Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Half-life equation for radioactive decay

Up at 6:20am. Check the latest news on the reactors and there's nothing new. I've read enough to know things should be fine in Chiba. Shower, shave and out the door at 7am to catch my 10am flight to Narita Airport. Pick up some breakfast at the 7/11 - hot soy milk and a rice ball, and make for the Airport Express.

Arrive at Seoul Incheon Int'l Airport at 8:20am and it's the busiest I've seen it. There are large numbers of Japanese passengers at the Asiana Airlines check-in counter for flights to Osaka, Tokyo and Nagoya, and the atmosphere is tense. People don't seem so pleased to be returning. I go through security and pick up some omiyage for my supervisors - two boxes of Korean ginseng chocolates, and wait to board my flight.

The 335 passenger Airbus A330-300 is relatively empty. I sit next to a young Korean man and try to make conversation but he seems nervous. I move to an empty row before take off and fall asleep.

We're the only flight in the baggage claim area. The customs agent looks at my backpack and asks if I've been hiking. "No. This is my suitcase." Where are you coming from? South Korea. He takes a quick look and let's me go. There are four people waiting for family and friends outside customs. I've never seen Narita arrivals so calm.

I'm approaching the train terminal when a conductor rushes over and asks where I'm going - "The train is about to leave!" It's 2:58pm and the train leaves at 3pm. I check the schedule and the next train departs at 4pm. That's unusual. They normally leave every 30 minutes. I pull out my Suica card and run through the gate and down the escalator. I'm on the train 20 seconds before the doors close. There are five people in my car.

More people board as we head towards Chiba. The spirit is subdued and the people sitting across from me are fast asleep. Nothing unusual there.

I arrive at Chiba Station and things seem more alive. The lights in the main building are still off or dimmed, but people are going about their business as usual and most of the trains are running. An older woman greets me with a smile as I near my apartment. Things seem to be getting back to normal. And the weather is beautiful!

My apartment is just as I'd left it. I put my bags down and start unpacking, prepare the small gifts for my supervisors and head to the Board of Education (BOE). They should be expecting me. I bicycle past the Top Mart grocery store and find it's closed - permanently. That's unsettling.

I ride the elevator to the 11th floor and find them at their desks. At first they seem a little hesitant - my assistant supervisor barely pauses to acknowledge my return and carries on with his work. Something's up. The first questions after "how was your trip?" is "what is your plan for the future?" I tell them things seem to be getting back to normal and it is my plan to stay and finish my contract. The weight is lifted - they seem overjoyed. My assistant supervisor stands up from his desk with a big smile and tells me he's relieved to hear I'm staying. He'd be out of work if I left! After greeting the new president of the BOE, we return to their desks to catch up. I've got half a dozen important questions to ask.

"Will the new semester start on Monday as scheduled?" Yes. Classes will resume as scheduled along with a full school lunch.

"What is the situation with the electricity and rolling blackouts?" At the moment there are no rolling blackouts. The power company has asked us to use electricity conservatively as it carefully measures demand. It is possible rolling blackouts will commence in the coming weeks. There will be restrictions on A/C use this summer. It will be hot!

"Can we drink the tap water?" Yes. There is no problem with the tap water.

"Are the trains running at full capacity?" Most lines are running at full capacity during the week. Some are still running at 70-90% capacity. The weekend schedules have been reduced.

"What is being done to monitor the food supply for contamination?" All food items entering local supermarkets are being carefully monitored for contamination. Specific food are no longer being imported from Fukushima, Ibaraki, and some parts of Chiba. Contaminated food is being removed from the supply chain.

"I noticed Top Mart closed." Growing competition from nearby supermarkets was exacerbated by problems in the supply chain following the earthquake. It was only a matter of time.

Near the end of our conversation my supervisor tells me they've got good news. The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), the government agency which overseas the JET Programme, sent a letter to municipal and prefectural BOEs concerning JETs who took leave as a result of the events surrounding the March 11th earthquake, stating that they are authorized to give us paid leave for the duration of our terms of absence. Since I left Japan the government raised the nuclear crisis level on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) from Level 4 to Level 5 on a seven-level scale - "Accident with Wider Consequences." Apparently, this was enough to justify paid leave. That is good news! Albeit a little disconcerting.

I present their omiyage and bid farewell. As I round the corner, my assistant supervisor calls me back and offers me a small sweet with a big smile. I'm glad I decided to stay.

I follow their directions to a nearby supermarket to pick up some food. It's busy and most of the shelves are fully stocked, though they're clear out of yogurt and bottled water. Lots of milk, though. I pick up some apples and bananas, onions, garlic and tomatoes. I'm making dal!

Drop off the groceries and remember it's Tuesday, the quiet night at the barber shop, and I'm in bad need of a haircut. I hop on my bike and ride to the barber's. He's the first one I've frequented with which I'm on a first name basis and we catch up in broken English and Japanese. I saw him last on the Tuesday before the earthquake.

Make dal and rice for dinner and Skype with my siblings and old friends. I drink some filtered tap water but it tastes funny. I clean out my Brita filter and try again. Still tastes strange. Must be in my head. Everything else seems fine.

It's good to be home.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Up at 7:20am, showered, packed and at the travel agent's for 8:30am. She's just arrived and has my visa-stamped passport ready on her desk. Given my current time frame for China (March 23rd - April 4th) and the distance I hope to travel, I've decided to fly one-way into Beijing and out again through Shanghai. I ask her for the cheapest ticket options, and she tells me it's significantly more expensive than the return flight I was thinking of before. One-way tickets usually are. So I settle on the cheapest one-way ticket to Beijing leaving this week, and get a seat on Air China Flight 126 leaving at 6:10pm tonight.

Passport and ticket in hand, I realize I have just enough won to get me to the airport, but not enough to eat breakfast or lunch, so I stroll the area in search of a bank. After changing some money, I decide to return home to rest before my flight. I didn't get much sleep last night, and a 6:10pm flight gives me lots of time to research flights out of Shanghai and get to some of those e-mails I haven't had a chance to write.

Scouring the major budget airlines, I find an incredible deal on a Shanghai - Seoul flight on April 4th. I snap it up, and write my cousin outside of Beijing. : "Just booked a one way ticket to Beijing, CA 126 departing tonight (Wednesday, March 23rd) at 18:10pm, arriving at Beijing Capital Airport at 19:20pm. Departing Shanghai the afternoon of April 4th." I send a few more before getting her response at 1:00pm:

"YIKES!!!!! BAD NEWS!!! You are coming in too late to take the last fast train here. Perhaps you should go to a hostel in Beijing." I check the train schedule and she's absolutely right. Last train leaves Beijing South Station at 7:45pm, and it's far too expensive to take a taxi. We exchange a few more emails regarding alternative means of transportation, but it's not looking good. I have to leave my apartment at 3:00pm at the absolute latest to make my flight, and I don't know where I'm staying tonight.

Start looking into hostels and find one that seems alright for a reasonable price. I'm examining a map of central Beijing when I remember an old friend from Ottawa who's an intern at the Canadian Embassy there. I was going to write her when I arrived at my cousin's place, but figure I might as well write her now. She responds at 2:25pm asking if I have a place to stay. "Do you have space for a night?" She sends me her phone number and directions at 2:41pm and I'm out the door at 3pm.

