Getting Out Of Sendai (After the Earthquake)

There are three of us now, down from twenty that left Sendai at 8:50am on Monday March 14th, three days after the earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, Japan.

Last night we stayed at the Hotel Arrowle after a 15 hour drive that took us from the city of Sendai, west to Yamagata, then all of the way to the west coast of Honshu, south to Niigata, and then stopping just outside of the town of Komatsu.

A series of earthquakes had hit the Sendai region for a few days leading up to what has been termed the “megaquake”.  For myself, it seemed that each quake successively got worse than the last one but the reality was a little different (ranging from 6.0 to 7.2).  Each time I had to adjust the tv so that it wouldn’t fall over, stand up and move into a doorway to protect myself, and then email my loved ones to let them know that I was ok.  Most of the time they did not know that there had been an earthquake as they are fairly common in Japan and it doesn’t garner any media attention.  The first one that happened on (Thursday March 6th), I was asleep in bed .  I awoke to the sun shining in my eyes, the world shaking and I stood there stark naked wondering what was I supposed to do in case of an earthquake.  I imagined the worst case scenario – pulling my naked body out of the rubble or even worse still – forced to stand naked on the street as they evacuated the building.  Fortunately something fell onto the ground and brought me back to reality when I threw on some clothes and ran down the five flights of stairs.

It takes some time for the brain to rationalize that something you take as sacrecinct – the solid ground beneath your feet – is in fact solid, but moving on its own. It doesn’t take long for you to adjust to accept this new reality, but after a while your mind starts to play tricks on you – feeling and expecting earthquakes when they aren’t there.

The next earthquake was similar in nature in that it shook the apartment (all of the doors and windows rattled) except that it was 3:30am and I was working.  My beautiful girlfriend woke up and called out my name but she was asleep within ten minutes after the quake had passed.  Between 6am and 6:30am another earthquake shook our apartment except this time it got us out of bed and preparing for the day.

Wait, perhaps I should tell you a little more background as I’m getting ahead of myself.  I was born on a hot autumn day and named Scot Thom.  Fast forward twenty-some-odd years and I find myself in a plane flying to Tokyo for the second time in a year to meet up with the love of my life at Narita Airport.  Heather teaches social sciences and english literature at Tohoku International School (TIS) in Izumi district, city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.   She is in her second year of teaching at the close knit international school that has a long history in Sendai with over 100 students and a dozen teachers.

One my first trip to Sendai in October 2011, I started a blog titled “Scotch In Japan” to chronicle my experiences of life in Japan.  It took me two weeks to get settled into a daily routine of telecommuting back to Toronto each night, sleeping during the day and running in the hills that surround Sendai.  As I write now, I’m searching for different sources of information that people who are still in Sendai can use to get a more informed picture of what is happening as there is very little information flowing from the Japanese Government and the Canadian Government.

I had lugged my Xbox 360 from Toronto to Sendai and I found myself sitting on the sofa playing Fallout 3 when the apartment started to shake.  I stood up and adjusted the television once again to ensure that it wouldn’t fall over and stood there waiting for the earthquake to end.  What had started as a small tremor, quickly built into the apartment shaking violently.  I took three long strides to the nearest doorway and held on for dear life as I felt the apartment bounce up and down as the building swayed three feet to the left and then three feet to the right.  I watched the television crash onto the Xbox 360, listened to appliances (rice cooker, toaster oven, etc) fall onto the ground.  The bookshelf in the bedroom proceeded to vomit it’s contents onto the floor for over sixty seconds and then all of the glasses, plates, bowls, cups could be heard exploding in the kitchen.  I glanced at my blackberry on the kitchen table and decided against letting go of the wall to record the earthquake.  I saw the hydro lines bounce up and down through the glass sliding doors and saw dust being kicked up in the hills beyond.

I realized that the building was constructed so that it would sway a lot to dissipate the energy generated from an earthquake but I didn’t know that a building could go through that much without collapsing.  I put on a change of clothes and then another earthquake struck and it was enough for me to realize that I had to get out.  I grabbed my coat and bag and rushed down the stairs.

When my feet hit the sidewalk, I had no idea what to do.  I was supposed to head to Jusco (the local grocery / department store) to get supplies for making blueberry and strawberry pancakes and for food for the rest of the week.  Then I looked in the opposite direction towards the Tohoku International School and thought of all of the students and teachers there.  I realized that Jusco would have no power and most of the stock would be on the ground in a huge mess.

