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2 Steps Ahead of the Rain: Escape to the Minami Alps

Diary Excerpts from March 12, 2011

sunny 5 °C

BGM: Stand By Me by Playing for Change

March 12, 2011

6:30am. Dishes suddenly rattled in the kitchen as yet another strong aftershock shook me awake. Realizing that it was morning, I hurriedly shoved my water bottle and power cords back into my backpack, threw on my parka and clinging tightly to the wall, carefully descended the stairwell. The head supervisor greeted me warmly but with sleepless, puffy eyes. She had stayed the whole night at the office with the eight of us who were stranded, so we wouldn't feel alone, bless her heart! She checked the JR schedule online for me to see if any trains were running. A few of the Joban trains headed north were finally operational! She handed me a newspaper to put in my emergency bag (could be used for virtually anything, she explained), and with a final hug and a "you'll be fine," she saw me on my way.


Though it was only 7:30am, Funabashi Station (Chiba Prefecture) was already packed with tired, anxious commuters- all trying to use their cell phones in vain, all trying to get home. Yet without panicking, every single person on the platforms patiently waited their turn to board the trains that pulled up every twenty minutes. There was no rude pushing or shoving, no fights or panicking. It was amazing to witness. Everyone knew that we all had to be civil, since so many had lost their lives and many more were suffering. We were a community. It was time to be good to each other, now. I felt honored to be there in that moment.

I dreaded each train ride, praying my worst nightmares wouldn't come true. But I had nothing to worry about: we glided smoothly and surely from stop to stop. There was only a slight delay from the immense crowds coming through the doors, but no aftershocks to speak of.

I plugged into my cell phone's TV to catch up on the news and keep my mind busy. Some trains had flipped off their tracks in the city next to mine, so when I arrived at Kashiwa Station, I learned at the gate that I could go no further. The JR attendant, now wearing a yellow safety helmet instead of a dapper uniform cap, told me I had to find some other way of finishing the final leg.


Finally able to send a simple text message, I let my husband know my location and he said he'd come pick me up by car. But what was normally a 20-minute drive for him had turned into two hours. I figured that would be the case, so I walked into Becker's burger shop, still operating as if nothing had happened, and ordered myself a sandwich with coffee, and two burger sets with fries (the hubby was bound to be starving!).

I gotta tell you: after the kind of day that I had, that was the most delicious meal of my life!

Knowing it would only get me down, I was stupid and checked the news again on my tiny TV monitor. The body count, the loss, so horrifying! Beautiful places I'd once visited were now under the sea or completely covered under tons of rubble. I couldn't watch any more. I just couldn't. So I focused on the awesomeness of the savory, basil-spiked sandwich working its way down my grateful gullet and dreamed about that big hug my husband was gonna give me.

He pulled the car up to the restaurant, eyes yellow and bloodshot, six o'clock shadow grown on his chin. He only looked at the bag of welcome food in my hand, not at me. He was still spooked from the earthquake. I finally realized that this was the biggest he'd ever felt in his life (not that I was an old pro, though I'd seen my fair share of M6s and M7s in AK). But it was so good to be with my man, again! The sky could finish falling down as far as I was concerned.

We drove around our city slowly, surveying the damage. Almost every foundation of every house and stone wall built before 1990 had cracks in the corners and crumbling piles of rock everywhere. He showed me a few of the collapsed houses in the older part of town. And turning onto our street, I saw the once-magnificent stone torii gate that marked the entrance to our neighborhood, now lying dead on the ground as huge chunks of granite. I felt a small tear finally sliding down my cheek. My God. What had happened?


We parked behind the budding cherry trees near our building. Nobody living on top of the hill (including us) had running water- all the mains had broken in the quake. About a few hundred feet away from us, the Defense forces had a water truck operating for the gathering crowd of mothers and children carrying buckets and clear plastic bottles. Watching them, my husband gratefully, but quickly, gobbled up his burger and fries, too tense to enjoy it but I could tell it helped a little. He then told me not to freak out about the apartment.

