Refuge in Osaka, Day 2

I went out for Mexican last night with a group of 6 other “escapees”. All but one of us were foreigners that fled Tokyo while the uncertainty was at its height. We had the same conversations that we’ve all had many times in the last week: Where were you when it struck? What’s happening with your job? How was your apartment? What do you think of the nuclear situation? Where are you going from here? Did your mom plead with you to come home? That last one was universally answered “Yes”.

Interesting and fun to talk about, as it raises the nerves again and feels exciting, but thankfully we moved on to other things soon enough. I’m sure I’ll have the same conversation again many times when I get back to Tokyo.

How do I feel about going back tomorrow night? Fine. I’m not worried anymore about quakes. Even the Earth has to rest. I’m not worried about radiation or explosions. I’m convinced that a lot of Western media, especially the American media, has been feeding and feeding off of fear with deliberate sensationalism, yet again, for the sake of ratings.

That doesn’t mean I’m completely happy with the information I’m getting from Japanese outlets, but everyone has to make their own choice, hopefully informed, about the dangers in Tokyo or lack thereof. With so much media out there, you really have to choose carefully what you’re going to read or watch.

I read a fantastic post on Facebook today that really explained the situation in Tokyo, the way the international media is reporting things in different ways, and how that has affected the situation on the ground and in our heads. You can read it here. It’s very well written and she addresses a lot of good points. If you’re at all confused or concerned about the situation here, I encourage you to read it.

The worst case scenario is not dangerous for people in Tokyo. That’s my conclusion and I hope I’m not proven wrong.

I’ve been walking all day in Nara, a beautiful “temple town” about an hour west of Osaka, so that’s all for me today.

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March 18th in Osaka!

I love Osaka.  For the simple fact that it’s not Tokyo, I love Osaka.

I wasn’t fully aware of the stress I was under until I got here and started to unwind.  At least 7 of my Tokyo friends are here, with more coming, and five of us met up last night for drinks.  Apparently it was standing room only, and packed, on the Shinkansen – the Japanese bullet-trains.  Our bus was full, but nobody was standing.  I suspect it’s illegal.

As soon as we met there were big hugs.  I felt real comfort and happiness being able to celebrate my escape, if temporary, from constant worry.  I can only imagine how my mother, far away in Canada feels.  She has nowhere to escape to.

Our night took us to a small basement bar on a quiet corner in Dotombori, the southern “party area” of Osaka.  When we finally got our drinks we shared stories and couldn’t stop talking.  Stresses, complaints, and arguments tumbled out of our mouths on top of each other in a constant stream, until finally we were distracted by Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” playing on the large flat screen beside us.  We slowly returned to relatively normal, playing darts, making plans for tomorrow, and talking about other things.

We did some serious sleeping in this morning.  I’m pretty sure I felt a tiny earthquake this morning, but it was maybe a magnitude 3 or less.  We’re all getting very good at estimating their strength.

As it turns out, my manager at work has resigned and is flying back to England with his family.  This make my work situation a bigger question than before, but I really can’t blame him.  Things will hopefully carry on Monday as before, but without the coordination that he provided.  It might get messy.  Trains going to some of the farther stations outside Tokyo where I sometimes teach are still running only at certain times, as far as I know.  I can’t be bothered to do the research right now.  I don’t even know if they’re having rolling black-outs out there.

For now, I’m safe and happy to be away – glad I made this choice.  It looks like things are maybe getting better at the reactors, and hopefully they do.

Time to head out again and do some normal stuff.

