Voices of Chicago
|An Unforgettable Experience in Japan|
|Written by Kristin Hanaoka|
|Friday, 29 April 2011 03:30|
Friday, March 11
On Friday, March 11, 2011, my life was turned upside down. A 9.0 earthquake struck the northeastern coast of Japan, followed by a massive tsunami that killed more than 8,100 people, left 12,000 missing and displaced 452,000 people. Since March 11th,there have been close to 1,000 aftershocks felt all over Japan, including over six quakes around Fukushima and the northern Ibaraki area.
There have been mounting fears about the Fukushima nuclear reactors and radiation as well as a shortage of fuel, food and water in many areas. I witnessed the long lines for fuel and empty shelves at the convenience and grocery stores. In my town of Takahagi, grocery stores were open for a short time and people were limited to buying ten items at a time. The power in Takahagi was restored after a few days following the quake, but it took about ten days for water to return.
Yesterday marked the one month anniversary of the initial earthquake and the effects are still being felt. Yesterday, a 7.0 aftershock struck the Fukushima area and tremors continued throughout the night. Everyone is trying their best to return to life as normal, but the reality is that things are not normal. I wake up every day not knowing what will happen and pray that God will keep me safe.
Over the past month, I have received so many emails, facebook messages and phone calls from friends and family and feel extremely blessed. I know many people have been praying for me, my friends, students, teachers and people of Japan. More prayers are still needed as the Japanese work to rebuild their lives and recover from the devastation.
The week of the earthquake, I was traveling in the Tokyo area with two friends that were visiting me from Illinois. I took a week of vacation and on Friday, the 11th, my friends and I were in Mito city in Ibaraki Prefecture. I wanted to take them to a well known park in Mito to see the ume (plum) blossoms. We planned to go to dinner and karaoke later with some of my friends from church. We had just eaten sushi for lunch and were at the grocery store right before the earthquake hit. One of my friends is a teacher and wanted to buy some candy to bring back for her students. As we waited in the checkout line to pay, the ground started to shake. I heard the woman in front of me say "jishin", which means "earthquake" in Japanese. Japanese people are used to earthquakes, so everyone waited for the shaking to stop, but the shaking continued and increased. It became clear that this was not going to be a regular earthquake. Soon food products began falling off the shelves and the light above us started to sway. People began panicking and running out of the store. My friends put down their food and we ran out of the store to the parking lot. I felt quite scared and was glad to have my friends with me. It almost felt like I was going to be knocked off my feet, but I remained standing. After several minutes the shaking stopped. The electricity in the store went out and water started gushing into the parking lot from a dry cleaning store nearby. Two store clerks were carrying young children who were separated from their mother. Many others were crying. My friends asked me if this was normal and I said, "No, this is the biggest and longest earthquake I have ever experienced."
We pulled ourselves together and realized we couldn't go back into the store. My friends and I walked over to the bus stop because we had taken a bus from the train station. While we waited at the bus stop, more aftershocks came and government employees began evacuating from the building across the street. We moved away from the bus stop for fear the overhead covering would fall on us. We joined two government employees and a young Japanese woman in the field behind the bus stop. We discovered that the Japanese woman spoke excellent English and had recently returned to Japan from living in Boston for awhile. She was in the middle of a job interview when the earthquake hit. My friends and I were so thankful to have someone who spoke both English and Japanese. She was a tremendous help and gave us updates on the situation as best she could. We ended up waiting in this area for about 2 1/2 hours. By now quite a few buses had gathered in the parking lot, but the bus drivers told us they could not take anyone back to the station because the roads were badly damaged and the traffic signals were out. It was pretty cold, so one bus driver allowed several of us to sit on the bus to stay warm.
Around 5:30pm the bus drivers told us we had to walk back to the station since they could not take us back by bus. No one in the group knew the way back to the station, but thankfully I had grabbed a map of Mito from the hotel earlier and the bus driver was able to use the map to explain directions to the Japanese people in the group. We started walking back to the train station with three other Japanese people, including the Japanese woman we had met earlier. It was beginning to get dark and the only light we saw was from the headlights of cars since there was no power in the city. We saw a lot of the destruction as we walked back to the station including damaged storefronts, sidewalks, and topped bricks and cement pillars. Along the way a bakery shop owner was bringing out boxes of sweets from his store because he had no way of keeping them cold without power. He saw us and handed each of us a big box to take with us. We thanked him and continued on our way. We walked for 1 1/2 hours and arrived back at our hotel near the station around 7pm.
