TRIP March 2011, when disaster strikes

JTF_Chris

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So after the resounding success of the first trip, we discovered some really really awesomely priced tickets from our home airport to Narita in March 2011. Yep, that March 2011. This time we'd be taking the whole bunch, myself, my wife, and our two kids, then aged 8 and 10.

Before I start, there's a couple of sidebars to talk about first.

1. My son (8) has an allergy to fish/seafood. I don't believe its life-threatening (it never got pushed that far) but eating seafood will make him sick, if you know what I mean. It was tested by a doctor and basically if it comes out of the water, he's allergic to it. Therefore, our food choices had to be restricted. And of course the 10yo won't just eat any old thing you put in front of her, as 10yo's do....

Our plan was to start at Tokyo for a week, staying in an AirBnB in the Shinsen area of Shibuya. Then we'd be taking the Shinkansen to Kyoto and staying in a traditional Machiya house in the Arashiyama district for a week, then coming back to Tokyo, Narita, and home.

Little did we know what was about to happen. We left our house on March 9th, arriving in Tokyo on March 10th. Initially I didn't know how the kids would handle a flight from DFW to NRT, I think it was 12 hours and change, but they fared just fine, and actually slept most of it. Good for them, I have trouble sleeping on airplanes.

We arrived just fine, got through customs, and headed towards Shibuya on the Narita Express. By the time we got off the train at Shibuya, it was after 5pm, and starting to get dark. I think I gave everyone a WELCOME TO JAPAN culture shock when we had to haul our bags out the Hachiko exit, into the busy crowds, the neon, the signs, the sounds.... which would be LAST time we would see Shibuya crossing in its full glory for the rest of the trip....

Our AirBnB host, Bruce (I think it was that, apologies if I forgot!!), was kind enough to meet us at the apartment and show us the basics. Once we were slightly settled in, it was off to the nearby grocery store to pick up food for the week, and dinner for the night. We were wiped out and sacked out hard.

Little did we know that we were nearby a small Buddhist temple who's faithful like to get up at the butt-crack of dawn and start banging on a drum. Of course this also gets the crows going, and since the sun comes up at something stupid like 4:30am because of their time zone.... ugh, yeah, I hate that part.

....more to come... here's a couple of pix from the apartment... I'll just warn you now, that overall this trip is fairly light on pix, at least until we get to Kyoto.... you'll understand soon.

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JTF_Chris

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Friday Morning, March 11, 2011

We woke up way way too early bc of the crows and the temple drums. well and jet lag, sure, ok. ate the breakfast we'd bought from the store last night, then after a short walk around the Shinsen area (very short) we made our way back to Shibuya station, and fought our way onto the Ginza line bound for Asakusa, and Sensoji.

Sensoji is what it is. Don't try to make it something else. It's probably the number one tourist trap in all of Tokyo, but I don't care. I wind up there every single time, just to people watch and to see how the area changes. Since it was still before noon, there weren't a whole lot of people there, relatively speaking. My wife and kids got caught up in a group of middle school kids stopping tourists and asking them about stuff, where are you from, how do you like Japan, all that sort of thing. Probably some sort of school project.

After milling around, taking pictures (had to remind the youngest that you don't need to take pics of literally every little thing, but especially in stores(!)) it was time to grab lunch. Well, long story short we walked around a bunch before finally settling on some soba noodles a bit west of Sensoji, I think now its refered to as "red street" or something since the road is a reddish color....

Then it was back across to the river, and jump on a river boat bound for Hamarikyu gardens. If you've never done this, you probably should. If you get lucky (like we did) they'll let you sit above decks in the open air, which makes for much better photos. The last couple of times though they wouldn't let anyone sit above deck. But whatever. You get to ride the river down to Hamarikyu park and take in some of the sights there.



As we arrived at Hamarikyu park, it was roughly 2:45 PM Japan time.... The weather was starting to turn slightly, the sky was getting dark with rain clouds, and it was starting to spit just a bit at us....

... to be continued.

