April Easter Workshop

This Easter Sunday SOGO Team (Kevin, Elma, and Ruri) from Tokyo joined PlaceTo Grow workshops in Tohoku and led fitness games and activities to help continue to bring communities together.

This year our goal is to connect the communities through wellness and fitness. This was the second SOGO trip to Tohoku & we focused on Easter fitness games. We visited Shizugawa High School and Ooya Asobiba. We did Radio Taiso Xtreme version, which was a great way to get everyone together. We had so much fun moving around while sharing words in English and Japanese.

The children have practiced the Radio Taiso Extreme since they did it at the 1st SOGO×PTG workshop in February, so they were quite advanced already!Playing Easter games was new for kids in Minamisanriku, so the kids were very excited to find eggs and get snacks!!

At the Asobiba the US navy team of volunteers from Misawa Air Force Military Base spent two days building monkey bars for the children and setting up a swing and other climbing equipment. We celebrating the reopening of the children’s play center with over 20 local residents by having a BBQ and dancing and singing outside with guest performer Stuart O leading as the Easter Chick!.


25: Local Children

21: Local Adults

16: Volunteers


Easter Egg hunt

Radio Taiso X

Fitness Games

Communication Circle

Spring BBQ

8 Years On, Remembering 3.11

This article is based off of the experiences of Place to Grow founder Angela Ortiz

March 11th 2:46pm, a moment that would forever change the lives of thousands. The destruction was beyond anything imaginable; my first reaction when experiencing the aftermath of the disaster could only be described as incredulous disbelief. I had never seen destruction so close and at such a personal level. It was impossible not to feel hopeless in the face of the enormity of the task ahead.

The immediate aftermath was a frantic blur, yet one memory still remains clear in my mind. We were driving fast in a crowded van, but as the silhouette of an old fisherman caught my eye, it felt like time began to move in slow motion. Weathered skin, features shaped from the elements and lifestyle of a fisherman, strong and stout for his age. He was standing amidst the ruins of his life, holding an item from the remains. His red eyes glistened and as he let his hands drop, I had a flash of insight into his emotional state. Overwhelmed. Hopeless. I knew these emotions, I had felt them all my life. But in that moment I understood that what he was experiencing was an extreme, unimaginably more painful reality.

It has always blown my mind that we know so little about the stories of survivors. I read an article in 2014 about the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, and what they were experiencing was similar. Depression, suicide, despair, disconnected lives, solitude, abandonment. In the years following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami I saw it happening all again. Only this time it was happening in my own backyard, to the people I had grown up amongst. It was happening to my family. It was this close connection that compelled and spurred me into action. It was as though I was being pulled forward by something bigger than myself. Ultimately, it was this drive that led to the founding of  Place to Grow.

Today marks 8 years since the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku. In this time of remembrance, we’re also reflecting on the growth of affected communities and celebrating the hope with which they look into the future. Time has helped with healing; families are coming back together and communities are trying to recreate familiar spaces and build new traditions. Towns and cities are regaining a semblance of normalcy as new stores, homes, roads and community centers are constructed. Yet outward appearances do not account for everything; as the physical reminders of the disaster fade into memory it is all too easy to be dismissive of the ongoing struggle that survivors face.

Streets are still more silent than they used to be, they don’t bustle with tourists the way they once did. Some towns will make it, others won’t, and over time certain support systems will disappear. Towns along the coastline are now defined by this disaster. For children this is an identity and burden that they had no choice in. They need role models and peers that inspire them to create new visions for themselves. This is where volunteers play a role, connecting and helping form bonds within communities.

Place to Grow’s core belief is that providing inspiration, connection, and support to survivors of major disasters is the most important thing we can do to expedite their long-term recovery. Bringing fragmented communities together with workshops that connect young and old, and locals with outside volunteers, is the mechanism we use to make it a reality. Along this journey I’ve learnt what the role of a volunteer can be. I’ve realized that to be a volunteer is not to be a saviour, a hero swooping in to help the helpless. Because what happens is symbiotic. The role of outside volunteers is to challenge and walk with those affected, supporting their journey from victim to survivor.

