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panic, pressure, and peace..

March 18, 2011

It’s been a few days since I provided any real updates on the situation here in Tokyo and Japan as a whole, but obviously, that does not mean that nothing has been happening. The situation here is very fluid and changes day-to-day, sometimes even hour to hour, so even just a matter of days can feel like an eternity and make a world of difference.

Now that my earthquake story has been written, rewritten, edited, published, and edited again, I’m sure there are some of you out there who wouldn’t mind an update. Those who follow the news already know the basics of the situation as reported on TV, but I’m more interested in detailing how all that affected us here, so I’m not going to go into too much detail on it unless I have to.

One thing I’ve been continuously surprised by in this situation is how many of us here seem to be going through the same set of phases and reactions day-to-day. It seems that many people, myself included, reached what could be considered to be the peak of their directly related anxiety around Monday or Tuesday after the quake.

I don’t think that is a coincidence. As I mentioned previously, I believe that a great number of people expected Tokyo to return to a certain level of normalcy once the weekend passed, and once the reality sunk in that the situation was not improving and possibly getting worse, there was a whole lot of despair and doubt going around. My last update was written in the middle of that peak for me, and I think does a fairly accurate job of conveying the sense of uncertainty we had at that point.

On Tuesday many of us woke up not knowing or understanding what kind of situation we were facing with the Nuclear Power Plant and its proximity to Tokyo, and because of that things seemed very dire at times. The continued blackouts, train delays, empty shelves, and closures (such as my gym) also kept it obvious that things were not life as usual.

Supplies weren’t as low as before, but there were still some empty shelves at the local conbini

Shortly before I left work that day I got a message from Jessica asking to talk on the phone, which is something we don’t often do given the prevalence of text messages and emails here. I called her on my way to the station, and we followed it up with a lengthy Skype Date once I returned home to my laptop to talk through our thoughts on nuclear reactors, radiation levels, and other such information bizarrely pertinent to our new daily lives.

After our chat I felt much better and even pulled out my real camera to capture photos of dinner for the first time since the quake. Note that I actually turned on the overhead lights for few minutes for these pictures. We have been keeping them off in a bid to conserve power since Saturday, and once the pictures were taken they went off again. We ate by the glow of the evening NHK broadcast and a candle.

Whole wheat spaghetti with a tomato veggie sauce and creamy cottage cheese..

After dinner Eric and I settled in to watch something a little more pleasant than the news. In this case Farscape, which we had recently started after catching up on all five seasons of Dexter over the past couple of months. About halfway through the episode at 10:30 pm we were hit by two decent aftershocks, the second of which was actually strong enough to get us up off the couch and into a door frame, though it fizzled out shortly after that.

Unlike most of the other tremors, which were hitting off the coasts of Fukushima, Iwate, and Chiba, this one was centered in Shizuoka to the west and on a completely different plate. Being directly under land it was rated quite high on the Japanese scale, reaching up to shindo 6-weak closest to the epicenter. Our area was rated at shindo 4. The tremor was unnerving at a time when we had started to get accustomed to the shaking, and ended up sparking wild speculation the following day about Mt. Fuji exploding.

My sister, who had apparently been following the news, called via Skype very soon after the quake hit. After catching up a bit she took the opportunity to show off the new-found smiling and socializing skills of my 4 month old nephew August to us. I tried to get his attention with a knit penguin I made Eric a few years back, which was amusing. I am also pleased to say that now, some day far in the future when he asks me what I was doing after the earthquake in Japan, I can reply that I was watching him getting his diaper changed via Skype… and that? is priceless.

I felt much, much better when I woke up the next morning. I think that the social interaction of the day before restored some normalcy and perspective to my life, and it also helped to see Twitter overflowing with interesting facts about the level of radiation detected in Tokyo the day before. Some of the fun ones involved comparisons to second-hand smoke and dental x-rays, as well as a demonstration in which a professor with a Geiger counter got a higher reading from bath salts than the air outside. My favorite, though, was the information that a roundtrip flight from Tokyo to New York City would result in something along the lines of 2-3000 times the radiation exposure than the current level in our area.

By the time I left work Tokyo was being hit with extremely strong and bitterly cold winds. It was absolutely the strongest and coldest wind I have ever experienced, and getting to the station was quite difficult. Each gust felt like being doused with ice water. Charity yoga had been cancelled for the evening, so instead I passed through Shinjuku on the way home to visit my beloved Doughnut Plant, check out the situation around there, and see if I could get some milk. Doughnuts were aplenty, milk and bread.. not so much.

Business as usual around Shinjuku– except for the empty bakeries

Eric was feeling stir-crazy after his second full day of working from home, so we ventured out down the street to BurgerxBurger for dinner. Eric usually eats there on Wednesdays while I’m out at yoga and teaching, and I joked that the owner might miss him if we didn’t show up. Hah. I got a chicken sandwich and opted to try it w/ the teriyaki sauce usually only an option for beef burgers after I saw Eric order one of those.

