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Last year I went on holiday to Japan with my friends Tom and Amy. Our original plan had been for a 3 week holiday to cover both Tom and my 30th birthdays, in which we would spend a week in Sapporo or Sendai, a week in Tokyo and a week in Osaka. However, finiancial constraints led to us scaling it back to just 14 days in Tokyo over the first couple of weeks of March, with numerous trips to nearby areas to enable us to see more of the country. We were on one of these trips when the earthquake struck.

For most of my life natural disasters were something that happened to other people in distant lands, experiencing one first hand made it clear how lucky we are that Britain is - for the most part - a geologically stable land.

We were walking round a museum in the historical mountain town of Nikko when the earthquake hit. There was no warning, no tremors beforehand, suddenly the glass cases started to rattle and the floor started to buck and move, we went outside as the intensity increased and struggled to keep our balance as we descended the few wide, low stairs in front of the building.

The thing that struck me at the time was the lack of noise. There was no rumble, and outside the museum you could no longer hear the glass rattling. The sensation of the earthquake is hard to describe, but i would put it as similar to being on a plane in turbulence. The ground movement is cyclical but irregular, and like being on a plane there's no way of avoiding it. Despite a number of large aftershocks we were not overly worried at first, we had no frame of reference for how big the earthquake was and it was only when we found ourselves stranded in Nikko that we realised its severity.

We ended up with a number of other foreign tourists in a hostel-style training centre and were finally able to see the news coverage of the tsunami on the news. It was then that the fear kicked in, the aftershocks were still happening periodically and with our friend Ashlea living in the coastal city of Yokohama we were desperate to make sure she was ok and to let our families know we were alright. We didn't manage to do this until late that night, and even with that fear settled we had very little sleep due to the frequent tremors. Many of these aftershocks were bigger than the earthquakes that hit New Zealand and Turkey, and there is no way of knowing how big each one would be. The tremors and earthquakes all feel the same at first, intensifying in the same way before finally subsiding. The difference was in how long they lasted with the bigger ones building for a longer period and therefore getting stronger. Each tremor, whether a real one or just the vibration of someone flushing a toilet or walking past our dorm room, woke us up and we were pretty fraught by the time we finally got back to Tokyo and learned of the nuclear disaster.

It was the nuclear side of things that was the scariest aspect of the whole experience for me. Tokyo had been largely unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami, with only some minor damage to infastructure and some slight breakup of reclaimed land in the bay area, and we found most Tokyoites carrying on as normal. The escalating disaster at Fukushima led to rolling power cuts, early business closures and a reduced transport network in the city, and despite on the surface everyone carrying on as normal the problems started to become apparent. Food in some of the convenience stores began to run low, people started stockpiling batteries and a lot of tourist businesses such as museums and theme parks closed until further notice. With frequent aftershocks still happening and transport erratic we made what we could of the rest of our time in the country, but we were forced to spend a night in the airport to guarantee we'd get to our flight as the power cuts continued to affect the transport links.

Today, a year on from that disaster, a lot of things are in my mind. I have never felt as utterly powerless as I did during those few days in Japan, and I've never felt so alien. You always think that there's something you'd be able to do in a disaster, some way to be useful. But the reality was that the event was just too big, we were too far away from the worst areas and I just knew too little Japanese to even be able to know what was going on for the most part. The Japanese people withdrew behind a mask of 'business as usual', never betraying their true fears or feelings to the point where if it hadn't been for the power cuts and closures you'd barely know there was a disaster going on when in Tokyo. It was a strange experience, and it was sometimes hard to reconcile what you were seeing on TV with how people reacted in the city. The country was in a state of shock, but the desire to avoid panic and maintain society's standards were what stuck in the mind.

In the end we were lucky, we avoided the worst of the disaster and fortune appeared to be on our side in that we were able to see out our time in Japan without injury. However, thousands were not so lucky and today I am left reflecting on those that lost loved ones and their homes, and others whose homes are still standing but are inhospitable due to an invisible threat. We may have lost sleep, and experienced extreme stress and fear, but they have lost far more than we can even contemplate. My thoughts and wishes may not amount to much, but they are with the Japanese people and I hope that they are able to emerge from this disaster even stronger than before.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Mar. 11th, 2012 08:03 pm (UTC)
Very well put..
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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