After an 18-hour journey, a navy blue van pulls into a convention hall parking lot in the city of Nanao in Ishikawa Prefecture, which is now a lifeline for evacuees from the massive Jan. 1 earthquake.

Volunteers swoop in to unload boxes fixed with essentials — from diapers to ingredients for Japanese curry — that had been brought in from almost 800 kilometers away. Signs on the van show where their trip began: Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture — one of the areas hardest hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

“We understand how difficult this all is because of our past,” says Hiroyuki Takahashi, 49, a politician-turned-entrepreneur working with the Iwate group, who had arrived ahead of the van by train the day before.