Dreaming Big in Japan

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A quick pick-me-up

Just after I finished the last post, I was feeling down. I came across this quote, “Please believe in Japan so that we can overcome this crisis and start walking, not the same as before but as a wiser community.” I think this answers my previous question, and it does give me some hope

The little bit of good news we can offer is that the island of Ajishima appears to be doing ok, all things considered. We got word from the island indirectly (from the the main hospital branch in Tochigi Prefecture). The head nurse on the island called the main branch and left a message for Michie that she was still welcome, and much needed, to start working on April 1st, or whenever we could make it there.

We heard that a news report would air last night after 10 pm with a clip about Ajishima. Actually, all it was was a few frames inside a military helicopter and of the passengers it brought along, utilities workers. It was only about three minutes and they showed nothing from the island nor of the people there, although the news crew obviously took time to land first, set up a nice frame and direct the military chopper dramatically in over the hospital. At least they got a good shot!

We also learned from our friends on the island through their blog that the island just got electricity back yesterday, but still no water. Forty or so houses were destroyed, but thankfully they were all uninhabited. One ferry started operations again, but bad weather and an ocean port full of debris have caused many cancellations. Once the ferry started, the military stopped flying supply runs to the island. The people there must still be struggling over two weeks into this disaster. 

Our shipment of (200 cubic feet of) stuff we sent from the US arrives tomorrow at a port south of Tokyo, and will take a week or so to clear customs and get delivered. We thought we would be able to have it shipped to the island directly, even now, although the intermittent ferry schedule would be tough to negotiate. So we are going to have to have it shipped to Michie’s mom’s house. It will all barely fit in Michie's old room, but that will leave us with no living space at all.

We are free to go to the island and start moving in anytime, contingent upon the ferry actually being able to set sail. At this point, though, we do not know when that will happen.

About the only other bright spot we have right now, is the Permaculture Design Course Michie signed us up for. The first class is at the end of April and it goes for a year, with monthly classes, seminars and hands on training. It is in Nagano Prefecture, south of us and east of Tokyo. It will take us well over nine hours to drive there if we rent a car, or a small fortune to take the train. Nothing is cheap in Japan, never has been, except for bean sprouts that sell for about 12 cents a bag! But not now because the supermarket shelves are literally half bare.

There may be plans afoot to raise donations to help the people of Ajishima. My family in the US is looking into this possibility. If it works out, we hope to procure resources here locally that we can then deliver to the people who need it. We want to focus on food and water for the Ajishima islanders first. If we can raise more, then we can extend that help to others. And if we raise even more, then we were thinking along the lines of something more sustainable and long lasting, like materials to build a simple solar/wind energy system or water purifier on the island to help them cope with possible future utility disruptions.

I will keep you all posted on the progress of this possible fund raiser.

In the meantime here is a link to an article my step mom helped get into the Lansing State Journal about our experiences thus far.

Thank you all for your support!!!

Wait and See

(Many thanks to all those who have sent us well wishes and encouragement. It means a great deal to Michie and me, and to the other folks in Japan with whom we have shared them.)

I have been guilty of doing something I really cannot stand, and that is emulating a debilitating penchant the Japanese display to just “wait and see.” I haven’t known what to say or write, and in many cases, what to do, for the past week, because I do not know what is going on...

About five years ago I was driving through the mountainous passes between the coastal town of Kuji, where I taught English, and Morioka, the prefectural capital. My passenger was a fellow English teacher from Scotland. We had passed through several kilometer-long tunnels, popped out of one and headed into another on our way to a gathering of English teachers and adult beverages. As we approached the tunnel exit at about 80 km/h, I noticed a set of brake lights ahead, though they were stacked vertically instead of horizontally. I slowed down and ended up stopping behind the car in front of us. Over the hood of that car I could see a minivan rolled over on its side.

It was the tail end of winter and while the outside roads and the interior stretches of the tunnels were dry, the openings where icing over now towards dusk. The rolled over minivan must have hit an icy patch about a hundred meters before the mouth of the tunnel, lost control, flipped a few times and skidded almost up to the very opening. After several seconds of assessing this all from behind the wheel, my friend and I jumped out of the car. By this point a dozen or more vehicles had stopped behind us, idling their engines and gawking forward. A few cars and big trucks swerved around the rest, flew by inches from me, maneuvered around the minivan and sped away. Thankfully, the rest just stopped.

