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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Bringing Back Memories

Oct. 18, 2016

A group of architects is helping residents who lost their homes in the Great East Japan Earthquake to hold on to memories of those buildings.

It's been more than 5-and-a-half years since the quake left many areas completely devastated. To recall what their old homes looked like, a group of volunteer architects are listening to stories and memories to draw up floor plans that serve as precious mementos.

The project started as a way to record what daily life was like before the earthquake and tsunami. There were many requests for floor plans, and 23 have been completed.

The women of the Miyagi Prefecture Architects’ Association took on the challenge of this volunteer project 2 years ago.

As they listen to stories, the architects draw with great care, capturing every emotion and detail on paper.

"There are probably many memories that can’t be drawn," says architect Masumi Koga. "We wanted to volunteer, but since we can’t do heavy labor, this is our way of helping."

About 40 percent of the town of Yamamoto, in Miyagi Prefecture, was flooded in the tsunami, and around 1,000 houses were swept away.

One former residential area is about to be reborn as a park and farmland. Shigenori Iwasa lived in this area for many years with his wife, Sue.

They sometimes come to the spot where their former home once stood. They had lived in this home for almost 40 years, ever since they got married, and they were very attached to it.

"It’s still my hometown. I want to come more often, but it has changed so much. It makes me wonder if there’s any point," Shigenori Iwasa says.

After the earthquake, they moved to an old house in a town further inland. Their children had already left home.

The couple has been looking forward to meeting the architects for some time now. The volunteers spend time talking and asking questions that will help them to produce a floor plan of the couple`s old home.

Architects brought the sketch they had drawn, based on their previous meeting. Iwasa tried to recall the details and give shape to their familiar former home.

To the Iwasas, it’s a brief moment of activity. Back at the office, the architects work on the floor plan. Listening to the couple’s story over and over, it became clear that there was something more important to them than the house itself.

"The garden and vegetable garden were part of our daily lives.... There were three azaleas here. There was a banana shrub I planted here," Sue Iwasa has said at the meeting. "It smelled so good."

"Sue was more attached to the garden than the house. She remembers everything that was here," Koga says.

They decided to put extra effort into depicting the vegetables and flowers the couple had grown and cherished.

"I didn’t know this flower, so I did some research before I drew it," Koga says.

In Northeastern Japan, there are still about 90,000 people living in temporary housing and Katsue Chiba, who lives alone, is among them. She can’t return to her former home.

"I have a lot of memories from there. My feet want to move in that direction without me even knowing it," Chiba says.

Her son and his wife sent her a floor plan, and it depicts the final days of her life with her husband. The son built their home to be accessible because his father was disabled.

She was always by her husband’s side, helping him. The year before the earthquake, her husband passed away at home.

"I was happy when they made the floor plan for me. Everything had disappeared, and I could think of nothing but trying to figure out how to survive. I won’t show it to anybody; I’ll keep it as my own treasure, keep it safe, and look at it sometimes, as a memory," Chiba says.

After 2 months of interviews the floor plan of the Iwasas’ home in the town of Yamamoto was complete.

"It’s beautiful," Sue Iwasa says.

Their home has been brought back to life after 5-and-a-half years.

"Before I saw it, I was thinking of showing it to friends, but now I don’t want to," Shigenori Iwasa says. "It would be nice to keep the memory for us alone.... It’s a requiem of sorts for us."

Now the couple is trying to grow flowers and vegetables in a smaller garden.

While residents have learned to live and start life anew after the earthquake, the floor plans are a simple but precious reminder of their home.

It takes almost 3 months to draw a single floor map. The architects say that they will continue this work as long as they are asked to do so by the residents.