We were woken up by knocking on our door. I hopped out of bed and slowly walked down the hall, failing to realize that there was light coming from the hallway. I unlocked the deadbolt and the door was yanked open only to be stopped by the ”stalker” latch. “We have electricity and water!” came the cry through the door. I unlocked the door and opened it fully and sure enough the lights were on in the hallway. I muttered something about it being good, wished them goodnight, then went back to bed.
Less than an hour later we were woken by another knock on the door. This time it was Rama and she did not look good. Turns out she had been listening to the news reports coming from western media and the situation with the nuclear power plant in Fukushima was not getting better. She had also been talking to the Canadian embassy and then transferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. The person she spoke to had said that things were ok in Sendai and that it was our choice to leave if we wanted to. It wasn’t what the guy had said, but what was not said. From the tone of his voice Rama could tell he was concerned, and we could tell from that that the party line was “Dai joubu” (‘it’s all good’ in Japanese – a phrase that I overuse) but the reality could be very different in a short period of time.
The three of us spoke for a good ten minutes about what our options were, the viability of each option, etc. Stay in Sendai, get to another location within Japan, leave for another part of Asia, or get back to North America. The teachers had their March Break coming up and some were planning on going to Hawaii.
We decided that it was time to leave if we could. Plan A – get a taxi to take us to Yamagata – a city 63 kilometres to the west that has an airport (there was no train and we did not know where the free bus left for Yamagata). We figured it would cost approximately 40,000 yen (just under $500) and we were willing to pay it. We split up and spoke to a few other teachers. I went down to the second floor and pounded on one teacher’s door and rang his doorbell for about five minutes until he woke up. I explained the situation and that we were serious about getting out of Sendai. My girlfriend started to Skype with her parents back in Toronto and called a few other teachers including Aimee (see her blog here). It took us until 4:30am before we had everyone from the apartment building assembled in the apartment on the second floor which we had called home for the past few days. As a group, we decided to get the head of the school involved to solicit his opinion. I stayed behind and packed more food and water into my bag, let one of the teachers (he really needed a cat nap) sleep for 30 minutes, and then we got a call from my girlfriend Heather that we had a bigger group now. They had decided to get some people together with a few cars and head out of Sendai.
We finally made it to the head of the school’s house by 7:30am and we were waiting on two other families to show up in two more cars. In total we had 20 people in four cars – six children and fourteen adults (Thirteen Canadians, four Kiwis (New Zealand), two Americans and one Brit). By 8:50am we were on the road.
Driving in Sendai was slow. Most of the street lights still had no power and there was not the organized four way stop that is common in Canada when the traffic lights are out. It was more of a collective consciousness – cars would proceed east-west for a bit, slow down, fully stop, then cars would proceed north-south. It took us the better part of an hour to make it to the outskirts of the city. The traffic jams that we did hit were merely cars lined up to get gas. For the first ten gas stations that we drove by, I was amazed that people were lining up by the dozen, in one case with almost a hundred cars lined up to get into the gas station. After awhile, it became common sight although the farther away from Sendai we were the shorter the lines became.
I had never driven west out of Sendai and I did not realize how far the city and suburbs extended into the mountains. We saw four or five military vehicles (equivalent of Hummers), very few trucks and a lot of police at gas stations.
The road opened up quite a bit once we made it out of the city. I was amazed that there were not convoys of trucks heading into Sendai with supplies nor that there were not more people on the road vying to get out of the city. I thought – Hurray, we had beat the rush! Wait a second – how the hell will all these people get out of the city if there was an evacuation order? They can’t go north or south because most of the bridges had been washed out by the tsunami, to the east is the Pacific Ocean and the route that we were on was just a two lane highway. My heart sank.
It turns out that we drove through some of the most beautiful scenery in Japan – wind swept snow covered plains, hills and mountains terraced with rice fields, jagged peaks of previous geological uprisings. Absolutely breathtaking and I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture with my blackberry.
We finally arrived in Yamagata and parked beside a park. We were waiting for word from one of the Canadians in our group who had a coworker dropping of some fuel for our cars – one car had a quarter tank of gas when we left Sendai. We got word that they were still a fair ways west of us so we loaded up the cars and drove some more. We finally stopped at a small restaurant at the intersection of highways 13 and 113 and waited. And waited. And waited (yes there was another earthquake while we were in the restaurant – enough to rattle the windows and our nerves).
Turns out that there are TWO Highway 13 AND TWO Highway 113 within five kilometres of each other. We finally connected with them and picked up two buckets of gasoline and one hose. No pump. One of the braver men siphoned out the gas from the buckets into two of the cars, drank some fruit juice, and we were on the road again – taking Highway 113 all of the way through the mountains to the west coast.
