3/11 Quake: Living with Hope

March 11 was my one-month anniversary of moving to Japan! I was thrilled to be following my dream of living in Japan, and excited for the adventures to come! I had been in Nagoya for a few ‘orientation’ days with my new company, and then had spent two weeks in training in Gunma. The final step was moving to my placement city. I’d moved to Koriyama, in Fukushima Prefecture, on the previous Monday, 11 days prior.

That day, Friday, I was scheduled to teach late-afternoon classes, but since I was still new to the job, I wanted to get there a few hours early to prepare and chill before the students arrived. It was about a 20-minute walk from Sukagawa Station to the classroom. Around half way, there was a busy main road and the only way to cross it was via an underground pass. I had entered the underpass, and was just approaching the stairs to exit the other side when I suddenly felt a strange sensation.

At first, I thought it was a massive truck grumbling past on the road above. The walls shook and groaned. When it didn’t stop shaking, I quickly realised it was an earthquake. My brain instantly went into survival mode! For a split second, I wondered if I would be safer underground. I looked around me and immediately pictured the tiles on the walls flying off from the force of the quake and hitting me in the face. I needed to get out of there as soon as I could! I bolted up the stairs. As I reached the top and looked outside, the first feeling I had was panic. I was about to dash straight out onto the street, but happened to look up and see a towering electricity pole violently shaking back and forth. I pictured the lines coming down and electrocuting me. It was scary. I knew I couldn’t go back, so I cowered down and prayed it wouldn’t fall on me as I ran past. I made it safely to the other side of the pole (the whole 10 metres), but at that point, I didn’t know what to do. It was like trying to stand on a jiggling balancing board. I tried to keep walking, but it was impossible.

On the corner of the main road was a convenience store. I noticed the store workers had come outside to the parking lot and were crouched down in the open space. That looked like a pretty good idea to me! I crouched down, grabbing onto a nearby pole for support. This is where I would spend the next five or so minutes. I finally got the chance to take a good look around and realise what was going on around me. It was the countryside, so the area was not that built up; there were a number of residential houses in amongst car showrooms and commercial buildings. The cars that had stopped on the road were being shuffled around by the shaking ground. No one got out of their cars, and no one seemed to be panicking. Everyone just seemed to be waiting it out. I guess that helped me stay calm, too. But, the grumbling got stronger and stronger until it was a booming roar. It was deafening. The image that flashed into my mind was that the earth was the tummy of a monstrous giant, and his stomach was growling and rumbling with hunger pains! My knuckles were white from gripping so hard, but there was no way I was going to let go!

Then all of a sudden, it died down. All was quiet. Feeling completely frazzled and overwhelmed and not knowing whether to stay low or get moving, I decided my best bet would be to get to the classroom. Just as I stood up, though, Mother Nature decided she wasn’t done yet. The tremors returned, stronger and more vicious. I was forced to the ground and reached back for the pole. The violence of the quake was terrifying. I could only see a few people, and they were now screaming, sobbing, wide-eyed in panic, or clutching onto someone or something. Seeing this reaction by the locals, I realised this was no ordinary quake. I knew there were many earthquakes in Japan, but there was no way they could go through this on a regular basis. The shaking eventually stopped and an eerie calm fell over the streets.

As if not only the earth had been awakened from a deep slumber, but the heavens also decided to open its wings, sending down flurries of snow and freezing winds. Within seconds, blasting sirens turned the calm into chaos. I really thought the world was coming to an end. As I made my way to the classroom, I passed by burst water pipes, toppled brick walls, massive gaps in the bitumen, shattered glass. Inside shops, shelves had fallen over and what was on the shelves was strewn all over the floor. The whole area was a mess. I was in shock and crying. I couldn’t phone anyone on my mobile because the line wasn’t connecting. I was however able to get on the Internet and post a status update (excuse the language – I rarely swear on Facebook – but this was my immediate reaction): “holy sh*t biggest mofo earthquake ever. so scary!!”

