O’Berg finds joy and life lessons amid the devastation


On a recent international flight, Kate O’Berg rolled her eyes at a passenger whining nearby about something trivial.

Who could blame her?

O’Berg has spent the past seven months living and volunteering in Japan in the wake of a nuclear meltdown, earthquake and tsunami among some of the most positive-minded people in the universe. The Pendleton native found herself humbled by the residents of Minamisoma, Pendleton’s sister city.

“They have a saying,” she said. “Gambado kudasai. Kutuskute kudasai — Please do your best. Please keep going.”

O’Berg said the spirit of Minamisoma thrives despite a magnitude 9 earthquake and resulting tsunami last March that killed more than 600 of the 70,000 who lived in the city and melted down the nearby Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant. The city’s 1,000-year-old horse festival, which come back to life last week, symbolizes the resilience of the community.

“The Japanese have gone through so much turmoil,” she said. “They always come back.”

O’Berg, 23, felt a need to help after the triple disaster. She’d visited Minamisoma as a 17-year-old Pendleton High School student.

“The people were so generous and helpful,” she said. “Watching the devastation on television, I felt like it was happening to my family.”

O’Berg went, first for a short stint and then returned about seven months ago for an open-ended stretch.

She teaches English, works as a part-time cultural ambassador and helps deliver groceries and supplies to uprooted people living in temporary housing.

Like other residents, O’Berg carries a Geiger counter and checks a website devoted to reporting radiation levels, much like a weather forecast. She insisted, however, that she isn’t worried about radiation, keeps track of her accumulated exposure, which she said is minimal, and prefers to focus on the job at hand.

A thousand years of horses

O’Berg said Minamisoma’s Soma Nomaoi festival this month symbolizes the city’s buoyant spirit. The ancient festival downsized last year, then exploded back to life last weekend.

According to Mihoko Endo at the Minamisoma International Association, many of the festival horses, together in a barn, perished in the tsunami. Four riders who lived in waterfront homes also died, Endo wrote in an email.

“Many suits of armor and horses were carried away,” she wrote. After the nuclear reactor leaked radiation, “we had to be evacuated as fast and far as we can.”

O’Berg nodded at that, but said life is slowly, but doggedly, finding a new normal.

She returned to Minamisoma in time for last weekend’s festival, taking in sights and sounds of the festival — a vibrant fusion of several hundred horses, 10th century costumes, conch horn blasts, colorful banners, food tents, horse racing and a Medieval battle reenactment.

Last year, the ancient festival almost fizzled, but not quite.

“The festival was severely scaled down and only lasted part of one day,” O’Berg said.

This year, it came roaring back.

“It was unbelievable and so exciting to walk down the streets and to experience Minamisoma as it once was,” said O’Berg.

The buzzing atmosphere before the event reminded her of her home town’s famous rodeo, the Pendleton Round-Up.

“There are similarities with the Round-Up — flags go up, windows are painted,” she said. “It is strange, but very familiar.”

O’Berg will take that and other jubilant memories with her when she finally leaves Japan, though she’s not sure when that will happen.

Last month, she and a Canadian volunteer climbed a red lava trail to the 12,388-foot summit of Mt. Fuji.

“We started our trek at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and made it to the summit at about 4 a.m. on Monday morning,” she said. “We had the most amazing view above the clouds and the sunrise was simply breathtaking.”

It’s a memory she’ll take with her, along with a fresh perspective on life.

“I’m learning the Japanese way of how to handle difficult situations,” O’Berg said. “Things can change in an instant — you enjoy every second.”

She paused.

“I’ve had very few bad days since I’ve been in Japan.”


Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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