This was not something we covered at our three-day orientation when all of us English teachers had arrived in Japan seven or eight months prior. After a second’s look at all the cars behind us and no one getting out to help, I walked towards the minivan. Just then I remembered the road flare under my glove box, required by Japanese law, and asked my friend to grab it and as many others from the cars behind us as he could get. He threw me mine and I ignited it and blocked of the other lane so no other cars could speed by. Seconds later I approached the minivan from the chassis, rounded the back end and was able to peer in through a middle sunroof. Thankfully, there was no sign of anyone having been in the back seats. I noticed a slight movement in the front seat and came to the windshield. I think I startled the old man inside more than the crash itself! The look of surprise on his face to see a “gaijin,” or a foreigner, instead of another Japanese person gesturing through the windshield, was unmistakable, and a bit comical.

He stood up inside the car, essentially standing where the passenger side window had been ground into the road. He motioned that he could not get out and I directed my attention to the driver side door over his head. The driver’s side was caved in and the door was collapsed, but the window was intact. I tried once to shimmy the door open a bit but it wouldn’t budge. Just then I made eye contact with the man inside and his face turned from worried to terrified in an instant. In that moment a simultaneously cool and hot wave rushed over my body, I leapt on top of the driver’s side, yanked the door free and open with my left hand and pulled the man straight up and out with my right. I jumped down and caught him as he descended. 

My friend had gotten a couple more flares by this point. I asked him if anyone else was going to help and we looked down the line of cars and still no one had gotten out of their car. While we scanned the line and hoped that someone who spoke Japanese might help us and the driver, I made eye contact with several people, who immediately looked away. There was a timid look of shame shared across all their faces. So it stayed until the emergency crew arrived. At the very minimum someone had alerted the authorities, but they had done nothing else. In the end, the driver was no worse for wear, and he even sent me a thank-you cake a few weeks later!

This leads me to another anecdote that I hope will shed further light on the subject at hand: That of the kid who almost fell out of a speeding Tokyo subway car.

While on a business trip to Tokyo for a teacher’s conference, I had some down time and was taking in the sights. I hopped on a fairly crowded subway car, and waited to take off. As the doors were closing a final passenger ran from the platform and jumped on board. The failsafe on the doors did not trigger and the doors continued to close, catching the teenage kid by the shoulders and backpack. The train pulled away from the station just then. This whole event lasted merely a few seconds, but so much did and did not happen.

The kid was terrified as were the rest of the passengers. Those around the door looked away or hurried away, as the gears in the doors struggled to close. The gears slipped a few times, the doors would open a few inches, the kid would slip out and the doors would slam shut again around him, all in the matter of a second or two. From the other side of the car, after noticing no one else doing anything to save this kid, I leapt forward. Grabbing the shoulder strap of his backpack and a fist full of his shirt with my right hand I strained to pry the door open even a little with my left. As the gears slipped another time, I caught a chance to force the doors open. As the door released its grip, the kid fell slightly back towards the tracks below, but I was able to pull him in while still propping the door open.

As soon as he was inside, the door closed and he thanked me many times. The other passengers glared at us and immediately looked away. They shuffled as far away as they could get inside that packed car. 

After this second event I had to ask my Japanese friends why no one stepped up to help. I hadn’t told anyone about either experience up until that point and when I finally did, my friends were thoroughly embarrassed. They apologized profusely first that I had to go through all of that and then for the fact that no one had helped. The more we talked the more they revealed that this was actually the standard operating procedure for life in Japan: WAIT AND SEE.

They further admitted that they had been bystanders is similar events and did nothing. They waited for someone else to solve the problem, but no one did. They then said that they would probably do the same in the future, because that is the only thing they knew how to do.

It was been well over two weeks since the earthquakes and ensuing tsunamis decimated the northeastern coast of Tohoku. There are survivors in and around emergency shelters in the worst hit areas that still do not have the resources and necessities they need, like food, water, blankets and fuel oil for the heaters that stave off the bitter winter cold. There are, however, donations made the day of the disaster still sitting in warehouses in Tokyo. The bureaucrats do not know what to do with them. Doctors without Boarders sent a contingent of physicians to assist in the tsunami-struck areas, but were held up upon arrival and finally told later that they could not do more than basic first aid because they did not have Japanese medical licenses. Japan has a singular expressway system into the northern part of the country, Tohoku. It narrows to one lane in either direction along hundreds of kilometers, and costs the equivalent of hundreds of dollars in tolls to get from where we live up north to Tokyo. The expressway was closed on the 11th, and despite little to no damage, took more than two weeks to reopen. Some emergency vehicles headed up north initially via this vital connection, but food and fuel were scarcely permitted. The local roads were open, so concerned citizens, family members and a number of the Japanese mafia, the “yakuza,” unbeholden to rubber stamps, loaded up cars and semis and headed north. 

