What I’ve been up to

It’s astonishing how quickly time has gone by. I originally started drafting this post a month ago, though it feels like just the other day. Time just takes on a different property here; the first 3 days felt like a week, yet the last 3 weeks feel like a blur… Next thing I know, I’ve got 2 weeks left in my tour of duty.

A week or so after I got here, I started leading teams on “gutting” projects. I wrote fairly extensively on the topic over on the official All Hands blog, if you’re interested. Basically, we’re helping speed up the recovery process by doing relatively simple work that, under ordinary circumstances, would be done by carpenters, who are currently simply overwhelmed and stretched too thinly. It’s fairly delicate work, especially in individual homes that were built by master carpenters, but it’s nothing most people can’t learn to do with a bit of guidance. It’s also quite gratifying to see a “gutted” home that’s been stripped of damaged materials, and cleaned down to its skeletal structure. When the job’s well done, gutted homes look less like tsunami-damaged homes, and more like homes that are simply under construction.

At a personal level, it’s also been very rewarding to work closely with carpenters, and to be able to see these homes up close. The work we’re doing gives us a great deal of insight into how the homes are built. Having worked on at least a dozen homes by now, I’ve come across a variety of building materials and construction methods, and am even starting to get some idea into what works and what doesn’t. As we remove wall panels (usually gypsum boards or a native cement wall that’s applied), we can see the posts, studs and braces that are normally hidden away. I’ve seen a few different floor systems, some of which have faired well, and some of which have collapsed. I’ve also become intimately familiar with the few different methods used in traditional ceilings, and have had the chance to study the beams and joinery hidden above them. It’s been quite inspiring to say the least, and though what little I’ve learned of Japanese building methods barely scratches the surface of all there is to know, I’m looking forward to going back to my property to reinforce my cabin, and build another structure or two employing methods I’ve seen here.

About 10 days ago, I got sent off on a “satellite” project in another community called Yamada, located about an hour and a half’s drive from our main base in Ofunato. Yamada is a much smaller town, but was hit hard by the tsunami and fires that raged on for 24 hours after the waves struck. Over half the homes in the town were damaged or destroyed, and the main part of town has been washed away or burnt out, leaving behind a ghost town. Curretly, our project there consists of two job sites: one is a beach-side shrine, and the other is the shaman’s home. The latter site also serves as our base, where we’re camping out in tents. Other than spring water that comes out of a faucet, there’s no infrastructure there, but fortunately I’m quite used to being in such environments. The other volunteers rotate in and out on 4 day shifts, but as the team leader, I spent two full rotations there, and will be going back up with a 3rd rotation.

Between leading gutting teams in Ofunato and leading the satellite project, I’ve been taking on leadership roles for most of the time here, which is somewhat ironic seeing how I was living a life of solitude until I came to Japan. Leading teams isn’t anything new to me since I’ve somehow found myself in such roles on numerous occasions ever since I was a kid, but it still doesn’t feel natural to me either. I’m not particularly assertive, or dominant, or decisive, or intimidating, or strong, or hard working, or skilled, or possess any of the other traits one may associate with the alpha dog. So I’m genuinely baffled whenever I’m asked to lead, but it keeps happening, which probably means I’ve got whatever is being demanded. Here, though, leading teams has been easy because everybody works hard, and many of the volunteers are far more skilled than I am. In reality, I don’t feel like I’m actually “leading” as much as I’m coordinating. All I do is understand the job, know the team, decide how to apply the team to the tasks, then let them go at it and do whatever I can to support and assist them. On one day during the satellite project when I had 8 people working in the house in 3 sub-teams, everything was humming along at around 3pm, so I decided that the best way to make myself useful was to cook the crew dinner (while occasionally answering questions from the kitchen) so that hot chow would be ready the minute they finished for the day. A lot got done that day, and everybody seemed reasonably happy even though I’d worked them an hour longer than usual. I guess what I lack for in innate leadership qualities, I make up for with what I’ve learned from bosses and managers I’ve had in the past. In short, I try not to replicate behavior I didn’t like about my ex-bosses, and that seems to work okay, even if I can’t exactly explain what it is that I do do.

To be brutally honest, though, I do miss the quiet and carefree solitary life in the woods. The weight of command is burdensome, even if I’m willing to serve that role for a while when asked…

Photo by Eric Zdenek for All Hands Volunteers

13 thoughts on “What I’ve been up to

  1. Thanks so much for the update! I was just thinking about you and wondering how the work was going and there you popped up in my twitter feed. It was fascinating to see those pictures of the inside of the homes on the all hands post, were those bed nooks over top of built in drawers?

    • Ohayo,

      In a traditonal Japanese home, those cupboards over the top of the drawers hold the futons. The futons are removed from the tatami mats every day, folded up and placed in the cupboards on a daily basis.


  2. There’s is a lot of honor in what you’re doing. With that I hope you feel proud of yourself.
    Thanks for the updates, keep up the good work.


  3. Ryo,
    Good to hear from you, I too have been wondering how things have been going. I was working over the weekend with my Habitat group and thought to myself “I bet Ryo is doing some of this same stuff” more than a couple of times. Glad you are putting your varied skills to use, sounds like they need all the help they can get. Stay safe and let us readers know if there’s something we can do to help.

  4. Ohayo,

    So glad to hear about your new projects in Japan. Nice that homes are starting to be renovated now.

    My uncle Katsutoshi (Shizuoka, Japan) is a master carpenter (schooled in the old traditional building arts learned from his father) and even though he is in his mid 60’s has more work than ever.

    The skills that you are learning there will be so useful when you return.

    I can definitely understand the lure of returning home to Serenity Valley (and the peace of being solitary), but how wonderful to have had this opportunity to share and learn! And now you can incorporate some traditional Japanese building techniques in your home.

    Bless you for being able to help.


  5. Ryo, thanks for the update. You’re continuing to do a great job.

    I wonder who are your teammates : do they speak Japanese ? Did they leave a job to come (did they have to) ? What about their family (child…) ?

    Continue the Good job,


  6. Small world. I was reading about tiny homes then i find this about you going with All hands. I applied for there haiti project, but got turned down. I sent in an app for the Japan extension. Care to put in a good word for me? :3

  7. You’re doing an awesome job over there, and you were fortunate to be at a point in your life where you could go. You will be greatly blessed for helping these people rebuild their homes and their lives. The beach-shrine area looks very peaceful. Was the wooden Buddha in Yamada, found among the debris and set up as a shrine, or was it always there? Keep up the amazing work!

  8. Heya, Ryo! I haven’t heard any updates from you in a few months; are you still in Japan, and how are things going over there? Are you planning to stay there long-term, or return back to the US? Please post an update when you have the time.

  9. I’m quite happy you’re back from your trip. I’d stopped following for a while–given the hiatus–but I’m back and eager.

    With respect to your contemplation of leadership, Rands in Repose is a great site that has some interesting takes on “managing humans.” Not sure if it’s 100% relevant, but it might help you develop a mental strategy for leadership, if you find yourself in that situation again.

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