As I walked towards the Tohoku International School, I could hear the fire alarm going off on the first floor of our apartment building and saw many shocked neighbours whom I knew I would not be able to hold a conversation with my limited Japanese language skills and suddenly feeling very tired.  I took a picture of the first item damaged from the earthquake.

Broken Wall in Sendai, Japan

A movie of our apartment after the “megaquake”.

I didn’t see too much damage as I completed the 20 minute walk to TIS.  I did notice that from time to time I was having problems walking in a straight line and I chalked it up to being in shock.  It turns out that it was one of the many aftershocks that rolled through Sendai.  At the school, everyone had evacuated outside and the majority of the students were on school buses that could not leave until the aftershocks stopped for an extended period of time.  Needless to say, my girlfriend was relieved to see me.

At the school, things were a little more organized.  The teachers had the students on buses ready to get going once the shaking stopped and they knew that the roads were clear to get down to downtown Sendai Train Station.  Of course, the shaking didn’t stop – over the two hours that the bus sat in the parking lot there were a series of aftershocks ranging from 4.0 to 6.5 on the Richter scale.  Eventually the decision was made to have the buses leave for downtown and we left.  In the next hour and a half that I was on the bus we travelled up the hill back towards JUSCO in Nakayama and then down the hill on the other side of the golf course.  It was decided that myself and another teacher would leave the bus to see about getting more food for the students on the bus.  By the time that we had made it back up the hill towards JUSCO, the traffic had cleared up enough that the bus had put enough distance between us that there was no point in heading back down that way.  The two of us decided that we wouldn’t get in the long line-up snaking in front of JUSCO and make our way over the 7-11.  It was closed but staff could be seen putting stock back on the shelves.  Our next decision was to make it back to our apartment building to setup an area where all of the teachers in our building could crash for the night.

When we arrived at the YSK building the fire alarm was off along with the power.  All of the doors had been propped open on all stairways so there a crisp breeze blowing through the hall.  In case you aren’t familiar with Japanese architecture in pre-fab buildings, the hallways are not heated.  There is no traditional western HVAC system that heats the whole building or even each individual unit.  Most apartment buildings have a kerosene heater that has to be filled up periodically.

We opened the door to my friend’s apartment and was greeted by a powerful pungent smell.  It had been six hours since the megaquake had struck, so it was not enough time to have things go bad.  We surveyed the destruction in his apartment then headed up to the fifth floor to raid my girlfriends apartment for a broom and dustpan.  Then we spent the next hour cleaning up the main room in his apartment and the kitchen.

It turns out that in an earthquake, most of the stuff that had been in cupboards above the sink and around the sink, now found it’s way into the sink – it was packed full of dishes, appliances and broken glass and ceramics.  We finally got the apartment looking like it was liveable, then decided to head back to JUSCO.

At JUSCO, we waited in line for twenty minutes where I stocked up on what I thought was water (Aquarius sports drink actually), cup of soup and noodles, three loaves of bread, and fuel for the burner that we had forgotten about until I saw the fuel canisters.  The weird thing was that there was NO water available – most of the stuff available was junk food.

We made it back to the apartment and the other teachers had made it back from their bus ride.  The bus took two hours to get to Kita-Sendai station and a decision was made to turn around.  It took another two hours for the bus to make it back to the school and for them to get a ride back to the apartment building.  By this time, we had everything cleaned up, piled up all of our food from four different apartments and cooked up a storm.  All of us slept in that one apartment (seven in total) and any time there was an earthquake people started to say “happy birthday”, more of a way to confirm that all of us were feeling the same earthquake and it was not just in our heads.

The day after the megaquake, we headed down early in the morning to Jusco, Miyagi Coop, and McDonalds – long lines at Jusco and the Miyagi Coop, but the McDonalds was not open.  I took pictures of the refinery burning in the distance – it lit up the night sky with the power off the night before.  When we got back to the apartment, we decided to raid the school of any supplies and food that may have been there.  We sent two people to the school and I helped Rama tidy up her apartment.   It turns out that she had a lot of stuff in her kitchen and I now understood why she sat in her apartment for 30 minutes staring at the pile of food, dishes, appliances, and sauces all over her kitchen.  Her fridge opened up during the earthquake and threw food all over the floor.  Her brita filter fell off the counter and left pools of water on the ground – soaking up all of the packaged sauces on the ground.  It took us fifteen minutes to figure out an attack plan and we spent thirty minutes tidying up her living room and another nintey minutes getting the kitchen in order.  By the time the others made it back from the school, we had had enough of tidying up and were playing Scrabble.  The other teachers had found a 24 pack of cans of cold Green Tea, some bottled water, batteries, lights from the physics class (we had a shortage of flashlights at the time), hand wipes, and hand sanitizer.

