Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The whole story

So here's the blow by blow account of our uniquely unique experiences (well, us and about 60m others, that is) of what it's like to be a couple of hundred km from a major disaster. No prizes for getting to the end of it, I'm sorry to say.

Jules and I had both been in Tsukuba for another workshop, but she had left promptly to go and visit a friend in Tokyo for the afternoon whereas I stayed for a leisurely lunch at my favourite Tsukuba restaurant, "TonQ", and had just started off, planning to leave Hugo and Niel at their respective hotels on my way home to Kamakura. We were just a few minutes outside Tsukuba when the earthquake struck. The first we knew was that the train started braking quite hard and announced that it was emergency braking. The train was swaying from side to side, so I initially wondered if there was a problem with the track, but the bouncing around got worse as we slowed and kept on after we stopped at which point the penny dropped. We had felt the 7.2 earthquake a couple of days before during the workshop, and had had a couple of large aftershocks in the night, so it wasn't too much out of the ordinary. I did wonder if the train was going to topple over sideways, and then I realised that the whole line was high up on stilts and that it might sting a bit if the whole shebang collapsed. But of course that was never on the cards really. We sat there for a while, and there were lots of aftershocks, which seemed a bit unusual, but we didn't really have any idea how big it was, though it was enough to shake clouds of pollen from the sugi trees (small scale re-enactment here). I assumed it was just another minor aftershock of the previous biggy, but exaggerated by our location. However I now think with hindsight the suspension of the train and viaduct probably made it less violent than for those on solid ground. We could hear some of the aftershocks coming towards us before they hit, which was a little eerie, and one of them was almost as big as the first one. The train staff were great with regular messages (not that they really conveyed much info, just that there had been an earthquake and please be patient, but compared to British Rail...) and they also came through the carriage to make sure we were all ok. After about an hour and a half of sitting there, we were evacuated out of the front of the train and walked along the track to the next station (about 1km), where we got out.

We could see the odd bit of damage - some small bolts pulled out of the concrete, but nothing too dramatic or structural. Thanks to Niel's phone, I sent jules and some others a quick email at 5:30 to say I was stuck (and got an email saying she was fine, and was slightly surprised to get emails from the UK enquiring about my safety...). The station was a windswept and desolate place with not much in the way of facilities, I had brief fantasies about a fleet of buses arriving to save the day but instead we were walked in convoy (by the train staff) in the rapidly fading light to the nearest evacuation centre, which was a primary school in the local village. There wasn't much info and I wasn't at all sure what was going on, but by now we had discovered it had been a massive distant earthquake and not just a modest local one.

At the school we sat around in a draughty room, someone brought some green tea and there was a TV which I looked briefly at, but I was more interested in my evening's prospects for food and bed than the news really. There was no food for us at the school, and there was talk of a local business hotel which I pricked up my ears at, but no-one was moving and I wasn't at all sure what was going on. So I asked the train staff directly, and they said they were still trying to check if the hotel could take us. We also worked out (thanks to Niel's phone yet again) that we were actually within walking distance (6km) of Tsukuba, so tried to phone the hotel we had just been staying at....but the lines were busy/down, even for land lines. At this point I finally realised that the lack of info was not due to my own linguistic limitations, but rather that there really was no info to be had! It was actually quite reassuring to find everyone else was in the same boat.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, jules had enjoyed a comfortable earthquake in a one year old building built to the highest earthquake standards. Apparently built on some sort of sliding mechanism, the building feels very sensitive to minor quakes, but in a biggish one, slides beautifully smoothly. Nothing at all slid around inside the building. Not even a book, or a cup... Her biggest personal challenge was trying to cope with the worry of her friends, who, being more nuts-and-berries than sciencey types, tend towards free outward expression of their plentiful emotions. In this relatively secure environment, jules recognised it as a similar slow feeling kind of quake to the one two days previously, suggesting it might have come from about the same place. However, now located further south in Tokyo, she guessed it was a bigger magnitude. Of course, this realisation just made the panic of her friends seem worse, as it was clear that they were all perfectly safe while others elsewhere were probably not. After the earthquake Widney performed spectacularly, and jules soon had information on the quake size and was replying to emails from family, to say she was fine, while I was surely not expected to be heard from for a while thanks to being on the train with no internet access. Mobile phone and land lines were close to useless, but people posted their status on Facebook and the like. The power of Facebook was now clear: one update - "not dead yet" - and you're done! Must sign up to that thing for next time. Jules being jules she had no clean knickers or toothbrush, but did have the power charger to keep Widney running all night and also a cable to keep everyone's iphones powered. Luckily there were no power-cuts. Everyone waited in the nice new building until all their group had met up or been accounted for (some had been en route), and then the six of them left for her friend Sarah's house (which was close by) around 6pm.