Most recently, at the Fukushima nuclear reactors one or two days ago, a couple emergency workers waded into a pool of water inside the reactor building on their way to fix some part. The water registered at 10,000 times the legal limit for radiation. They were severely irradiated and had to be evacuated. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the Fukushima plant) it turns out, knew about the spike in radiation from the water two or three days before the workers went in. But they told no one. Today we were told on the news that radiation levels had reached 10,000,000 times the limit at the 2nd reactor (UPDATE: as of approx. 11 am Monday morning TEPCO announced that the 10,000,000 number was "not credible," and that in fact it was only 100,000 times the limit! What difference do a couple zeros mean at that magnitude anyway, right!?! Oh, and they still refuse to allow any outside, third-party to take independent measurements). We do not know if this was from today, yesterday or a week ago. Incidentally, TEPCO has contracts to soon run, in partnership with American companies, nuclear power plants in California and Texas.

The first two sets of examples above, the cowering public and the ineffectual bureaucrats are explainable, though in no way condonable, through an understanding of the cultural and societal norms that prevent and punish individual action. The decades of willful misinformation, withholding of information and straight out lies on the part of the Japanese government and corporations, especially TEPCO, is criminal. In an arrangement that leaves their American and other international counterparts overly envious, all Japanese industry is regulated by singular government ministries, whose bureaucrats upon retiring receive cushy high paying jobs in the very industry they were just overseeing.

Wait and see, the modus operandi of an entire country? I do not mean to discount the courageous actions of so many facing this disaster head on nor the civility with which the people have comported themselves. What Japan needs but does not have are strong individual leaders. Leaders who can identify a problem, utilize available resources and take actionable steps to swiftly bring about resolution. Now that I think about it, though, Japan is not the only country struggling with this dilemma. However, I do not know if Japan is capable of revolution. I felt this way seven years ago when I first came to Japan, and have fomented for change since. This is not just an outsider trying to impose an imperial view on the native population; that has happened numerous times already. The Japanese people themselves have said they want a change, but they have doubts about their own abilities. Can they do it? Or will they succumb to the oft spoken adage that keeps everyone here in their place: “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down?”

I am sorry to ramble so. I wanted to share some background on why little is happening here, and why I too have done little to help. I am a great procrastinator, but this is different. I am waiting because I cannot see.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Up in the air...

...still billowing out of a crippled, mismanaged reactor, then: in the water; in the cows; in their milk; in the fields; in the spinach; in every city so far.

...nine months of planning for our future; a dream come true? A job taken, a job taken away. An island paradise; but is it still there? A boatload of stuff en route to fill our new life, but no way to get it there; though, even if we could, water, food and medicine for the islanders trump any creature comforts we shipped ahead for our own consumption.

We drove back south to Mizusawa (Oshu City) this morning. I do not know if that was a good idea or not. Only time will tell; this and everything.

I wanted to plant a garden. Michie and I visited our island, our new home, Ajishima, the first week of March, and just before my birthday. We spent the night with our friends who run a guest house on the island. Michie had her final interview for her nursing position and even received her uniform. We inspected the house we were to rent: a seven room tatami mat mansion, a minute’s walk to the sea. There was a garden a minute’s walk in the other direction, that I may have been able to lease. Then our friends proffered a tenth acre plot on their family’s land for me to try my hand. You might say I have a green thumb, but not in the sense of a deft digger, but in that I have never really gardened before! They said if I share some veggies (if they grow at all!) then that would be recompense enough.

Part and parcel of our dream is to model upon nature a year-round garden, to incorporate a small dwelling and build an inviting Bed and Breakfast in which the world-weary might seek refuge. A true haven has been our goal throughout. Michie and I started dreaming of a B&B years ago, just after we married. We actually had the same epiphany at the same time, and it grew from there. It was the driving inspiration for everything we did, down to the soup bowls and silverware we chose. It first led us out of Japan to Colorado, where we thought we might make it happen, but in a twist of fate (à la ‘The Alchemist’) we were led back to Ajishima, where, in our heart of hearts, we knew we were supposed to be.

