Last year around this time I was traveling on a train from downtown Tokyo to Narita airport. I had based myself in Hong Kong and had travelled to Tokyo on an overnight business visit. Suddenly the train started bucking on the tracks and swayed alarmingly at a corner, threatening to derail. We slowed to a complete stop. The now stationary train continued to sway from side to side. Earthquake!
I looked outside to see power lines swaying. I could see the multi level collapsible metal structures used to park cars shaking, the cars bouncing on their springs. Inside the rail car everyone was calm. The mostly Japanese travelers looked up from their newspapers, clocked that it was an earthquake and went back to reading. A few commuters pulled out their TV phones, a piece of technological wizardry that hasn’t made it to the West yet. I could overhear a Japanese man translating the news reports to his American girlfriend. I heard the word “tsunami” and walked over to watch over his shoulder. The images I saw in real-time were devastating and would dominate the world’s TV screens for weeks to come. Almost 20,000 people were killed and a nuclear catastrophe was narrowly averted.
As the enormity of what was happening began to sink in I shot off emails, Facebook and Twitter updates before the networks jammed. A colleague got through on the phone from London and was able to calm friends and family back home. Half a dozen of my work colleagues from London were stranded somewhere in Tokyo.
45 minutes later step ladders were procured and we were allowed onto the tracks. We walked along them to the next train station. I only had a small valise but many had large suitcases they were struggling with. As I lent others a hand I got into conversation with Nobutaro “Nobu” Ban, a doctor from Nagoya who was also helping people with their luggage. It is difficult to get by in Japan without speaking Japanese and I was glad to have an English-speaking companion. We figured that the airport would be closed and chaotic so decided instead to head for Tokyo. All trains had stopped running and the motorways which are mostly elevated had been damaged and closed for safety reasons. We hitchhiked for a while but traffic was barely moving. We finally decided to walk to Funabashi, a nearby town with several hotels.
All the hotels in Funabashi were booked solid, but had opened their lobbies and any public areas to the mass of displaced people thronging the streets. Food, drink and phone chargers were being handed out. We added our names to a waiting list and went out for dinner and a drink. Japanese beer had never tasted better as Nobu and I finally relaxed. Nobu had spent some years of his medical residency in the US and was keen to return the hospitality he was shown many years before. He picked up our dinner tab. I discovered later that he also paid for my hotel room when it finally became available.
I slept fully clothed that night. Over a hundred after shocks were recorded in the days following the earthquake and our hotel was evacuated several times. I got used to the eery sound of doors flexing against their frames as the building bucked and moved with the vibrations. The next day I walked, hitchhiked, found taxis and eventually made it back to Tokyo and was reunited with the rest of my team. Like all true Brits (not forgetting the Irishman amongst them) they had weathered the earthquake with stiff upper lips – returning to their recently evacuated high-rise to finish a presentation and then walking some two and half hours back to their hotel. With grit and Bacchanalian elan they had spent the entire night (one of several before we finally made it out) drinking in a karaoke bar.
I was glad to leave Japan that time. I have been back since however, and plan to visit many more times. The Japanese people showed true grace under pressure. To me and my friends they were gracious and caring hosts, worrying about our safety and our comfort. To each other they showed respect and sacrifice. There was no looting and violence. People in Japan didn’t go feral the way they did after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. This was a nation that was saddened, but unbroken and sure of its values.
Nobu and I have stayed in touch. We have met and broken bread since, in happier circumstances. His country has a lot to offer – and some superb drinking traditions which I will cover anon. For now I just want to say thank you to him and to all my Japanese friends and wish them and their families well as their country recovers.
Japanese Red Cross – the stories one year on from the earthquake
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