Back in the primary school in the middle of nowhere, when we realised that no-one present knew much more than we did and that the cavalry was probably not coming to our immediate rescue, we decided just to set off to Tsukuba on foot. We reasoned that a big town with many hotels and restaurants was probably a better bet than small village with nothing, plus I know people who work and live around there so we reasoned we might find some more support. It was hard work to convince the head honcho that us three gaijin should just head off by ourselves into the night. "It's dark! Dangerous! You'll get lost" etc etc but anyone who's lived in Japan for any length of time will be quite used to hearing that sort of stuff every time they fail to follow the set routine in the approved manner. It was about 6km pretty much straight along a main road, mostly lit (it was a clear moonlit night too) and with a decent pavement, so was not actually a serious challenge. It also felt much better doing something rather than just waiting around aimlessly. Apart from some bits of roof tiling lying around, there wasn't much sign of physical damage, so I don't think I really believe the JMA estimate that we had an upper 6 level on their scale (Tsukuba is somewhere towards the SW edge of the lowest red section below):

That rating is suppose to mean it is impossible to stand and many houses collapse, but there was certainly no sign of the latter. Lower 5 might have been more realistic. Most of the restaurants and shops on the road were shut, however. Those that were open seemed to have big queues outside.

We came into Tsukuba straight past TonQ on the way to the hotel, and were pleased to see it was open and doing a roaring trade. The hotel and immediate surroundings had suffered a power failure and lots of workshop attendees were camped out in the lobby and restaurant. Initially the hotel staff seemed pretty off-putting, they first asked me what room I had stayed in the previous night, before telling me they were full anyway?! Then they showed us a map of other hotels we could try. It was about 21:30 by now, and we were quite prepared to sleep on someone else's floor anyway, so we were not really tempted to head off randomly into the night again on the slender chance of finding empty rooms. We met Andy who did have a room and who said we could use his floor if necessary, so we went back to TonQ with him for our second hearty tonkatsu meal of the day before returning for the night. While waiting for a table at TonQ we did wander around and try a couple of hotels which were also full of refugees and suffering power failures, and I also made use of the wifi at a (closed) McD to let jules know what we were up to. So we were happy to return to Okura Frontier Hotel Tsukuba (where do they get these names from?) by which time the lobby was full of people lying around rolled up in bedding, rather like the inside of a yamagoya (eg). It seems that many people were not prepared to go up to their rooms as they were a bit freaked out by the aftershocks which were amplified by height. Even Andy said he preferred to stay downstairs. We were not so squeamish and shared his room between the three of us, which was pretty comfortable, at least for the lucky one who got the bed :-) We were on the 4th floor and had aftershocks about every 10 mins, so with that and the snoring I didn't actually get much sleep, but it was good to lie down for a few hours.

Back in Tokyo, jules was having the novel experience of helping to cook dinner for 7 people. She doesn't normally cook, but the horror of the non-stop disaster porn on the TV drove her into the kitchen. Fortunately, Sarah had a huge amount of food in, as her husband had recently visited a place called Costco, which are places like shops but they sell food in unusually large packages and can only be found in Japan by Americans. Soon they were all feasting on ham and stir-fry, bread, salad, rice and red wine. They also fed Mike, the stranded husband of a friend, who works nearby and was unable to get home as all the trains were stopped. Now it it clearer why it's important to stock generously for emergencies. It is not just for us, but for others. In an earthquake, we all swap families, and it is hard to know in advance how many visitors you will get. Two of Sarah's children were with other children's parents, as children in the schools were only allowed to travel walking distance to a home for the night. Mike's wife over on the other side of Tokyo was being Ma for a large number of children from a local school. After dinner the friends returned with food to the very new building that is also Sarah's workplace, which in a strange twist of fate contained some stranded UNHCR workers. As well as food, it was possible to provide sleeping space and bedding for them, since the anticipated guests in an apartment in Sarah's workplace were stranded at Narita Airport. jules didn't sleep very well due to aftershocks, interspersed by surprisingly frequent ambulance sirens. Only the next day did she learn from Sarah that the latter was usual, as a major hospital is located nearby!

In Tsukuba, Andy came upstairs at 6am the next day and told us that the power had come back up and the restaurant was operational! First stop was the internet for email and news, and Niel was by now being phoned up every few minutes by the BBC desperate for some on the spot reporting. I must admit we egged him on a bit. It got a bit much when the researcher asked Niel if he knew where his next meal was coming from and he said we were thinking of walking downstairs to the restaurant! I don't think that was live, more's the pity. Pancake breakfasts gave the day a rosier hue. We also found the conference wifi was accessible from outside the building, and started to investigate options for getting home.