The aftershocks were coming thick and fast. Each time, I stopped in my tracks, prepared to get down on the ground again. I finally got to the classroom, feeling cold and distraught. The room was on the second floor of a building. As I stood at the base of the stairs and looked up, I prayed for my life again and hoped the stairs wouldn’t give way as I raced up. Opening the classroom door, the first thing I thought about was how am I going to clean this up before class starts! I used the landline to call my company’s head office in Nagoya. The quake had been felt all the way down there, and of course they already knew it was a natural disaster on a massive scale. I was told to leave the classroom as it was and go home.

The tears had stopped by now and I was focused on getting home safely. I walked all the way back to the station only to discover the trains weren’t running and the station was being boarded up. I was trying to phone my colleagues, the only people I knew there, but there was still no connection. My awesome brother in Australia was feeding me information and giving me advice through Facebook. If I hadn’t had that communication I can’t even imagine how I would have been feeling. But, I was still freezing, hungry, not feeling well, and didn’t know what to do. Miraculously, a bus pulled up at the station with Koriyama Station displayed on the front. This was my way out of there! The train ride between Sukagawa and Koriyama was just 10 minutes, but with the intense traffic congestion, the bus took well over an hour. From the bus window I could clearly see the gravity of the situation. Entire buildings had collapsed; fires had started; debris was scattered everywhere.

Koriyama was a very welcome sight. I’d lived there for less than two weeks, so I still didn’t know my way around that well, but just seeing the familiar train station was enough to put my mind slightly at ease. I had no food or water and the convenience stores and vending machines had long since run out of stock. A good point of not having lived in my apartment for long was that I didn’t have much in there that could get damaged! The washing machine had fallen over, the balcony door had unhinged itself and snow was coming in, an unfinished mug of tea was split over my pillow, but that’s about it. But there was no power or water supply and the constant aftershocks were stressing me out so I decided to go back to the station and wait for advice from the local authorities. I waited, and waited, and waited. There were no announcements being made, no signs, no warnings. It was zero degrees Celsius and I was sick and tired. Giving up, I retreated to my apartment. Thankfully, the power had returned so I cranked on the heater and sat glued in front of the television, heart in my mouth, seeing the horror of the tsunami roll over towns and villages.

Perhaps it was because I was completely exhausted, mentally and physically, but I actually managed to sleep until 10 o’clock the next morning. Still unsure what I should do, but getting restless in my apartment, I went outside to see the aftermath. There were a lot of people about. They were strangely quite calm and orderly. There were lines of people waiting to use public payphones. I walked to all the shops I knew of and checked for food. The shelves were bare. The only substantial thing I could get my hands on was yoghurt. I was so hungry. At a small park near my home, I noticed another line of people quickly growing. Curious, I went closer and realized they were queuing for water from a communal well. Since the water had been shut off in my apartment, I decided to follow suit. I gathered all I could find in my apartment to use as storage – a small kettle and plastic bag, which I later found out had a hole in it – and queued in the cold for what seemed like hours.

But, as if a guardian angel was looking over me, I didn’t even come to use that water. On Saturday afternoon, 24 hours after the quake struck, I was rescued by a Japanese colleague who I’d met the week before. She offered me a bed and food and even picked me up in her car although she had little fuel left. I knew I’d be okay once I was with her. The next day, another colleague joined us, and then another, and soon there were five of us taking refuge in her house! The feeling of ‘togetherness’ in our group was the most comforting feeling in the world.

By Tuesday, the news of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster was all we could think about. We were about 70 kilometres from the coast, and 40 kilometres from the no-go zone, but we didn’t know if we were safe or not. I didn’t even know if we should have been breathing the outside air. Not knowing enough about radiation or what was really happening at the power plant, and feeling aftershake after aftershake, was taking its toll on all of us. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so stressed in my life. We decided to have a ‘team meeting’ and figure out our next step together. We had been told we could stay in company apartments in Nagoya, but with the trains down and gas stations closed, we were finding it hard to come up with a solution on how to get there.

