This is a blog I wrote last year after I had to come home because of the huge earthquake on March 11th that hit Japan. It’s a bit nostalgic going back and reading it, so I thought I’d post it here where I can preserve it. There are three posts I made which I’ll update here. I had already been back in America by the time I wrote all of these posts, too.
It’s hard to believe it has been over a week since the earthquake hit. It all seems like a blur but there is one clear, definite distinction I can make: the time I was in Sendai and the time I left Sendai. I haven’t slept in over 24 hours, thanks in large part to an early flight time with a long commute and jet lag. I’ve been running the events of the past week over and over in my head again, thinking how best to write my thoughts in a coherent manner. I’ve already been contacted by several reporters so I think this will be a good warmup.
Some of the media reports I have seen from overseas are very sensational. My brother told me that in an airport in Germany one headline read Armageddon. On the other extreme some people believe the Japanese media isn’t telling enough or is hiding something. But I think, lost in all of this, some people forget to mention that the heart of Sendai, that is the actual city, is perfectly fine. Everyone back home sees the burning buildings, washed up houses and exploding reactors. It’s no wonder some of my friends’ parents are calling them, crying their eyes out begging them to come home. My mother said she would have freaked if she hadn’t called me first before she watched the news.
I don’t pretend to know everything that has happened in Sendai and the other disaster areas. I can only offer a very narrow perspective on my experience in Sendai during and after the quake. Take what I say with a grain of salt.
On the day of the earthquake I had just gotten back from visiting family in Osaka after my grandfather passed away. I let my friends know I was back in town if they wanted to do anything that Thursday night (the quake was on Friday). I had just returned to Sendai station and my friend Maya contacted me, offering to cook dinner that night.
“Hey wanna go shopping and cooking soup at 5? Cooking is at 6 though.”
“Actually I’m still at Sendai station. I ate but I’ll join you guys.”
“Then call me when you are ready to come over.”
“OK. It’s so cold in Sendai.”
“We had a snowstorm yesterday.”
“But I don’t see any snow.”
“Because the earthquakes shook it off again.”
I wasn’t there to feel it, but apparently Sendai had a pretty big earthquake that Wednesday, which was probably a precursor to the big one on Friday. No one thought much of it since Japan is the earthquake capital of the world. We went about our usual lives and made some delicious soup that night. It was a German soup Maya had made, full of meatballs, cabbage, carrots, pasta noodles, miso soup stock and all kinds of spices. It was a warm welcome home.
I suppose now is a good a time as any to introduce Maya; she’ll be showing up a lot. Maya is also an exchange student and she is one of the many Germans. She is the life of the group, always full of energy and is easily the loudest out of all of us. If she laughs you can hear it across a baseball field as if she were two inches from you. She claims to be really shy but she is always the first one to talk to someone new. In seconds she’ll be laughing as loud as ever like they had known each other for a long time and were just catching up on each others’ lives. She almost always wears black-and-white checkered chucks, a skirt with tights, a thin scarf and long socks. She can be very cute when she wants to be, not in the way she acts but in how she talks. It’s definitely one of her charms. She isn’t exactly your typical leader but somehow she is the glue that holds our group together. Without her it’s just not the same. She is also one of my best friends in the JYPE program.
The day of the earthquake I was supposed to meet with a masters student who graduated from my university. He was going to introduce me to a job with a Japanese professor. It wouldn’t be terribly interesting work, I would just correct his English in emails and occasionaly in papers he submitted to journals. It had great pay for the amount of work and the perks were supposed to be amazing so I agreed to it in a heartbeat. We were to meet at a bus stop at the top of Aobayama around 4:25pm.
Aobayama has a reputation for being a lousy place to have classes. The campus is quite nice, but it’s how you get there that counts. The name stands for “blue/green leaf mountain” and it’s exactly that, a mountain. From the bottom to the top is about 1 kilometer of winding mountain road that can usually be traversed in less than 15 minutes. Usually when I tell people I’m walking to Aobayama they either say “wow” or “good luck!” It should be noted that there are small buses about every half hour that go up Aobayama but they are usually full.