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JTF_Chris

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~ 2:45 pm, Friday March 11th, 2011

So we're pulling into the dock at Hamarikyu, and I start to hear sirens going off. Now, I have no clue what they're for or anything. I do notice the water seems to be "churning" pretty good in the little harbor inlet that we're in. I really don't think much of it, maybe its just the current, the fact we're pulling in, I don't know. Looking back on it, I truly believe that we were on the boat when the first one hit, and we didn't feel it. Just bc of the sirens and the water. As we were getting off, nobody said anything or acted strange, so I didn't think much of it.

A few minutes later, though, the next one hit. This was our first earthquake, ever, and even if it wasn't the first one, it was still pretty big, and lasted a long long time. The same sirens were going off again. If you've never experienced a big earthquake, its like you're standing in a rowboat on the water, and somebody is moving it side-to-side. It felt like the ground was moving like a foot in either direction. At this point everyone who got off the boat was noticably freaked out. I guess they know what is "big" and what isn't, bc I sure don't. There was an old tree in the area where we were, and it was twisting and waving like it was made out of rubber. If I can get the video of that I will put it up.

That one passed, and a guy sitting on a bench just smiled and said "jishin!" (earthquake!) ... Not knowing really how bad it was, we started walking around the park. I noticed some smoke coming from the general area of Odaiba. Turns out there was a gas or oil storage facility that was on fire. I noticed at least 3 or 4 helicopters take to the air and start circling. That was a wtf moment.

We made our way to the small rapeseed field, and then another aftershock hit. At this point it was like "yeah we need to probably go." We saw a couple of hotels that were being built nearby, and you could see the cranes on top swinging back and forth. If you looked really close, you could actually see the buildings themselves were swaying what looked like a couple of feet. Again, we started to get concerned.

Now, I said earlier that the clouds were moving in and had started to get pretty gray. This part always bugs me because I always see photos of Tokyo on that day and they're captioned "Tokyo burning! look at all the smoke!" when in fact it was just the low hanging rain clouds. But whatever. We noticed what looked like the same TV crew we'd spotted at Asakusa was here in the park. We also noticed groups of people all wearing hard hats assembling in various places. We assumed that they were out of the nearby high rises and had made their way outside.

As we got to the exit of the park, we could see one of the big elevated freeways, and traffic was at a stand still. There was a park worker and they seemed pretty razzled, but we managed to effectively communicate that yes it was serious, and that traffic, and the trains, weren't going any where for a while. So we stayed put, hoping to hear some more news or get some kind of instructions from anyone working at the park.

I think an hour or so passed, and nobody knew anything yet. On this trip we were still winging it wifi-less, but I did have my rental cellphone. But that seemed to not be working, I figured I'd call our AirBnB host and see if he had any ideas, but couldn't get through.

So no wifi, no maps (hey the plan seemed pretty straight forward) and we had no idea what was going on yet. It seemed like a good idea to go to the first station we could find. We started walking, and a couple of salarymen types pointed us towards Shimbashi station. On the way we found some fried chicken or something from a conbini and sat down on the curb in front of a closed up shop to eat it, as there wasn't anyplace to. Much stares from passers by ensued. No we're not homeless or meaning to break the rules, but you know.....

It was clear from crowd assembling in the square out front of the station that nothing was running. Nothing. Huge lines were forming for taxis and buses.

On the huge jumbotrons you could start to see the magnitude of what was happening. The fires on Odaiba, and then footage of the tsunamis started rolling. The atmosphere of the square took on a totally different feel. It went from annoyance and hurry, to a silent, well something. I think everyone suddenly learned that this was no ordinary earthquake event. From our end, it turned into an "uhhh WTF do we do now?" affair.

We waited for a couple of hours in the square, watching the jumbotrons and trying to make sense of the station announcements. After a while, we started walking to find someplace that was open to eat something, and found a B1 level izakaya that was still open. It was clear that they didn't want to be open very much longer, though, after we'd been there a bit, so we headed back to the station. Taxi and bus lines were just out of control.

The station at this point had become a shelter of sorts. There were people sitting on the stairs, on the floors, basically everywhere, waiting for the next train to run. Any train. At least the station personnel were letting people past the gates to use the facilities. We managed to barely eek out a wifi signal and get an email out to people back home telling them we were OK and just inconvenienced. Finally got a phone call out to our host and his advice was to just sit tight and the trains would run again.