We heard that some trains were starting to run again, but the details were sketchy, mostly coming from jules who was busily searching the internet for updates. The Japanese in the hotel lobby were glued to a TV of apocalyptic images but it didn't seem to be doing them much good so we amused ourselves by wandering round an eerily quiet Tsukuba centre. The station was of course closed, and there was only perhaps one long-distance bus service running with a huge queue of people waiting for it. There wasn't any major signs of damage, but the main shopping centres were closed (including our intended destination of Starbucks) and on closer inspection there were bits broken. Nothing really structural, just things like ceiling panels and broken glass, and tables with hastily abandoned meals.

One supermarket was open and doing a roaring trade, it had even run out of fresh baked goods.

But all the other shelves had plenty of food.

Around 12, we were very kindly given a lift in someone's car all the way to Toride station, which was as far north as the Joban line was operating. The station area was packed with lengthy queues, but we soon worked out that these were all people on their way out of Tokyo (having been stuck at work on Friday night) and were waiting to get buses and taxis home. We didn't have to wait long for a train towards Tokyo (Ueno station) which was not too full, but saw that the trains coming the other way were absolutely stuffed. At Ueno, I pointed Hugo off in the direction of his hotel (Asakusa, which was walking distance) and Niel and I continued south on the Keihin-Tohoku line. This was running very slow, so we changed to the Tokaido line at Shinagawa. On the platform, I used the local Narita Express mobile wifi hotspot to tell jules what was going on and to let her know it was safe to leave her sanctuary and come home.

After breakfast in Tokyo, onigiri (rice balls containing nasty surprises) were made and taken to the UNHCR for breakfast. Then jules discovered the power of Twitter! The trains were slowly starting up again, but the official websites were no use and the only reliable information was live updates from passengers on Twitter. So she sent information to me on which lines were running, as well as plotting workable courses home for all those staying with Sarah; they had all left by around 1pm. Then Sarah's children returned followed by her husband. Then my texts arrived saying I'd got to Shinagawa, and jules left the house just as the couple who had been stranded at Narita Airport arrived. jules' course home was fine. The trains ran fast, there just were not may of them. Finally we met in Ofuna station, and wandered back through peaceful Kamakura sharing adventures.

Kamakura was very quiet, so, to continue our newly inspired charity and generosity of spirit (don't worry I'm sure it won't last), on the way back from Starbucks the following morning (Sunday) we were moved to feed the poor hungry ducks and pigeons at Hachimangu - hungry because usually the tourists feed them, and today there are almost no tourists.


There is no sign of any visible impact in Kamakura. Lights and stock are a bit low in the supermarkets, but at least the comfortably-off people of Kamakura are panic-buying in style. Yes, those are bottles of Perrier!

Are there lessons to be learnt? Well, it is very rare that we are both away from home and in different places, and this made communication a little difficult. But it's not worth getting mobile phones for. In fact the internet was far more useful than telephones of either land or mobile variety, and kept working reliably throughout the event, though some pages (eg train companies) were hard to access and not very useful. The number of wifi spots make a passable alternative to a truly mobile connection - we can use mobilepoint in every McD and Becks cafe in the country, for example. And most importantly, don't panic! The communication and transport snarl-up probably caught up two orders of magnitude more people than those who were under any sort of real physical danger, so a lack of contact is nothing to worry about. The speed with which things returned to near-normality was amazing (only outside of the directly impacted area, of course - I don't mean to minimise the ongoing suffering). We found it very encouraging and impressive how quickly and smoothly everything happened, considering the scale of the problems.


Anonymous said...

Apologies if this has been asked before, but what is it with the Japanese and surgical masks? I'd presumed it was nuclear paranoia, but note that in the photo of the train there's a chap with a mask on (before the situation was really apparent).

Thanks for an interesting read.

I made it to the end. :)

Chris R.

James Annan said...

Oh, that is an old habit...mostly to do with colds, trying to avoid either getting infected, or infected others, depending who you ask.

There was a run on masks back when we had H1N1 flu but I haven't heard that happening recently. Not that anyone has ever shown they have any effect anywhere, as far as I know.

James Annan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jules said...

On the subject of masks, see a post of mine from January:

There are fewer people wearing them now, I think. I guess the cedar pollen is not so bad now.

James Annan said...

Oh yes I forgot the hay fever - that is probably the biggest reason.

Dallas said...

Thank you for very informative story. Stay safe, warm and keep posting the great photos.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, a great story. Glad that all concerned are well fed!

Anonymous said...

James & Jules,

Thanks for the clarification re masks. Jules - not turning Japanese, just becoming acclimatised.

Needless to say; glad to read that you're both OK.

Louise Pen y Graig said...

Thanks for providing an antidote to the news:)