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.


  1. Hi! So I came across your testimonial posts regarding the recent Tohoku earthquake and I was wondering if you might be interested in helping a friend and I on our design project? Basically we're designing an earthquake survival kit/awareness campaign and we'd like feedback or recommendations during our design process. In particular we'd like to hear how Japan generally prepares against earthquakes (on a macro/micro level) so we might be able to apply it to our project as well. If you're interested in getting on board (most likely it'll be a few short interviews and such), please keep in touch! My email is Best wishes, Erica.

  2. Hello there, glad to see you made it home safe that day. This is Jim, the guy you mentioned in the article. I ended up walking all the way to Chiba Minato from Costco. Please send me your email address when you have a moment.