Our new friend A. San lived near the station and told me to call her if we needed her help. We thanked her for her kindness and parted ways. A. San's friend that had also been walking with us could not return home because the trains were not working. She spoke some English and went with us to our hotel to see if she could get a room for the night. Our hotel was pitched black when we arrived, but the hotel staff allowed us inside. Flashlights were being used for light and we wrote down our name, address and phone number on cards. We were thankful that A. San's friend and some of the hotel staff spoke English. They explained that all the guests would be staying on the first floor and sleeping in a big room in the lobby. There were chairs set up and other guests in the room already. They brought us comforters and told us to use the bathrooms in the lobby. The hotel staff gave everyone a small cup of water and some snacks to eat. My friends and I gave our boxes of dessert to the hotel staff to distribute. They set up a small table in the middle of the room with snacks and the desserts for people to take freely.
A. San's friend was allowed to stay and went out to the convenience store for food. She returned after a long time with some water bottles and yogurt for my friends and me and also for another group of Australians sitting behind us. She told us that her husband living in Tochigi prefecture (west of Ibaraki) would be coming to pick her up that night. We thanked her for her kindness and she left later that night. I received texts on my cell phone from my parents asking if my friends and I were safe. I texted back and told them we were all safe and had them call my friends' parents to let them know. After the earthquake I couldn't get through to any of my friends and prayed they were all ok.
Later that night the hotel staff brought comforters and we tried our best to make ourselves a bed on the floor. No one slept well and we continued to feel aftershocks throughout the night. We were thankful to be alive, have shelter overhead, a warm place to sleep and some food and water.
Saturday, March 12th
My friends and I woke up at 6;00 a.m. to see if any of the buses were running and going to the airport. I had made a bus reservation for 6:45 a.m. that would take them directly to Narita Airport. Their flight to Chicago was scheduled to depart at 11:20 a.m.. However, we couldn't get through to the bus company and the hotel staff said no buses were running and all the taxis were in high demand. There was no way to get to the airport, so my friends called the airline to see if they could switch their flight to a different day. The airline allowed them to cancel their flight and switch it to Tuesday morning.
There were about 60 people that slept in the lobby room as well as people in the corridor and on the couches. The radio was kept on throughout the entire night and all day Saturday. Among the guests there was a young couple that had planned to have their wedding reception at the hotel.
They were no longer able to have it because of the earthquake, so they donated their cake and sweets reserved for their wedding guests to the hotel guests. For lunch everyone enjoyed cake, sweets and some bread. Many people congratulated the couple and thanked them for the special treat.
In the afternoon my friend and I went outside to get some fresh air and survey the damage in the daylight. We walked over to the train station and saw a shattered window, big cracks in the sidewalks and streets. Near the station the stairs and escalators were roped off and no one could enter the station. We walked to the convenience store across from our hotel, but there was little left. Most of the shelves were bare, but we were able to buy some juice.
Later that afternoon, power came back on in the hotel and everyone cheered. I didn't have cell phone service for most of the day Saturday, so we stayed in the hotel waiting for updates and contemplating what to do next. The president of the hotel came and updated everyone on the situation with the rooms. He said many things had fallen andniture was damaged. Water was not flowing in the bathrooms and the stairwell was damaged. Elevators were still not working and it looked like we would be sleeping on the floor for another night. Afterwards, I went up to him to clarify some things and found out he spoke some English. He was very kind and told us to talk to him if we had any questions or needed help. Throughout our stay the hotel staff, including the president were truly amazing and did their best to provide for us. Several people left the hotel on Saturday, but more people came that night. For dinner the hotel staff served us a rice ball, seafood patty and a piece of bread with hot tea. We continued to use the bathrooms in the lobby, went another day without showering and attempted another night's sleep on the floor.
Sunday, March 13th
We woke up on Sunday and planned to go to church. I found out that my pastor and some other friends would be at the church and they planned to have worship service. Most people had left the hotel early Sunday morning and there were only three Japanese people in the room besides my friends and me.