By another stroke of good luck, we discovered another friend had a car with enough fuel to drive to Nasu where we had heard the trains were still running to. We didn’t know if the roads would be drivable or the mountains passable, but food and water were diminishing, and we knew we couldn’t keep sitting around. Our friend had a hunch that the highways would be bumper to bumper with people trying to flee, so thinking smart, he decided we should drive down the winding back roads. It was now or never! It was time to get out of there. With a sense of hope and optimism, we packed up what we had – a few changes of clothes and toiletries – piled into the car, and headed south. Driving away from the chaos felt like we were escaping to freedom. Eventually, we made it to Nasu, left the car on the side of the road with a note explaining our situation on the windshield, and got on the train. From there, we would stay in Tokyo, in a deserted Asakusa, for a couple of nights before reaching our safe haven, Nagoya.

It all feels surreal, looking back on it now. Three years have passed, but I can still remember some things quite vividly. I don’t openly talk about it because taking my mind back to that day brings back feelings of anxiety and stress. But I do feel like it’s helpful for people to hear a real, personal story, rather than just seeing the death toll and statistics on the news. Everyone who went through the disaster had a different experience, and their history and circumstances would have altered the way they responded. For me, I was a complete rookie. It was one of the first earthquakes I had felt, and I was brand new to the area. I was not prepared at all. After the quake a few things changed. In terms of the little things, I now have an evacuation emergency pack ready to go at a moment’s notice. I’m always looking around me for safe zones. And I’m forever observing my surroundings, thinking about whether or not things would be capable of withstanding a major earthquake.

As for the long-term, I feel like the experience changed my perspective on life. Making the decision to stay in Japan, and not flee back to Australia, made me realise how strong I can be. I know I can get through anything; and I know I can rely on the good in other people to support and help one another through tough times. For months and months, we heard stories about people, especially farmers, in the Tohoku region committing suicide because they had lost all hope. It is so distressing and makes me feel sick thinking about them reaching that point in their lives. It has made me actively place more value on the notion ‘hope’ and how necessary it is to help us to get through life. Hope gives us determination and something to strive for, and a mindset to be able to achieve our goals no matter what. My hopes over the past three years have been to succeed at my job and influence my students in a positive way, as well as make the most of this wonderful opportunity I’ve been given to live in a beautiful and unique country. Going ahead into the future, I hope I can settle into a satisfying job and start my own family, and at the same time never lose my passion for adventure. That is, after all, what made me move to Japan in the first place.

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All photos courtesy of Isaac Medina Flickr.

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42 thoughts on “3/11 Quake: Living with Hope

  1. 東北大震災(とうほくだいしんさい)から、3年たった今日、あの日の恐ろしい光景(こうけい)を思い出して、被災者(ひさいしゃ)の人々の苦しみを 痛感(つうかん)します。
    あなたの 体験談(たいけんだん)を よみながら、友人と共に 郡山から浅草へ、そして
    名古屋へ避難(ひなん)するようすを 思い浮かべて、とても感動(かんどう)します。
    そのとき、わたしたちは、オーストラリアで 皆さんの無事(ぶじ)を 神様に 深く(ふかく)
    祈(いの)っていました。安全(あんぜん)に避難するところがあって、本当によかったですね。
    詳しい(くわしい)体験談を 書いてくれて、ありがとう。

    Like

    • 私の体験談を読んでくれて、本当にありがとうございます。毎年3月11日いろいろな感情は戻りますね。何がとても重要なのか考える時でありますよね。今も東北の皆さんのために祈りましょう。

      Like

  2. This is a really good, but sad story. I didn’t realise three years had passed. I’m glad you managed to come through that and carry on with the job that you are doing, its really amazing how things can change your entire outlook on life and what’s happening around you. Thank you for sharing your story, I really enjoyed reading it.