Seoul Incheon International Airport is silent, and I'm the only person at the check-in counter. I ask and the flight is fully booked - gate 102 is packed. I take my seat and sleep through most of the two hour flight. I didn't sleep last night and never had a chance to rest.

Seoul Incheon Int'l Airport, Korea

Land at 7:20pm and Beijing Capital Airport looks and feels like something you'd find on the Moon. It's immense, airy, bright and incredibly modern. I fly through customs, pick up my bag and exchange some yen. It's strong, but speaking with another traveler he tells me it's a bad rate - change only enough for transportation, and change the rest at a bank.

Beijing Capital Airport, China

I switch on my cell and call my friend as I'm heading to the Airport Express. She'll meet me at Dongzhimen Station, the last stop, and she's house-sitting a 5 minute walk from there. She's waiting outside the gate when I arrive and it's so great to see her. I had been trying to recall the last time we met, but couldn't remember - a mix of memories of summers and winters in Chelsea, Ottawa and Montreal. Turns out it was a brief visit in Montreal some 3 years earlier, and years before that.

The apartment is lovely - the home of Embassy personnel on personal leave. We catch up over French Canadian music and jasmine tea, and she's pulling out a stack of books on China and Beijing when it hits me - I made it, I'm finally here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Up at 7am to visit the elementary school where my friend teaches English. Having taught in several junior high schools in Chiba City, I'm intrigued to learn more about the Korean system. The school is gorgeous, newly renovated and set atop a hill overlooking Seoul. The teachers each have their own classroom with central heating and in my friend's case, a private office connected to his classroom by a door. The classroom is equipped with the latest technology, including a 56 inch 1080P touchscreen LCD linked to a computer with high speed internet and a digital visualizer.

We have four morning classes; three 6th grade and one 4th grade, and the English level is astounding. Each class is conducted entirely in English, and the students have no problem at all keeping up. Overall, they appear highly motivated and eager to learn.

6th Grade Student, Seoul

4th Grade Student, Seoul

A few nights ago, my friend received a text message over dinner from an old chum on his way to Seoul. Turns out this old chum happens to be an old friend of mine from the same JET pre-departure orientation group leaving Montreal the summer of 2009. We had been close in the days leading up to our departure, but lost touch when we moved to opposite sides of Japan.

We decide to surprise him tonight over shabu-shabu, and the shock on his face is priceless.

After dinner, I catch a train to the other side of Seoul to meet another Korean friend from high school in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Following her undergrad in the States, she returned to Seoul to pursue an MA in Political Science at Seoul National University, and get in touch with her roots. Catching up over green tea lattes, she tells me the bizarre account of how a former teacher of ours was recently picked up by Interpol in New Delhi on murder charges that date back some 20 years. My heart goes out to his wife and two young sons. I can't imagine the turmoil they must be facing right now.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Do some laundry - washed and dried for the equivalent of $1.30 CAD. Almost three times less than drying my laundry in Japan ($3.60 CAD). Other things that don't cost as much are riding the subway and bus: 0.87 CAD to go pretty much anywhere in the city, and food: anywhere between $6 to $10 CAD dollars for dinner.

Something else I love about Seoul is how relaxed and upbeat it is. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I'm on vacation, but this city feels warm and full of life.

After throwing my laundry in the wash, I call the travel agent to get an update on my visa - should be ready on Wednesday. If all goes well, this means picking up my passport and visa at the travel agency in downtown Seoul Wednesday at 8:30am, buying my ticket and departing to Beijing at 1:05pm. Cutting it close, but certainly doable.

I firm up some plans to meet with an old Korean friend I went to high school with in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Following her undergrad in the States, she returned to Korea to work for the Seoul chapter of a global marketing and advertising research company based in New York, and has been putting in 9am - 2am shifts the past week to meet an important deadline. We decide to meet for a quick bite of dinner at 7pm.

It's been about seven years since I saw her last, but feels like no time has passed at all - why does that always seem to be the case? After catching up she describes some of the challenges of working in South Korean society once one's lived abroad. Apparently there's little room for self expression. It's the boss's way, or he tells you to correct your attitude. She's discouraged and wants to share her views, but feels she must ultimately comply. I understand the case is similar in Japan.

Earlier today, a Japanese friend posted an interesting anecdote from Tohoku on his Facebook wall: "...people were shivering in the shelters, but the relief staff from the government rejected giving blankets to the stricken people saying 'the order is not given yet'... [a member of the Japan Family Farmer's Movement] ripped the bags of blankets and gave the blankets away. There are people like that as well..."

After dinner, I stroll along Cheonggyecheon, an 8.4km long river in downtown Seoul, and let the fresh evening air work its wonders.

Cheonggyecheon River, Seoul

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Meet some friends outside my building at 2pm, and catch a bus to the War Memorial Museum of Korea. Although it's not something I'd usually choose to do on the last day of the Fast, this year's Fast has been anything but usual. I've been five days in a state that's technically still at war and feel compelled to learn more about it.

The museum is flanked on both sides by tanks, planes, helicopters, missiles and anti-aircraft guns, some of which you can climb on top of or explore within. I'm surprised to find the majority of visitors are Koreans with young kids.

Entrance to the War Memorial Museum of Korea, Seoul

We set up a free guided tour and are paired with a Korean-American lawyer who just returned to Korea with her husband's work. We opt for the 90 minute tour on the Korean War, and are joined by a group of five French students studying in Seoul. Once the slight bias is accounted for, the exhibit and tour proves highly informative, and revives my faith in the UN - over 25 nations from all five continents participated under the auspices of the UN between June 1950 and July 1953. Curiously, there's no exhibit on the Japanese occupation. It's made clear however that Korean students are thoroughly acquainted with the facts in school.

Following an afternoon at the museum, we take a taxi to Seoul Square, where the Baha'i Naw Ruz celebration is set to start at 6:30pm. It's a buffet style dinner with over 60 guests from Seoul and surrounding areas, followed by a program including music, prayers and performances by the local youth. Many of the friends are curious to know the situation in Japan and assure me their prayers go out to the people of that land. I can tell the Koreans feel great compassion for Japan, and throughout my time in Seoul I've seen dozens of groups fund raising for various charities and relief organizations. From what I've read about earthquake and tsunami relief operations and the nuclear power plants, the situation is gradually improving. I sense this tragedy is providing a rare opportunity for healing and international understanding and cooperation between the nations.

Celebrating Naw Ruz with the Seoul Baha'i community was both brilliant and completely unforeseen. I had been looking forward to celebrating with friends in Tokyo, and now feel like I've abandoned the entire Japanese community, and failed some kind of simple test - do I serve humanity during a challenging time, or run for my own protection? I feel like I ran.

At the same time I do feel like I'm here for a reason. I feel like the earthquake shook me up and out of whatever spiritual-psychological rut I was in, and put me directly on a path I'd been too timid to pursue; namely, finishing my tour of the Far East. Attachments to the future which had earlier preoccupied my mind at once completely vanished. What I do six months from now is of relatively little concern.

The MCs, Seoul Baha'i Naw Ruz Celebration

Playing True or False Trivia, Seoul Baha'i Naw Ruz Celebration

Snippet from a youth performance, Seoul Baha'i Naw Ruz Celebration

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Up at 10:45am. Realize I've been using conditioner instead of shampoo since I got here. A good sign I'm still adjusting.

