Crazy. It’s 2am and I finally got back to my home in Tokyo after the 8.9 earthquake hit.
Although we in the centre of the city didn’t get hit as hard as come of the other places, I can still say that was the biggest earthquake I’ve ever experienced.
Tokyo, especially in the last couple of years, is kind of an earthquake city. Minor ones happen so frequently, that when one hit at about 2.30pm as I was having lunch with a friend today, I along with most other patrons in the restaurant looked up from the rocking table to the swaying lights and said, “Huh, another earthquake”, while popping another gyoza into my mouth. However, the intensity continued to build, and as people began to look a little more concerned, the shop manager suddenly called to everyone to please exit the shop.
Everyone piled outside into the street between buildings as the powerlines above us swayed and snapped back and forth, and the giant walls of glass windows wobbled and bent in ways I had no idea glass could. People stared at the buildings towering over them, realising that if something were to come crashing down, there was nowhere to hide. Eventually the worst of it passed without too much trouble, but the world continued to shake.
The shop owner refused to let us back into the shop, so leaving our lunch uneaten (but unpaid for), we wandered off down the street. The streets were crammed full of people as most shops had evacuated out into the streets. There was confusion in the air, but things seemed to have calmed down, so what my friend and I were searching for was somewhere we could eat. We finally found a cafe still operating, got a coffee and muffin, and had just sat down when the second big shock hit. This time we were by the window on the second floor (third floor was off-limits), and I could see people out on the street stop and stare up at the skyline of buildings around them in wonder and fear. As the room shook and wobbled, we had to abandon our coffees again (but this time taking our muffins) and retreat to the street.
Out on the street, tall buildings swaying like reeds in the breeze was an unreal sight to see. I don’t know how everything managed to avoid breaking. Several tiles fell off walls in places, but things seemed to pass with only fairly minor damage. Once things had died down again, we returned to the cafe, however the place continued to shake and sway for quite a while after. I parted with my friend and headed to the train station to go home, when I discovered the trains were no longer working. The area around the station was crowded with people, and queues went through the gates, all the way to the platform, full of people who would eventually have to give up as trains would not be restarting. Many people in the crowd were focused on a TV, which I worked through the crowd to see, and that was when I got my first look at how the quake had affected the rest of the country. On the screen were buildings with fire pouring out, along with announcements of death and injuries, and warnings for tsunamis. The quake had apparently been a 7.
I decided to head back to try and find my friend again. The areas around the station were overflowing with people. Public phone booths had queues down the street and up and over bridges. I tried ringing my friend, but realised that cellphones weren’t connecting. I later realised that emails weren’t being connected either. I tried heading down to where my friend should have been looking for a birthday present for her father (whose birthday it was), but all the shops were closed and the streets full of people. After wandering and trying to send and recieve phone messages for about half an hour, we finally met up again and decided to try walking to another area which would hopefully have less people.
We started walking towards Yoyogi among the throngs of people swarming down the street shoulder to shoulder. It was like those dangerously-overcrowded trains, but EVERYWHERE. At one point we came across a large group stopped outside a building. There were several TVs, showing both Japanese coverage as well as international. The CNN screen was showing sights of billowing flames and waterlogged streets, while screaming JAPAN HIT BY 8.9 MAGNITUDE QUAKE. People watching were amazed that it was gaining international coverage so fast, and at the scenes of carnage they were seeing. It all seemed so unreal. Some were suddenly panicked at being unable to contact friends or family living in the areas shown on the TV. One image that really struck me was a huge tanker ship, knocked onto its side, coasting slowly through the middle of a town, washed along by waves covering the whole place. That ship had no business there. Then, in the corner of the screen, another floated into view.
Around Yoyogi, we found a pub which was strangely empty. Escaping the confusion and chaos outside, we grabbed a seat in there and watched the TV relay scene after scene of carnage, and relay ridiculous information and figures from around the country. As we were watching, aftershocks continued to shake the place. Another friend mailed me, still being stuck inside a train which had stopped on the tracks somewhere in the city several hours ago. I just had to hope it wasn’t one of those godawful packed-tight trains.
The bar was refusing to open the kitchen, so, still having not eaten, I decided to do a round of the nearby convenience stores to try and find something to eat. However, for the first time I have ever seen, all the convenience stores had simply run out of food. The bare shelves were an absolutely unreal sight to see, in a city where the stores always have everything. Every store I went to was the same, so I returned empty-handed. My friend had contacted her father, who was on his way in a car to pick us up.
For about the next three hours, we stayed in the bar, watching the world end on TV, being covered by news anchors wearing hard hats. The place we were in itself continued to shake to various degrees, and emergency messages were delivered to my cellphone, warning me about tremors in various parts of the country. After night fell, and my friend’s father was getting nowhere in the traffic, we decided to go to him. We stepped back out onto the streets, which by now were suprisingly empty. Not being in a main area, all the shops had shut, and there were nearly no cars or people anywhere to be seen. It looked nothing like the Tokyo I knew. We passed several buildings with lights on, and people crowded inside, sitting down and looking despondent, unable to go home.
After passing several people walking along the street carrying maps and trying to figure out their ways along streets they had never walked, we found my friend’s father’s car. However, the traffic was absolutely gridlocked, meaning that to get home, we would have to detour around the entire central city of Tokyo.
Once in the car, my friend and I realised how tired we were. Over the next several hours as we waited in the car, my friend fell asleep, and I talked to her father while listening to the constant updates on the radio. 2-300 people found drowned on a beach. One boat carrying 100 people disappeared. Two trains disappeared. And still more aftershocks came. Warnings were out to not be walking around too much outside, as a tsunami could come washing through at any time.
But then things started to recover. Some trains started moving again. I got out when we approached a certain station that was on the same line as my own, and tried to take that as my friend continued towards home with her father, his birthday long over. The train ride went off without incident, although it didn’t go the whole way. I walked the last hour by myself through the streets, filled with people walking the streets of a suburban area at 1 in the morning. Most stores were closed, the ones open had run out of food.
I finally got back, and checked the internet. It was exploding with information about the quake. For the first time, I opened my Facebook news feed, and saw everything on it was people talking about the quake, confirming their safety or asking after the safety of others. I nibbled some chocolate in my room (finally getting to eat) and am finally going to bed.
P.S. Aftershocks continued to wake me throughout the night.