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    • Hi Luke, thank you so much for reading. Yes, so true, so many events in our lives shape the way we think. It doesn’t have to be a major disaster, even a photo has the ability to alter our view of the world. Lots of good things have come also from this experience and I hope I can continue to have a positive outlook on life and influence others to do the same!

      Like

    • I’m glad you enjoyed reading my story. It was important for me to get the whole experience down on paper and help keep the memory of 3/11 alive. I put a lot of effort into it and hope other readers have the same reaction as you!

      Like

    • Thanks for the touching comment :)
      It really is heartbreaking. The chain reaction has been unimaginably destructive: the quake caused a tsunami, which caused a nuclear crisis, which caused radiation exposure, which then caused a change in consumer behaviour and loss of farmers’ livelihoods.

      Like

  3. That is a scary event. I’m glad you are safe and held on to hope. My thoughts and prayers to all the victims of the Earthquakes in the past several years. There are no words to describe its full devastation. Times like this we realize we are not alone and that the world over share our struggles in thoughts & prayers.

    Like

    • It’s wonderful to hear about people from all over the world praying for ‘Japan’, even after 3 years. Life is full of struggles, both major and minor, and I think it’s comforting at least to know you’re not in it alone.

      Like

  4. Only 12 bloggers liked this?? This is an epic story. Bloggers across the interwebs are going on about mid-life crises and 101 crafty things to do with Mason Jars while you had the world coming down around your ears. Well…I’ll give you another like. :p Well written and scary as h*ll. What gets to me is that the photos of the destruction you rode out would have been deemed horrible on a normal news day. It was superseded by the unthinkable going on on the coast.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha – I’m sure those 101 craft tips help a lot of people! :-P
      Thanks for taking the time to read! The 4-year anniversary is coming up on Wednesday, so been thinking about it a lot. It’s good thing I have this story to remind myself of the little details. Even though it was a terrifying event, it’s something I don’t want to forget.

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      • Celia – What a frightening experience. At first I wondered how I missed this on the news and then discovered this was three years ago. While reading I felt like I was right there searching for safety along side of you. Thank you for posting this reminder of the disaster and all of the lives that were lost. So glad that you are alive and well. To have remained in Japan after such as disaster does show your strength and determination to continue on your path of helping others. Love and Light.

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        • Thank you for your kind words, Sandy! It feels like a lifetime ago now – 4 years (I wrote this piece last year). Hearing about all those people who lost their family and friends, or who are still living in temporary housing, is a constant reminder not to take anything for granted. I’m forever grateful to be living my dream. Love to you x

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  5. Reblogged this on Celia in Tokyo and commented:

    Tomorrow will be the 4th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. March 11, 2:46pm.

    This tragedy is never far from my mind. I think about the people who lost family and friends. Everyday, but especially March 11th, must be so painful. I can’t even begin to imagine what they’re feeling. There are still thousands of people classified ‘missing’. I read an article about a man who lost his entire family. His wife’s body was found many weeks later, but to this day he still goes back to the area in hopes of finding his young child. His perseverance is both inspiring and saddening.

    I also think about all those families who have spent the past four years in confined temporary housing not knowing when they will be able to move on. How desperate they must be to get out of there and have their own permanent home again. Imagine your home being taken away from you without any warning… your clothes, treasured possessions, even pets!

    And we keep seeing images of tons and tons of radioactive soil sitting in bags, and hundreds of tanks of radioactive water that has leaked from the power plant. That coastline seems to be turning into a radioactive debris storage ground. I think the situation is far from under control and often wonder how much is the government not telling us.