Check out my Facebook newsfeed and find more friends have left Japan. In fact, about as many have left as remain. I still have mixed feelings about leaving, but it helps to know I haven't left as many behind. It's unfortunate we're not in better touch. I imagine everyone's being inundated with e-mails from family and friends.

Meet up with a friend at 1pm, and decide to explore some different districts and take a hike up Namsan, a 262 meter peak overlooking Seoul. I step outside and my eyes well up with tears. I'm told it's dust from Mongolia and China kicked up by strong winds and carried to Seoul. My eyes seem to get used to it, but it's not so pleasant to breathe.

Asian Dust, Seoul

It's a warm afternoon, and despite the dust people are out in numbers - shopping, eating, talking, laughing. I'm in my t-shirt and it's beginning to feel like I'm on vacation.

Myeongdong Market, Seoul

Myeongdong Market, Seoul

Friday, March 18, 2011

Wake up at 10am. It's the first morning I've slept in for weeks, but somehow I don't feel rested.

I've got a message from a new friend with several links to reputable travel agencies who cater to foreign clientele. I narrow my options to two agencies who offer to send your passport to the Chinese Consulate in Busan for you, and call them for quotes.

Around 11:30am, a voice comes on over the apartment's internal PA system. A man speaks for a few minutes in Korean and it turns off. That was unusual. I've never been in an apartment with a PA system before, and am reminded that South Korea isn't much more stable than Japan these days. Fortunately it didn't sound urgent.

I scribble down the directions to the travel agency and walk out the door. Another sunny day in Seoul. I get lost and ask a young woman for directions - she doesn't speak much English but seems more than happy to help. She offers to call the travel agency and points me in the right direction.

The travel agency's empty. I explain the situation and it turns out my travel agent's brother also lives in Chiba City, and she's begging him to come home. That's a coincidence. She helps me fill out the visa application forms, and suggests I don't write my Japanese address - there's still some sensitivity there, so I write my Canadian one instead. I don't want to book a flight until my visa goes through, so we decide to confirm things on Monday and we'll book it then. What a relief!

I've got a few hours before I meet some friends for dinner, so I take a walk around Deoksugung Palace. Things are starting to come together.

Deoksugung Palace, Seoul

Deoksugung Palace, Seoul

Taepyeongno Boulevard, Seoul

Some local Baha'is pick me up at 7:30pm and take me out for a traditional Korean barbecue dinner. After dinner, I'm invited to my new friend's apartment, where his wife has just baked some fresh apple crumble. We discuss the state of affairs in Japan, and North Korea - South Korea relations over apple crumble, ice cream and tea. Things are so normal it's strange.

Sokalbi (marinated beef ribs), Hongdae

Homestyle Korean, Hongdae

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hongdae, Seoul

The phone rings at 10:45am. I jump out of bed to receive it, and it's a friend of the friend whose apartment I'm staying at. He's wondering if everything's okay and if I need any help. I tell him I'm trying to see family in China, but the Internet is suggesting I need a Korean Alien Registration Card to apply for a visa. I might try the Chinese Consulate in Busan. He suggests I call the Canadian Embassy first to see what assistance they can offer.

The Canadian Embassy to Korea isn't very helpful. I explain the situation, and they tell me to get a Korean Alien Registration Card. "I don't live here." "In that case, you should probably call the Chinese Embassy."

None of the numbers I find for the Embassy work. One finally goes through but the automated voice messaging system is Chinese and Korean. No English. I continue researching visas to China and learn that what I really need to do is contact an authorized travel agency. I call one and the agent doesn't speak English. I'll try again later.

I check Facebook and Gmail, and find a message from an old Korean friend I went to high school with in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who's at graduate school in Seoul. I've also received a message from a Korean Baha'i I'd written last night inviting me to the Naw Ruz celebration on Sunday. I wonder if I'll be here.

Skype with my sister and tell her the situation with the visa. She tells me I'm crazy - I just left Chiba after five days of physical and psychological instability. Take a break. That's probably a good idea. I need to cut myself some slack and somehow enjoy this unforeseen, involuntary vacation.

I spend some time cleaning up the apartment - partly as a small token of my gratitude for the openhanded use of this veritable retreat, but mostly to keep my mind from wandering back to a growing sense of guilt. I might physically be in Korea, but my heart, my soul and my friends are still in Japan. After I shower I sit down to say some prayers. There is so much to pray for - I've felt protected and guided through this entire experience. For Japan, the innocent lives that have been ended or thoroughly changed forever, and for friends and those 50 nameless workers who stayed behind. How can we thank them enough?

I'm hit with a massive wave of exhaustion and need to put my head down. I wake up famished at 5:50pm. I haven't eaten anything since dinner last night.

Mountains ring Seoul, Korea

Pojangmacha (street stalls), Seoul

Night life, Seoul

There are Japanese restaurants everywhere selling food I've never seen in Japan. The first word I'd use to describe Korea is fusion. Seoul feels so much more living than the city I left. I explore the area and sit down in a Starbucks to collect my thoughts.

I return home and Skype with a friend from Christchurch, New Zealand, whose house was destroyed in the February 22nd earthquake. She tells me she's still running on adrenaline, and invariably crashes every couple days. Still? She reminds me to look to the end of things, and that helps a little.

To bed at 1:30am.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's 6:20am and I pick myself up off the marble floor. It's going to be crazy downstairs and I want to get there ahead of the lines.

International departures is packed. How did they get here so fast? I check my flight number and look it up on the flight status board. JL 3083 is not on the board. In fact, there are no flights to Seoul departing at 9:30am. There are flights leaving at 9:20am and 9:50am but they have different flight numbers. Everything is hazy - I'm so tired I can't think straight. Since my flight is operated by Japan Airlines (JAL) I decide to stand in the JAL line, which stretches more than half the width of the terminal, and wait for a staff member to walk by.

There are so many people, there's no way I'll make it for my 9:30am flight. I munch on a banana I packed the night before. I'm not fasting today. I probably shouldn't have been fasting before. A staff member walks by. He's swarmed by confused passengers and I wait till they're gone before I grab his attention. "I'm looking for flight JL 3083 to Seoul at 9:30am" "At 9:30am?" "Yes, through Nagoya." "Ah. That's domestic. Downstairs."

Domestic! It's 7:20am and I pray it's not as crazy as this. To my horror, there's a massive group of passengers assembling in front of the check-in counter. As I get closer, I find they're only assembling - they're not in line. There are only five people in front of me.

7:35am and I have over an hour before boarding time. I text some friends and tell them what I'm seeing. "I'm at domestic departures and it's super quiet compared to the madness upstairs. If you decide to go, or know others interested in leaving, I recommend you fly your first leg domestic. Definitely don't fly JAL." I return to the international terminal to snap some photos. The number of passengers is overwhelming. Most of the languages I'm hearing are Chinese and Korean.

Terminal 2 Domestic Departures at 7:40am, Narita Airport

Terminal 2 International Departures at 7:50am, Narita Airport

I board the first leg to Nagoya and sit down beside a German banker whose firm is sending her home. I ask about the situation in Tokyo and she says it's really strange. The streets of Roppongi are deserted - all the foreigners have been sent home and the Japanese aren't leaving their houses. The plane approaches takeoff, and I excuse myself from the conversation. I'm not feeling so well. I'm asleep before we're in the air.