I followed him up the steps. Our communally-adopted homeless cat was there -visibly shaken but still up for a good scratch under the chin. The next-door neighbor fed him so he was in good shape. We opened the door and my husband told me to leave my shoes on. Shattered glass littered the floor of every room. I tried to turn on the water -not even a pressure sound! Hole in the wall, misaligned door frames- it was more than we could clean up in a day. We just stood there, staring at the mess and wondering where to start, aftershocks hitting every ten to fifteen minutes. They were really starting to get on our nerves, now- like flies that just keep coming back after you shoo them away.


Stepping gingerly over the debris, I opened the back curtains to see our neighbor's old house. The vibration of the earthquakes had rattled the old stone roof tiles out of their foundation, pulverizing them into chunks and pebbles.


After a well-needed trip to the loo at the convenience store (again, all the water was sold out), we called Mom to let her know we were alive and returned home to our holy mess, hearing the glass crunching into the tatami underfoot. My husband cleared the sofa with one big sweep of his arm- not caring where the stuff landed, and told me to take a break. Ignoring the monotonous, clanging bells from the disaster trucks wheeling by, I turned on the TV news and sat motionless, petrified at what my eyes and ears beheld: The cooling system of a reactor at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant was failing and the the exposed fuel rods were growing hotter and hotter. I called my husband into the living room and asked him to accurately translate what I thought I heard. While staring at the screen for signs that it was all a bad movie, I saw the white cloud of pure fear sweep across my husband's face. He couldn't react to anything, not even me. And his blank expression petrified me to the bone.

My new job was the most fun I'd had in my life and I didn't want to leave it. We were finally making progress in this town. We were finally financially independent. Yet with all that, our souls knew what had to be done.

"Whatever you decide, Love, I'll follow you," I murmured. I suddenly felt nauseous- not from helplessness or fear, but from another rush of adrenaline as my body prepared itself for flight mode. I wanted to stay and help, seeing the reports of lifeless bodies on the shore, children swept away into the sea, people stranded and in need. But now this?! Radioactivity was a thing of nightmares and Hollywood movies, not real life. Not in this safe country. I thought about my future in that moment. I still wanted to have children -healthy children. I wanted to live a long, healthy life with my husband. Was staying here so important that we'd risk our own health for it? We both knew the answer was "no."

"We need to get away from here," he said. "At least 300 km away. That's what the Net says. Get packed."

Somehow, I knew this moment would come, when I would have to survive with almost nothing. I looked at all of my things in a pile, and knew that practically none of it would be useful to my husband's or my own survival. So I picked up about a week's worth of underwear, some clothes that weren't covered in glass, snapped a few pictures of the damage, bagged up some of the fresh vegetables and fruit still in my fridge, some vitamins, a first aid kit and the stuff I brought home from the drug store in Chiba. I grabbed the most important documents I could find, our wedding rings and my computer. I shoved it all into three bags and after a big, warm hug in the entrance way, ran with my husband down the stairs to our tiny little car.

There was no time to say goodbye to anything. We knew we had to get to the other side of the mountain range -at least to be ahead of the storm coming in from the north. Looking at our weather app, heading southwest looked like the smarter deal. "Yamanashi," my husband said.

So we filled up on gas, coffee and snacks and rolled quietly out of town, agreeing to keep our story a secret so as not to cause a panic. The streets were strangely quiet. With the news as frightening as it was, we thought the highways would already be blocked from Miyagi to Tokyo with evacuees. But we were the only ones leaving town! Everyone else was still trying to get home. Shinjuku, one of Tokyo's busiest areas, was almost like a ghost town!


We had absolutely no idea what we would do in Yamanashi, but we were on our way there. Somewhere around 9:00pm that night, we heard an announcement on the news that evacuations were issued for people living within 3km of the power plant. We knew from reading history, that was far too little, too late.

(All content copyright GenkiLee, 2012. No part shall be reproduced without the expressed written consent of the author).

Posted by GenkiLee 09:15 Archived in Japan

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