At what point is it that we grew up? At what point did we forget to see the wonder in the little things, in the everyday miracles that make up the world we live in? At what point did we cease to be curious about the critters in our backyard streams or the ones crawling around in the dirt beneath our feat? When did we stop making snow forts and exploring new trails in the woods? When did we lose the drive to discover, to see, to touch, and to engage with Mother Nature’s mysteries. I don’t know exactly when I stopped doing any of these things. But I do know that last year, somewhere within me, I felt a little spark of wonder start to burn again. And today, I’d like to introduce you to my friends at Hamawarasu, who reminded me that this spark might have been there all along.
In Kesennuma’s local dialect, “Hamawarasu,” means “beach children.” Hamawarasu works with kids who were forced out of coastal communities by the tsunami to come and reconnect with the ocean. In addition to teaching kids to live in harmony with their environment rather than being afraid of it, Hamawarasu also focuses on developing children’s leadership abilities and encourages them to find innovative solutions to everyday problems. A diverse, year-round curriculum aims to develop strong, resilient youth who will serve as the leaders of tomorrow’s Tohoku.
Ryoei Suga, a former Buddhist monk (and current fisherman) who originally came from Shizuoka as part of a disaster relief mission, was one of the founding members of Hamawarasu. He describes why he felt the organization was necessary:
“In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, everyone was just focused on trying to survive. As volunteers, we were mainly involved in the distribution of relief supplies: food, water, blankets and medical kits. But as life in the evacuation centers settled down into a regular rhythm, I began to think about what the long-term recovery plan for the city was going to look like.
Many of the children in the evacuation centers had experienced the trauma of the tsunami firsthand. They were afraid of the ocean. But Kesennuma is a coastal town. A fishing town. Coexisting with the ocean has been the way of life here for centuries. Yes, the ocean is terrifying, but it is in equal parts wonderful as well. I felt like if I didn’t teach these kids that before they were grown up, they might end up as adults without any positive feelings about their home. And the kids who leave town to go to college? They’re not going to have any reason to ever come back.
But with all its challenges, and all its joys, life on the Sanriku Coast is something special. And that’s what I’ve got to tell these kids.”
My own connection with Hamawarasu began last summer when I met president Kazuki Kasahara. After hearing that Kazuki-san was a surfer, I told him that I had tried my hand at surfing a few times, but had been put off by the frustratingly steep difficulty curve, so I was never really able to get into it. He looked me in the eyes, smiled and said, “If you don’t surf, you’re missing out on the best 80% of life.”
Kasahara-san embodies the essence of what Hamawarasu is. Brash, wild-at-heart, and far more comfortable surfing 10-foot waves or hiking through knee-deep snow than working at a desk.
Kazuki Kasahara, the original Hamawarasu.
In a society where kids are often told what to do, Kazuki-san starts Hamawarasu’s activities by giving the kids a challenge and asking, “How do you think we should do it?”
“Kids these days don’t really get the chance to run wild in the woods, or on the beach. To build things with their hands, or just be silly. But if you let them loose and give them a little bit of time, they’ll amaze you with the things that they can come up with.”
I think what Kasahara-san says about the kids growing up today is true for most adults as well. Working at a desk for eight hours a day often doesn’t leave much time for anything else. But my friends at Hamawarasu always remind me to take time to reconnect with the natural world and reflect on the fact that each of us is a small part of something so much larger.