Everything we have done for the past three quarters of a year has been to get this far; our attempt to literally manifest our deepest desires at happiness. Michie swung a huge promotion at work and simultaneously started training as a yoga instructor, while I was out of town for a month on a work trade in Texas learning natural building techniques. The only regret I had was for lack of time before departing for Japan. I desperately wanted to take a Permaculture (PC) design course, but they all required a small treasure and weeks and weeks of my dwindling time. I would have to settle for the tens and dozens of books on the subject borrowed from the public library. (PC is a design philosophy that seeks to take care of people and the environment and to share all the products of those beneficial relationships.)

Unbeknownst to me, Michie had set a plan into motion months before. A few days ago, on my birthday, she surprised me with a hand written voucher (for a massage I hoped at first glance!) good for a full year’s worth of seminars at the Japan Permaculture Center. Our registration packet was sent to our new address on Ajishima, hence the hand drawn card. By ‘our,’ I mean, Michie is joining me, and we will both be certified Permaculture designers at the end. I figure, if she can earn her certification as a yoga instructor all in English, the least I can do is have her translate everything from Japanese for me as we get our PC design certifications together!

I wanted to plant a garden. At this point, though, everything is up in the air. We really don’t know what will happen next.

A week ago we had only heard indirectly from the main hospital in another prefecture that the Ajishima branch made contact and that they survived the earthquakes and tsunamis. Just yesterday a news report broadcast a military helicopter ferrying supplies to the hospital on Ajishima, and we saw several of the people we know. What a relief to have some of our worst fears belied by a thirty-second clip. But, the necessity of the helicopter means their situation is still dire, with no food, water, electricity or any other connection to the mainland. Michie wants to be there, to help her new colleagues and the mostly elderly population, but we have not gotten through to anyone yet.

Michie has been inexhaustibly optimistic throughout. I have been the ‘realist’ and even started making evacuation plans to take a ferry from Aomori to the next big island, Hokkaido, book her family and us on a plane from there to Korea or China and then to the US. Anything to spare us a slow death from the poison spewed by inept government and power plant officials. I know she will help as many people as she can in whatever way she can. I am not as optimistic about my own actions, at this point. I am really struggling to see the good in any of this. I am actually really kind of pissed off. At the situation? At myself? Probably both.

Up until last week I was afraid of failing at our dream. Of trying and failing. Now I am afraid of never even getting the chance to try.

But, that is self-defeating, and I need a pep talk! As I emailed our friends and family last week, this is our opportunity to turn things around for ourselves and for the people around us. I am not sure if that reassurance was more for them or for me. Even if almost every conceivable facet of our lives is out of our control at this point, I can take solace in my eternally optimistic beacon, Michie, to guide us through. Together we dreamed this dream, and together we can make it come true.

I suppose now is the time for a change. In Japan, in the world, in myself. If I am an instrument of that mass change, or merely a witness, so be it. But in myself, I need to affect a greater change.

I wanted to plant a garden. I think I will.

Friday, March 18, 2011

We’re where we’re at now

We are in Aomori City now and have been here for a full week so far. The drive after we got on Route 4 heading north was much less harrowing than the first leg out of Kuji. With the power still out and the few street lights the Japanese usually have on the roads anyway out as well, it was remarkably dark.

At one point we stopped to stretch our legs and for Michie to hop into the driver’s seat. After all the traffic had passed it was pitch black save for the star speckled sky and an ivory sliver of the moon. It was eerie at first to be in a relatively well populated area yet to not be able to see much of anything. But an overwhelming sense of calm settled over us with the realization that we were safe for the first time. We just had to make it to Michie’s brother’s house and then we could let our guard down a little, rest and face the aftermath the next day.

The trip north in an absolute blackout went exceptionally smoothly, mostly because the traffic signals were out as well, so we just flew throw countryside and towns alike. Once we got much closer to Aomori, a few major signals were flashing, possibly still running emergency batteries. But the first flicker of light we saw, other than oncoming headlights and a few brake lights in our lane, was from a solar charged battery run weather station. It was -2°C (in the high 20s°F), and it started to snow and snow and snow. As we gained ground further north the mounds of snow on either side of the road rose ever higher. 

