When caregiver Kazutoshi Fujimoto first visited the town of Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, he was volunteering because he had heard the recovery from the March 2011 quake and tsunami was going slow.

The decision turned out to be a life-changing one because it led him to join the Shinto priesthood. He now serves at a celebrated shrine in the town.

Fujimoto, 45, had lived in Miyagi since his university days. He was working as a caregiver in Natori, near Sendai, when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated the region in March 2011.

He immediately offered to help pick up and transport volunteers from other regions who had come to help.

Later, the native of Hiroshima Prefecture began visiting Yamamoto, some 20 km away, after hearing about its slow progress. It was here where he got involved in repairing and rebuilding Aosu Inari Shrine, which lost its main building to the giant waves and took damage to its torii.

The shrine serves around 1,000 households but has a history stretching back more than 1,200 years. Not only did Fujimoto help with the restoration, he also strove to unite the residents by organizing illuminations and other events at the shrine during the year-end holidays.

Fujimoto’s dedicated efforts impressed the shrine’s parishioners, who describe him as “openhearted” and “passionate.”

Then, in spring 2014, Fujimoto learned that the shrine’s chief priest was retiring due to old age and that the lack of a successor might mean the end of the shrine.

Fujimoto said the words that came out of his mouth were: “I will obtain the required qualifications to join the priesthood, if you please.”

He did not consider himself a man of deep faith and his ties with the community were still relatively recent, but after a few months of contemplation, he made up his mind to do it.

“I want to create a place residents can turn to and rely on,” he said.

The shrine is now back on its feet. In November, Fujimoto, as senior priest, conducted its first fall festival since the 2011 disasters.

Although it will take more time for him to get used to reciting the Shinto prayers and perform the ritual gestures and movements, Fujimoto looked relieved upon completing his first Shinto ritual without any problems.

“I just wanted to do whatever I can,” he said.

“I want to make this a shrine that will pass down the story of the quake disaster to future generations for a thousand years to come, by having reminders of the tsunami in some form in the shrine’s music and dance, as well as festivals,” he said.