The sound of the seat belt chime wakes me. We've landed in Nagoya. I walk with my new friend to pick up our luggage. My next flight leaves in less than an hour and there's no line at check-in - I'm the last passenger on a fully booked flight to Seoul. I'm asleep before we taxi for takeoff and wake up on the other side. I wasn't awake long enough to fill out my landing card.

12:15pm. Seoul Incheon International Airport is stunning. The jet bridge connecting the plane to the terminal is made entirely of glass. I fill out my customs declaration form as the customs line grows longer and longer. I'm in no rush. The customs officer asks me for the address where I'm staying. "I don't know." "Why?" "I'm coming from Tokyo..." He returns my passport and call the next passenger. That seems to do the trick. I'm in Seoul, and although I wish it was under different circumstances, it's really exciting to be here.

Incheon International Airport, Seoul

Airport Train Terminal, Seoul Incheon International Airport

I exchange some yen for won, and make my way to the airport train. The only directions I have to my friend's apartment are "Hongdae Station" and "the Magellan building across from the exit." Things were so hectic on Tuesday we didn't have time to exchange more information. I scan the city transit map twice - there's no Hongdae Station. I ask around and everyone's telling me I want Hongik. I suppose I'll give it a try.

I step off the train at Hongik Station and am confronted with 9 different exits. That's interesting. I wonder which exit the Magellan building sits across from. I check a couple and find nothing. I ask a police officer, but he doesn't know. I run into another two down the street and they walk me to the door. Yes! The apartment has a gorgeous view. I plug in my laptop and send my family an email letting them know I've landed safely and Facebook the friend whose place I'm staying at. He writes back. He's just sent his wife and their guest to Kyushu in southern Japan.

5pm and a hot shower's never felt so good. I change into some fresh clothes and start looking into getting a visa to China. Looks like I can't get one at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul without a Korean Alien Registration Card (ARC). Apparently, you can only get a visa at the Chinese Embassy in your country of residence. I keep on searching and find a message on a forum saying I can get a visa in Busan without an ARC. A quick google reveals Seoul to Busan is two and a half hours by bullet train. That could be fun. I Skype with my brother and we talk about my decision to leave Chiba. As difficult as it was, I think it was the right thing to do. The region is really unstable right now, and no one really knows what's going on.

Hongdae Distric, Seoul

I do some research on the area I'm staying in. Turns out Hongdae is the place to be - the entertainment and clubbing district of Seoul and home to the most famous school of Fine Arts and Design in the country. It's 7pm before I leave the apartment in search of food. I walk around the university district. I haven't really eaten since dinner on Tuesday, about 24 hours earlier, and I'd love some good Korean food. I look for a place popular with the university students and find one that looks promising. I sit down and order a "fire chicken with cheese - 100% natural cheese." It's soft chicken on a plate of melted cheese, and by far the spiciest dish I've had in a while. I watch the news as I eat. Back-to-back earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear reactors in Japan.

I get home and go to bed around midnight.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wake at 5:20am. I'm super tired, but don't remember waking during the night. The aftershocks seem to be subsiding, but I don't get the idea that's a good thing.

I check new mail on my phone and have a letter from my brother with a link to a Nature article saying the increased earthquake risk is heightened particularly for the Tokyo area and the 9.0 was only an aftershock of a 7.2 on the 9th of March. There are also warm invitations from family in Beijing and friends in Montreal inviting me to come stay with them.

I make some porridge and receive a phone call from my supervisor at 5:30am - the Sobu local line to Tokyo is running at 70% capacity. My co-workers should be able to get to work but the Sotobo line which I use is canceled today. He asks me to let them know and check in at the BOE at 8 o'clock. No word on the power cuts.

The JMA website registered eleven sizable aftershocks while I was sleeping. Maybe you really can get used to anything. Or I'm just really tired.

Both the Japanese and foreign news are talking about an increasingly critical situation with the nuclear reactors. At what point do you leave?

I call my school to let them know I can't make it today, and ask how things are going. My colleague tells me they're only having class till 11:30am, and lunch consists of milk and a piece of bread. On the upside the kids get the afternoon off and it's a beautiful day.

The elevators are working at the BOE, so I ride up to the main office on the 11th floor. I sit down with my supervisor and discuss the latest news. Power cuts to be expected from 3:20 - 6:20pm. He also spoke with the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), who overseas the JET Programme, about evacuation procedures and they told him that we should wait a few days to see what happens with the nuclear reactors before considering evacuation. Should we evacuate, the entire cost is shouldered by the individual and is in no way the responsibility of CLAIR. There are a few Chiba Prefecture JETs who've already left, but most are still here.

My supervisor asks about my food situation and says it might take till the end of the week for grocery stores to be restocked. I tell him I'm fine for a few days, and my co-workers and I are looking out for each other. Not to worry. I decide to take the stairs down.

On my way to see how things are progressing downtown I get a phone call from a friend who's also off work today. I invite him over for 10am.

I arrive at Chiba Station at 8:50am and some of the lights are off and things are super quiet for rush hour. Only a few local trains to Tokyo and Narita Airport are operating, and there aren't nearly as many people as I'd expected. Most of the stores are still closed so I head across town to the 24/7 grocers and pick up some more supplies. There are no lines at this hour, and they've restocked their supply of 2L water bottles. While some shelves have yet to be restocked, things seem to be getting back to normal. I pick up 3 bottles of water (bringing my total stock to 5), a couple cans of non-perishable foods, and a lighter.

Chiba Station is open and select lines are running at 70% capacity, Chiba City

As I'm walking out of the store I get a text from my friend asking if I've been watching the news the last hour. "No. What's up?" "The 4th reactor blew and they think this one may have actually blown."

My new found sense of normalcy is shattered. This is getting out of hand. I bike straight home to clean up a bit before my friend arrives. We catch up on where we were at the time and how things have been since the earthquake. His parents want him to come home. Mine want the same. We go over the news on the explosion at the fourth reactor. It seems like things are spinning out of control. We talk about some of the positive outcomes that could result from these dire circumstances, such as unifying the country and the world in one common cause and say some prayers for Japan. We read some material prepared by the Ruhi Institute on arising to serve, and my parents call just as he’s leaving around 11:45am.

They’ve read the news on the fourth reactor – the fire is out of control and the workers have evacuated the plant, and they’re adamant I leave the country now. Two minutes later my brother’s phoning me on Skype. I tell my parents I’ll call them back. My brother tells me I have to go now and he’s found me a ticket to Montreal leaving Narita at 3pm and is ready to book it. When do I want to return? Good question! I tell him I’ll never make it. I haven’t packed, the trains are infrequent and I haven’t confirmed with my supervisor. I jump up and grab my backpack from the top shelf of my closet. I don’t want to leave – I don’t even think I can make it – but the people I care about most are telling me I don’t have a choice.

I’m throwing my favorite clothes in my backpack and my brother's on Skype on the phone with a travel agent finalizing my ticket. As soon as I’ve got the most essential pieces together, I call my supervisor and ask if he’s seen the latest news. He hasn’t. I tell him about the fire at the fourth reactor, that the Prime Minister of Japan has just made a statement on national television regarding the urgency of the situation and that my parents want me to leave the country at once. He says he’ll turn on the TV and phone me back in five minutes.

