Sunday, 13 March 2011


I've been in Japan for just over 6 years and earthquakes are usually just a part of life up here. When I moved into my first apartment in Tokyo 6 years ago, a smaller earthquake woke me with a jolt at about 5am. I was hanging onto the bed for dear life for the five seconds or so that it lasted, slowly realizing it wasn't a dream and when it stopped I felt a kind of initiation was over. When I got to work almost no-one knew what I was talking about though. It took me till lunch-time to find someone who also felt it, and then it was only because he was coming back from the toilet at the time. No big deal, everyone slept through it.

Friday March 11 was different. This time on my 24th floor office there was none of the usual laughing at the newbie foreigners getting spooked, everyone knew something was up. You couldn't walk in a straight line and those that weren't holding onto the desks were rushing to the window to see if they could see any damage in the street below, before realizing the window might not be the best place to stand when the whole building's groaning.

Those who could connect were calling family and friends but I couldn't reach my girlfriend Miki who was at home and on the 51st floor. I can see my home from the office in the distance so could at least see the building was still standing and no smoke which was a good sign. I can't imaine what it must have been like 300kms North in Sendai.

Hard to say how long it lasted, it seemed like five minutes but was probably only two, [update: tremors were actually measured for about 5 minutes] but that's two [five] minutes of full-on groaning and creaking walls with stronger and stronger waves. Usually the tremors die down after 5-10 seconds but this was just grind after grind. I didn't find out till later that the Earth's axis was tilted 10 cms, although to be honest I have no point of reference for a statement like that, no idea, but it sounds awesome in the true sense of the word.

Tokyo Midtown Tower is pretty new and currently the tallest building in Tokyo. Anything built after 1995 (the Kobe earthquake) is built to an extremely rigid standard. I can't say I was in fear for my life but certainly glad I was in a new building. I've never been outside for an earthquake, always at home, or in work, or in a bar, but outside you could see people struggling to stay standing on the street below. 
The PA announced there was a fire on the first floor so we were all evacuated. Everything was very orderly but after the first 3 flights down to 21F we had to stop inexplicably for about 10-15 mins as the aftershocks continued. Everyone would just sit down before they fell down as the tremors rolled around and waited it out. There was no real panic and eventually things started moving again, it took about 30 mins to get out.

I managed to connect to home once while waiting on the stairs. On the other end a woman sounded in trouble and really panicking, asking me who was calling before we were cut off. I have a work mobile phone plus a personal mobile phone and I usually use my work one. It's possible Miki hadn't registered my other number as I never use it, but not knowing for sure was just awful.
Thousands gathered in the garden at the rear of the building but with no intention of going back to work I started to think how to get home. I managed to connect to Miki again who was basically fine but pretty scared on her own up on the 51st floor. The previous call was apparently a crossed line so God knows where that woman was and what trouble she was in. There was no real damage at home apart from our big mirror which had fallen over and smashed. I knew the trains wouldn't be running but headed to the station anyway to see what they had to say.

Not surprisingly, the guy laughed when I asked when the trains might start running again. He had no idea. Many others seemed content to wait it out at the station  but I thought it'd be better to hole up in a bar somewhere for a while and see what happened, maybe I could reconnect with some workmates and check the news on my "one-seg" which is a TV broadcasting system to mobile phones which was working fine even though the actual phone network was down. 

As I walked towards one of my locals, Gengetsu, the boozy smell of shochu was thick in the air from about a hundred yards away. As I walked in the owner told me about sixty 1800ml bottles of shochu had smashed to the floor from the shelves above, about three-quarters of his stock. There was an air of resignation about them as they started the clean up, asking me to come back to support their business. I certainly will.

I found a few colleagues in the nearby Havana Cafe and spent a while updating facebook to let friends and family know I was OK. My co-workers were heading back to the office, despite the continuing aftershocks and said they'd stay overnight there if they had to. Bugger that, I realized I'd have to start walking. Getting home is normally a 30-minute train ride so it just seemed way too far to walk the whole way. Initially I just thought I'd walk to a place where it might be easier to get a taxi. I had no idea where that would really be though and about a million other people had the same idea.
Just outside the bar, two 12-inch square street lamps had fallen from a billboard on top of a 10-storey building and smashed to the pavement. The area had been cordened off and only one of the four lamps was still in place, the one on the far right was dangling only by it's power cable. Nothing compared to the carnage up in Sendai and the resulting tsunami. Although the phones were still out I'd been able to watch some footage of the tsunami on my mobile TV at the bar. Horrific stuff.
Since I always take the train home I took a few wrong turns at first. I actually  added about 5kms to the whole trip but evetually got back on track. Today's quake was a magnitude of 8.9 but it struck 300kms North of here off-shore near Sendai. Kobe's earthquake in 1995 was a much smaller 6.8, but was a direct hit on the city and so caused much more damage, much like Christchurch's recent 6.3. In Kobe there were more than 6,000 deaths and the overhead elevated highways collapsed. Although Tokyo was never in that much danger it was hard not to think of Kobe and Christchurch as I started the long walk home from underneath the highway.
Many of my fellow-marchers were wearing hard-hats which they got from their companies. Not a bad idea having just walked past the fallen lights. One guy said his company of about 600 people applied "the lifeboat rule". All the women got one first, then the blokes fought over what was left, although it was so calm, I'm not sure "fought" is the right word.