We stopped once more outside of Aomori to stretch a bit. Before we took off, we both jumped online. Michie emailed her sister-in-law and we got a message back from her cellphone that they were all ok, there was no power, and they buried a few beers in the snow for us! I started to type a message of my own to my family back in the States, and noticed that Skype was ringing. It hadn’t worked for as long as we had our mobile connection, but I saw that my aunt was calling and hurried to answer it (so we can receive calls, but can’t make them...go figure!). I let her know that we were alright, and she let me know my mom was still worried (even though I had already emailed her before we left Kuji, but I guess that’s moms for you!). She must have called my mom right away, because before I could type the next line in my email to my family, my mom called. I reassured her we were alright and heading to a safe haven.

We got back on the road and were in downtown Aomori City before to long. I had never been here before, so I am not really sure what I missed on the way on, but we could certainly make out a the first and second floors of much large buildings through the flurries. As we got closer to the center of town, there were a few signals flashing, and several important looking buildings with lights on. They appeared to be emergency shelters and a few prefectural government offices, all on emergency diesel generators. We got lost at the last minute, did a couple U-turns and pulled up to our relatives’ house just before midnight.

It was quite a comical sight as we pulled up, as I saw four dimly lit faces bobbing up and down in two separate cars. Michie’s brother and our nephew were in his car charging his cellphone battery. Our sister-in-law and our niece were doing the same in her car. I didn’t ask until just now, while posting this, what they were doing. I just thought they had turned on the heaters to stay warm, but didn’t make the connection until now. Thankfully they were able to do so, and to stay in touch with us in guiding us north.

I hugged everyone, actually bear-hugged them until they coughed a bit, and then my nephew latched onto to me, only letting go later when I took my coat off inside. We stood outside for a while talking and reveling in the safety in numbers we were adding to. We looked up and noticed all the constellations for the first time, and we tried to make out the tracks of the Milky Way. Just then a brilliantly bright shooting star graced the night sky. We were safe and sound.

Once inside we were washed over in the warmest orange glow of candles flickering in a large soup pot on the table. Miraculously, they had a battery powered kerosene heater pumping out waves of unexpected heat. I felt awful at that moment knowing that most family’s in Japan had the kind of heaters that plug into the wall (as central heating is almost non-existent) requiring electricity to initially ignite the kerosene they all burned and turn the fans that spread the heat.

As we tucked into a mountain of cold rice balls, leftover from the early closing of the ramen shop Michie's brother manages, and a delicious platter of sauteed Brussels sprout leaves (from the gas range), we were served snow-chilled beers of a sort that had never tasted so good! We shared the day’s experiences and then slowly slipped into our sleeping bags right there in the living room, relieved at last.

There were a few temblors throughout the night, but they could not break the peace Michie and I found on the tatami mat floor at this safe haven we were blessed to reach.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Few Poignant Links

Below are a few of the better articles/pages we have found and have been relying on for timely info (as we cannot rely on the Japanese Government or Media at this point). If you know of any others, please post them in the comments for us and others to check out.

We will try to post more about our experiences a little later today, as the rolling blackout was canceled for Aomori City today for some reason, so we have a bit more time. Until then...

Here is a much more comprehensive list of ways to help Japan:

An interactive map showing areas affected, tectonic plates, etc: http://maps.google.com/maps?ftr=crisisresponse.kmlpanel:src=japan_earthquake_2011&cad=japan_earthquake_2011 

This is a time lapse of the hundreds of earthquakes we have had from Friday until Wendesday:

This one highlights why not much has happened for the relief effort almost a week after the first quakes and tsunamis:

These are the two sites we have been following for info on the nuclear crisis:
http://www.facebook.com/iaeaorg & http://ansnuclearcafe.org/ 

And this one has been the most inspiring so far, something we need more of here right now:

Thank you all so much for your moral support. Michie and I appreciate it very much!

The next leg...

Before we continue, I found the following link to an organization collecting donations for Japan, 100% of which go to the relief effort: http://www.japansociety.org/earthquake

Just as we were leaving Kuji for good, a massive winter storm front rolled in over the mountaintops heading east towards the battered coast. We had just under a half tank of gas and figured we could make it out of Iwate Prefecture, where all the gas stations were without power. We drove for a while and came to a fork in the road at which our inadequate map informed us to go one way to head north. The further into the mountains we drove the more intense the snow became. At one point it was near blizzard conditions with visibility less than what the headlights could project.