I hang up and my brother’s ready to book my flight. I tell him I won’t make it. He asks the agent about flights leaving later this afternoon or tomorrow. She has one leaving at the same time tomorrow but the price jumps another $700. This is it. But even if I left this moment and got my supervisor’s permission on the train I don’t think I’ll make it – not to mention the chaos I’ll meet at Narita. Can we book it and cancel it later? Not without a $300 changing fee. I tell him to drop it. He thanks the travel agent and we’re back where we started. My parents phone me again. I tell them I don’t want to go but I’m willing and working with my brother to find a way home. I’ll call them back when we do.

There’s nothing left. All the tickets to Canada and Tanzania (where my parents are working with the Canadian High Commission) are overpriced or completely sold out. Plan B: get the cheapest ticket out. Hong Kong for $800, but he’s told he has to call the airline and he can’t get through. Seoul and Taipei for $1500, but he has to call the airline. Beijing for $2500. Ulaan Baatar for $3200. This isn’t working. And the prices are jumping every couple minutes. I pause for a moment and think about where I’d like to go as opposed to what is available. I’d love to go to China and stay with my cousin, but I don’t have a visa and that will take a couple days. I’ve always wanted to go to Korea, and I just might have a place I can stay. It starts coming together – I’ll look for a flight to Seoul where I’ll get my visa for a flight to Beijing. I’ve finished packing and sit down at the computer to help my brother search. Everything’s coming back fully booked. But what’s this? 4 tickets to Seoul Wednesday morning for $800. I jump on it and start filling in the information. I pull out my phone and call a friend in Tokyo who’s got an apartment in Seoul he’s said I can crash at. It’s cool. I fill in my credit card info and try to book it but it doesn’t go through. It’s a new credit card and I forgot to authorized it. My brother gives me his credit information before the booking expires and I lose the ticket. Do I really have to go? What about my supervisor? He never called me back. My brother tells me to buy it.

It’s 1:35pm, and I’ve just bought a ticket to Seoul returning April 5th. I didn’t see that coming this morning. I have two more hours before the power cut and tons to do. How do I get to the airport? I don’t even know if the trains will be running tomorrow. I wait for the confirmation e-mail before I Skype my parents. They’re thrilled. I’m still not sure.

I repack and start cleaning my apartment. I have this sick feeling like I’m never coming back. Why am I leaving? I get a Skype from my brother telling me the French government has just released a statement that the radioactive fallout could arrive in Tokyo by 4pm, and that he thinks I should get to the airport ASAP and spend the night. Given the situation with the trains that might be a good idea. I text my friends and let them know I’m leaving. They’re in complete support of my decision. Their parents are telling them the same thing.

Next on the list is speaking with my supervisor at the BOE and sending my savings to Canada. I drop by the BOE at 2:45pm, and run into the principal of my current school. What luck! I tell him my parents are very worried about me and insist that I leave the country immediately. He’s a little surprised, but understands. I tell him how sorry I am that I can’t say goodbye to the students and staff, but that I’ll drop by as soon as I return. He’s happy to hear that, and wishes me the best.

My supervisor’s not in, so I give him a call. His daughter’s very sick and he’s rushing her to the hospital. I decide it’s not the best time to tell him I’m leaving the country, and hope she’s okay and feeling better soon. I’ll call him back later.

I arrive at Japan Post at 3:00pm with the emergency travel money I had withdrawn on Saturday. The power cut is scheduled to begin in 20 minutes so I’m told to be quick, the post office is closing. I get the necessary forms to transfer my funds to my Bank of Montreal account in Canada, fill them out and hand them in. While I’m waiting for the clerk to confirm the transfer, I receive a call from my friend with the apartment in Seoul. He’s got an address and pass code (no key!). I write them down and the clerk calls me up, hands me my receipt and I’m good to go. It’s 3:19pm.

Chiba Bank is busier than usual and I empty the remainder of my bank account. I already know my balance and it’s just enough to get me through Narita and my first few days in Seoul. I bicycle home. The wind is fierce and my body is screaming. I’ve been fasting on adrenaline since Friday afternoon. I invite my friends for dinner to help finish off my food, and start collecting the emergency supplies and extra food I won’t need anymore. We discuss the escalating situation and they wonder if they shouldn’t be doing the same. I prepare dinner while they search for tickets on the net.

I call my supervisor again at 5:00pm, and tell him what’s going on. He asks me to meet him at the BOE at 6pm. We’ve just finished making dinner when I have to run out the door. I tell my friends to eat without me, and bike to the BOE praying the whole way down. My third time today! My supervisor and assistant supervisor are waiting at their desks. They seem concerned. I start telling them the facts and my assistant supervisor takes out a pen and paper and begins writing them down. “I don’t want to leave Japan, but my parents are very worried about me and insist I leave the country. I’d like to go home to be with my family, but the tickets are either sold out or cost three times the usual price, so I’m flying to Seoul to get a visa to Beijing to stay with my father’s cousin. I depart March 16th and plan to return April 5th.” They’re very supportive and tell me that if they were in my parents’ position they’d feel the same way. I ask them what they’ll do if it gets any worse. They say this is their home, there’s nowhere else to go, and if they leave who will stay? I really love these guys, tell them I’ll keep their families and Japan in my prayers, and wish them the best. The last thing my assistant supervisor says is, “you must come back to Japan!” There’s nowhere else I want to be.

It’s 6:45pm when I get home, and I haven’t broken my fast yet. It’s been 13 hours since I ate or drank anything. I pause for a moment on the stairwell and recite my favorite prayer.

My friends have left me a huge pot of food on the stove and I turn on the burner to warm it up. The electricity’s still on, and they’ve figured out a way to make the Japanese news channel NHK play an English audio translation. So cool!

We clean up the dishes and I see them off with big bags of bottled water and promises to stay in touch. I take out the garbage, turn off the gas, unplug the electronics, turn off the lights and walk out the door at 8:15pm.

Chiba Station is open and I grab the 8:35pm train to Narita Airport. When I had checked Narita’s website earlier in the day, it said that it closed between 11pm and 6am and all passengers not in transit would have to find accommodation in town, so I’m a little worried as to whether I can stay the night, but feel confident some kind of exception must have been made under these extenuating circumstances.

I arrive at 9:45pm and find the airport unusually quiet. People are sleeping or huddled in small groups around an insufficient supply of wall outlets, glued to their phones and laptops. I walk the perimeter of the airport until I find an empty socket down a cul-de-sac. I text my family to let them know I’m all right. Around 10:30pm, the biggest aftershock I’ve felt all day rocks the airport.

Entrance to Terminal 2, Narita Airport

Makeshift cardboard beds, Narita Airport

Passengers stretch out where they can, Narita Airport

Passengers sprawl, Narita Airport

Prepared for a night at the airport, Narita Airport

A woman finds a quiet corner to rest her head, Narita Airport

A group of passengers curl up on the main floor, Narita Airport

A correspondent from CNN calls me around 11:15pm and asks if CNN and "all CNN networks & affiliates, worldwide, on all media in perpetuity" can use my blog and stills. Sure. Why not?