The act of supporting something bigger than you pushes you to face your limits- emotional, physical and mental. It’s simple things like attempting to write an article, plan a Christmas party, build a social media marketing plan, navigate a road trip or coordinate volunteers. But it’s these challenges that have allowed us to grow. It’s the little things like storytelling tours, local festivals and summer fireworks that encapsulate the healing of communities.

Since the disaster, Place to Grow has organized 8 annual Santa Soul Train events and over 50 other community projects that have allowed us to connect communities in Tohoku with volunteers from around the world. We’ve recently partnered with SOGO Fitness and are excited to pursue our 2019 theme of community building through health and wellness. This journey has been one of growth, learning, and discovery, and we’d like to give a big thank you to everybody who has supported us throughout. As an entirely volunteer-run organization, it is your help that makes this continual recovery possible.

You can stay updated and continue to support Place to Grow through this website or our other platforms:


Instagram: @placetogrowngo

Our Wonderful World – Club Asobiba

July 21st – 22nd, 2018

After arriving at Minamisanriku on Saturday, we went to Shizugawa High School to meet with the former principal who will lead the “Minamisanriku Junior Academy”. There, we discussed the details and goals of the program, how PTG will be involved, and presented this to the first prospective participant, his mother, and another interested community member.



6: Local Children

4: Local Adults

5: PTG Volunteers

3: Activities

The program is set to start the first weekend of August, with plans for PTG members to collaborate and get involved with interactively teaching English during our weekend trips. The former principal seemed very excited and hopeful, and the Minamisanriku Junior Academy will become a significant part of PTG moving forward.

On Sunday we arrived at Asobiba around 10:30 and were met by a small yet eager group of kids. We started with introductions, teaching each person to say “Hi my name is____ what’s your name?” and explaining the importance of eye contact. Some of the kids were shy and unsure, muttering the words quietly, or repeating after Angela one word at a time.

They started warming up as we moved on to watching a song on YouTube about the earth and learning the vocabulary words for the day “earth, planet, world, ocean, land etc.” After explaining each word and giving a Japanese translation, we told the kids to come back later with their notebooks to write them down.

We moved on to the craft for the day- finger painting. Each kid got a big piece of paper, and we set up the finger paints in paper cups on the table. At first they were hesitant to dip their fingers in, but once Angela started to paint they all got involved. Everyone got creative in their art from paintings of music notes and Sakura trees to traffic lights and abstract splatters.

Leaving the paintings to dry, the kids moved on to playing in their makeshift pool- blue tarp set up in a wooden structure. Angela, Lisa, and Leah joined in, stepping into the pool and splashing around with the kids to cool down. Kyal, Masaya, and Angela talked chatted with the adults while Leah and Lisa conducted interviews with some of the participants. After lunch of soumen and a group photo, it was time to say goodbye. Practicing their English, the kids said “see you again!” and waved to us as we got into the car to head home.

Before going back to Tokyo, we stopped in to thank and chat to the owner of the local Taxi company who gives us prizes for Santa Soul Train and provides transport for large volunteer groups.

Local Interview #3

1.   Why is a community important to you as a mother?

Having a community allows mothers to meet and learn from various generations, to receive support from the community and grow with their children. Through interactions with people from different backgrounds, children can learn the basics manners, including greetings.

2.   What value do you think the Santa soul train event in MSR brings to your children’s lives?

Children are looking forward to Santa Soul Train every year. Santa Soul Train is where children get to meet and build friendship with people from different countries. Santa Soul Train became their children’s favorite event of the year, especially because there were hardly anything they looked forward to after the 3.11. They also enjoy the performance, food, presents, as well as the English learning opportunities there as well.

3.   Share your hopes or fears for the future around raising your children.

Our concern about the children’s future is that our community doesn’t have very many children now, and we aren’t sure how many people will remain in Minamisanriku in the future. Would there be schools in town? Would the community be sustainable? Would our children continue to want to stay in their hometown? Would our children come back after finishing trading school or college? Minamisanriku was able to recover to this point because of the support from many people, both domestic and international, so we would like our children to love their Minamisanriku, remain here, and revitalize their hometown when they grow up.

Father’s Day Workshop @ Asobiba

Place to Grow returned to Kesennuma on June 17th to make more crafts with the children at Asobiba.

