It will seem strange, shocking even, when I tell you that visiting a disaster-hit area was one of the best assignments I’ve had as a journalist.

There have been some eventful experiences in my career. I remember being manhandled by a burly bodyguard when I got too close to the Myanmar foreign minister, eavesdropping on conversations among Malaysian parents that provided information for a scoop that helped change national education policy, staying in a room at the famous Holiday Inn in Sarajevo with bullet holes in the wall, and travelling to Jaffna during a ceasefire in the Sri Lankan civil war.

But being in north-eastern Japan (locally known as Tohoku) almost a year after the area had been struck by a killer tsunami caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, was an assignment that was deeply meaningful to me.

Don’t get me wrong – it was also one of the most distressing work-related experiences I’ve had. But if not for that assignment, my journalistic career – and by extension, my life experience – would have been poorer for it.

I was in the town of Minamisanriku (about 180km away from Fukushima and the meltdown of the Daiichi nuclear power plant) for only two days, but the heartache I felt lasted for weeks after.

Despite it being a year after the catastrophe, mini tremors and aftershocks continued to occur. Having never encountered the earth trembling before, I was alarmed – and then a little embarrassed when one of the Japanese ladies I was with patted my hand and grinned as if to say, “Oh, this is nothing.”

Japan tsunamiThe trip was sponsored by humanitarian aid organisation World Vision and one of the places I visited was its Child-Friendly Space in Tome City for children to spend time after school before they returned to their families, many of whom lived in temporary shelter settlements.

Through a translator, I managed to speak to one of the young girls, nine-year-old Shiko Miura, who had been evacuated to high ground before the earthquake happened and watched as massive waves swept over her three-storey school.

It wasn’t an easy interview, as you would imagine. I was briefed beforehand about the questions to avoid – even something prosaic, such as what a child’s parents did for a living, was considered sensitive as that could trigger disturbing memories.

The saddest thing I was told that day was what one girl said when she was asked to volunteer to speak to media.

“I hate interviews. Why are they asking us about March 11?”

Another asked, “Will I have to share stories about my dead friends?”

Tell me that doesn’t just break your heart?

In the midst of all that seriousness, there were some lighter moments. At a fish processing plant, I was taken into a warehouse-size freezer set at -60°C! Jumping up and down to stay warm didn’t help. Just two minutes in that ice box was long enough.

Then we headed to the docks where I got to go out on a boat to watch seaweed farmers at work. These men had lost everything in the tsunami but were able to go back to work with boats donated by World Vision. It can’t have been easy for them to start over, but it was heartening to see them clowning around as they tossed seaweed at each other and draped it over themselves like feather boas.

Back on shore, some ladies from the seaweed processing centre had prepared a simple wakame soup and salads for us. A welcome meal on that freezing February day.

From The Vault is a fortnightly series that takes readers behind the scenes of memorable interviews and assignments our journalists have experienced.