Tips for Volunteering in Tohoku

Originally written for the October 2012 issue of Connect

In July, I had the opportunity to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity Japan in Miyagi- ken. It was an amazing experience and one I’d definitely recommend. Before you jump in, however, here are some important pointers to consider when planning your own volunteering stint in the Tohoku area.

It’s far!

Factor in travel times and when you’re expected be at the organization. Not only do you need to get yourself to Tohuku, but the organization’s office may not be easily accessible or in a major city. Habitat’s Tagajo office is a twenty minute train ride from Sendai station plus a ten minute walk. Most organizations also prefer you to show up the night before your volunteer work begins.

How to get there

Depending on where you live, you may have to fly or take serious nenkyu to make a trip to Tohoku, but plane tickets can be expensive unless you plan well in advance. If you live fairly close to Tohoku, trains may be a convenient option, but the option I prefer for cost and convenience is the highway bus. There are many companies out there so look into which ones offer services to Sendai.

Save some money

If you want to fly, start planning your trip months in advance. For buses, Willer Express offers a bus pass that even residents can use. The hard part is that someone outside of Japan has to purchase it. Once you set up an account online and someone buys the pass for you under your account, you can make reservations on the Willer website. Instead of a ticket, you receive a reservation number to show when you check in for your bus. Willer offers three-day, four-day and five-day passes, which means that in the two months from the date you purchase the pass, you can travel that many days on any Willer buses that offer relax seats and below. For example, with a 12,000 yen four-day pass, I traveled roundtrip to Sendai and Tokyo within a two month span. One way to Sendai on a relax bus is almost 9,000 yen, so it really does offer huge savings. For more information, visit: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2369.html

Packing

The organization you work with will send you a list of what to bring with you, so pack well. In the hard-hit areas, volunteer shelters will have the bare minimum, so you’ll need to bring a sleeping bag, pillow, and maybe even food and water (depending on the location of the nearest combini). Habitat’s Tagajo house has bedding and extra gum boots to work in, but you still need to bring work gear, such as gloves, comfortable work clothes, and rain gear. We also stopped at a combini before going to the work site, so food wasn’t an issue.

Don’t overdo it and HAVE FUN!

Stretch, take plenty of breaks, and meet amazing new people. My team included five awesome college kids from Kansai and Kyushu, which made the work more fun. If many people are interested, you can even form a team and work together in Tohoku.

Share your adventures with family, friends, and your Japanese community!