March 17th in Tokyo

I’m currently on a bus heading West to Osaka, 11:00am.
With all the conflicting international news reports, everpresent possibility of another quake, and not least my stress levels, I’ve decided it’s best to get out for a while and, as one of my good friends said, “decompress”.
I wish I had some spare blankets, gas, water or cash to send to those North-East, but I don’t. If you do, please consider it. I just read that even though they had survived the quake and tsunami, some people died last night from cold, lack of food or water… I don’t know. Sad.
I’ve also read a lot of comments here and there, especially from a compilation of translated Twitter posts that a Facebook user (http://www.facebook.com/notes/jun-shiomitsu/japan-quake-as-seen-from-twitter-translated-by-me-so-quality-questionable/10150121176733830) has put up, about kindness to strangers, orderly conduct and general warm cooperation in Tokyo and surrounding areas.
I must say that I’m not at all surprised.
One of my favourite things about Japanese society is their ability to behave well in large groups. I suppose it may look boring to see a concert in Tokyo where everyone is just standing and waving their arms as opposed to jumping around in a mosh-pit or whatever. But what that translates to is peace on the streets when, for example, 200,000 people are walking home from fireworks, respect for other people’s space and, now, millions of people not shoving, not looting, not panicking, making way for others, not honking their horns, being polite!!, being approachable!!, offering free food and drinks to cold pedestrians and everyone asking if everyone else is okay.
Japan rocks!
There is a maturity in this society that is sometimes sorely lacking in the West. This extends to media and politics, arguably of course. And though us Westerners might (justifiably?) agonize over less than inspiring levels of creativity/imagination, political involvement, and independent action, what they have is still a remarkable feat. And enviable.
From all the discussion of the differences that exist between East and West because of “group” versus “independent” behaviour, there emerges an independent dignity and power from behaving in this “group” way that I am not sure can happen in reverse. When I come back to Canada, I hope I can bring some of this with me.
Either way, I’m on a bus fleeing the probibilities and can’t be consumed by media or bothered with significant thoughts of the future, Mt. Fuji majestically piercing the clouds just behind me, like a guardian between here and there, and have clearly entered a sombre phase of whatever kind of “recovery” I’m in.
LOL… And going to a DJ party tonight in Osaka!

March 16th in Tokyo

Information keeps coming in from all over.  The quickly changing situation is not helping anyone’s stress-levels here, but we’re mostly managing just fine… so far.

Last night’s earthquake near Mt. Fuji shook Tokyo enough to make my girlfriend and I grab our emergency backpacks and go outside.  We felt a little absurd standing outside after it died down – her in her pajamas and me in still wearing my slippers – but better safe than sorry.

Another quake today gave us all the jitters again, reminding us that this is not over.  It really is exhausting sitting around waiting.  Planning to go for a walk and watch a movie at home tonight, hopefully giving our worried brains a rest.

I’ve had a few more friends leave Japan, or buy tickets to leave tomorrow.  Some others have fled west.  We’re thinking of leaving Tokyo for Kobe tomorrow night, or sooner if we can, by bus.  A quick check for a return flight from Japan to Canada revealed the price had tripled to around U.S. $6500.00.  One way was available for a decent price, then not, then expedia gave me an error.  It seems that the airlines may be doing their best to make a killing off the chaos.  $2500.00 for a one-way flight, economy class, on Thursday?  Gimme a break.  Why don’t they just sell them all and be done with it?

Just getting to the airport may be difficult.  At least one of the usual 2 airport trains, the Narita Express, is not running.  However, I could be wrong.

To be honest I feel that the situation will, err, blow over (sorry), and am doing my best not to overreact.  But just when I think things are getting back to normal, we have another aftershock or they give us news about white smoke, explosions, or radioactive steam.  I didn’t even know there were more than 4 reactors until the 5th one developed some problem this morning.

People have continued to buy food and other resources madly, leaving convenience-store and supermarket shelves empty.  I’m assuming that if I go early enough I might be able to find things I need, but the Japanese house-wife is a formidable shopping machine so I also have my doubts.

Anyway that’s all for today, I have to take a breather and chill out.

March 15th in Tokyo

Things continue to be tense for all of us here in Tokyo, but without a TV or internet connection, it could seem like a completely normal day.

Staying calm and using as little electricity as possible seem to be the best ways to help at this time.  Getting accurate information, as opposed to the gossip or rumor that has circulated to a degree in the Japanese social info-sphere, is important too.

At the top of everyone’s “shimpai” (worry) list is the nuclear situation continuing to develop out east.  I know at least 2 people who have already left Tokyo for cities farther west, and a few people who are flying out of Japan tomorrow.  I’ve decided to stay for now, hoping the situation improves or at least doesn’t get worse, though that could all change at the drop of a hat.