Our hotel was located on the south side of the train station and church was on the north side. If it was a normal day we could have walked through the station to get to church. But, since the earthquake no one was allowed to enter the station. We started walking around the station, but kept running into the tracks and needed to find a bridge to cross over. We stopped near an overpass and I called one of my friends from church to ask his advice for directions. While I was on the phone with him another friend from church drove up on his scooter. God provided again with perfect timing and after I hung up the phone my friend on the scooter showed us where to cross the tracks and how to get the rest of the way to church. We thanked him and continued on our way. Normally, it takes about 15 minutes to walk from the train station to church, but on this day it took us close to 45 minutes!
On the way to church, we saw cars lined up around the block waiting for gas. We saw more damaged stores, parking lots and sidewalks. I was shocked and couldn't believe how strong the earthquake had been. There weren't many people at church, but many of my friends who are English teachers in Mito were there. I was so relieved to see them and it was comforting being together. We sang some praise songs, prayed for the people affected by the quake ,and my pastor gave an encouraging devotional message. We continued to feel aftershock during service.
After the service, I talked with others to hear their stories and situations. Most of my friends were at their schools when the earthquake hit, but no one was injured. I also met with two fellow team members going to Cambodia. Eight people from my church, including myself ,had been planning to go to Cambodia on a mission trip for ten days. I had missed the orientation meeting and they helped catch me up on the details of our trip. I tried my best to listen and remember everything they told me, but I had so much on my mind that I don't think I retained much. I was also worried because my passport was in my apartment in Takahagi and I wasn’t sure when/how I’d be able to return there.
Some people found out about a fresh fruit and vegetable market near church and went to see if they could get some food. My friends and I walked to the 7-11 down the block to see what we could find there. It was the same as most of the other convenience stores we had gone into- mostly bare shelves. Not long after we arrived back at church, my friend walked in carrying a box full of vegetables and fruits. He invited my friends and me and another church friend over for a late lunch and said we could take showers at his apartment and use his internet!
Before going to my friend's place we walked to the train station to see if there were highway buses leaving from Mito. There were buses going to Tsukuba and that looked like our only option for getting into Tokyo and the airport. When we arrived at my friend’s apartment he had finished cooking. It was such a feast and so nice to have a real meal. He had power, water and internet, so I was able to skype with my family for the first time since the earthquake. My friend looked up hotels in Tokyo and was able to make a reservation at one near the airport for Monday night. We planned to take the bus to Tsukuba early Monday morning and continue on to Tokyo. That way my friends would be able to make their flight Tuesday morning.
The rest of Sunday was spent hanging out with friends, watching movies and laughing. It felt so good to laugh, relax and do normal things. My friend dropped us off at the hotel later that night and the staff greeted us at the door. They asked if we had eaten dinner and I told them we had. I told one of the staff workers we were planning on leaving early in the morning for Tsukuba.
Monday, March 14th
Monday morning we woke up early to get to the bus. The first bus was leaving at 9:20 a.m., but it was first come, first served. On Sunday, we saw people arriving two hours ahead of time, so we arrived early to secure our seats. I went up to the front desk to get my cell phone that they had been charging for me and a staff member handed me an article and a note. He told me rolling blackouts would be starting that day and the Tsukuba Express train that we would be taking would be affected. He had written down the times it would not be running and printed an article about the blackouts in English. I thanked him and all the hotel staff for their wonderful care over the past few days. They truly did their best to provide for their guests, despite the circumstances. I asked about payment and they said we did not have to pay since they weren't able to provide us with comfortable rooms. We left the room that had become our temporary home for the past few days and added our comforters to the large pile in the lobby.
We were one of the first people on the bus and found out the bus was leaving at 8:00 a.m., an hour and a half earlier than scheduled. It would take about two hours to get to Tsukuba and the rolling blackouts were set to start at 10:30 a.m. I think they moved up the time to get people into Tsukuba before the blackouts started. As we got off the bus in Tsukuba a man asked us if we were going into Tokyo. I told him we were headed to the airport and planned to take a bus or taxi to our hotel from there. He said there were buses going to Narita from Tsukuba. We found the bus stop for Narita and waited in line with many other people. When the bus arrived, I discovered we needed reservations and did not have any. We stepped into a standby line and waited anxiously to see if there would be room for us. There was a group of four in front of us and we prayed there would be space. There ended up being space for five more people, so the group of four made it onto the bus. My friends and I and the rest of the people in our line were told that we could wait on standby for the next bus, but they couldn't guarantee us seats.