Heather and I tidied up our own apartment for a bit and then headed down for dinner.  Dinner Saturday night was Vietnamese glass noodles, green curry, coconut milk, pork chops (roasted slowly on Rama’s bar-b-q on the balcony), and veggies.  We cooked the noodles in the canned Green Tea (to me the canned Green Tea tasted horrible on its own) but it got the job done.  We ended up cooking everything in the Green Tea as we didn’t want to waste the little water that we had collected.  Heck, I even used it when we made espresso in the morning.   Most of us ended up sleeping in our own apartments except for Heather and I because we were on the fifth floor and we could feel the earthquakes a lot more due to the building being designed to sway to dissipate the energy from the earthquake.

The next morning a group of us decided to go downtown.  We had heard a few buses go by the second floor apartment window and at around 10:30am we were waiting by the bus stop with a few other people.  We waited for a total of 20 minutes and surprisingly the bus picked us up but not at the right time which was a little unnerving.  That coupled with the fact that the bus that we had taken many times before made a left hand turn where it wasn’t supposed to go, caused my heart to jump into my throat.  It turns out that there was extensive damage to the road on the normal route and we were by passing the worst of it.  We drove by buildings with traditional Japanese roofs that had the tiles shook off, a burned out shell of a building, and many buildings that had cracked facades or piles of tiles at their base.  When we finally arrived at downtown, we finally had a cell signal and many of us called our families for the first time since we lost cell service in the northern part of Sendai.

Crowd of people around a posted newspaper

When we were downtown we had a few shocks in store for us.  First, people were lining up for water out of a public tap / water fountain.  Second, there were people lining up to charge their cell phones, while a few gentle souls were giving out ice cold water (it was about 12C that day).  Third, there were still line ups for food.   The first thing we did was join the crowd of people charging their phones at an extension chord that someone had connected outside of a restaurant.  Then we lined up to get into a 7-11 (there were roughly fifteen people waiting to get in, which paled in comparison to the lineups for other grocery stores).  Most of the shelves had been picked bare of any nutritious food and there was no bottled water.  We picked up some green tea, variety of other drinks and then set off downtown.

Our first pictures of the disaster

Then we made our way farther downtown – seeing bookstores with their books litered all over the floor, models knocked down, and saw a group of people who had gathered in front of a newspaper.  This was our first glimpse into the destruction that the earthquake and tsunami had caused (see picture above).  It was at this point that we were fervently checking our smartphones to get videos and updates on the disaster.

A fireman spoke to us for a bit and told us about an evacuation center close by that would have information on when electricity and water would be restored.   When we finally got there, he found someone who spoke English fluently and it turns out that they had no information for us – nada, zip, zilch, nothing.  They had no idea when anything would be turned on in any district of Sendai nor where we could get things like a radio, flashlights, etc.

While we were downtown, we also had some miso soup that was being served for free in front of a restaurant.  Needless to say, it tasted delicious.  When we made it back home, a few of us went to stand in line at Jusco to get some more food, and Rama cooked up Caldareta – a Filipino dish that was delicious.  We ended the night playing poker, getting a radio to work, and heading to bed around 11pm.  Heather and I took the radio up to our apartment and struggled to understand what was being said on the government broadcasts.  We fell asleep around midnight on Sunday night.

A lineup for getting water in downtown Sendai
A crowd of people charging their phones. I never realized how dependent people were on cell phones.
A line for one of the pharmacies in downtown Sendai
An afternoon lineup at the one of the department / grocery stores
One restaurant was giving away soup – it was sooo good to have a meal cooked by someone else.
Notice the time on the clock – 2:46pm when the megaquake struck.
Models all knocked up or down.
A glimpse into the bookstore
The refinery in Sendai burning in the distance.

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.

Mos Burger – “everything normal on the west coast”

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.

Dinner At Kansai Airport, Osaka

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.

Top Shelf – 3am Snack
Waiting at the gate to board our plane to Narita Airport at 6:10am
KIX-NRT – One hour on this plane
Flight Safety Demonstration

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.

After Safely Arriving In Canada

Interview with CTV News

Fundraiser – Stories From Sendai / @sendaistories

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Exploits, thoughts and travels of Scot

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