Our agenda for the afternoon consisted of three activities:
1)        Bingo games with summer-related words in English
2)        Father’s Day decoration making
3)        Bouncy-ball making

When volunteers Aki, Kayleigh and Lucia arrived at Asobiba we were greeted by children on the playground by two donkeys that they take care of.

While the children were having late lunch we prepared for the workshop beside them. They were so curious as they watched us dissolving a large amount of salt into bottled water, which was to be used later in the day.


11: Local Children

3: Local Adults

3: PTG Volunteers

After a brief introduction of everyone in the room, we got right into Bingo games. Kayleigh, an American student who is living in Minami Sanriku for the early part of summer, was the caller. “A T-shirt”, “Camping”, “Vacation”, “Sun-tan Lotion” …she read aloud then showed the picture cards: “Bingo!” The first winner was a grandma who volunteers at Asobiba. There was much excitement and a lot of shouting as many of the participants got closer to winning. We played two rounds and everyone had at least one Bingo win, and received a small prize of snacks and balloons, which turned out to be quite popular for the rest of the workshop.

We then moved onto the Father’s Day crafts. Using scratch paper, colored paper, origami, pens and crayons, children created a decoration they can hang on the wall at home. One boy said “my dad is going out for drinks tonight, he loves beer” and drew a picture of beer. A girl wrote words of encouragement for her dad. Another boy whose dad is a fisherman drew a boat and fish. Representative Director of Asobiba, Ms. Miyoko partnered with young kids who needed help with ideas and cutting out origami into hearts and stars.

The last item on our agenda was to get messy making bouncy balls from laundry starch and the saturated brine that we prepared before the workshop. It was tricky to make the ball into just the right firmness, Aki got busy teaching everyone being the only person who had made it before. Before the balls were dry they were slimy, which prompted one of the boys to make a request at the very end, “I want to make slime next time!” Then off he went to play outside.

It was nice to see some of the same kids participate again. They are such an active group of children and we truly appreciated their enthusiasm. 

Asobiba Easter Workshop

6 years ago the community of Oya was hit by the tsunami of 3.11.  Hundreds of families came together at the Teragai community center where OGA for Aid worked to coordinate food and water supplies. Temporary housing was built near by and hundreds moved into the courtyard of the elementary school – the facilities stand there to this day.

The Asobiba no kai began as a project to look after the young children whose parents were working. From daily activities to providing soup lines monthly for families in need the Obachans behind the Asobiba no Kai are energetic, friendly and dedicated. Place To Grow held its first workshop with the Asobiba no kai, and shared the games and celebrations of Easter with the children.

The PTG volunteers arrived at 10:15 and set up the egg dying station inside the greenhouse/Asobiba no kai meeting space. The obachans helped set up the room, make decorations, invitations and banners.


12: Local Children

6: Local Adults

8: PTG Volunteers

2: Partner Volunteers

Did you know? In the 16th century painting eggs with colors was meant to signify bringing spring into the home. Flower petals were added to the water – creating a simple dye effect.

After the preparations Angela led the whip-around of introductions of volunteers and participants. Then teacher Aika explained about spring and the tradition of Easter. We talked about coloring eggs, what games we play with eggs and how there are many ways to decorate them now. 

The grandmothers cut out paper rabbits to string up while the children dyed eggs, used crayons and markers to add pictures and shapes, while others still preferred to cover theirs in glitter for a delicate and sparkly look.

The craft time was followed by the Easter Egg Hunt -15 reusable plastic colored eggs were recycled by volunteers and grandmothers, who kept up a steady assembly line filling and hiding these eggs for the children to hunt.  

This was by far the highlight of the event, but we also got in some games like the spoon/egg race and redlight/greenlight (another favorite!)

The winners of the final game received “party OGA sunglasses” and ALL the children received an Easter chocolate egg to eat. 

We wrapped up the workshop with a short reflection huddle where the kids were asked to give us feedback on their favorite part of the day.

“What was the activity you enjoyed the most?” Lucia asked. “The egg hunt!“  “The spoon race!” “The egg hunt!” ….and while unanimously kids gave favorite of the day to the egg hunt, it was Miwako Suzuki who on behalf of the obachans said her favorite part was hiding the eggs for the kids.  

