On Sunday, I paused to remember the Japan earthquake, which happened a year earlier with the loss of more than 15,000 lives.
The event, which has become known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, was a tragedy that is almost impossible to describe, but for me it has a personal element because I was in Japan when it struck.
A couple of months after the earthquake, I sat down to write the following story and the words just poured out. I’ve been sitting on the story until now, but the anniversary of that terrible day seems like an appropriate time for reflection. Forgive me for such a long account but I guess I needed to write it as a sort of catharsis.
The horror of it all was brought home to me again when I heard this sound recording on The Telegraph (UK) website.
As the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and one year on, I feel I have come to terms with the nightmare of being caught up in the quake … sort of. I’m not sure how I’ll react if I feel the earth rumble under me again.
Today, my thoughts are more outward-looking than inward-looking, and my grief is for the many people in Japan for whom life will never be the same again.
Here’s my story:
“You sure are a girl who beats the odds,” exclaimed my partner’s brother in an email that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I read while taking refuge in the lobby of the Appi Grand Hotel in northern Japan, still reeling from the March 11 earthquake.
Peter was at his home in France when he read a report online titled I’m okay, need beers in which Melbourne journalist, Mark Russell, had mentioned he was travelling in Japan with journalist Jayne D’Arcy and I.
Mark had described how the quake struck soon after our arrival at Appi Kogen, about 600km north of Tokyo. Peter dashed off an email to see if Mark’s story was referring to me, and he was shocked to discover that indeed it was.
Peter and his partner, Terry, had spent time with Maurie and I in Canberra a few months earlier when I was undergoing treatment for cancer, hence his comment about me beating the odds.
Now safely back in my Canberra home, reminiscing about an event that seems almost surreal, I am beginning to ponder those words. Am I fortunate or am I just plain unlucky?
On good days – and thankfully there are plenty – I feel blessed. But the “sliding doors” of my life are almost too freaky for words.
In one terrifying moment when I was standing outside the Appi Grand Hotel in sub-zero temperatures, my heart pounding with fear that the 19-storey tower might come down, I wondered whether I had survived cancer only to be beaten by an earthquake.
For me, Japan will no longer be associated with the movie Lost in Translation. Instead, it will be Sliding Doors that comes to mind, for I was never really meant to be there in the first place.
An email about the trip came late on the Monday night before the earthquake, after another writer had pulled out. Ironically, I was putting the finishing touches to a story about Japan, and we had just done a crossword where I’d drawn on my knowledge of Japan to answer one of the questions. I thought the stars were aligned.
The familiarisation tour of Japan’s alpine resorts was scheduled to leave Sydney on the Friday, the day the earthquake struck. On the Tuesday, I was contacted by an agent for the East Japan Railway Company, which was hosting the tour, to see if I could manage a Thursday evening departure.
It was a stretch but Japan is top of my list of favourite destinations and I’d pull out all stops to go there. Even so, I very nearly didn’t make it.
My Qantas flight from Canberra to Sydney was half an hour late and I was still going through passport control 25 minutes before the scheduled 10pm departure for Tokyo. My anxiety was of no concern to the security chap who selected me for an explosives check and when I grumbled about the possibility of missing my plane, he subjected me to a full body search.
I made it onto the flight but my suitcase didn’t, and by the time it reached Tokyo, the earthquake had come between us. I had nothing but my laptop and the clothes I was wearing. In another case of sliding doors, it was the reunion with my suitcase that helped get us out of the country – but more about that later.
On the train into Tokyo from the airport, JR East’s affable marketing representative, Yoji Itabashi, told us about the new Dream train which debuted on March 5. This Shinkansen bullet train travels at 300km/h, slightly faster than previous models, and we were keen to experience it.
Thus we left Tokyo a little earlier than originally planned, passing through the hardest hit areas a few hours before the quake struck. I had a brief conversation with the woman sitting next to me before she got off the train in Sendai, close to the epicentre of the quake. Her face still haunts me.
We had just started the obligatory hotel inspection at the Appi Grand and were in a lift going to the sixth floor when our hotel guide, Aki, received a warning on his mobile phone about an impending earthquake. Almost instantaneously, the lift and the building began shaking violently. We managed to scramble out of the lift, and after some momentary paralysis as we gathered our wits, we headed down the emergency exit stairwell and out of the building.
The earthquake struck at 2.46pm and the rest of the afternoon was marked by continuous dashes for the door as the aftershocks continued relentlessly. The TV was turned on in the lobby and for the next few days it ran 24/7 with increasingly depressing news and images from around the country.
Although the township of Appi Kogen just a few kilometres away was without power, we were lucky to still have power and occasional phone and Internet access. By nightfall, our hosts were determined to go ahead with a special banquet in a restaurant on the second floor of the hotel.
