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getting back home.. (2 of 2)

March 17, 2011

(part two of my account of the earthquake, click here for part one)

Shaki and I live somewhat close to each other, so we made the hour walk back to Takadanobaba together. I have walked this route countless times before, but I’ve never seen it so crowded. A good two or so hours had passed by this point, and most of the population of Tokyo was out on the streets trying to get back home, meet up with loved ones, or just plain avoid being inside.

It was very surreal reading the faraway reactions to the earthquake over Twitter while walking through the apparently wholly undamaged, though abnormally crowded, Tokyo streets. It definitely caused some kind of disconnect, and the realization of exactly what people were seeing caught up with us very gradually over a period of many hours following the actual earthquake itself.

Shaki and I were very lucky to live relatively close to our office. Our walk back home was quick and easy compared to what many others around Tokyo had to go through to get to their homes that evening. I’ve heard countless stories of hours of walking and confusion. Some people walked for as far as 12 hours to reach their homes in neighboring cities that night, and several hundred thousand others were forced to sleep work or in shelters around the Metropolitan area until the trains were restored the following day.

Takadanobaba is just 10 minutes from our apartment, but I knew from Twitter that Eric was still hours away and was honestly still in shock and pretty nervous about going back on my own. To stall for a bit, Shaki and I walked through the area and hit up the two supermarkets nearby, only one of which was actually open, and then headed to the Station to check out the situation there.

Unlike our station near work, only the ticket gates were roped off and people were still being allowed inside the station itself. Most were gathered around a TV on the wall broadcasting the news, and the atmosphere was similar to what you’d expect from a disaster movie: people huddled in groups looking shocked and confused, trying to glean whatever information they could from wherever it was available. There were also continuous announcements over the PA stating that big aftershocks were expected, listing the nearby shelters, and urging people to go to them. We stayed for a while watching, until the station officials started directing people towards the doors and shuttered the entire station down.

It was quite cold out, so once we got kicked out of the station we decided it would be best to move on to Shaki’s apartment, which is about 5-7 minutes in the opposite direction from mine. His place turned out to be almost entirely unscathed, which was comforting, but I was still concerned as his is a 1st floor apartment and ours is higher up.

We turned on the TV as soon as we arrived to try to get a handle on what was happening in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, and I also took a few minutes to call my family on Skype, though the connection was a bit spottier than usual. We stayed put for about an hour, sharing chocolate covered almonds from Shaki’s freezer and watching the unreal footage. While there, Shaki offered to come back with me to check my apartment if I didn’t want to go alone, and I took him up on it. We left his place after a particularly unpleasant tremor hit and headed back down the main street towards the station.

Many businesses along the way wer operating as though nothing had happened, while other neighboring stores had shuttered and closed down. I even saw a few people in salons having their hair done as we passed, which struck me as very odd. There were a few signs here and there that things were not quite usual, however, such as the abnormally long lines for taxis, and payphones that I’d never even noticed before.

The lines for taxis and payphones near Takadanobaba station a few hours post-quake.

Prior to the quake Jessica and I had grand plans for a taco and movie night at my apartment, and after it hit I had assumed that I would still be making tacos that night, but for Eric and myself rather than Jessica. It was already after 7 pm by the time we left Shaki’s, though, so I made the executive decision to stop at the Freshness Burger on our way to spare us from having to worry about food later on; figuring that Eric would be able to eat the sandwich I’d packed for him to eat on his way to a session that evening. I had my usual vegetable beans burger, while Shaki opted for a classic cheeseburger. The restaurant had just  about as much business as usual, and it felt oddly similar to any other time I’ve ever stopped in to at one of their locations, other than the abnormal level of silence as more people than usual started intently at their cellphone screens while eating.

The shuttered station on our way to my apartment, and a stopped train on the tracks above.

The walk back towards my apartment was cold, and along the way we saw a number of trains stopped and waiting along the Seibu-Shinjuku line tracks. At one point right before my station we actually saw the operator of one of the trains leaning out of his window to answer the questions of people making their way through the crossings. It was a really strange scene, seeing people standing on the tracks right next to one of Tokyo’s huge trains. I think Shaki managed to get a picture, but my phone was on the verge of dying, and I missed the shot. I also missed getting a shot of a train stopped mid-crossing and blocking the entirely of the main intersection near my station. I don’t know how long it had been there or how long it was before it was able to move, but it must have been a traffic nightmare for at least a while.

I was pretty nervous about the condition of my apartment after seeing Adrian’s pictures, but it turns out that my building was strong enough to make it through the shaking with no visible damage at all. Things had definitely fallen and shifted around somewhat inside, specifically in the kitchen and living room, but it could have been a lot worse for us. As it stood, the only real casualty to the quake was one glass that had been drying on the edge of the sink.

Shaki and I immediately turned on the (thankfully!) still intact TV to catch up on the situation since we left his place, and then set about securing my apartment somewhat. We moved everything heavy and/or breakable into boxes on the floor, and I put away dishes that had been drying and closed up my kitchen cabinet with a spatula so they wouldn’t come spilling out in the event of another earthquake. Before arriving at my apartment I wasn’t at all sure of how long we’d be staying there or what would come next. If there had been more damage I don’t think I would have stuck around more than a few minutes, but the building seemed relatively safe, and nice and toasty warm inside.

