day, there are reasons to smile (here),” said Pover, who wrapped up her latest two-month trip to Oshika in April. “It’s a meaningful place to be.”

Pover’s husband lives in Britain, but despite the months they have to spend apart, her husband remains very supportive of her charity work.

Her latest book, “Love with a Western woman: A guide for Japanese men,” is a humorous and detailed account to better understand Western women and build a healthy love between international couples.

Pover has developed her own love story with Oshika and its people that goes beyond culture and language.

Pover, who has traveled back and forth between Japan and Britain since 2011, said what she can never forget about Oshika is the “smiling people” and the “beautiful sunset going down looking at the sea and the massive sandbags,” which are not a depressing image for her.

“The sandbags symbolize the ability of the people to remain strong despite what has happened to them,” she said.