Weeks have passed already and a good deal of time has been spent reflecting over my very short but intense trip to Ishinomaki. The town lies in Miyagi prefecture, a few hundred kilometres north of Tokyo and more than 100 kilometres north of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear absurdity. I had wanted to go north for a long time, but was unsure how to be of any use, and was reluctant to just go purely out of curiosity.

Then, this year’s One Day on Earth project was to take place on 11.11.11, and this seemed like a good opportunity to head into the affected area. Coincidentally it would be eight months to the day since the earthquake and tsunami, and would also in fact be a full moon. Given that the project involved filming over 24-hours, it seemed everything was falling into place to provide an opportunity to witness the devastation, and also create some media for use in a global documentary that may in turn keep the survivors of this disaster in people’s minds.

As we were to witness, the recovery is under way but far from finished, and in many respects yet to really begin. Until now has really just involved cleaning up. The actual recovery requires building off of some kind of clean slate, but the slate has not yet been cleaned.

We filled the rental van with 10 kerosene ovens, about 130 kilograms of rice, some clothing plus some books for kids for learning English. All this was made possible by the generous donations of my friends and family that totalled just under ¥150,000 ($A1800) (raised within a meagre 48 hours), plus some friends in the Tsukuba area who provided the rice, clothes and books.

We had a plan. We were to meet a man named Fujita-san who was running a community centre turned distribution centre, providing relief to his neighbourhood. He would receive our bounty, and then we would shoot interviews and material for the onedayonearth.org project. As we learnt, his area had once housed around 1000 families — now there were only 200, and it seemed everyone had lost someone near in the disaster.

Indeed, in Ishinomaki, the death toll was the highest of all the towns on the coast, even though the wave itself reached only six metres. A broad flat coastline made it difficult for many to get away fast enough — others simply reacted too slowly after having grown up with countless tsunami warnings that never eventuated in anything. Fires and the cold took many more in the days that would follow.

After a five-and-a-half hour drive, you suddenly enter the zone of devastation. We had to immediately stop and take pictures, trying to make sense of how to document the scope of the disaster — how to make it palpable to an idle or passive viewer? The shoot day was actually the following day, so we forced ourselves to take only still photos and just recce the locations we would use the following day.

The clean-up had clearly progressed over eight months, the loose rubble largely gone, the mud cleaned out of gutters with grass finally growing again, and even some roads newly sealed. But further progress was still hard to comprehend — an end was nowhere in site, let alone a beginning for the task of rebuilding communities. And the realisation that this story was repeating itself for hundreds of kilometres up and down the coastline. It remains beyond comprehension.

Fujita-san was now living with his aunt, the last remaining member of his family after he lost his mother and her other sister.