After three hours of mountainous switchbacks and white-washed winding roads we saw a sign that said we were in Kuzumaki Town, which is only about 45 minutes from Kuji on the most direct route. I was furious that we had gotten lost and wasted so much gas driving in a big circle. We calculated that would not have enough gas to get back to Mizusawa, and maybe just barely enough to get to the inland prefectural capital of Morioka. Radio reports said there were fires there, and extensive earthquake damage. We would end up stranded in our car in the mountains somewhere in a blizzard if we continued on to Aomori at this point.

As we rolled into Kuzumaki I noticed a Lawson convenience store with many cars in front and an open front door leading into a black-as-night shop. We pulled in the parking lot and confirmed customers coming in and out of the store. Michie got online an emailed all of her friends in Morioka to see if they were ok and if we could stay with them for the night. I went in the store and started to shop. All of the more substantial foods a convenience store might carry like rice balls, cup ramen and sandwiches were sold out, and the thirty plus people in line were picking out the best of the rest. It was now after 7pm, and we had not eaten since breakfast at the old inn, and we were out of water as well. Thankfully I made out the shape of a couple bags of bananas and selected the heaviest bunch. The other customers used their cell phones to spot their snacks of choice, but without my own, I would feel for an item and take it closer to the front window to read the ingredients (still concerned vegans, even in a pinch!) by the last glimmer of light from the sun that had already set over the more peaceful western edge of Japan.

I took a few of the things we could eat and paid for them at the counter run by three amazingly calm and efficient women. Two had hand held scanning guns, that showed prices as well, and battery operated calculators. They made change from a pile of cash on the counter and the third woman alternated between the other two, bagging for them by flashlight.

It was dark by the time I got throw the line and back to the car. Michie had emailed everyone she could think of, but our only real hope was with those few with email on their cells phones, since no other computers could be accessed without power. We were down to about half power on both our laptops, and thankfully we had a USB cord for our mobile uplink to charge off the laptop battery. We ate a little and drank a little from one of the two 2 liter bottles of jurokucha tea I picked out (the store wasn’t actually out of water, the just simply didn’t carry water at all, as it was not a top seller at their location!), and waited a while. When we didn’t hear back from anyone a while later, we decided to scrap the Aomori plans and try to get as far south towards Morioka as possible.

At least we had food and tasty beverages now (though we were not looking forward to the thought of brushing our teeth with sixteen-flavor jurokucha tea!), plus we had our sleeping bags and a half dozen extra blankets and futons since we were planning to crash on the floor everywhere we stayed on our road trip. So, we could have survived at least one night in the car if we absolutely needed to. We planned to find a gas station and camp under their awning and wait until they got power back to fill up and go home.

I pulled out of the parking lot into a stream of traffic heading west to the main road, Route 4. The expressways had all been closed down which led to congestion of all the regular roads. I initially wondered why those crucial arteries of transport had been closed at such a time, but after driving at 40 km/h during magnitude 4 and 5+ quakes I could see how doing so at 80+ km/h could be even more dangerous, not to mention the hundreds of kilometers of bridges and tunnels that may have been compromised. So, we headed west.

Not more than a couple hundred meters after the convenience store, I noticed two cars in front of a tiny gas station and a flashlight bobbing around, describing the silhouettes of a couple people vigorously rotating their arms near the pump. I pulled out of traffic to the left and did a huge U-turn to the right. I got behind the second car and Michie got out to ask if their pumps were back on. They said no, but that they had a hand crank that they connected to the disassembled pump housing and used to manually draw gas up from the reservoir. They said we could get 20 liters maximum, not because of any imposed rationing yet, but because their arms were so tired! This brought the tank of the tiny fuel efficient mini-car we were borrowing to full and renewed our hopes of getting somewhere relatively safe.

We headed out on the side road leading towards Route 4, not knowing which way to go once we got there after an hour or so.

[to be continued]

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What a way to begin...

We had been meaning to start a blog, long before we even left Denver for Ajishima, so we could chronicle the progress towards our dream of building our own Bed and Breakfast in Japan.

In light of recent events, Michie and I thought the best way to keep in touch, or at least to get information out about the situation here would be to just blog it all.

We are under rolling blackouts to conserve electricity for the whole country, so we will try to get installments up when we can.