One of the defining documents, at least for me, about the status and possibilities at the reactors has been this one: Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation

Clear, accurate, live or up-to-date information is a little difficult to find in English.  NHK World English is the counterpart to live Japanese news releases, but I must say that the announcements being made are somewhat cryptic at times.  I would be happier if they would get to the point and describe possible worst-case scenarios and the dangers associated with them, to us.

What is the exact state of each reactor and it’s steel casing?  Are they cooling?  Are workers still able to pump water into the reactors at this time?  Not having clear, real-time information about these important points is frustrating.  New information will be announced at 5:00pm, 1.5 hours from now.

JR East trains are operating about 70% of their scheduled trains, so service might patchy and line-ups appear to be quite long.  Farther out, beyond the 23-ward area, service will likely be less reliable.  To what degree, I don’t know.

I spent yesterday alternating between watching TV and reading online, updating my emergency backpacks, and an unsuccessful mission to a few of the nearest supermarkets and convenience stores, “conbini’s”, looking for toilet paper (I still have stock) and bread.  The supermarkets and convenience stores are out of meat and fish, bread, and tissues and toilet paper.  In general though, most other foods have not yet become scarce or hard to come by.  However, I haven’t been shopping yet today, so we’ll see if that remains the case.

We had 2 or 3 small earthquakes yesterday after my first post here, one at 1:30am just when I was getting ready to go to bed.  Each time I grabbed my backpack and stood by the door, ready to go.  Apparently we also had one while I was sleeping.  None that I’m aware of since waking up.

Annoyingly, regular renovation on the school next-door’s field and building has continued, and their use of heavy, earth-moving equipment actually shakes my apartment.  At times I don’t know if it’s them, or another earthquake.

After the short-term worries, we’re all wondering about the longer-term repercussions on our individual lives.  Work is canceled this week, but what about next?  Nobody knows for sure yet what measures need to be taken to ensure the safety of schools, office buildings, rail lines, and so on.  If the students aren’t going to school, will they come to my English class?  Some of my schools are far away; can I get there and get back in a reasonable commuting time?  Will the rotating blackouts affect some of those areas?  Teaching in the dark isn’t really an option.

As for all the markets today, it seems to me another symptom of our dysfunctional economic system.  Viewed as a global community, it doesn’t make any sense to deprive the economies and communities of an affected region immediately after a disaster.  It’s like visiting the hospital to collect blood from all the patients for use elsewhere.

That’s all for now.  I will try to update again tomorrow.

Off for a much needed shower and shave!

*Update*: Just went shopping for a few things and found many of the shelves empty.  I took some photos and will try to upload soon.

*Update 2*: Japanese Cabinet Minister has said, to paraphrase, “We have enough food.  Slow down.”  No doubt worried about the vicious circle that could create.

Life in Tokyo: From the quake ’til 3/14

Where to start?

Life over the last few days in Tokyo has been very unpredictable to say the least.
Everyone is watching t.v. for live updates about the status of nuclear reactors, stressing about what might happen. Work has been canceled for the next week for most teachers I know. I was woken up from a much needed sleep-in session by yet another quake this morning at around 10:20am, followed by news of an explosion at reactor #3.

Obviously, the damage out east is unbelievable. I’ve seen so many videos of houses, cars and ships floating through towns being destroyed that it’s clear things can’t return to anything near normal for weeks, if not months. How to begin to clean up at all is a big question.

Some of us are just beginning to worry about economic repercussions, but being in Tokyo, we’re still mostly on the edge of our seats hoping another big one doesn’t hit.
As has been reported by many news agencies, there is a 70% chance of another quake measuring M7.0 or more in the next few days. I’m hoping the one this morning was that one.

On 3/11 at the time of the initial quake, I was stepping onto a Yamanote line train, the main line in Tokyo ringing the central city. I had avoided a lady with suitcase in front of me and was off-balance, so didn’t understand at first that things were shaking too. It didn’t take long to realize what was going on, but of course nobody thought it was going to progress into the size quake that it did.

