I wanted to talk about the March 11th, 2011 Earthquake since Eric and I were there. For Eric it was the last day of teaching for the year. For me it was the second last. We both lived in Morioka, Iwate, which was in between the cities where we taught. I was up in Takizawa, and Eric was down in Yahaba, and we could take the train or drive to our schools.
When the earthquake happened I was in the teachers’ room at Takizawa Minami (South) Junior High School. There were a few of us: the vice principal, the grounds keeper, the old gruff shop teacher, and some of the teachers assistants. I mostly worked on writing and waited for the day to end so Eric and I could go bowling at Round 1 with another teacher.
Here’s the thing: we knew the earthquake was coming. All of our cell phone alarms went off. We all looked at our phones, and we waited. I remember one of the teachers said something to another. And about ten seconds later the earthquake started. And it didn’t stop for five minutes. We rushed outside, no one bothering to put their outside shoes on.
I remember standing outside with the students and teachers, watching the entire school shake back and forth during the aftershocks. I remember the solid, echoing THUD that both Eric and I hear, 20 miles apart; we though Mt. Iwate was erupting. I was shooed home soon afterward. I never got to say goodbye to teachers I taught with for a year.
I had the frame of mind to stop at a 7-11 on the way back home to buy a phone charger for my car, and a backup battery charger. Inside the 7-11, alarms were going off, and it smelled like sake. A quick turn down an aisle reveled that all the single serving sakes had fallen off the shelf and broken. Even at this time, only about an hour after the quake, food was starting to disappear off the shelves.
It took me another hour and a half to get home, on what’s usually a ten minute drive. I turned on the radio to see if I could find something, anything, and what I found was an automated message that sounded tsunami warnings in Japanese, Mandarin, and English. I listened for a while. Traffic inched forward. Aftershocks rocked my car. I sat under an underpass and held my breath, hoping the underpass would hold.
When I got back to our apartment, I expected the worst: TV and fridge fallen over, gas leaks, no water, no power. But all that had happened was the power loss, and that our TV had moved away from the wall about two feet. I quickly filled some bottles with water, changed out of my work clothes, and waited in my car for anyone else to get home. Strangely, I picked up an AM radio station from one of the American Naval bases near Tokyo, and listened to someone almost a decade younger than me urging his fellow sailors to check in with their COs.
As the sun went down, Eric arrived in a minivan. One of his teachers gave him a ride back, and he carried a bag full of dried food and candles. Our teacher friend, who was in town getting her Japanese drivers license and was now stuck in town, arrived soon after. We spent about an hour in the car, and that was the first time we really saw everything. We knew there had to be tsunamis, but we didn’t have any idea of how bad they were.
I slept in my clothes that night. I had wanted to stay in the car, but Eric coaxed me back into the apartment. I wasn’t thinking straight, but our apartment was safe, built to safety codes designed after the Kobe earthquake. But I didn’t want to go back in. I felt like I’d be safest in my car.
We had no power for about 27 hours, and thus no Internet. So the day after we walked around Morioka to survey the damage. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much. Just no power, no buses, no trains, no food coming in. Lines started to develop outside gas stations, and in the next few days would be miles long. We bought a camp stove outside a mall, and stood in line to shop for food for two hours. Surprisingly, everyone was patient, polite, and calm. And after that we went back to the apartment, made some tea on the camp stove (which helped so much), and waited for the power to come back.
When the power finally did come back, we got to work telling people we were still alive. I check in on the now epic Metafilter thread about the quake, and hung out there until I left Japan about a week later. It was nice to know people were concerned about us.
We managed to get to Tokyo to leave the country by taking the Akita Shinkansen to Akita, then flew out to Tokyo. We had plans to do a tour of Kyoto before we left, but dashed those plans as soon as the earthquake happened.
The earthquake is still part of my life to this day. I live near a heavily-traveled train line, and every time a train passes through my whole body tenses. They’ve woken me up from sleep. Eric still can’t watch footage of the quake, and when I do my breathing speeds up. But I also remember the people in Japan, who surpassed my expectations. They handled the earthquake with grace and dignity, and I never once felt as though the Japanese citizens around me weren’t watching out for one another. I got to see the Japanese people at their very best, and it was an honor.
My story isn’t the most exciting story, but I was there and I felt I should say something. I appreciate you listening today.