We stopped briefly for a pee break in the mountains and grabbed some food for snacks. Then we drove some more until we came to a small city / large town on the western side of the mountain range. We filled up with gas (only ten cars in the lineup) and then stopped in front of a house where we could park our cars. It was eerie – while we were stopped there stretching our legs a young woman comes across the road – pink jacket, blonde hair, Caucasian – “Hello! You’re the first foreigners I’ve seen since I’ve come to this town in Japan.” She was from Toronto, had a friend living in Sendai and was thinking of going over there to check in on her. We left after a short exchange and continued driving through the mountains.
It was dark by the time we made it to the west coast of Honshu (the main island of Japan) and another ninety minutes before we arrived in Niigata. We pulled off at a pit stop with a few restaurants and walked inside – everything was normal. People were smiling and laughing, kids were running around, lots of heat and food. We ate dinner, filled up the cars and proceeded another four hours along the coast to Komatsu, finally arriving around midnight at the Arrowle Hotel. Sleep came quickly and in no time I was awake at 6am and down in the lobby getting a coffee.
I should mention here that I am very grateful to all of Heather’s co-workers who drove us and rode with us out of Sendai. I am thankful to IBEX (Japanese airline) who dropped the fuel for us in Yamagata, arranged a hotel for us just outside of the Komatsu airport, and gave us valuable information about the status of airports.
Around 9am we had a group meeting to decide what our options were and how people were going to proceed. For most of us, we decided to head towards Kyoto and Osaka. One family stayed in Komatsu for a few extra nights and then into Tokyo.
We caught the express train (not the Shinkansen / bullet train) to Osaka at 1:20pm and by 4:30pm we were down to a group of five were at the Osaka airport – Kansai International Airport (KIX). One Canadian managed to get a flight to Taipei, the Brit caught a flight back towards home, and the three remaining Canadians explored our options. The airline kiosks closed at 6pm, so we decided to get some dinner.
After dinner, the Canadian and Brit headed to a hotel in downtown Osaka as their flights didn’t leave for two days, and we headed back to an internet cafe at the domestic departure section of the airport. We settled in and started looking at our options – Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, Seoul – any place where we could catch a flight back to Toronto.
Very quickly we realized that our options were quite limited due to the exorbanant cost of getting flights out of Osaka to other parts of Asia or a flight from Osaka to Narita with a final destination in Toronto. The prices ranged from $500 to $7,000 (our flight to Toronto). It was at this point that we figured that we needed help with someone to work the phones. Rama had her brother get on the phone with Air Canada (he spent over seven hours on the phone with them) and I got in touch with my travel agent whom I had booked my original ticket with at Travel Cuts (Ryerson University). Over the next twelve hours, we managed to get a flight from Osaka to Narita, then a flight to Toronto, then final confirmation that our flight from NRT-YYZ would not be cancelled. We had heard reports from various sources that Narita was an absolute zoo – packed with people sleeping all over the airport – and that there was no express train service from Tokyo to Narita, very limited train service, very limited bus service, and that airlines were cancelling flights. Before we checked our bags and logged out of the Internet Cafe, we had confirmation from Air Canada that the flight would not be cancelled (it may be delayed) and that Narita wasn’t too bad.
We spent a few hours in Narita, waited for two hours for the Air Canada kiosk desk to open, waited for ninety minutes to get through security check, our flight was delayed by 50 minutes – but overall it was ok. Well except for the 6.0 earthquake that hit the airport and shook us up a bit more.
As soon as I was on the plane and had stuffed our carryon luggage above me, I was asleep before they had finished the flight safety demonstration. I woke up for dinner and fell asleep again before they could clear my garbage. I woke up for the midnight snack and fell asleep before I could finish my food. I woke up for breakfast, ate, watched a foreign movie, then fell asleep again. The plane landed, we disembarked and then stood in line for another 90 minutes to clear customs (we missed the huge lineup at Pearson Airport).
Am I glad to be back in Toronto? Yes.
Was it the best decision for me? Yes. With limited electricity, water and no gas it would be next to impossible for me to continue working considering I did most of my work at night. Coupled with the fact that I could do nothing to help the people affected by the earthquake and tsunami, I can have a greater impact while being here.
Will I go back? Yes, but under the right conditions. What those conditions are is something that I’m thinking over right now.
What am I doing now? Organizing a fundraiser to raise funds for those most affected by the megaquake who will not fall under the auspicies of charities and NGO’s working in Japan now – an example being the orphanage in Sendai.