Also we received feedback from the obachan that most events are Japanese cultured related events so it was good and beneficial to bring in and introduce an  international environment and atmosphere.

“Volunteers talking to the kids in English is a rare opportunity” said community leader, M. Suzuki, “its very stimulating to the children’s minds. “

Playing with eggs also seemed to be a brand new activity.

“I’ve never done this”, said 10 year old H. “I didn’t even know you could play with eggs!”

“I liked all of it! “Said G, 16years old. “Me too, echoed his buddy,” 14 years old

The energy, excitement and curiosity from the children and volunteers alike made this a truly memorable workshop. The weather was warm, sunny with bright blue skies. We are happy to have the Asobiba no kai join Place to Grow as a local partner and beneficiary community.

Art Workshop #2 with Ohana International School

This November 6th, we hit the road bright and early for a weekend adventure in Minami Sanriku, lead by the fantastic people at Ohana International School.

Our volunteers from Tokyo designed an inspiring artistic curriculum that would encourage the children to explore their creativity through the use of a selection of “junk art” materials, such as feathers, string, woodchips, tiles, corks, and more, applied to large primed canvases.  

The theme of the art creations was the symbolic tree in Rikuzentakata that has come to symbolize the resilience of the people of Tohoku.

After a quick warm-up session and introduction, the children jumped right in and worked in extremely creative and unexpected ways to make some truly expressive and beautiful pieces of art.  The children worked together to put together their masterpieces, along with volunteers at each table to provide support and encouragement.

 Children at the workshop presenting their art works.
Children at the workshop presenting their art works.



17: Local Children

5: Local Adults

2: PTG Volunteers

6: Partner Volunteers

Watch the video report!

After each work of art was complete, each team of children brought their finished piece in front of the group, and were asked to explain their idea and vision for the art.

We were blown away at the presence of the children’s presentations; the complexity of their ideas and the detailed, deep stories they told.

We are very much looking forward to the next visit!

Satoumi Farm – BBQ & Wool Workshop

For PTG’s August workshop, we partnered with Satoumi Farm to enjoy outdoor activities with families in Minami Sanriku.

Satoumi Farm is a small local business located in the Utatsu area of Minami Sanriku. They were established to offer a safe space for children to play, which is valuable in the post-tsunami town where children often have to play inside the temporary housing or in the parking lot.

The Farm has about two dozen sheep which are available for petting and BBQ. They also offer a wool weaving workshop and a kayaking experience. The highlight of this workshop was going to be Kayaking but unfortunately it was cancelled due to high waves. This caused a number of families to cancel attendance (we initially had 34 adults and children registered, but the number reduced to 13).  


7: Local Children

6: Local Adults

3: PTG Volunteers

The participants were all boys and they waited on the playground equipment until everyone arrived.

The event started with visiting the sheep. A staff member at the Farm showed 2 kinds of sheep then took the group to the lamb section. The boys had a chance to feed the lamb (the food includes grinded seaweed found on the shore, it is supposed to make the meat tender), and offered an opportunity to clip its nails but they weren’t ready to give it a try. 

The group then walked over to the wool workshop hut. We wrapped a small piece of wool around a sheep-shaped wood, and pinpricked over and over until it resembled a real sheep. The moms took over from the boys halfway through to finish the craft, and the boys went back to the playground until the BBQ time.

We started the fire and the boys hung out on the hammocks. The dads were in charge of the grill. Moms caught up on their friendship. Kids ran around, played with the cat (the pet on the Farm) in between eating. After the BBQ the dads took the kids to the shore to cool down. 

Especially the dads seemed to have been impressed by the American style BBQ. Grilling pates instead of thinly sliced meat is new enough, but making a hamburger by putting it between the buns is not something Japanese people normally do at a BBQ.

Satoumi Farm started a few years after the tsunami by the people outside of Miyagi. Thus not all local people are familiar with the business. This workshop may have served as an opportunity to connect the old and new residents of MSR. For example, Hoshi-gumi paid a quick visit during the workshop, it was their first time to see the Farm and they mentioned they possibly want to use this space for future events. 