He would be waiting with his girlfriend and from there we would take the bus to the professor’s house, just in time for the 5o’clock party. I was in the middle of preparing when he sent me the following message:
“Hey Michael, see you at the bus stop at 4:25 today.”
How thoughtful of him, I can be pretty forgetful about things if I’m not careful. It would be the last text I got for awhile.
Around 2:50pm I was sitting at my desk shamelessly feeding my osu! addiction. If you don’t know what osu! is, you’re in good shape. It’s basically a point-and-click rhythm game that will suck you in and never let you leave. I was tearing apart a song, hitting every note when my mouse uncharacteristically slipped. Damn, I missed. But it wasn’t just my mouse. My entire body had shifted, and indeed kept swaying back and forth. Earthquake. Pause the game and wait it out. By now my entire chair had started to move back and forth and the quake was already stronger than any I had felt up to that point. I stood up, bracing myself against my desk, my left hand holding a dresser up in case it decided to fall and my right firmly planted on my desk. In retrospect I probably should have gotten under the desk, but the only thing that could have fallen on me would be the roof. I doubt an aluminum desk could stop several tons of concrete from crushing me like a bug.
I waited for the shaking to get weaker. For a moment it did, but that was only the calm before the storm. It got worse, much worse. It was as if someone had picked up the entire building and was shaking it violently from side to side; like a spoiled kid beating up on his poor toys. It was no longer amusing but terrifying. My second dresser fell forward, smashing into my stove and rested diagonally. I had two options: get out or get under. The collapsed dresser was blocking the door, so I got under it. It was the first time in my life I seriously contemplated death, if only for a moment. If the roof did collapse there was no way the dresser or my back could support that much falling concrete. I could only wait what seemed like an eternity for the quake to stop.
Eventually it subsided. The ground was still displacing quite a bit but it was moving much slower. While hunched over on my hands and knees under the dresser I noticed a pool of black liquid next to my bed. Was there an oil leak? Was there something underneath my bed I didn’t know about? The scent of soy sauce wafted over. The culprit had been identified. My bottle of soy sauce had fallen off the shelf, pouring its contents onto my floor. The shaking weakened to just a slight rumble. I sighed, glad the worst of it was over. I got out from underneath the dresser, set it upright and picked up my nearly empty soy sauce bottle. I cleaned as much of it up as I could but was eager to get outside. I had emailed all of my friends asking if they were OK but nobody was answering. I could see groups of people outside and decided to see what information I could get.
The first person I noticed was Ellandrae from Alaska, the youtuber I mentioned in a post a long time ago. We made small chit chat about the quake, what we were doing, how we felt, the standard stuff you talk about in those situations. There were still small tremors here and there which kept people on their toes and sufficiently freaked out, but nothing matched the earthquake again. I decided to move over to the other dorm since I knew more people staying there and it seemed the cell phones were all out of service. I ran into several more friends, including Maya. Dan, a fellow American, and Philipp were chatting.
Dan was being his usual self; loud and outgoing. He was the stereotypical American except for the fact that he’s not an asshole. He is actually a very nice guy which is kind of refreshing since most people with his personality type are asshole jocks. We are complete opposites, but I suppose that’s why I enjoy being around him so much.
We were all discussing the quake, pointing out several cracks in buildings, and making a few wise-cracks of our own about the earthquake. At the time we knew nothing about the impending tsunami’s, how big the earthquake was or who all was affected. The power was cut out and nobody had phone service. We were in effect isolated from Japan. Eventually someone pulled up their car and rolled down the window so we could listen to the radio. I would be lying if I said it was a dramatic, deadpan silence when we heard huge tsunami’s were headed towards the coast, but we all quickly realized that things were worse than we thought.