Dreaming Big in Japan

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]


  1. Wow guys, that's insane you went to Kuji at the worst time! I'm glad to hear you and everyone we know in Kuji is safe and well. And of course, Kenji should be knighted and probably made a bonafide Saint.

    On a lighter note, I'm looking forward to hearing about your exploits in Japan. Once you get the B&B (or will it be a ryokan?) up and running I'd love to come visit. It never hurts to have too many excuses to visit Japan. :)

    Take care,

  2. Wow! What an intense story. I'm glad you guys thought to head for the door and that Rick had the strength to get that bad boy opened for the good of everyone who could have been trapped inside.

    Not sure that your guilt around leaving is necessary Rick as it sounds like keeping yourself safe was the best thing you could have done at the time. I think you both made a great call by not going back down towards the coast.

    I'm happy to be able to follow your adventures and to get an up to date and completely honest retelling of what is happening in Japan during this critical time.

    Thanks so much!

  3. Dear Rick and Michie,
    When we first learned of the earthquake and tsunami our immediate thoughts turned to the both of you with prayers for your safety and angels to watch over you. Your previous experiences in Thailand a few years ago have also prepared you for what lays ahead...while we wish you were back safe with us, we know you will be of great help and service to the people of Japan! We will be following your story and praying for you. Please let us know if you need anything! Stay safe and strong!
    With love,
    Aunt Robyn and Uncle Scott