It`s Christmas Eve, and we are on our way to the Watanoha district of Ishinomaki. It is dark and snowing. I know this route. You cross over the bridge and suddenly everything is gone. Well, almost everything. Torn curtains jut out from crushed and shattered windows, fluttering in the cold wind. The snow accumulates on the bare foundations of houses that fared even worse. Watanoha has an undeniably creepy aura to it at night lately.
I don`t want to be here. Well, I did make the plans to come volunteer with the kids in Ishinomaki over Christmas weekend, but that was when my husband was going to come with me, before he got sick and had to stay home. I feel a bit lonely without him, even though I am not alone. I am the car with S, who runs the NPO I work with, and his nephew K, a high school senior who volunteers with the kids every day and is massively loved by them all despite his punk-rock hairstyle and multiple earrings.
After spending the day volunteering, we are on our way to S’s friend’s house, for a Christmas dinner of sorts. But here? In Watanoha, amidst all this? Then there, in the middle of the wreckage, stands something quite out of place: a house. It's as if it shouldn't be there. But there it is.
S’s friend M and his family meet us at the door, to help us step over some scattered debris at the entranceway of their home. But the entranceway, it turns out, is the only part of the house that sustained any real damage. While the view outside is thoroughly apocalyptic, the inside of their house is immaculate. It is bright and warm, with a tall, fake Christmas tree and a large flat screen TV. An electronic dancing Santa clause under the tree comes to life without warning every fifteen minutes or so, to sing a Christmas carol at random.
I am well acquainted with M, his wife and his two children, an eight-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy. Since losing his job to the tsunami, M is always taking care of the neighborhood kids, many of whom have lost parents and homes in the disaster. I have given free English classes to this particularly charming and well-behaved group of kids on several occasions, all organized for me by M and S.
But this is the first time I am seeing M`s house. As I stand inside the house, wide-eyed, some explanations are in order. Apparently the house was just very well built, and also managed to avoid the path of trucks, boats and other houses as they charged through the area. The first floor of the house was flooded nearly to the ceiling, M says. Still, unlike the shadow of a house across the way, which is missing its entire first floor, the walls of this home did not break off and float away. The older buildings, M tries to explain, never stood a chance.
But in the end there is no truly adequite explanation. I feel like I am standing inside of a miracle. And eventually, with the help of the kids, my mood lightens considerably.
We all sit down to eat, and I sample whale meat for the first time in my life, which I have no business refusing. It tastes a bit like chicken. We are half way through the meal when M`s wife stops the conversation in its tracks. “Did you hear that?” She says to everyone at the table, “I heard some bells upstairs.” “I think I heard it too,” her husband plays along. I didn`t hear anything, S replies honestly, and M narrows his eyes at his friend. “I heard it! “ I say.
“You’d better check upstairs,” The mother advises the kids, “to see if he came.” The boy and the girl look at each other with wide eyes and get up to ascend the stairs. Some squeals of happiness ensue and the two kids trickle down the stairs carrying piles of presents. For a split second I remember what it was like to believe in Santa Clause, and how indescribably awesome a feeling that was.
At one point, when the little girl opens up a package containing a Burberry sweater set that she had asked for, she appears so happy that she is distressed. It is hard to tell what she is thinking. “Oh no, oh no,” she is saying.
“What is the matter,” her mother asks.
“Santa is going to run out of money!” the eight-year-old expresses her sincere worry.
Earlier in the day, she and her mother explain to me, the girl already received a PSP from the “volunteer santa.” The “volunteer santa,” in case you are wondering, is santa`s friend, someone from a church group of sorts who was sent by santa himself to their school in order to collect letters to Santa Claus. Volunteer Santa then returned on Friday to answer their letters.
“It is all right,” her father eases her mind, “Santa is extremely rich.”
Before coming up to the Tohoku region to work with the kids earier in December and then again over Christmas weekend, I could not help but wonder whether the children here would still believe in Santa Clause. After all, how could a character like Santa truly exist in a world where oceans rise up and violently swallow villages? Then again, ever since March 11 these kids have been fully conscious of all the help and aid their town has received from gift-giving strangers all over the world. I can say with certainty that the spirit of giving is alive and well in Tohoku, and perhaps this alone has given the children more reason than ever to believe in Santa.