I crash on marble at 4am.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I'm up at 5:20am and receive a phone call a few minutes later from my assistant supervisor informing me that because of the power cuts the trains might be canceled, and if that's the case I don't have to go to school today (I live about 5 minutes from the local train station, and ride the train to and from school every day). He asks me to phone my co-workers and let them know, and then phone him back to confirm the situation. I phone them around 5:30am and find they're both already up.

I'm exhausted. I lost count after 10 powerful aftershocks woke me up through the night.

I check my phone messages and find a message from a Japanese friend telling me:

"Sorry it's late. Just got the schedule... your area belongs to group one and two! But they don't tell us in detail. You will have two power cuts in three hour periods:

Group 1) 6:20-10:00 and 16:50-20:30
Group 2) 9:20-13:00 and 18:20-22:00"

The first thing I wonder is how I'll stay warm. My apartment has no insulation, all my heaters are electric, and it's pretty cold out. The second thing is what will happen to the food in my fridge. How will grocery stores preserve eggs, meat and dairy?

I get another call from my supervisor around 5:50am telling me all the trains will definitely be canceled, and would I please tell my co-workers that we don't have to go to school today.

There are so many phone calls before sunrise that I don't get a chance to eat. I heat up some leftovers from dinner, and gobble them down. I finish about 10 minutes before the Group 1 power cuts and hop in the shower while there's still pressure. When I finish I fill the tub with water to use throughout the day.

Filling my tub with water before the power cut, Chiba City

At 6:40am, I find the power's still on and conclude I must be in Group 2. A pick up truck is driving around the neighborhood with a loudspeaker telling residents that the trains are canceled.

There are so many aftershocks that standing in one place to brush my teeth or do the dishes makes me nauseous. My world feels like it's constantly swaying. Could also be the adrenaline. My friend said it feels like walking on a ship.

I log onto Facebook and find a helpful notice regarding the power cuts on my news feed. Facebook's been wonderful for staying in touch with people since the earthquake. I read a friend's comment about driving around last night looking for gas and finding lots of closed stations, long cues and rationing. Even if I had a kerosene heater, there wouldn't be enough gas to go around.

Helpful Facebook notice

I plug in my phone and change all the settings to conserve battery life in case another earthquake hits during the power outage. I'm reminded of my experience as a child in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War - persistent power cuts and 24/7 threat of evacuation with a packed suitcase under my bed, as well as the fear of aerial bombings and tension you could cut with a knife. The American Int'l School I attended also had several bomb threats. The American Embassy and British High Commission evacuated their personnel and a lot of my friends as soon as things got out of hand. Why Canadian Embassy personnel were under voluntary evacuation and why my parents decided to stay is something I don't understand, but it's an interesting parallel.

Some feelings that return again and again are of my impotence to help those tens of thousands of people up north. As a foreign resident in Japan who doesn't speak Japanese or have any specialized skills, I feel useless.

I meet some friends around 10am to pick up some candles and matches for the evening power outage. Leaving my apartment, I pass an endless line of cars edging towards the highway. Most businesses are closed in anticipation of the power cuts, and the few grocery stores that are open have long cues. We hear rumors that Chiba Station has closed and make our way over to see if it's true. It's hard to believe, but it is. We find 85 people waiting in line for buses to Haneda Airport. We speak to a man standing in line who's making his way to Nagano. We're not sure where everyone else is going.

Line at Tesco, Chiba City

Line at local pharmacy, Chiba City

Line for bus to Haneda Airport, Chiba City

Line for bus to Haneda Airport, Chiba City

Chiba Station is closed, Chiba City

Chiba Station is closed, Chiba City

The local mall, Yodobashi Camera, and all the 100yen stores are also closed. We walk to the 24/7 grocers and find lines that stretch the perimeter of the store. Specific food items such as non-perishables and rice, and all the bottled water have already been cleared out, but people seem pretty calm. I buy some ice to keep my vegetables cool during the power outage, and drop it off at home.

Long lines at the grocery store, Chiba City

My co-workers and I have a meeting every Monday at 2:45pm at the Board of Education (BOE) to discuss upcoming events and stay in touch with our supervisor and assistant supervisor. We get together at my friends house at 1pm to discuss what we'd like to talk about at the meeting. Not something we usually do, but we have some pretty serious questions and want to be prepared. We decide to walk into the meeting as dispassionate and unfazed as possible and see what they have to say. Then, if we still have questions, be diplomatic. They play things down like it's just another Monday meeting and mention things should get back to normal by the end of the week, so we move to our questions.

Question: what's happening with our schools? Are they open? What do we do if the trains continue to be canceled?
Answer: They tell us the president of the school board is making decisions one morning at a time. Same deal with Japan Rail (JR) and the trains. They offer to phone us each morning at 6:30am to tell us whether our school is open and the trains are working. If they're not, we spend another day at home.

Question: Our families are very worried about us and think we should return home while we can. Do you think we should leave?
Answer: The situation is unclear, but at this point we don't think it's necessary. Of course, you are free to do as you please.

Question: If it comes to that, will the BOE assist us in leaving the country?
Answer: As of this moment, you must take unpaid leave and pay your own way home. It's possible that the situation will be reassessed when you return to Chiba (should the situation deteriorate in your absence), and that you will be given special (paid) leave, but that is not to be expected.

In the middle of our discussion on the 12th floor of the BOE the conversation goes silent as the building starts to sway. The creaking noises are chilling. Our supervisors carry on with the rest of the meeting like it's another day at the office, and leave slightly perturbed.

It's 4:20pm, and we've just been informed that the coming power cuts which have been threatened all day and effectively shut down the city will finally take place between 4:50 and 8:20pm. We finish the meeting and decide to check out the grocery store downstairs to see how things are doing. It's a little scary - nothing's been restocked since I was last their on Saturday afternoon, and the shelves are looking mighty bare. We decide to eat together tonight, and pick up a few things for pasta.

At 5:00pm the power's still on. We hear a new press release saying that the power outage has been moved again to between 6:20 - 10:00pm. After dinner, we walk out onto the porch to watch the lights go off. It's 6:30pm, and the power's still on. What's going on? We go back inside, make some tea and watch "Memento." An hour into the movie and the building begins to sway. Back to reality. My parents call near the end of the movie, and tell me I should buy a life jacket in case a big earthquake and tsunami hit the Kanto region. I tell them I'm on the second floor of a four story building, I'll be fine. They tell me there were waves in Touhoku that covered a four story hospital.

I head home and get to bed around 11:00pm.

Waiting for the lights to go out, Chiba City

Sunday, March 13, 2011

I wake up at 5am to make pancakes, meditate and say some prayers, and decide to start a blog to record my experience of this nightmarish ordeal for Japan - the most powerful earthquake on record, a tsunami that has wiped whole towns and villages off the map, two partial nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima and three more reactors facing a similar fate, a death toll expected to rise into the tens of thousands, an uncertain food and fuel supply and incessant aftershocks including a 70% possibility of aftershocks with magnitude of 7 or higher.

First thing I do is check the latest news on the state of the nuclear reactors. At this point, that's the most imminent threat, and the situation is increasingly uncertain. I Skype my brother, and we talk it out. On one side, the Japanese media is doing everything it can to contain the situation and keep the population calm. The foreign networks on the other hand are criticizing the Japanese authorities and Tokyo Electric Power for giving confusing accounts of the situation, and stating it appears to be the worst emergency involving a nuclear plant since Chernobyl.

