Moriumius project brings young life and learning back to the Tohoku disaster zone

From a hillside above Ogatsu Bay drifts a sound that vanished from the area 4½ years ago.

The crescendo of children’s giggles and excited squeals seems incongruous with what lies below, where the landscape is void of life, erased as it was by the March 2011 tsunami like chalk from a blackboard.

But in the playground of a once-deserted school, children are climbing trees, removing weeds from a rice paddy and carrying wood for a stove. Third-grader Daiki Yokota has spotted a small fish in the pond near the school entrance, while 7-year-old Sawa Kurahashi is chasing a butterfly.

Soon, each of them is ushered into classrooms to make their own chopsticks from wood collected from the surrounding forest. There’s not a game console or smartphone in sight.

“I love making things but right now my hands feel like they are going to fall off,” says Hana Yamamoto, 11, as she shaves off another layer of wood with a chisel. “I can’t wait to try using them at dinner.”

Yamamoto was one of 13 elementary school-age children forming the first intake of a unique educational project that aims to revitalize the Miyagi town of Ogatsu, which lost around 80 percent of its buildings and 10 percent of its 4,300 population to the disasters.

The Moriumius-Lusail project officially opened its doors on July 18 for a one-week summer camp with a difference.

“We wanted to make a place where children can stay, interact with the locals, enjoy the natural environment and learn about sustainability in an organic way,” says Gentaro Yui, director of Sweet Treat 311, an NPO focused on rebuilding communities affected by the 3/11 disasters through education projects.

At the heart of Moriumius is the 93-year-old Kuwahama Elementary School, which closed its doors in 2002 due to an already declining child population in the three communities it served.

Yui came across the school following the 2011 disasters, when he got involved in a volunteer project delivering food and other emergency supplies started by close friend Takeshi Tachibana.

While restaurant business consultant Tachibana looked to apply his expertise in the food industry to assist the battered local fisheries industry, Yui set about finding a way to bring younger people back to the area.

“The population of Ogatsu had fallen below 1,000 and children were studying 40 km away,” says Yui, who helped establish the KidZania “edutainment” theme park in Tokyo back in 2004. “The more I spoke with local people, the more I understood what a crucial role that school had once played in the community.”

Two years of renovations ensued, which included digging out a meter-thick layer of sludge and elevating the entire school in order to lay new foundations. Some 5,000 volunteers, many of them businesspeople from Tokyo and further afield, gave up weekends to lend a hand.

“It was in a bit of a mess, to put it mildly,” says Keisuke Tanasawa, who helped with the renovation project on days off from his job at a Tokyo headhunting company, bringing along 80 of his friends. “Seeing the children here laughing and smiling makes it all seem very worthwhile.”

From a distance the wooden building retains all the trademark features of a small rural Japan school — right down to the original clock above the entrance. But a closer look reveals subtle changes: Former classrooms have been tastefully converted into girls’ and boys’ dormitories, while the dining room, whose large sliding outer doors open up onto a broad wooden deck, would not look out of place in a trendy part of Tokyo.

The facility is also designed to be self-sustaining and eco-friendly. The rotenburo outdoor baths are heated using wood from the surrounding forest, while rice is grown in the grounds for consumption at the facility. A unique filtering system allows drainage water to be recycled and solar panels are on a list of future additions to the site — as are pigs, other animals and crops.

But while the school is a powerful symbol of intent, it is what goes on outside that forms the core of the Moriumius concept. A large part of the weeklong program involves putting participants in teams and encouraging them to discover, by themselves, the important role of the natural environment — in particular, the importance of the nutrient-rich forests to the local fisheries industry, which is renowned for its aquaculture. Indeed, the project name itself is a combination of three words aimed at emphasizing this concept — mori (forest), umi (sea) and “us.”

During a trek along a mountain stream, Riki Hatakeyama, 12, and Alex Montgomery, 10, chase after small crabs that skitter from beneath moss-covered rocks.

“I didn’t know that crabs lived in mountain streams,” said Montgomery, who lives in the Tokyo area and whose father is British. “The trek was hard, but I learned a lot about the need to keep streams clean to protect nature.”

Another aim of the program is to give out-of-classroom experience in using English, and non-Japanese volunteers form a part of the team of guides and instructors. Yui is also keen to raise awareness of the impact of natural disasters on rural communities, and he believes such a sustainable learning experience for children, particularly those living in urban areas, will bolster the chances of recovery in such communities.

“Ogatsu is a place where the forest and the sea are relatively close to one another, so you don’t have to be here long to grasp the natural cycle here,” he says. “It’s an unusual experience for children who are blessed with all the conveniences of modern society, and I believe that bringing not just local children, but others from outside the region and even from overseas, will have an important economic and psychological impact on the community.”

Details on upcoming programs and other information can be found on the Moriumius-Lusail website: Information for foreigners on how to volunteer on the programs can be found on the Association for Japan Exchange & Teaching (AJET) website: Your questions and comments:

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