3/11 Quake: Living with Hope

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 stay in a family-run ryokan. Talk to the locals and support their businesses. We’re all in this life together!

Celia in Tokyo

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…

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光陰矢の如し ~ Time Flies!

Wowee! It’s been 4 years to the day since I landed, a couple of bags in hand, at freezing Kansai Airport. A lot has changed since that day. For one, I’ve gone from my mid 20s to late 20s. That’s slightly depressing, so let’s move on… Those bags have since turned into an entire apartment full of ‘stuff’! For a while, I was conscious of everything I bought and thought about how I would take it back to Australia. But at some point, you start to just let go and make your place home!

The usual story of expats in Japan goes that they plan to stay here for one year, and then the next thing they know it’s been 3 or 4 years. But even before moving here, I had had a bit more of a long-term plan. One of my goals was to improve my Japanese and I knew that’d take a while. Plus, I’d lived in Melbourne for 4 years and could easily see myself living in Japan for the same amount of time.

And so now, I’m about to start my 5th year in Japan, and 3rd year in Tokyo. Crazy! What have I been doing for the past 4 years, you may wonder. Well, I have improved my Japanese (phew!); I’ve gotten a lot of experience teaching English; moved 2 times and about to move again, yay!; seen A LOT of Japan; gone back to Australia twice; visited 7 countries; made many wonderful friends from all around the world; experienced typhoons, snow storms and a catastrophic earthquake; taken up snowboarding and hiking; and eaten puffer fish, raw horse meat, and many kinds of mushrooms (and survived, of course). It’s been a very busy and fulfilling 4 years!

This milestone has got me thinking about things I’ve learned or observed from living abroad, specifically in Japan. Here are some thoughts:

#1 Being away from family and close friends can be hard, and realising that you can stand on your own two feet just fine gives you a lot of confidence. But it’s learning how to lean on others when you need help or support, especially when you’re living in a foreign country, that is more difficult!

#2 As an expat, you naturally meet a lot of other expats. It’s always fun sharing stories of how you both came to be where you are. You become friends. And then a year later, they leave. A lot of people go in and out of your life and you quickly realise that goodbyes are tough. I will admit that I have held back from getting close with people who I know will be moving away soon – I know how sad that sounds!

#3 I never realised how much I would miss having space. Here, houses are teeny tiny (my current apartment is about 20 m2), narrow lanes are somehow 2-way streets and trains are jam-packed even on Sundays! Whenever I return to Australia, one of the first things I notice is how much SPACE there is! A 3-bedroom house where every room is bigger than my whole apartment… a backyard AND a front yard… and all that street parking!! Sounds like a dream!

#4 Japan has made me realise I have to learn to be more patient! Here, everything runs seamlessly because of the cooperation of the people. If you accidentally bump into someone, they won’t yell at you to ‘watch where you’re going!’. They are more likely to say ‘I’m sorry’ even if it’s not their fault at all. I also love that wherever you go, there are orderly queues. No one pushes or cuts the line; everyone waits their turn patiently.

#5 Australia is largely a mystery to most of the world. I am continually surprised when people say I’m the first Australian they’ve met. As soon as I mention Australia, the immediate reaction is often: “Oh, koalas! Kangaroos!” Unfortunately, no one knows what arvo means, what netball is, or who the Hilltop Hoods are. It’s nice when I do meet someone who’s been there, because I can say anything without worrying if I’m understood or not!

#6 Japan has got the art of comfortable living down to a tee. Where else can you find vending machines every 50 metres, trains that run precisely on time, heated toilet seats, and little rubber figurines that hold down the lid on your 2-minute noodle cup?! It makes life here so easy!

#7 In Japan, a bow can mean many things and is a very convenient way to communicate! I love how a simple nod of the head can mean so many things: hello, thank you, I’m sorry, yes, I understand or excuse me. The deeper the bow, the more respect you show. If you see someone knees and hands on the floor bowing profusely, you know they’re apologising for something terrible!

#8 Facemasks are so common here they may as well be part of the national costume! According to my high school students, masks prevent spreading sicknesses, keep their faces warm in winter, cover up acne or cold sores, cover up their faces pre-makeup; prevents their throats getting dry in winter; and can even be a fashion statement. Who knew!

#9 The seasons are very important in Japan. Depending on the season, the food you can eat, the colour and style of clothes, and even people’s lifestyle changes. It all starts in spring when the cherry blossoms bloom. Japanese people really seem to appreciate the fleeting life of these beautiful flowers. They gather under the trees to drink and eat and make the most of this short life we have. It’s almost poetry in itself!

I don’t really have any plan for how long I’ll stay in Japan. It would be awesome if I was living in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics – but that’s 5 years away! Who knows what the future holds. I’m excited for many more adventures, wherever they may be! :-)

Can you relate to any of these points? Have you ever lived abroad? What are some of the things it taught you?

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.