Things felt perfectly livable and even hopeful throughout the day, and by evening I was feeling relatively confident about our situation again. Unfortunately, as tensions eased somewhat in our minds here in Tokyo, it seems the foreign media was taking a turn for the worse, and sensationalism in coverage of the nuclear reactors was reaching a frenzy. That night, and throughout the next morning, Eric and I were bombarded with emails, tweets, phone calls, etc. from various family members and friends insisting that we leave the country, or at very least the city.

Eric and I had never sat down and decided 100% that we would be weathering out the entire situation from Tokyo. Obviously we were loath to leave our home unless absolutely necessary, but for the most part we had been taking things day by day and leaving open the possibility that we might have to take a short trip if the situation deteriorated. The sudden onslaught of pressure, however, backed us into a corner where we felt as though we were having to defend a stubborn determination to stay despite obvious health risks.

I’m going to distract you from the bleakness of this section of the post with pictures of doughnuts!

My gym was opened again on Thursday, so I went in the morning to get in the last workout of my current strength routine (Rachel Cosgrove, Phase 1, workout B <3!!), which was really nice after two full days of gym closures.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of checking my phone on my way to the shower, and was greeted by a barrage of twitter DMs from Eric’s family, and a message from Eric himself saying he had received no fewer than 10 phone calls in the hour I had been gone, including one from my sister (to her credit she was the least forceful, only saying that Gus would love to see us, which was honestly the most compelling argument to visit home of them all). Twitter was also abuzz with tales of a mass exodus, and many alarmists were tweeting things like “KANTO FRIENDS, GET OUT NOW!”

I tried to brush it all off, but on top of the uncertainty we felt on our own the additional pressure was just too much. I actually broke down in tears in the gym shower in disbelief at how I could have ended up in the situation of being under such intense pressure to leave my home for fear of nuclear fallout when last week my main worry had been ensuring I was including enough protein in my diet and whether or not I’d be able to convince Eric to take kickboxing with me.

After several panicky phone calls I decided that I needed to spend the day at home making some decisions about what to do next. Since I had made it quite close already I dropped in to the office to let my coworkers know what was up, and even told them there was a possibility I might not be around the next day due to familial pressure.

Back at home Eric and I listened to the latest reports from NHK and discussed our various options. We even got out a suitcase to pack in case of an emergency, but at that point it was extremely difficult to tell how much of our anxiety was related to the actual situation and how much was a direct result of the pressure. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t quite come to any actual decision that wasn’t contingent on factors currently unknown to us. The only thing we were absolutely certain of was that we did not want to leave Tokyo unless we deemed it absolutely necessary.

Seriously, though.. the seasonal Sakura & Sakura-an doughnut was phenomenal, and Ujicha wasn’t bad either

As the day wore on reports and blog posts started popping up from friends and strangers around Tokyo voicing eerily similar experiences to ours: the entire expat community was under a massive assault from worried loved ones overseas. The general sentiment through all if these stories was that pressure from family was at a peak and currently the single most stressful aspect of the entire post-earthquake ordeal; far outstripping nuclear concerns or fears of another earthquake.

At around 5:30 I ventured out to a private English lesson I’d scheduled the week before. Most of my other students had cancelled, but I think by Thursday English seemed like a welcomed distraction. We had to adjust our meeting time and place due to power conservation closings, but managed to meet at a nearby Starbucks for an hour of trading earthquake experience, talking about nuclear fallout, and discussing parental pressure. It was a very memorable lesson.

Signs that life goes on – the newest seasonal offering at Starbucks Japan: Cocoa Cappuccino

By the time I got back home it was starting to become apparent that weren’t likely to follow through on the earlier panic in the immediate future, though the possibility still remained open for later on; and by Friday morning we were feeling much more confident and at peace about our situation and decisions (or lack thereof) so far. The suitcases that Eric had hauled out the day before never actually got packed, and Friday progressed as though the acute anxiety of Thursday morning had never happened.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2011 2:15 am

    I would like a cocoa cappuccino.

    • March 20, 2011 2:18 am

      Come visit…

      Bet you’d have no problem booking a ticket on short notice…


      • March 20, 2011 3:08 am

        lol….like I said, in a while, I’d like to. :)

        • March 20, 2011 11:33 am

          Well if I knew all it would take was a massive, life-altering disaster… >_>

          • March 22, 2011 8:03 am

            And money. I said I wanted to come again last year, but I was broke city and couldn’t scrounge up the airfare. =\

  2. March 20, 2011 3:32 am

    It’s hard not to panic when the news sites are running rampant and we wonder what is real, how much isn’t being told or if it’s being over dramatized. Even here on the west coast of the US, people are going crazy buying KI, just in case. I’ve just about had it with the news coverage, but at the same time I want to keep updated with you in case more happens. The big thing for me though out of all of this, we are working on having an earthquake plan in place for our family. It’s taken me 30 years of living in earthquake country to do this.

