Dreaming Big in Japan

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

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]


  1. I am a friend of Debra's. I too used to live in Japan, in Akita and Osaka. Great story. Glad you are safe. Please keep posting!

  2. Rick and Michi,

    Just wanted to let you know of a funny occurance. My wife and I are up in Lansing visiting her grandparents and I was looking through today's paper. What do I see but a whole article about this blog!! What are the chances?? Small world, eh? Anyway, hope you guys are doing well.

    Dave Cataldi