Ever since visiting the Kyoto region and winning big in Pachinko I’d longed to return to Japan and experience the cartoon craziness, rich history, bizarre cultural contradictions and the food once again. And the snow. I’d heard so much about the snow in the Japanese Alps and the north of Japan. The deepest powder you’ll ever see, I was told. But my mate Brad proposed a trip there at a time I was weary from travel and enjoying the southern hemisphere summer in Australia. “Come on, it’ll be epic,” he promised. He was right, as it turns out, and for reasons other than just the awesome snowboarding. I had never been to Tokyo before, other than some short transits through Narita airport on my way to Europe, so we decided that we’d fly out of the north island of Hokkaido for the last few days of the trip and spend a few days partying and exploring in Tokyo. As it happened, on my first day in Tokyo I experienced an earthquake for the first time. And it was a doozy- at 9.0 on the Richter scale, the 2011 Tohoku quake was the most powerful to ever hit Japan.
On March 11 2011 at 2:45 in the afternoon my mate Brad and I were on a train on the Yurikamome line in Tokyo which had just pulled into Shiodome station. We’d arrived in Tokyo the night before. We’d spent the day in the Odaiba area near the harbour, we’d walked across the Rainbow Bridge and the beach on the other side and we’d gone to Mega Net, a big Toyota showroom with historical car museum. Now we were on our way to meet our other travelling companion Matt (another Matt) who had spent the morning at an industry trade show. As the train pulled up and stopped at a station, the doors opened and I noticed that the train was bouncing gently up and down. I thought this was a bit strange, but I looked around at the Japanese businessmen across from me and they looked slightly concerned, but still calm. Japanese people do not stress very easily! Brad would later tell me that he thought it was a really fat person getting off the train, which I thought was pretty funny. I just thought the driver was pumping the brakes for some reason, like you might do in your car sitting at the lights. When the bouncing got slightly worse, I wondered “what is this driver doing?” As the first few people began to jump off the train I started thinking “Oh my god there’s something wrong with this train, a malfunction or something, I’m getting off”. Brad was standing right near the door and got out before me and when I jumped up, even all the super calm Japanese businessmen jumped up and bolted off the train as it really started to rock violently back and forth.
“What the Hell is Going On?”
I wrapped my camera bag around my shoulders, feeling strangely guilty that I had taken all my possessions with me. To my shock, the platform began moving back and forth. Meanwhile the train was being smashed violently against the platform and the far wall and I was so relieved to not be one of the poor people still aboard. With the platform moving back and forth as well, I realised something was badly wrong, but being from Australia, far from any tectonic fault lines and where the ground can always be depended on to be solid, I still couldn’t quite believe what my brain was telling me. “What the hell is going on?” I yelled over the racket to Brad, who replied, “I don’t know, an earthquake I guess!” An earthquake! I think there was somebody yelling stuff through the station PA system, but since we don’t understand Japanese, and because are brains are not calibrated to the sensation of the earth moving like it was the ocean, it took us that long to work out what the hell was happening.
The Yurikomome line is elevated above the ground level and so the platform we were standing on was one storey above ground level. I could see people on the street level looking startled and some people running. My own instinct was to try and get down to street level, but unfortunately the exit to the platform was a long ways down the platform from where we were standing. There was an escalator about 10 metres from us that had been bringing people up from the street level to the platform, and I decided that I even though the escalator was running in the wrong direction I was going to run down it anyway. However at that moment the shaking had become so violent that it was hard to stand up straight, let alone run, and all around me, Japanese people were calmly holding onto anything bolted down and not running anywhere. In fact, Brad had joined about 10 people who were holding onto recycling bins in the centre of the platform, so that’s what I did as well.
Riding Out the Earthquake
I figured that since the roof was triangular, and the recycling bins were directly under the apex of the triangle, that we were reasonably safe should the roof of the station collapse. When I looked up through the glass apex of the roof and noticed that skyscrapers above us were rocking back and forth, I wasn’t so sure however. It was at that point that I realised it was a pretty serious tremor to be moving skyscrapers around like that. The whole time the quake went on I was thinking calmly and rationally and in slow motion. And my adrenaline was really going, in fact it was one of the biggest rushes I’ve ever experienced. I had this memory in the back of my head that earthquakes rarely last more than 45 seconds, having seen the news and spoken to people from California and such places, so I kept thinking, “it’s nearly done, it’s nearly done”. And then sure enough, it got less violent, and then it was over.
As we evacuated the station, we looked up and saw skyscrapers all around swaying like trees in the breeze. This went on for maybe 10 minutes after the quake. So our first thought was just to walk somewhere where a skyscraper wasn’t going to fall on us. Very quickly, the sky was full of helicopters. In the end, we followed our train line to Shimbashi station, the huge JR station we had been heading for. We figured the trains there would still be running. They weren’t, and thousands of people had been evacuated onto the carparks and open areas outside the station. Just as we got there, about 20 minutes after the main quake, an aftershock hit (it was a 7 magnitude, we found out later), and the ground started swaying again. A 4 storey building quite close to us had a big VISA billboard on it, and the billboard was lurching like it was going to fall off the roof. People scrambled to get away from this building, but I noticed a guy sitting up in one of the windows of the building just sitting there like it was a normal day. A TV tower in the distance bounced back and forth as though it were a 30 cm ruler that somebody had flicked with their finger. I had a real sensation of standing on a boat which was going over waves. I began to feel a queer seasickness, made all the more strange by the fact that we weren’t at sea!