    I think for the Tohoku region to get back on its feet, we need to support the local people. Go visit a few sightseeing spots or a hot spring, check out a local festival, or a stay in a family-run ryokan. Talk to the locals and support their businesses. We’re all in this life together!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Not seen your original post, but after the first bit, I know I must read it properly – bookmarked for this evening…. Turkey is also one of those places on earth when ‘you never know when the big one will strike (again)’. We feel tremors every week, sometimes every day. When they stop, I’ll be worried more I guess. Keep safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am glad that you were and are safe. Thank you for sharing. I wrote my tribute for 3/11 as well. I don’t think those of us who experienced this event will ever forget…

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    • Exactly… wise words, Spike :-) I read an article about survivors of the tsunami recently, and a young guy was quoted saying “I’ve lost everything — my home and my possessions. But these losses hardly bother me, now that I’ve realized human bonds are what matters most in my life.”

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Today, we think of Japan | Uncle Spike's Adventures

  9. Thanks to Uncle Spike, all the way in Turkey, while I live in the States, I got to read your post about the 2011 tsunami, still affecting so many people. Your story highlights the emotions and deep sorrow that the Japanese people experienced and also their amazing resilience and grace, facing the tragedy. Have you seen the March issue of Harper’s magazine? It’s worth the read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Evelyn, thanks for taking the time to follow Uncle Spike’s post to here. I’m grateful to you and him for the support! I will definitely go check out Harper’s bazaar. Thanks for the suggestion :-)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Celia,
    Thanks for sharing your experience of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Despite having read many words and watched much video of the tragedy, reading the personal account of a friend adds an altogether different dimension. Your story is inspirational and I sense you will say it is only one of many inspirational stories. That may be true, but does not diminish the inspirational value of those stories including your own. Congratulations also for hanging-in and not returning home to safety, which would have been a natural and appropriate decision. Your post reminds me of the saying: “It is not what happens to us in life that matters, but what we do about it”. Thanks again for sharing.
    John

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    • Hi John, I can relate to that saying, too. In the same vein, just the other week I was teaching my high school students the meaning of Shake it off (Taylor Swift’s song) and how we can choose the way we react to situations.

      Yeah, spreading awareness is one of the reasons I wanted to share my story. In the first couple of years after the quake, I retold my experience to a number of people and their reaction was always shock and disbelief. I realised that letting people hear my personal account gave them a chance to see the disaster in a whole new perspective and made it more meaningful for them.

      Thanks as always for your generous comments :)

      Like

  11. Thank you for sharing your incredible story. For those of us who don’t live in an earthquake zone, even a tiny little tremor gets us all flustered. Your experience is beyond my imagination.

    Great advice for everyone everywhere to have an emergency kit. We have had ice storms and other outages where we’ve been without power for days. Being able to survive for several days with basics like water, food, candles, etc is critical and I rarely let the gas tank on my car go below half full.

    Be well, be safe.

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    • Thank you, Joanne.

      Coming from Australia, I also didn’t have any experience with earthquakes! Seeing and feeling something like that that is completely out of your control is seriously scary. Mother Nature knows who’s boss! And that’s exactly why we have to be as prepared as we can be with emergency kits, etc.

      Ice storm with no power!! How do you keep warm?! In Australia we get many cyclones which can cut the power for a few days at a time – we have a backup generator that kicks in automatically when needed.

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      • We had temperatures in the -20C to -30C range during the 3 days we were without power. It’s amazing how quickly simple basics become the most important focus. Thankfully we have a gas fireplace and a gas stove. We closed off as much of the house as possible to contain the heat from the fireplace and wore many layers of clothing. Warm drinks, soup, etc helped a lot too.
        Many people didn’t have that and had to go to warming centres which had power.

        Like

  12. Your words of description are as if the quake happened just yesterday Celia. No doubt this earthquake 4 years ago has left a huge impact on you Celia.
    So many decisions of what to do, and where to go where your physical survival hinges on that decision.
    Thank you for sharing this post to keep the memories alive.
    ~Carl~

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    • Thank you for reading, Carl! Yes, so many decisions… That’s what made it all the more stressful I think. In the end, you just have to go with your instincts and common sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Caught Red Handed | theoldfellowgoesrunning

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