Cocoro’s 6th Visit to Tsunami Area

Cocoro is a charity set up to provide aromatherapy and positive touch to the adults and children affected by the devastating tsunami on the North East Coast of Japan in March 2011. Immediately after the disaster, many charities visited the area to help the local people cope with the tragedy. However, two years later the local people are still suffering mental health problems in the aftermath of the tsunami, and very few charities are still able to continue offering help due to financial and practical restraints.

Cocoro is one of the few charities that continues to visit the area on a regular basis. We are grateful to the help of all our supporters for making this possible. Here is a report of Cocoro’s sixth visit to the area, which took place in June 2013.

Firstly, let us introduce the team.

Mr Kimura and Mr Kinoshita  helped with driving, transporting all the equipment and bags, and taking photographs.

Ms Ando, founder of Cocoro, and the volunteer therapists shared their work between:

  • Offering individual 15 minute aromatherapy sessions for adults (at the Hot Spring Centre)
  • Running ‘Aroma and Touch’ classes for the children in the nurseries
  • Providing 15 minute aromatherapy sessions for teachers and workers in the nurseries
  • Facilitating new Aroma Care Worker courses for local people

Special Lady
A special mention must go to Ms Sugawara (below), who is the local coordinator and a key person for Cocoro. She visits the local area many times and has helped to built the trust from the local people which has formed the foundations for the success of Cocoro’s activities.


Aromatherapy for Elders and People in the temporary houses.

Cocoro borrowed the Hot Spring Centre to provide 15 minute aromatherapy massages for the people who live near by and also those in temporary houses. Cocoro therapists offer gentle aromatherapy and positive touch with warm and caring hands. This 15 minute session offers a very special time for local people. As they relax under the caring touch of a therapist and the aroma of oils, they slowly begin to share their feelings of loss and desperation.

After the massage, we give each person a heart made of felt material. This has a drop of a person’s favourite essential oil so they can take a smell before they go to sleep. Many people still find it hard to sleep at night.

Felt hearts

The therapists heard many people say that it is only Cocoro who still visits the area. At one time, many different volunteer groups came to meet the local people. However, it is difficult to reach Rikuzentakata because there is no public transport to the area. It is a two hour drive from the nearest sinkansen (super express train) station and it takes seven hours from Tokyo by bus.

Ms Nei

A local said “Nanboademoaruja” about Cocoro’s activity. That means that it is worth more than money in Tohoku-dialect. The dialect can be hard to understand, even for Japanese therapists, so Ms Nei, (pictured above) who is from nearby Aomori, kindly did the translation.

One local lady started crying when she saw Ms Ando arrive. She remembered that Ms Ando had visited immediately after the tsunami. She is still living in a temporary shelter. Ms Ando talked with her and she shared her fears and anxieties.

fishermens wives

Sharing Stories of Trauma and Loss
Many of the local people said that they are able to more open about their feelings because Cocoro therapists are not people from their area. This area is not like a modern urban city where people do not know each other, even if they live the same village. Here, everybody knows each other. Therefore they tend to compare their situation with others, they think that they must be patient because others have lost more than them. It is a polite and considerate thought, typical of the gentle local people, however, suppression of emotions leads to more and more emotional stress.

holdign heart

It is hard to understand the situation unless you come to the area and experience it for yourself.  The local people look okay when we see them on the television or read the story in the newspaper. And even talking to them on the phone, they seem to be fine. However, the Cocoro team met people who were considering suicide because the future looks so bleak and the tragedy of the past still haunts them, getting worse as time passes.

Once you touch them, you can feel the piled up tension of the local people, who have no release from the tragedy and little hope for the future at the present time. After the massage, local people were asked what they would like to see in their town. They all said they need a place where they could go to relax and heal, a place where they could release their stress and ease their depression. It has already passed the stage where they need materials, what is vital now is somewhere for relaxation.

Support from Local People

Cocoro were very pleased that so many local people co-operated on this visit. The receptionists at the Hot Springs were local fishermen’s wives. They were very good at the job and enjoyed being involved. It is so important to involve the people in the area so that they can feel that they are the ones who are helping to make people happier.


Aroma Care Worker course

During our visits to the disaster area we have recognized that the local people would like to learn something new. We also felt that people would benefit if they could begin to help themselves and support their community. Cocoro is grateful to Ms Gill, Principal of Japan Ecole de Aromatherapy, for kindly facilitating the course. The aim of the Aroma Care Worker course is to help locals to be able to offer aromatherapy to neighbours and their family and friends.ACW 2

This is the first time that Cocoro has held an Aroma Care Worker course in Rikuzentakata. Eventually, we hope that the Aroma Care Workers will be able to take over from Cocoro therapists so they can care for others in their community. The Aroma Care Worker course does not offer a therapy qualification but teaches the basic massage and aromatherapy skills necessary to support the local people and help with their mental health care.

For over six months, Ms Gill and local coordinator Ms Sugawara, liaised with each other to refine the course, often working until late into the night, to ensure it would be suitable and adapted to the needs and requests of the local people. It was not an easy task to create a new course in such a remote region especially one so damaged by the Tsunami. Ms Sugawara, visited many times in preparation and worked out a plan for the course.

