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A bus from yesterday to tomorrow

Japan, June 9, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Kobayashi Toki (left) and Sasaki Mutsuki, friends for more than 20 years, share a laugh on the Mercy Corps-sponsored bus from Ofunato to Rikuzentakata. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Kobayashi and Sasaki's neighborhood on the outskirts of the tsunami-devastated city of Rikuzentakata. Fortunately, both their houses survived the disaster. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    While shopping in Ofunato, Kobayashi bought ingredients to bake her six-year-old granddaughter a belated birthday cake. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Sasaki lost one of her sons to the tsunami. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

Kobayashi Toki and Sasaki Mutsuki have known each other for more than 20 years, since their kids were still little. Together, they rode the bus from their flowery, peaceful neighborhood down into the town of Rikuzentakata, Japan. Together, they walked and shopped in the town's stores, situated close to the sparkling sea.

But those stores — and Rikuzentakata — are no more. This isn't the kind of bus they used to ride, and this is a year unlike any other they've had to endure.

Watch Kobayashi and Sasaki on the bus from Ofunato

Both women, 67-year-old Kobayashi and 62-year-old Sasaki, are survivors of March's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. Both of their houses withstood the disaster, but both women still lost a lot that day — including the town they've called home since they were much younger women. Since the tsunami struck, local buses and trains haven't been running. And since neither woman drives, they've depended on occasional rides from friends and family to go shopping in nearby towns where shops are still open.

Then, one day — while working in her garden — Kobayashi saw a shiny new bus pass by her house. It stopped a little ways down the street and let someone on. That got her wondering.

"I thought to myself, 'should I ask about that bus? Should I take that bus?'" she says. "And now here I am, taking the bus with my friend."

Mercy Corps and partner Peace Winds are providing this bus service so that residents of Rikuzentakata can travel to the city of Ofunato, where the commercial area was largely spared by the tsunami. This allows survivors like Kobayashi and Sasaki the chance to shop for groceries, buy household necessities, visit the bank and go to the doctor — things they mostly haven't been able to do for the last couple of months. This bus service is also giving a much-needed boost to stores in Ofunato, where the local economy has been staggered by the disaster.

The bus — which is operated by a professional bus company — runs four times a day: two trips to Ofunato in the morning and two afternoon return trips to Rikuzentakata. It runs along a scheduled route that's been publicized by the city and published in local newspapers, picking up displaced citizens in evacuation centers and temporary housing, while also stopping in neighborhoods like the one Kobayashi and Sasaki call home.

Today, the first day that either of them has ridden this bus, has been mostly about purchasing food: buying vegetable seeds for their gardens and doing some grocery shopping. Specifically, Kobayashi had certain ingredients she had to buy for a very special occasion.

"My granddaughter turned six years old back in April," Kobayashi explains. "But it was only a few weeks after the tsunami and there was so much happening. There were no local bakeries where we could buy a cake, and no way to get to the store to buy ingredients. Thanks to this bus, I was able to buy what I needed and now we can celebrate her birthday."

The two women talk, smile and even giggle about the party plans. They discuss the days when their children went to school together. And then Sasaki's expression changes.

"One of my sons survived the tsunami, but the other perished," she says. "These days, I treasure the visits of my family so much. It's something that words cannot express — and, even if they could, the tears wouldn't come out."

This moment reveals something more about this bus ride: it's about more than transport to another place. It's about a sense of togetherness. The chance to commiserate in all this chaos.

Kobayashi comforts her longtime friend, who's just shared so much of what she's feeling. Here aboard this bus, right now, it's almost like old times — even though things will never be quite the same. Today, thanks to Mercy Corps and Peace Winds, two friends got to go shopping together again, regaining at least one of the things they'd lost.