Well, round about 11pm or so, he was right. The Ginza line was making its way back to the Shibuya (thankfully!) terminus for one last trip of the night. We and a bunch of others dashed on board and sighed a big one of relief. You could tell we were lucky, every other station we passed through was either empty or appeared at least partially closed and dark.

When we finally emerged back at the Hachiko exit, it was a ghost town. For 11:30 PM on a Friday night, it was desolate. A few buses and taxis passed by, but nearly ALL the jumbotrons and signs were dark. Clearly nothing was open. It was a long quiet walk back to the apartment, where I proceeded to work most of the bottle of sake I'd bought the night before, and watch what news reports I could via the internet, as there wasn't a TV there.

It was then that I learned of Fukushima, and realized we could potentially be in actual trouble, if nothing else, it would be a difficult next few days. And I wasn't wrong....

Here are a couple pics of Hamarikyu park and the events that I have. Like I said, the photo-taking took a back seat to figuring out what to do next. If I can I will put the videos up somewhere and link them in the next reply.... Actually I thought I had more but I can't seem to find them ATM....

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... To be continued ....
 

JTF_Chris

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OK, here are the videos. The first two are the tree I was talking about. You can hear the crows going crazy.


These are of the construction cranes. In the video it only looks like the ropes are moving, but the cranes themselves were swaying pretty heavily. If you listen carefully you can hear the helicopters.


In this video, if you look closely, you can see the reflection of the other building is moving. Probably both buildings were moving, but you can see that it was moving A WHOLE LOT. I'm glad I wasn't up there.

 

JTF_Chris

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March 12th, 2011.

Didn't get a whole lot of sleep. Mainly because the sirens, the helicopters, and the fact I was up until like 2am trying to get as much information as I could about what was happening. At this point, I think I knew for sure:

1. Tsunamis had wiped out a whole lot of people and towns up north. Nobody had any idea just how bad or how many people at this point.
2. The reactor at Fukushima failed, and was leaking radiation. This was a big deal, as nobody had clue one about how bad this situation was.

This sounds a bit self aggrandizing, but my degree is in Engineering Physics, I know a little bit about how Fission reactors work and how radiation works. I know that we were far enough away that it wasn't going to affect us. UNLESS the prevailing winds started carrying fallout this direction. Thankfully that never happened to any large extent, just the immediate surrounding area.... I can't even imagine if the winds had taken that towards Tokyo. It would have been chaos. I remember being royally pissed off that TEPCO appeared to be just stalling and hemming-and-hawing over what to do next. I could picture boardrooms of old Japanese guys going "soooodana" and agreeing to have more meetings. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for what had happened, or what would happen next. The government just seemed to be letting them do it, too. My reaction was that the gov't needed to force their hand, but nooooo. Then the stuff about the TEPCO president being so overwhelmed that he took ill, and all sorts of drama. JUST DO SOMETHING. ANYTHING. Instead of endless press conferences and meetings and whatnot. But that's Japan for you.

Of course I got in touch with people back home via Skype, and it was ZOMG LEAVE NOW BC NUCLEARS. Because they were getting a totally different story. I think I actually had a reporter e-mail me wanting my story. Wasn't much of a story really so I declined. "Yeah, we sat around a train station for hours and then crashed for the night." Didn't see a point to it.

We tried to get out and about, but NOTHING WAS OPEN. I guess word had gotten out that a bunch of other reactors were being shut down, and that there would be rolling blackouts happening unannounced. Oh great.

Noticed that the hot water wasn't working, so we had to get in touch with our host and have him walk us through resetting the earthquake safety shutoff on the gas. Hadn't even crossed my mind.

It's all a bit fuzzy, but basically we didn't do much but walk to the nearby Mark City Mall to find a restaurant that was open, get some stuff from the grocery store (which had already started to get picked over pretty good) and come back to the apartment, trying to figure out what would actually be operating. .....which wasn't much.

Most trains weren't running at all. If they were, they were running reduced schedules, and everything was crowded beyond belief (more on this later....)

Here's a couple pics from that day, I think. Not much to look at, but there it is.

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Actually this one was from our walk from Hamarikyu to Shimbashi the day before, I forgot about passing the famous capsule apartment building....

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... to be continued ...