It took time for the local people to feel sure that the course was right for them. They needed to ask a lot of questions and find out more about the teacher and the course structure. Once they had satisfied themselves, they enrolled on it. We respected their pace and tried to visit and explain again and again. It was originally planned for eight students, but 13 enrolled and passed the course. One lady who had benefitted from an aromatherapy massage from a Cocoro therapist, enrolled on the Aroma Care Worker course and received her certificate. It was an emotional moment. All the participants worked really hard and did so well. It was a ray of hope.


The students, who are all beginners in aromatherapy, told us that they were so pleased that they could take a course in their home town. To take a similar course, they would need to drive to Morioka area which is two hours away by car. It is not easy. Students ranged in age from their twenties to their sixties.


Cocoro has visited again to offer a half-day workshop to make sure that the therapists to check on progress and to answer any questions. The follow-up workshops are important to continue to momentum of the programme. They are given the chance to share their knowledge of essential oils and how they could use their massage skills. The attendees were really passionate and keen to work with Cocoro on a future visit in November. This means that Cocoro can reduce the number of therapists and use local people.

Story Massage and Positive Touch in Nurseries

Cocoro also offers “Aroma and Touch” workshops for the children in the nurseries and provide individual aromatherapy massages for their teachers. On this visit, the team visited five nurseries in three days. The ‘Aroma and Touch’ classes were managed by Ms Ando, founder of the charity and Ms Nozaki, both Massage in Schools in Instructors trained in the UK.

more massage 5th

It is a 20 minute programme which starts with reading from an original story book explaining how the aroma of plants, leaves and flower can help relax people and animals.  Then we do a fun game to encourage children to guess different aromas. They love joining in. Normally the answer is orange, lavender and lemon.

Lastly we have a peer massage session using story massage.  Children line up on the floor and massage each others’ backs through clothes while we read a story from a story massage book and show the illustrations.

gull book

This is popular because it is easy to continue, everyone can be involved, and no preparation is needed. The new story ‘Gull Meets his Friends’ was written by Mary Atkinson, UK representative of Cocoro, and illustrated by Alice Clark, a student from Brighton. The new story massage was very popular and children asked to do it again and again.


One teacher in kindergarten cried when she was told that children from the UK still think of them. They were so delighted to receive messages from the UK and plan to write and draw pictures. Even the children remembered our visit from the UK in April 2012.

On a visit to a nursery, we were told, “Nowadays, only Cocoro comes to our nursery. Just after the disaster, many volunteers visited, but now it is only Cocoro.”


The present condition in the disaster area.

There is a big difference in the speed and extent of recovery from the disaster among the various local areas. Recovery is particularly slow in the coastal area with no plans about where people will live when they leave the temporary housing. Indeed, there are still many temporary housing areas in Rikuzentakada, even though two years have passed since the disaster.

Local people tend to be cautious about expressing their true feelings. However, they said that they felt very anxious and/or irritated about the future and this was seriously affecting their mental health and ability to cope.

Immediately after the disaster people wanted the debris to be cleared away as soon as possible. However, now that the debris is cleared the area looks like a field, with wild flowers blooming at the remaining foundations – and there are still no plans for rebuilding. Local residents try to think back to how it used to look and where the supermarket was, for example. It becomes harder for them to remember. The told us that they are experiencing a new sense of lethargy, loss and emptiness now that most of the debris been cleared up. The victims need more long term mental care than we had expected. Nothing remained of their home town, they could not recognize their surroundings. The scene was beyond our imagination.

secomdasry school

When we met Mr Toba, the mayor of Rikuzentakada, on a previous visit to the area, he told us “Please use local products and places as much as you can.” This meant a lot to the Cocoro team, and so lunch was taken at the Local Ramen restaurant. It was delicious and with a large helping each!

Saying Farewell on this Visit

When the therapists left the area, the members of Cocoro and the local people started to hug each other. And the local people waved their hands until they couldn’t see us anymore. On other visits, the farewell has been more formal. This more relaxed farewell showed that they trust Cocoro now and really believe that we are a good support for them.


As therapists who have worked in the area our hearts ache to hear the cruel stories which are so difficult to write. We are moved to tears, feel the pain and yet need to put on a show of courage to support the local support and listen to their stories. We are grateful to our family and friends back home for caring for us and supporting us.

Thank you for Your Support

It is more difficult to continue our work than it was to start it up. However our work in the disaster area moves people’s hearts and makes a real difference. It feels as if we are becoming one big family!


No one gains any profit from Cocoro’s activities. All fees for the Aroma Care Worker course were donated back to Cocoro.  The locals, members of Cocoro and supporters all work on a voluntary basis.
Cocoro’s activity cannot continue for long term without the kind donation of essential oils from individual contributors, Insole Co.,Ltd, Jasmin AROMATIQUE organics Co.,Ltd and Herbal healing. We really appreciate these donations.

heart paper

We are connected by our heartfelt wish to help people move forward, even a very small step.

We need your support

If you can help us raise funds for Cocoro to be able to continue the vital work in the area, please contact me (Mary Atkinson, UK representative). We hold various fund-raising events during the year in the UK.

On September 15th 2013, we are holding a Mindfulness Workshop with all proceeds going to Cocoro charity. Find out more here – Mindfulness Workshop for Cocoro Charity.

Collecting box

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