    Those donuts and Cocoa Cappuccino look amazing!

    • March 20, 2011 2:36 pm

      It’s been very strange, because the news here and the overseas/expert articles I’ve been pointed to on Twitter, etc. all seem to agree that even worst case scenario shouldn’t have much effect on Tokyo, but friends and family were contacting us with articles and information saying the absolute opposite. No matter how informed and smart you feel about a situation, that kind of divergence really screws with your confidence levels.

      I heard that the panic KI buying extended all the way to Minnesota, even! It would be comical if not for reports that the US panic buying is affecting supplies here.. =/

      Doughnut Plant is always amazing.. I wish I could pack some up and send them to prove it, but sadly they really the kind of need to be eaten on the day they were baked..

  3. March 20, 2011 9:51 am

    Hi Maya,

    I am an American English teacher living in Tokyo with my Canadian fiancee, and we definitely agree with you, so far the worst stress from all this comes from family and friends having a world class freak out back home and demanding that we get on a plane this instant. A handful of our friends and coworkers have left for the rest of the month, and in 2 cases it was because their parents gave them an ultimatum. I feel it’s especially bad for those of us under 30 because our parents still think of us as kids and feel the need to be overprotective, which, though well-intended, is not really helpful at this point! As of now (Sunday) nerves have at least decreased, both here and overseas, but I’m still mad at all of those sensationalist foreign “journalists” who wrote completely false and over-sensationalized stories just to whip up a frenzied readership back home. You may find this interesting, if you haven’t seen it already!

    Basically, my approach has been: live life as normal, keep an eye on the news, reduce power usage at home, keep our wallets/passports/important papers on us, and throughly enjoy the surprise week off from work
    Take Care!

    • March 20, 2011 3:07 pm

      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! It’s really comforting to have some back up on this issue, though I’ve been hearing the same from all over town. Among our friends we know of three that have temporarily left the country, and several more who are down south or in Kansai waiting things out. Thankfully, we’ve also got quite a few who are toughing things out here, which has been really helping to mitigate the “am I just plain nuts?” thoughts that sometimes still sometimes work their way in.

      We have been living with pretty much the same approach, minus the time off from work.. though this upcoming week will be another story for me on that front!

      BTW, I checked out your blog as well and see you are originally from San Francisco? So am I! :D

  4. Lydia permalink
    March 20, 2011 8:42 pm

    Dear Maya,
    I actually have a scheduled holiday to Tokyo on April 1st – 9th. Frankly, I am not scared about the earthquake or radiation but would like to hear some advise from you folks in Tokyo. Since we are outside Japan, we have limited info though constantly checking for updates online. My real concern is whether visiting Tokyo these time would actually burden the people affected in Tokyo or Japan since hearing that food & power is limited there.

    • March 20, 2011 9:22 pm

      Hi Lydia, thanks so much for stopping by!

      I’m not really qualified to offer any real travel advice, but I can assure you that situation here in Tokyo is probably not as dire as it may seem from the foreign media. I was out and about today, and can say that the Shinjuku area was crowded and lively as usual, though many stores are still closing early to conserve power. There have been some specific localized food shortages (such as milk and packaged foods), and power shortages are likely to continue through April, but in all honestly neither of those is likely to affect you too much as a visitor; nor are you likely to place any significant burden on Japan by coming here.

      I think you need to decide for yourself what you are comfortable with on this matter, but here’s another perspective that might be worth considering: Tourism in Japan is going to take a big hit from the recent events, and that is going to cost the country a lot of lost income. If you are unconcerned about radiation or the possibility of the occasional aftershock, then I say by all means come and inject your money into the Japanese economy. Seeing foreigners coming and declaring that they are not afraid will go a long way towards helping this country recover.

      Also, April 1st would put you right at the peak of Sakura time, which is absolutely the most beautiful time of year in Japan.

  5. Sarah Lang permalink
    March 21, 2011 11:55 am

    “…last week my main worry had been … whether or not I’d be able to convince Eric to take kickboxing with me.” Did you convince him? I just can’t picture it happening. I really hope you do.
    After reading this & your newest update, I’m just thinking about two things- yummy donuts, and the thought of finding some sort of aerobics place, just so I can possibly work out to “gettin’ jiggy with it”. I think that would be mighty enjoyable.

    • March 21, 2011 6:11 pm

      I think I was actually close! I found out about the class from Eric’s ex-coworker/friend last weekish. He goes every week, and it’s apparently taught by one of their drinking buddies, so that was giving me a lot more leverage that usual in getting him to come along. I was really looking forward to going on Thursday night, but then the earthquake happened and well.. you know. =/

      I LOVE LOVE LOVE my group classes! The music is all over the place and changes every few months and the choreography is a lot of fun, especially for certain songs. This is a bit out-dated but here’s an example of some of the older releases we’ve done in Group Kick:

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