A sizeable shake somewhere between the first and second courses had Jayne and I rushing for the door but we were persuaded that everything would be okay. As we were swirling our shabu shabu beef in a pot at the table, another huge shake had us scrambling for our shoes and overcoats. Etiquette or not, we were outside in a flash and never did get to try the codfish testes.
Many of the hotel guests slept that night in the lobby, deemed to be the strongest part of the hotel, and after seeing some of the TV presenters wearing hard-hats, Jayne and I called for ski helmets. In a country where every third person wears a face mask, our new attire failed to raise eyebrows.
We were supposed to be spending only the first night at the Appi Grand but it was clear almost immediately that we weren’t going anywhere. It was also clear that we had to find a way out.
With rail links cut and highways closed, the best option was to try to secure flights. The airport in Sendai was obliterated but Aomori, right on the northern tip, looked promising. Our quietly determined guide, Kazumi, managed to secure seats on a flight the following Tuesday.
We were reluctant to risk going standby before then, as there were still tsunami warnings so we didn’t want to hang around Aomori for long. We were lucky to have the comfort of a functioning hotel, and so it became a waiting game as the fear subsided but the anguish of being stranded so far from loved ones increased.
Our group of eight formed a close bond – Mark, Jayne and I, Itabashi from the railway company, tour guide Kazumi, interpreter Mika, and two of the hotel’s English-speaking staff, Aki and Yoshi.
We laughed together and we cried together. “Where’s Anna Bligh when you need her?” we lamented, and as the situation with the nuclear power plant a few hundred kilometres away became increasingly volatile, there was much to be said about Fuku-bloody-shima.
We joked that the speed of the whiz-bang new Shinkansen train might have caused the earthquake – silly stuff, but anything to lighten the mood.
By Sunday, it was all beginning to seem like a bad dream. There were tears all round but we had to pull ourselves together when Kazumi broke down. Our pain was nothing compared with her distress at being unable to return to her family in Sendai, where much of the devastation occurred.
They did all they could to keep our spirits up, Itabashi pulling out a map to give us regular briefings, and all of them coming up with ideas for things to do. Initially it was just to get some fresh air around the resort, the next day it was to nearby Morioka where we visited a handcraft shop and stopped at a restaurant for a bowl of noodles.
Incredibly, we even called into one of the ghastly, now eerily deserted pachinko parlours, where pinball machines flashed the words “Lucky” and “Super Lucky” at me while the ground below continued to shake. Anything to get out of the hotel.
On the Monday, we visited an onsen, bathing in a volcanic hot spring with steam spewing out of the ground in a haunting reminder of the power of nature.
With hindsight, I know that many of the deaths were in fact a result of the tsunami that followed the earthquake, and that Japan’s stringent building codes are remarkably effective in keeping people safe during earthquakes.
But the fear at the time was in not knowing whether the worst was behind us. And it was a bloody big quake – magnitude 9. Although I had experienced a couple of sizeable quakes in the past few years, they were one-off events. What alarmed me about this one was how relentless it was, with shakes, tremors and rolls continuing right up until we managed to get the hell out of the country the following Tuesday.
You never knew where and when it was going to happen next, and while we were safe from tsunami in our alpine region, there was always the risk of avalanche. As time went on, there was the fear of radiation too, and I had already had my share this year.
Aki and Yoshi held up a banner saying “C U again” as they farewelled the six of us on the Tuesday morning. After a four-hour bus ride taking the back roads to Aomori airport – the highways were reserved for army and emergency vehicles – we boarded a flight to Haneda Airport in Tokyo.
From there, we took a bus to Narita Airport where I was finally reunited with my suitcase. Kazumi had organised for us to spend the night in a hotel near the airport as she had managed to secure seats for us on a Qantas flight leaving the following night.
But the situation was deteriorating rapidly, with talk of radiation now reaching downtown Tokyo, and while I was retrieving my suitcase, Jayne seized the opportunity and fronted up to the Qantas desk.
Although Tuesday’s flight was fully booked, not everyone had been able to make it to the airport, and so with less than an hour to spare, we were able to secure seats. Two hours after we took off – a feeling of relief palpable in the air – a quake with a magnitude of seven struck Tokyo.
For days after my return, my legs were wobbly – earthquake legs are much like sea legs. The world has moved on but a little bit of my heart is still in Japan.
My thoughts are with the people and their enormous suffering, but especially with my new friends: Aki and Yoshi from the hotel, for whom nothing was too much trouble; Mika and Kazumi, who did all they could to get us home safely; and Itabashi, from JR East, who was meant to be with us only on the first day but was stranded, like me, with only the clothes he was wearing.
He slept with us in the lobby for two nights and when there was a very strong tremor at 4am one morning, was the first to check on our welfare. Their kindness was extraordinary.
Through all of this, I’ve learnt a few lessons about myself but mostly I’ve discovered what I already knew – that humans are remarkably resilient and that friendship stretches across the miles, especially in the face of adversity.