My brother tells me to get out of Tokyo as soon as possible, but I'm not so sure. I call my friend at City Hall to get an update on the situation. She tells me they've decided to hold school as usual on Monday. Seems like they're listening to the Japanese networks' take on the situation.

I Skype my parents and tell them what's happening. We go over the potential health implications of nuclear fallout, and look up the cost of flights out of Tokyo on Monday: $700 to Seoul, $1000 to Beijing, $1700 to Montreal, $3100 to Dar es Salaam. It's not an easy decision. The Japanese public, my supervisor and school, are all under the impression that things are under control. How strange would it be for me to evacuate the country? That's the catch. Nobody really know what's going on, and once they do (should things deteriorate), it's too late. Roughly 36 million people (the population of the greater Tokyo area) want out, and that's just not possible.

The other option is staying in Chiba City and getting my hands on some potassium iodide which blocks the thyroid's absorption of radioiodine during nuclear fallout and reduces the risk of cancer. The same pills the Japanese government is distributing to those evacuating the afflicted area. Not something I can so easily get a hold of. So my parents find a simple alternative - wakame and nori (seaweed) that is apparently the next best thing, and I just so happen to have two bags full.

I'm curious about what's going on downtown, so I grab my camera and head out to pick up supplies. I'm surprised to find lots of people out shopping for White Day, a Japanese observance exactly one month after Valentine's Day in which men return gifts to women who bought them chocolate. The atmosphere is really somber and strange. It seems people are desperate to get back to life. I walk into the local Perie shopping mall which had been closed on Saturday and find people concentrated in the food section, hurriedly buying up stocks of bottled water and other goods. I pick up a couple bottles of pasta sauce and some AAA batteries for my flashlight and head to the drug store to see if I can find some potassium idodide pills, or ヨウ化カリウム (youka kariumu). The clerk shows me to the dietary supplements section and a bottle containing a few milligrams of potassium. Just as I'd suspected - nowhere to be found.

Loft department store, Chiba City

My Facebook feed is loaded with posts by friends living in the surrounding area. Two in particular catch my eye. One concerns the Prime Minister announcing that there will be three hour power cuts across 8 prefectures starting tomorrow between 6:20am and 10pm, and the other is an emergency evacuation card that I've been reminded to fill out and put in my emergency pack.

I head to bed around 10pm.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

I wake up at 5:20am to eat and drink something before sunrise, say my prayers, and open my laptop. There are dozens of emails from friends and family from around the world. I spend the morning responding to emails, Skyping with my brother and sister in Canada, and following the news. The death toll is rising every hour, and we're finally getting a better picture of just how bad it really is - the tsunami has devastated the coastline, and there are two nuclear reactors that face potential meltdown.

I'm exhausted. Aftershocks as big as regular earthquakes kept me up all night, and have continued into the morning. Along with everyone else in the Kanto area, I'm wondering if we're in for the Big One.

My assistant supervisor calls around 7:30am to see if I'm all right. It seems the phones are working again. I tell him I haven't had gas since the earthquake. He's over about 30 minutes later, and he helps me turn it on again.

My parents phone me in the afternoon. It's the first time we've spoken since the earthquake, and they sound pretty worried. They ask if I've stocked up on enough water and food to last me a few days before things get back to normal, and whether I have enough cash to travel in case of another major earthquake. What was I thinking! Since I'm fasting and haven't been thinking about food, I hadn't visited the grocery store yet. Around 3pm (24 hours after the earthquake), I make my way to the local grocery store to get supplies, passing a major highway that connects Tokyo to southern Chiba. The road moving into Tokyo in chock-a-block gridlocked, while the one moving out of the city is moving freely.

The store is busier than usual, but not crazy. All of the ready made foods - bread, bentos, onigiri, and kimchi, frozen foods, non-perishable items like ramen noodles, as well as meat and water - have all been cleared out. Fresh food stuffs, however, which is the only kind of food I eat, are in full supply. I buy enough fruits, vegetables and yogurt to last me a week, as well as one of the last boxes of Ritz Crackers. Not something I tend to eat, but something I thought might be nice to have in my emergency bag.

Kimchi and tofu almost completely cleared out, Chiba City

Ready-made bentos and onigiri all gone, Chiba City

As I approach the checkout, I see more people filing in and I look at my big basket of food and wonder if I've been greedy. Have I taken too much? Will others go hungry on account of my needs? The old woman behind me has only purchased a few vegetables, enough for a single meal, maybe two. Others have also stocked up, but it doesn't make me feel any better. I suppose I have to take care of myself, but what about the others? I placate myself by promising to share with friends in need, should it come to that.

Next on the list is cash and water. I drop the groceries off at home, and head out in search of cash. Downtown Chiba is eerily quiet for a Saturday afternoon. Many shops and restaurants have posted signs in the window saying they're closed, and the first bank I visit is closed as well. I check out a downtown grocery store, and it's even worse than the first - all the fresh foods are gone, and there's not a bottle of water in sight. It's bustling with people and there are long lines at the cash, so I decide to head deeper downtown. The second bank is open, and I take out enough yen to travel in an emergency. Then I check out the 100yen store above Yodobashi to buy some water. Yodobashi Camera, one of the largest electronic chain stores in the country, is bustling with way more people than usual, and staff have set out carts of flashlights and other random "emergency" electronics by the front door. I go upstairs to the 100yen store, and find a huge stack of 2L water bottles for 100yen. I suppose most people don't equate 100yen stores with water, and I sense this must be one of the last supplies in the city. I buy two bottles and a box of ziplocks and bicycle home.

The local mall closed on Saturday, Chiba City

It's getting close to sunset, so I start making dinner - pumpkin, potato and carrot stew! I say some prayers and break my fast. After dinner, I receive a call from my parents informing me that the nuclear reactor in Fukushima has just exploded, and that I should have a contingency plan to leave the country should the winds change, and the radioactive fallout drift toward Tokyo. I pull up a document I had been reading a few months ago prepared by the US Deptartment of Homeland Security on what to do in the event of a nuclear detonation, Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation and tell them I should be fine. I'm about 280km south of the nuclear reactor and according to this document "The most significant fallout hazard area will extend 10 to 20 miles (16 – 32 km) from ground zero (for a 10 KT explosion), but this will vary with nuclear yield."

They tell me it will vary with nuclear yield. Back to square one. It's late now, and I tell them I don't want to leave the country, but understand I may not have a choice. Every hour the window of opportunity closes a little, as more and more people head to the airport to find a way out. That window is certain to close sooner than later. I tell them I'll make a more informed decision in the morning, and say goodnight.

I call my friend at City Hall to ask how things are going over there. She tells me she'd been asked to translate a notice that school would be held as usual on Monday, but then told not to release it after the reactor explosion. Things aren't looking good.

I repack my emergency bag with everything I might need to leave the country in the morning, and go to bed around 10pm.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Earthquake

It's graduation day at junior high school's across Chiba City. My ceremony finishes at 11:30am, and since it's the Baha'i Fast, and I'm not eating lunch, I'm let off early. "Otsukare sama! Yoi shuumatsu wo!" I head straight home, jump out of my suit and into some more comfortable clothes, and decide to head out to print some photos of my students for an exhibition I'm preparing to mount the following week. I load my photos on a USB stick, grab my camera and 50mm, and check out a few print shops near my apartment, but find them all overpriced. I decide to head to Costco in Makuhari. It's about 1:30pm now, and although I've always taken a train to Costco as it's over 10km away, I decide to take my bike to enjoy the beautiful day.