We decided to take the train and got off a few stops before the end of the line only to find the next station closed because of the blackouts. So we got back on the train and rode it until the end of the line. It was a race against time because we knew the trains would be stopping soon. I called a friend in Chiba to see if she knew what the train situation was like in Tokyo. She told me trains in Tokyo were stopped and wouldn't be running again until the evening. After a hectic morning, we finally made it into Tokyo. We had no choice but to take a taxi to our hotel. Our hotel was in Chiba, outside of Tokyo, not far from the airport. It ended up being the most expensive taxi ride of my life, but my friends and I were relieved to finally be at the hotel! We checked into our room, exhausted from the stress and travel of the day.
Tuesday, March 15th
We took the first shuttle from our hotel to the airport early Tuesday morning. The check in line was really long, but luckily it moved quickly. My friends checked in for their flight and got their boarding tickets. I was relieved that we had made it to the airport after not knowing for so long. I was sad to see them go, but happy they were finally able to get back to Chicago. We said our goodbyes and I began my search for water and internet. My plan that day was to go back to Tsukuba to stay with a friend. I bought my bus ticket and from Tsukuba planned to meet up with another friend to drive north to get my passport from my apartment for Cambodia.
All that changed after reading an email and receiving a text from a friend living in Ibaraki. There was concern that radiation had been released into the atmosphere and people were being advised to stay indoors. My friend strongly advised me not to go to Tsukuba and to stay in the Tokyo/Narita area. She told me I could stay with someone she knew in Chiba who lived close to the airport. So, I made the decision to return my bus ticket and stay with her friend. Thankfully, the train I needed to use was working and I only needed to take it one stop. After a short train and taxi ride, I arrived in Chiba.
I stayed in Chiba for about two weeks with my new friend who had all her lifelines- electricity, water and food. It was comforting to be with someone during such uncertain times. While the rolling blackouts affected many parts of Tokyo, her condo didn’t have any power outages! We made frequent trips to the grocery store and it was strange to see so many shelves stocked with food. Chiba didn’t seem to have a lot of damage compared to what I saw in Mito.
I ended up canceling my trip to Cambodia because I was not able to get my passport in time. Transportation was at a standstill for awhile because the train tracks and main highway going north were badly damaged. I was disappointed, but was able to rest and enjoy my time in Chiba.
As for teaching, the end of March was spring vacation and the new school year starts in April. I decided to return to my apartment in Takahagi during the last week of March to assess the damage in my apartment and go into school. Workers had repaired the highway and I was able to take a bus north.
The earthquake made many things fall in my apartment - my microwave, tv, bookshelf, papers etc. My kitchen sink and stove unit, china cabinet and refrigerator were moved. My microwave and tv broke, but besides that my apartment was just messy. I cleaned for about three days and left many big objects on the floor.
There was damage at all of my schools, a lot of cracks and broken bookshelves and chunks of the wall missing. At one of my school, the roof of the gym collapsed. Thankfully, all the students and teachers at my schools were okay. After an extended break, the new school year officially started on April 11th. I am back at school too and it is nice to see the students again and their smiles and laughter inspire me to stay positive. I have been impressed with the spirit of the Japanese people during this crisis, people and communities working together to help each other. The road ahead is filled with uncertainty with aftershocks continuing for up to a year and unstable conditions at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Despite this, I plan to stay in Japan, which has become a second home to me for at least another year. I am able to say this with confidence because I know God is with me and has been every step of the way.
Bio: Kristin Hanaoka is a fourth generation Japanese American from the Chicago suburbs. She graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Elementary Education. She is currently teaching English in Japan with the Japan Teaching and Exchange Program as an Assistant Language Teacher in Takahagi, Ibaraki-ken, located directly south of Fukushima-ken on the northeast coast of Japan. Kristin has been in Japan since July 2009 and teaches at several high schools in the northern Ibaraki area.