Most of the restaurants, bars and coffee shops on the way home were open for business and doing a roaring trade. At that stage though I just wanted to get home. My work phone was cut off completely and my personal phone was only working for sketchy internet access and the battery was running out.  I stopped in one of the many convenience stores for some grub but all the shelves were bare. In the absence of a healty sandwich and water, I had to make do with a 1/2 bottle of cheap Japanese whisky and a few packs of chocolate. Nothing like getting your supplies in...

By this time it was becoming obvious that walking was the only option. The traffic was getting heavier and heavier, any buses that did eventually pull up to bus-stops were already jammed, the taxi ranks all had long, long lines and all the taxis that crawled by were already taken. Head-down, arse-up.
A camaraderie was also developing among the walkers. Questions about where you'd come from and where you were going, plus of course the obvious, "where were you when it hit?" I walked a fair stretch of the way with a woman in her late 60s who was yomping away with a let's get this done attitude. No self-pity, no complaints, just something that had to be done. Everyone was like that.

It didn't seem unusual to stop at the pedestrian crossings for the green man but that's probably the best way to describe how orderly it was. Everyone had seen or heard about the tsunami footage so a long walk home on a dry and not so cold night wasn't really so bad was it?

I passed a bicycle shop that looked like Cardiff Skateboard Centre at the height of the skateboard craze in the 70s. (Not a good refernce for some I know, sorry) People were jammed in there three-deep at the counter not caring about color or other details, just waving cash and wanting any sort of bike to get them home quicker. I read today that one shop in Aoyama who normally only sold about 2-3 bikes on a normal mid-week day sold over 100 last Friday.

I finally got home after about four or five hours, not sure exactly what time I started, but it was about 11 miles in all. I waved off my fellow walkers who had further to go, some to Hiyoshi another 30 mins or so South, but some to Yokohama which must have been another two hours. 

I was glad to see power back on at home but since the elevators still weren't working it had to be the stairs back up to the 51st floor. Great... don't complain... think of Sendai! The fire escape stairs aren't all painted and tarted up like the rest of the building and a lot of debris had been shaken loose from the ceilings above. All cosmetic damage though.

On about the 10th floor I met a guy who also lives on my floor. He was about 70 and his forehead was sweating a fair bit. I decided to walk with him the rest of the way, although didn't really think I could carry him far if anything happened to him. It was good to have a companion for the final leg of the journey as well as a good excuse to take frequent breaks. I think he helped me as much as I helped him.

Back at home, Miki was fine but the relief was palpable. We slept in the spare room that night as glass was all over the place in the bedroom from the smashed mirror. It was great to be home though but the war-zone scenes on TV made me realise how lucky Tokyo had been.

The next day, none of the fresh food in the supermarket next door was for sale. It had all been ruined by the power outages the night before and staff were working their way through throwing it all out. Plenty of canned food and veggies, for now, but no fresh stuff.
They'd started to make some new fresh stuff but as soon as it was put out on display it was snapped up.  Today (Sunday) there's some more fresh food on the shelves but anything easy to keep and eat without much cooking like boil-in-the-bag curry, and rice-packs have all disappeared from the shelves. My Docomo mobile service is still out but the AU service mobiles seem to be OK. Still unpredictable.

We spent yesterday packing emergency bags and trying to tremor-proof the house: taking pictures down, rearranging furniture and kitchen stuff. Got my Gath hat out ready and the cycling helment for Miki.

They say that there's a danger of another big one any time within a month. It won't be as high as 8.9 but it will be closer and further South, which means near Tokyo. There have been more than 150 aftershocks already. Friday's Big One was just off the prefecture of Miyagi. Next prefecture down is Fukushima where the nuclear reactors are going nuts, then Ibaraki, then Chiba, then Tokyo. My mobile bleeps with an earthquake warning each time and the latest was in Ibaraki so they do seem to be working their way down to Tokyo.

Last summer I was surfing up in Fukushima about 3 kms away from the Fukushima 1 nuclear reactor at a place called Kumogawa, I stayed overnight at Tomioka right next to Fukushima 2. Hard to believe what they're going through with 15 people being reported as being dangerously exposed to raqdiation and the evacuation of everyone within a 20km radius.

Finally the Japanese news is talking more about the issue but no real answer from Tecpo yet, the power company that run the place. The advice is dodgy too. Yesterday they were recommending that people near exposed areas wear those facemasks that surgeons wear, the ones people wear here when they have a cold. Come on man! Today, they've added that in addition to the mask, you should also remove clothes and take a shower as soon as possible after.
From my balcony you can just about see the bay off Yokohama to the South and the Tamagawa river is a few miles off to the North and there's not a whole lot of mountains between. The whole expanse is basically the title photo on this blog. The thought of a massive tsunami hitting Yokohama doesn't bear thinking about. Enough for now anyway, I'm starting to sound like the scaremongers on CNN.

The office is supposed to be open tomorrow and since the trains are running we'll probably all go in. That's 17 hours away though, anything can happen in that time. My thoughts are with everyone in Japan directly affected by this nightmare. There are thousands of them.


  1. Thanks for the report Phil - So glad you and Miki are ok, my thoughts are with you and all your friends over there - be safe.

  2. Cheers mate. Working from home today, planned power cuts and water stoppages from 2pm-5pm. Another not-so-strong earthquake just knocked the lifts out again, but not for long I hope. Gath hat at the ready. I was up in the worse affected areas in 2004, it was beautiful up there then, hard to believe it's the same place now.

  3. Hell story , Phil! Glad that you are safe and sound! Best wishes!