About halfway through the trip, I begin to regret my decision. I'm fasting, and I have an appointment at 6:15pm on the other side of Chiba City. What was I thinking!

I arrive at Costco around 2:25pm, and park my bicycle outside the main entrance. I walk in, and head straight for the one hour processing lab on the second floor. The prices are great! Only 100yen for an 8x12 compared to 450yen everywhere else. To my complete disbelief, however, the self-serve computers take every kind of media EXCEPT USB. I just bicycled 10 km on my mama cherry, and now I'll have to turn around and come back tomorrow. Unbelievable. As I walk into the main part of the store, and wonder how to make the best use of my time, I have a brilliant idea: I've got my camera in my bag. Why don't I try to use one of the computers on display to transfer the photos from my USB to the SD card in my camera. Genius! I run back to the computers by the entrance, and find the HP computers have an internal SD reader. Glorious! I log on as a guest, pull out my SD card and USB key, plug them in, and within 2 minutes have successfully transferred my photos from my USB to my SD card - ready to print!

I head back to the photo processing lab near the 2nd floor entrance, but find both computers in use. I wait in line, and at what must have been about 2:45pm (a minute or so before the earthquake), one of the computers frees up. I'm about to plug my SD card into the reader, when the woman who was just using the computer needs room to push her cart through. I step back, and notice something's wrong. The floor is beginning to move. I look up, and I'm directly below a huge metal sign board with all the photo lab pricing on it, hanging from two long wires from the ceiling. I step back a few more feet. The shaking escalates quickly. People start screaming and diving under shopping carts. Stuff is falling from the shelves, and lights are crashing from the ceiling. I'm still looking up, and manage to situate myself between the swinging lights. I've never been in this large an earthquake, but I'm confident we'll be okay. I stand calmly and pray for our protection. It starts getting a lot stronger, and I wonder if I should dive under the carts like everyone else, when I hear a staff shout at us to exit the building.

I'm about 12 meters from the emergency stairwell. I grab my jacket and bag, and run to the exit. I notice people have left their jackets and bags in their shopping carts. People exit quickly and calmly down the stairwell, and I run outside to find hundreds of people assembling on the front lawn. I sit down on the curb for about a minute before I'm joined by a familiar face. It's the American man whose Monday Japanese lesson follows mine. We greet each other, and he calls my attention to the billows of black smoke on the horizon just south of us (what turns out to be the Cosmo Oil Refinery). Costco is shaking like jello on a plate, and I realize that there is a parking lot full of cars on the roof. It's incredibly top heavy. The Costco staff move the crowd away from the building (though in retrospect, not nearly far enough). I quickly grab my bicycle, which was knocked over by the shaking, and meet my friend on the edge of the crowd.

30 minutes after the earthquake, Makuhari Costco, Chiba

We both agree it's the biggest earthquake we've ever been in, and wonder how bad it could be at the epicenter. I whip out my iPhone and check the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) website which posts real time location and intensity of earthquakes around the country and find it was a 7 on the JMA scale off the coast of Sendai (as bad as it gets). I send off a quick e-mail to my family, letting them know I'm okay. Everyone's on their phone trying to call family and friends and not getting through, and my friend's worried about his wife in the new Mercedes building just north of us. He tells me what I already know, that we're standing on reclaimed land, and that this is probably the worst place to be in a big earthquake. I already know this because I spent four months at a junior high school just down the road, and there is a large photo installation outside the teacher's office documenting the reclamation (some 20% of land in the Tokyo Bay area has been reclaimed). They call this area Makuhari New Town.

All this time I'd love to be taking photos, but don't want to be rude, so I stay put and talk with my new friend, snapping a few photos with my iPhone. Around 3:15, we feel another aftershock, and the building sways like jello. I can feel the earth moving beneath me - mostly rolling, but a few bumps too. It's a surreal experience. Some former students notice me as they bike past the crowd on their way home, and shout hello. They're all a little shaken up and surprised to see me.

Costco staff start bringing out blankets for those who are cold. I'm all bundled up in my scarf and down jacket and feel fine. My friend starts wondering how he'll get home if the trains stop moving. I look at the time and realize I should probably start heading back myself if I'm going to make it in time to break the fast before my appointment. Thank goodness I decided to bike!

On my way home, I notice some of the sidewalks have been chewed up along the road, and small hills of sand are bubbling through with sea water. I bicycle by Makuhari Messe, the famous conference center, and find thousands of people have been evacuated and are standing in small circles in the parking lot. How's everyone going to get home?

Sidewalk sinks on reclaimed land, Makuhari Messe

Broken sidewalk on reclaimed land, Makuhari Messe

Bus stop covered in sand, Makuhari, Chiba

I bike past my old school, and say hello to two former teachers who are checking the building and windows. We share our surprise at the intensity of the earthquake and I ask about the students and staff. They say everyone's okay.

On the horizon, I can see massive plumes of black smoke rising into the sky. It's on the coast side and must be coming from the industrial park, but I can't see the fire.

The small streets and sidewalks are all covered in wet, muddy sand, and big puddles have formed on the streets. When I reach the highway next to the Keisei train line, I find it gridlocked both ways as far as the eye can see and notice the trains aren't running. I bicycle on the shoulder, passed every few minutes by a motorcyclist taking advantage of their smaller size.

But for the sliding door on my porch, which has slid a few feet open, my apartment's just as I'd left it. I open my laptop and log onto Gmail and Facebook, and find concerned friends have already written. Local friends have messaged me on Facebook, wondering why I haven't checked in yet, and I let them know I'm fine. At some point around 5pm, there is a massive explosion, and the windows of my apartment rattle violently. I look out the window and see a great orb of light emanating from behind some buildings southwest of my apartment. It must have been an explosion at the Cosmo oil refinery. The aftershocks continue to rock my apartment.

I've been trying to get in touch with the friends I'm supposed to meet, but the phones are down. Rather than leave them waiting, I decide I'll have to bike over. More biking! It's 5:30pm now, and almost time to break the fast, so I say some prayers and warm up some leftovers in the microwave. The gas is off, but the electricity is still working. I eat quickly and hop on my bicycle for another 30 minute ride across town. All the streets are gridlocked with traffic. I arrive a little late, and they're surprised to see me. We decide in the event of future earthquakes to assume all appointments canceled. I head home the way I came. Thank goodness it's all downhill!

I get home and realize I'd put some laundry in the wash before I headed to Costco, and should drop it off at the coin dryers down the street. Before heading out, I grab my camera, and decide I'll walk down to the coast and check on the refinery fire while I wait. The fire's pretty much extinguished, so I snap a few photos and head back to pick up my laundry.

Dying flames flicker at the Cosmo Oil Refinery, Chiba City

E-mails keep pouring in from around the world, and I try to reply while sending off more to friends I haven't heard from. I Skype with my family and let them know I'm okay.

I pack a small emergency bag next to my bed, and finally get to bed around 11:30pm.