Eric’s phone battery had died about an hour or so previously, but his last tweet predicted that he wouldn’t be home before 10 pm. Since we knew that he would be trying to come home even if he couldn’t contact me directly, we decided that the best thing to do would be to stay put and wait for him. I made some tea and introduced Shaki to the wonder that is coconut sugar, and we settled in to wait. Throughout the course of the evening we managed to eat about half the jar of raw walnuts I had on my counter between the two of us.

The aftershocks were small but frequent while we waited, and I am not kidding when I say that each minor sway had us primed to jump up and run out the door. It started to get really hard to tell the difference between imagined and real tremors as the night wore on, so I put a glass of water on the table ala Jurassic Park, and I think one or both of us shot stares in its direction at least once every 5 minutes or so for the rest of the evening.

Eric, who works 40 minutes away by train towards the Southern part of Tokyo, did not manage to make it home until about 12:30 am. 7.5 hours after leaving his office. He was exhausted and full of stories of his long, frustrating commute once he got home. Unlike Shaki and me, he had no access to the TV reports or even his twitter after his phone died at 6:30 pm, so the images that had been replaying over and over on the news for the past few hours were all very shocking and new to him. He was also starving, as he hadn’t had a chance to pull out his sandwich while stuck in endless lines for buses and trains weighted down with his bag and guitar.

Shaki left for home not too long after Eric arrived, and I packed him up some extra walnuts to take with him as a thank you for staying with me for so late. I happened to be video chatting with Eric’s older sister Mari right at the moment he finally walked through the door, and that soon turned into a big family reunion as both of his other sisters got word of it and asked to join in. We also video chatted with my sister and talked to both of our mothers on the phone at various points after that, so despite being thoroughly exhausted from the events of the day, we did not make it to bed until after 4am.

I had a feeling before going to bed that the next day would be even harder than the one we’d just experienced as the reality of what had happened started to set in and the extent of the damage became more clear. I was also unsure that I’d be able to sleep at all for fear of another big tremor, and insisted on sleeping in my clothes with our backpacks and jackets ready to go by the door. Later on I heard from many coworkers and friends that they had done the same thing. I slept fitfully between the hours of 4:30 and 7:30 am, then caught up on the news via Twitter before falling back asleep from 9:30 – 11 am.

If there is one thing I have to say my about own personal experience throughout this situation, it would be thank god for my iPhone and Twitter. The Japanese mobile networks went down almost instantly as everyone in the country tried to contact their loved ones at once. Phone calls, text messages, and emails were all utterly useless, but I was able to keep in touch throughout the entire day with absolutely no outages thanks to Twitter. Within a few minutes of the quake most of my friends and loved ones in the city had checked in to say they were okay, and tweets from other friends and even strangers overseas and around the country asking if we were okay continued throughout the rest of the day, serving as both mental support and a much needed connection to the outside world.

Twitter was also invaluable for keeping us up to date on what was going on. There was a constant stream of updates and information from those both in the city and watching coverage overseas as things happened, and many users throughout the area kept reports of their circumstances coming to help others nearby. Though I was lucky enough to already know my way home, many others around the city did not, and they were able to use the GPS on their iPhones to navigate the 2-12 hours of walking it took to get them to their homes.

I’m absolutely certain that the whole experience would have been a whole lot more stressful had it not been for having a reliable channel of communication, and I am thankful that I didn’t have to go through it cut off, alone, and with no idea of what was happening.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011 2:34 am

    A glass of water a la Jurassic Park…that is always how I explain my milk shaking in ’89. It was just like that….except in ’89, there was no Jurassic Park yet! ;)

    I used the example of talking to you guys on twitter as an example to Peter about how important phones and social networking is. Why sometimes it should be okay to check your phone and why this form of communication is vital. He now agrees that twitter is useful, but is still wary of how reliant we are on technology.

    To some extent, I agree. When the Giants parade went on in the fall and I went down to Civic Center, my iPhone was useless. I couldn’t get on facebook, couldn’t text message, couldn’t e-mail, couldn’t call and it sucked trying to find Ming. It was like a needle in a haystack. You are lucky that most people weren’t on your network…with all of the iPhones (up until last month) all on AT&T here, and the iphone being the most used phone these days, AT&T crashed under the traffic.

    Anyway, twitter good. We were all glad to hear you guys were okay.

    • March 18, 2011 2:13 pm

      Twitter and social media really were important for us through all this. There are actually reports from areas up north that have no other lines of communication at all other than twitter at the moment. I saw tweets from both the official Aomori and Iwate prefecture accounts saying as much, and asking those with access to Twitter to share information with those that do not have it. This would have been so much worse without smartphones and social media like Twitter.

      As far as network congestion, the demand for iPhone service on Softbank’s network went up exponentially over the summer, after the iPhone 4 was released. Since then we’ve noticed a significant slowdown of the internet and increase in incidents of loss of signal in certain crowded areas throughout Tokyo. Softbank has not been able to keep up with the increased demand and respond to this fast enough. During the quake I had moments where the network was painfully slow and it took a few minutes to reload Twitter, but even with all that demand, the connection was good enough to get us through it all.

      • March 19, 2011 1:22 am

        I wish AT&T could keep up to the point where it would just be slow, vs. give out. I was hoping the Verizon pick up would help, but it hasn’t seemed to relieve ay of the congestion.

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