We have been in Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture since Friday night. Gas rationing and a very real fear of nuclear meltdown in Fukushima have been keeping us here up north. We might drive south back to Mizusawa this weekend... In the meantime, here is the first post of many to come. I apologize ahead of time for rambling on, but the process of simply writing this all down has been somewhat cathartic for me.

The most severe damage seemed to be isolated to the northeastern coast line, north of Tokyo. The many many earthquakes (sometimes every 10 minutes for a full day) from Friday afternoon on wreaked a lot of havoc, but the worst came form the ensuing tsunamis. I am sure you have seen the images already, but entire towns were literally washed away. Aside from the cities of Sendai and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture (where we planned to move), the worst hit areas were in Iwate Prefecture, where I lived and worked for three and a half years, and where Michie's hometown is (though thankfully far from the coast).

On Thursday, Michie and I started on a big road trip to visit friends and family around several prefectures. We traveled several hours from our home base at Michie's mom's house in Oshu City (Mizusawa) to Noda Village on the coast, to stay at the old countryside inn where we first met. We left there around noon on Friday the 11th, and drove to the coast. The sea was the most beautiful shades of gradated royal blue and emerald green. We took the winding route along the coast north to Kuji City where I taught English when I first moved to Japan years ago. We were planning on a big party with my old friends there at 7pm that evening. We got into town just before 2pm and went to visit some friends who run a grilled tofu stand. They became like my surrogate grand parents when I lived in Kuji, and we were looking forward to surprising them as they did not yet know that we have moved back to Japan. Their shop did not open until 3pm so we went to Amber Hall, the local community center, to send some emails with the brand new mobile internet connection we got for our laptops. Forty five minutes later, everything changed.

I had experienced several earthquakes previously in Japan, and the first tremors started out like usual, but gradually they became so strong that I was disoriented. The workers at the community center huddled under door ways, but Michie and I grabbed our stuff and headed for the exit. It was difficult just to walk straight. The main entrance way was surrounded by a five story glass cone and no one wanted to go that way for fear of breaking glass. There was no other way out at that point, and the tremors were getting worse. The power went out then and the auto-doors started to malfunction, opening and closing. They jammed shut and I had to pull them apart, and jam them back so they would stay open. The rest of the people slowly followed us outside and thankfully the glass held.

Once outside we felt much safer. All power was out in the city as far as we could see, except for the emergency announcement system every Japanese town has in place. City officials gave very detailed announcements and instructions, as the country has prepared for years for such an earthquake. I still remember doing the drills with my high school students years ago. The tremors did not cease for quite a while, so we decided to try and find the friends we were planning to meet. We did not have a cell phone, all phones lines were down, and Skype does not work with our Japanese ISP, so we got in the car and drove away from the coast as it occurred to both of us that there might be a tsunami coming.

This was the first time I actually drove in an earthquake, and I thought the suspension would dampen it, but it was quite unnerving to drive a car swaying back and forth so much. The tremors and aftershocks kept up for at least another hour non-stop. There are many bridges to go over and under and tunnels to go through in Kuji, so I had to pick the route with none, but traffic forced us on several bridges and that is when the fear swelled greatest for me. Thankfully we made it to my friend Kenji's printing office, but he had already closed it and sent all of his employees home. We didn't know where else to go and were contemplating our next move when the city-wide PA announced that the first tsunami was on the way. We headed out of town towards the mountains inland from the coast. Once a little higher and away from the rivers, which carry tidal waves farther inland than they can go on their own power, we got our internet uplink going and emailed all of our Kuji friends because we could not call them.

We waited a while but did not hear from them, and made the very difficult decision to go. We thought of finding Kenji, but I forgot where his house was, and we thought that since we were mobile and not tied to certain place like a home in the city, we could go and not be a burden to our friends. They would feel compelled to treat us with all the hospitality and dedicated service that Japanese hosts are known for, and at such a time we did not want to impose. As it turns out, Kenji, in a testament to the great man that he is, ended up taking in seven foreign English teachers and sheltering them at his office for a couple days. Although Kuji suffered, thankfully the city was spared major tragedy, although I am still struggling with the fact that we abandoned our friends to fend for themselves.

We had originally planned to visit Michie's brother and his family after our stay in Kuji. So, we decided to head inland and far north to Aomori City in Aomori Prefecture. 

[to be continued]