Iriya Umeboshi Workshop

PTG’s July workshop took place at Iriya Community Center on Sunday, July 24, 2016. There were approximately 26 participants, of which two were children—a six-year-old girl and her little brother. The other participants mostly consisted of grandmothers and younger mothers. The umeboshi workshop was hosted by Bakke no Kai, a group of elderly women in Minami Sanriku that regularly gets together to cook regional cuisine. Members of this group are also involved in PTG’s Grandma’s Gift Box program, a fundraising program which supports local businesses as well as funding children’s workshops such as this.

Volunteers that showed up included Place to Grow’s very own Aki Endo, Lucia Ishikawa, Junko Kodera, and the father-son duo of David and Henry Slater. After Lucia talked about PTG, its involvement in the local community, and upcoming events, Henry gave a brief introduction of his Talk To Me project, a Huffington Post campaign where children interview their parents to learn more about their lives and family history. We are hoping this could take place in the Minami-Sanriku area. Although this was a foreign idea to many of the participants, we were able to set up contacts with a few of the people there.

The workshop began as Saijo-sensei and Ando-san explained what we were going to do: learn to make umeboshi (dried plum) and then cook up a delicious lunch with umeboshi, rice, and various other local vegetables.

First, everyone took bundles of shiso leaves and washed them well, pulling the stems off and keeping the leaves. Then, one of the grandmothers (Kazuko-san), a shiso expert, made sure we had wrung all of the wet leaves completely before putting them all in one bowl and mixing them with a little bit of sugar. These leaves were all going to be used to make umeboshi, but since making umeboshi from scratch is slightly time-consuming, we were going to eat umeboshi that had been already made (fresh, of course) for lunch.


2: Local Children Participants

13: Local Adult Participants

6: Bakke no Kai volunteers

5: OGA volunteers

On the other side of the kitchen, people worked very hard, cooking rice, making miso soup, and preparing pickled vegetables. Once the rice was ready, Saijo-sensei showed the shiso leaf people how to make ume onigiris (rice balls).

First, she laid out a small piece of plastic saran wrap. Then, she scooped out some beautiful white rice and put in on the wrap. Finally, she took the umeboshi (which we had removed all of the seeds from), and pushed it into the rice with her finger, finishing by wrapping it all together and shaping it into a pretty onigiri.

Everyone helped bring the food to the tables, and we all sat down to eat a tasty lunch while chatting and socializing with one another. It was a lot of fun to get to know the people in the local community.

After the workshop, Saijo-sensei said, “The people of Minami-Sanriku had a great time and are very grateful. Thank you. We learned a lot from the fabulous work that Place to Grow did as well.”

Nagoya Mosaic Workshop

PTG’s June workshop was held on June 11th at Hotel Kanyo. This event was focused on bringing children and their families in Minami Sanriku (MSR) together to enjoy mosaic art. Everyone was able to spend the afternoon together with old and new friends. Nagoya Mosaic came for the day and held a mosaic workshop for all of the children. They helped the children craft their own coasters and photo frames with a vibrant array of tiles.

First everyone made their own coasters with many of the girls including pinks, purples, and blues in their designs as well as hearts. Some of the boys used other colors as well as tried to make interesting designs.

 Tile art pieces and frame.
Tile art pieces and frame.

After gluing all the pieces down volunteers helped set the new designs in plaster as the kids made their photo frames. Some made beautiful geometric pieces while others included different shapes and sizes. Some of them asked their friends to make a design for them or to pick out pieces for their own.

“Everyone had a lot of fun. My three girls liked making their own photo frames to share their memories. It was great to see them get to make something that they could keep.”

 Getting creative!
Getting creative!

“The different designs that the children made were all very pretty and interesting. We are happy that they had such a good time.”

“It is difficult to get children from all over MSR to come to an event like this. I am glad that they were able to make new friends today.”

In total 19 people came to the event. Although there were only eight children it was the perfect size for all of the crafts they were making. The different mosaics were great for a bonding experience as most everyone asked each other which color or piece was better. As a result, each coaster and photo frame had a little input by everyone. 


8: Local Children Participants

4: Local Adult Participants

4: Volunteers from Nagoya Mosaic

3: Volunteers from Place to Grow