Monday, 14 March 2011

Agent Orange: Friday Night & Saturday Morning

Let me start off by saying I wasn't ever in any immediate danger. A lot of things were shaking but nothing really got damaged where I was. I think the best way to understand my situation was if you imagine there is a house fire about thirty miles away and it's a windy day. There is a possibility of something happening but it's not real likely. Earlier in the week my train had been delayed twice, once for a suicide in Omiya and once for some unknown reason on Thursday night. I usually have about 17-19 classes a week but this week I had 24 because the teachers wanted to get one last class in before the end of the year. I just finished fifth period and was getting ready to go outside and play Capture the Flag with all my 6th graders when the first quake hit. It was a roller more than a jarrer. I went to the 5th grade room to see if they were OK and they were all under their desks. We waited for a moment and it stopped.

The second one hit and then I heard screaming. Some of my 6th grade girls were late getting out and were frantically trying to find any door they could to get out... we were on the fourth floor. This was the only time I got scared the whole day because they booked down the stairs, screaming and yelling. I yelled at them to get under their desks but I guess I did it in English (or they just ignored me) because there was no way they were staying in the building. I ran/waddled after them down the hall, just pissed off at the whole thing. I kind of muttered, "I can't believe these kids are gonna get me killed," but I honestly was relieved that they got out fine.

I go back in to see if the 5th graders were OK. Another aftershock hits so the 5th grade teacher and I decide that we should get them out of the building. Now, Japanese kids have fire-retardant head covers so they all were wearing things that looked like a cross between space suits and KKK hoods. I think L Ron Hubbard designed them, to be honest. Anyhow I, the teacher and the little Scientologists are all out of the building and I go back in to see how everybody else is doing. We all go out of the building, wait a moment and go back in. I go back outside and start up the game with the 6th graders. About a minute or two later, the principal announces that everybody needs to be out on the playground. Aftershocks are occuring once every couple of minutes.

All the kids go home except one, whose mom is in Tokyo. We sit in the teachers' lounge, eating senbei and watching the news. The kid helps me read the kanji flashing on the screen. About 5pm and the teachers ask me how I am going to get home. I tell them not to worry and that I'll get a bus or a taxi. I walk to the station and see the gates are all down and service is out. I walk to the other side of the station, hoping that Costco is open so I can get some pizza and maybe a six-gallon drum of barbeque sauce in case the big one hits again.

Everything is shut down. There is a huge line for taxis, but the bus service is operational. In fact, the buses are acting as if nothing has happened. The bus that goes around town and drops people off who are really in walking distance from the station is doing the same loop and picking up nobody. I get a bus to the next station and try to get a taxi. Unlike Shin Misato, Yoshikawa has a fully functioning staff of people giving directions as to where to go. I find a payphone and call my mom and am surprised that I actually beat her to the disaster. She had been sending me e-mails talking about earthquakes so I don't know if she is psychic or what. The really nice thing was all the phone calls are free so I probably could have talked for a while. I didn't know that until after I hung up.

While I am waiting, I see a little black cat... kind of surprised to see him walking around considering all the excitement going on, but he is walking around like nothing happened. Head out to Shin Koshigaya to see if I can find something to Urawa. I call my friend to see if I can stay at his house. My cell phone is dead, no service at all. He's at work in Tokyo stuck in traffic (after five hours he would finally give up and walk back into work). He says I can stay so I wait it out at a Denny's near his house till about 1am. Off topic, but the Dennys in Gamo is a nice place to stay during a crisis. It's clean, warm, and the Chocolate Brownie Delight sundae is amazing! Kudos to Dennys!

I talk to my friend again and he says he won't be coming back so I should find something else. I kind of think about it and decide, "Fuck it, I'm walking." Ohhh what a walk it was! Before I get into that, though, I should say a couple of things about how lucky I was. It was exactly at this time a year ago that I was in Sendai for a soccer game. When I first moved to Japan, one of the places I really wanted to live in was Sendai so if things had worked out differently, maybe I would have been there. The other place where the quakes hit was in Ibaraki. I was there just last Sunday for a soccer game.

Writing this I'm tired but I'm glad I walked. All the teachers at school and most of my friends on the internet are/were expressing shock and fear and rightly so. However, with me on my own out in the middle of nowhere, I didn't really have to dwell on what was going on: I imagine that everyone had a better idea of what was going on than me at this time. I guess I was like The Hobbit, wandering around in the wilderness and stopping from time to time for snacks.

My first trek was about 5km, from Koshigaya to Higashi Kawaguchi. It was kind of eerie seeing people wandering around the streets at two in the morning, in places that you wouldn't normally see people. I also saw a giant pornography warehouse conveniently open between 11am and 4am. I guess if you want porn at 8am, you are out of luck. Yes, it was open during all the turmoil, and no I did not go in. Good thing to know that nothing stops the sex entertainment industry.

I got to a convenience store and asked about how far it was to get to Kita Toda. The guy kind of laughed and pointed me in the right direction, which I botched. I ended up at Higashi Kawaguchi and spoke with the police, who gave me a map. The police were great during all of this... good job by them. On my walk, I met a man who had attended high school in North Canton, Ohio, and we talked about the pro football Hall of Fame and Hoover. He told me that his deaf sister-in-law was from Sendai and had been in Tokyo waiting to get the train back home. She had just returned to his house and he was rushing back to meet her.

I kept walking, counting love hotels along the way. I saw about twenty. Yes, love hotels are exactly what you think they are. My favorite one was named the Queen Elizabeth, built in the shape of a giant cruise ship. I also saw a place that resembled Pee Wee's Playhouse, with a gingerbread house and large wood sculptures ranging from totem poles to penguins to large Greek goddess statues. I wish I had a camera on me because that place was really magical.

I went to another convenience store to get directions. The main challenge on the last part of my trek was to find toilets. I had made the mistake of drinking Blendy Coffee Milk and the delightful Dennys sundae was quickly becoming not so delightful. The last two hours of the trip I saw maybe one or two people. My legs were really sore but I was seeing more unique stuff, like a gorilla-themed playground under the freeway.

At 6.30am, exactly 24 hours after I had left for work, I finally made it home. Slept for a good ten hours. I think my main emotion the whole night was irritation and not really fear because I knew what was going on, but I didn't. And in a very bizarre way, my little journey was quite enjoyable. I have kind of felt crowded and so the experience of being out on my own, singing songs and seeing odd things along the way was kind of a relief. If I had done the sensible thing and stayed at school, I probably would have been stressed out watching the constant stream of disaster that they are still showing on TV. I would have probably got a ride from somebody but I would have missed out on the strange stuff and interesting conversations along the way.

It's horrible what is going on right now up north. I can't imagine it even though it's on TV non-stop. A couple of friends or friends' family members have had near misses but I haven't come across anyone directly affected by the tsunami. It feels kind of inappropriate but my experience during all of this was positive for some strange reason. Maybe I'm strange!

Note: this article is a description of one person's experience of the earthquake on Friday 11 March 2011. The occasionally humorous tone is not intended in any way shape or form to make light of the appalling events that have taken place across a wide area of Japan, or of the suffering of a large number of people.



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