Peak Hour Chaos
Well, all the cars and shops and everything were still operating as normal, so we thought we’d get some lunch and figure out how to get back to our hotel in Shinjuku. This was a mistake, because we could have caught a cab then, but very soon it became peak hour and millions of locals poured onto the streets. Everyone was on their phones, the networks went down, the trains were not running and we saw businessmen fighting over cabs. We were still pretty excited about our first ever earthquake experience and were discussing what magnitude it was. Since nothing appeared damaged, we figured it was about a 4 or a 5. When we went back to Shimbashi station after eating, we noticed many people gathered around a TV screen, and when we went to have a look, we were stunned to see huge tsunami waves approaching the coastline filmed from a helicopter. There was also a number “8.4″ surrounded by Japanese characters, which we realised was the actual quake magnitude (this was later corrected to 9.0). Hoping that she spoke some English, I asked the young girl close to us where the footage was taken. She replied “Tsunami”. I said “yes, where?” Then she showed me on her phone and it was a hundred (or a couple hundred, I can’t remember) kilometres north of Tokyo. Suddenly, I realised we were still close to the port, and we noticed that everybody was walking inland. So we joined the crowd.
We saw cracks in buildings, we saw one building that had lost all its glass, and we saw billboard spotlights that had crashed into the street. But the lack of any major earthquake damage was astonishing. I suspect that if the quake had hit closer to town, that much of the city would have dropped, particularly the low level brick buildings. But it is a testament to Japanese building standards and technology that the whole city could shake and sway like that but remain standing.
My phone was filled with text messages from concerned family and friends in Australia, but although I seemed to be able to receive messages I found that I couldn’t send any as the networks were jammed. This was agonising as I was unable to let my worried mother know that I was alright. Meanwhile, there were no cabs, no buses. On and on we walked, for hours, guided by the compass on my iPhone, since we had absolutely no idea where we were. My ankles and knees, all strained from 2 weeks of snowboarding, were burning. I received texts from family members and friends back home, but could barely reply to any of them because of the jammed networks. We got a text from Matt saying he was back at the hotel and asking where we were. After 4 hours of walking, we finally arrived back there at about 8 pm, to a lobby full of people. The elevators were out so we walked up 13 flights of stairs to our room. The stairwell was cracked from the earthquake and bits of paint and plaster lay everywhere. In our room, the kitchen was full of things that had fallen over and drawers that had come out and a speaker lay on the floor in the loungeroom. There was no sign of Matt and it was spooky. We had been in the room about 30 seconds when another aftershock hit, so despite being barely able to stand up on my sore ankles, we bolted back down 13 flights of stairs again, the building lurching.
It turned out Matt was in the lobby with his laptop in the restaurant, watching TV news on the earthquake with a bunch of other travellers. Where the mobile networks had failed, we found that the hotel internet worked great and I started posting updates on Facebook. The lobby was filled with tourists too scared to take the elevator up to their rooms. One group were performers from Cirque du Soleil, and people were clearly freaked out. The apocalyptic scenes of tsunami destruction and wrecked nuclear power plants on the TV certainly didn’t calm anyone’s nerves. But the trains and airports were all closed and we knew we weren’t going anywhere for a while. Meanwhile, it was freezing cold outside and sleeping outdoors was not an option. So, we went out and got some sushi, drank some beer and saki, and then braved the 13 flights up to our room to sleep fully clothed, ready for a panicked evacuation we feared would come at any time.
Sleep is not really the right word, because there was very little of it. Everytime I drifted off, a real aftershock or a dreamt one woke me. At 3 am, a huge aftershock made the building grind back and forth. It is a horrible sensation to hear the sound of concrete under stress all around you and to see solid walls jerking, knowing that you are 13 floors up in the air. I picked up an emergency bag containing my passport and asthma meds and made a beeline for the emergency stairs.
“No,” said Matt, “we stay.”
“Really?” I asked, pausing just long enough for the shaking to get stronger. At that point I lost my nerve and ran down the stairs to the lobby on my own. Part way down, on about the 6th floor, I stopped to see if the building was still shaking. It was, and I could see the walls of the stairwell moving and could hear cracking. So I kept running. But after spending half an hour in the lobby, I decided I had to return to the room. I found that one of the elevators was going again. My ankles on fire from snowboarding, walking 4 hours and running down flights of stairs, I decided to take the lift up.
“Is the building safe?” I asked the guy on reception as I got in the lift.
“Cannot guarantee!” he replied enthusiastically. “Good luck!” The elevator made it to the 13th floor uneventfully. I found Brad and Matt wide awake with the TV going, laughing at me for my cowardice in escaping the room.
A New Day
It is quite something to wake up on a Saturday morning with the sun shining, knowing that you have survived the night. We still had one more night to go before our scheduled flight to Sydney on Sunday, which looked like it would happen as the airports and trains were now reopening. Tokyo was very much business as usual that Saturday, it was pleasant on street level knowing we could run for an open space when the aftershocks happened, and we started to get used to the whole “unstable ground” thing.
We even went out clubbing on Saturday night in Rappongi, the alcohol happily dulling our paranoia. There was no sweeter feeling than waking up with the sun shining on Sunday morning, jumping out of bed to an aftershock, hungover but happy that we had a day of sightseeing before flying home. The whole Fukushima nuclear power plant radiation issue was not exactly comforting, and despite the claims from the government that the plant was safe, a feeling that this was going to get worse before it got much better reaffirmed my enthusiasm for leaving that night. In the airport throngs of people crowded the ticket counters, desperate to leave the country. We strolled past with tickets pre-booked weeks earlier. We were lucky in many ways during this experience and could have had things much, much, worse.
I will always remember my Japanese earthquake experience and the lovely Japanese people who remained calm and at their posts to serve travellers throughout. I know that quite possibly many of these people had relatives who had been affected, or they worried about the days. I hope that they were able to pick up the pieces and recover. You can help by donating to the Japanese Red Cross Society 2011 earthquake relief fund.