And then we shook for 5 minutes. Pretty hard.

Most people around me were holding onto a railing or anything stable, I took a video with my iPhone at around the 1-minute mark which I”ll try to upload later.

It was around that time that we started realizing that phone and 3G services were out.  Nearly everyone was on the phone or texting someone.  I tried to call my girlfriend and her mother, but my phone just beeped and said “Call Failed”.  Surprisingly, I could still get web-pages and checked the Japan meteorological agency’s site for news about the quake.  I don’t remember what I read there as the quake continued to shake.

Everyone was ordered off the train and they announced that train service was canceled for the rest of the day.

I stayed on the platform for the first 10-15 minutes.  The shaking wasn’t scary, but clearly pretty serious and not like the usual smaller quakes we get.  The whole station was shaking lightly, signs and train and power cables visibly swaying and rattling.  After the main shaking had stopped, I ventured down into the station proper, looking around for information.

That’s when the first aftershock hit, which was a very strange sensation as that section of the station has no windows or view to the outside, and as everything is screwed to the walls or the floor, nothing was moving but the rolling motion was clearly a wave.  Like being on a small boat after a big one has gone past and going over the wake.

I took videos on and off for the next 3 hours while standing around in Shinjuku and later just walking home. My footage is not surprisingly unremarkable compared to what I’ve seen. Some other cell-phone videos I’ve seen have shown the central sky-scrapers swaying quite dramatically in relation to one another.

I didn’t realize the magnitude of the disaster until I had walked down the street and could see one of the big-screens in the downtown. It was then that I saw live coverage of the tsunami sweeping over farmland and destroying greenhouses and taking tractors and everything with it – fast.  I realized my girlfriend was not at work like a normal day and had actually gone on a tour of a customer’s greenhouse, and I didn’t know where. I think that’s when I actually started to get worried.  I guess it starts to get personal at a different time for everyone.

I’ve had so many friends e-mail me and comment on Facebook asking if I’m okay and saying they’re thinking of me, which is really quite touching.

I started walking home to Ogikubo from where I was in Shinjuku, about a 1 and 1/2 hour walk.  I’m lucky, some people were too far away from home to get back, without train services or a car.  Traffic was very slow anyway.  Firetrucks and ambulances were going by into central Shinjuku, business people were standing on the sidewalks, some of them going back into their buildings already.

I decided to cut through Asagaya, where quite a few of my friends live and ended up running into a friend at a convenience store.  We got some drinks and food and headed to his place a block away to watch the news with some of his other friends.  I finally hear from my girlfriend through a sputtering of e-mail and 3G messages.  Relieved, I stayed there for another few hours, until 9:30pm, the whole time being hit by aftershocks measuring 4.0-6.5 by the television’s reports.  Once his friend’s cell-phone and the t.v. bleeped an alarm/warning sound I’ve never heard before and we all ran down the stairs into the street.  Frightening!

I finally took off to go home but stopped by a local pub where I connected with 6-7 other friends.  We shared drinks and stories and laughed, letting out some stress and trying to relax.

I finally made it home at 12:00 or so.  My apartment suffered almost no damage at all, even relative to some of my Tokyo friends’ apartments.

Since then I’ve packed emergency backpacks for both my girlfriend and I.  We spent yesterday finding food for a few days, maybe enough for a week.  A lot of staples were sold out or almost sold out when we arrived.  We were lucky to get rice, eggs and milk.  Though no bread.  We have some apples and cookies already, and a few other things that could be scraped together for a “meal” if necessary.  One of my Tokyo friends recently posted on Facebook that he witnessed 4 old ladies fighting over the last pack of toilet paper in a supermarket!

We spent the day watching the t.v. like everyone else I think.  I had sent an e-mail to my parents almost immediately after the quake.  We have since Skyped a few times to talk about the whole ordeal.  They encouraged me to start this blog.

Like anyone reading this I think, we’ve been shocked by the extent of the damage and the unbelievable footage coming out of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures especially.  The death toll keeps climbing.

I just want to post this and take a break.  I’ll update later.