I went to college in Japan. If it’s okay with all of you, I’d like to share my story. This is stream of consciousness as I remember things, so there’s no images, and no filter. Sit down, grab a cup of tea, because well. This is going to be a ride.
I was a senior in college. About to graduate. My family came in from the USA, landed and was in customs. I was on a train to Chiba to meet them when the first tremor hit.
The entire train shook. My heart jumped in my chest.
I’d been living in Japan for a while, tremors were just A. Thing.
I’d actually been to Japan the first time when I was in high school, for an art field trip- my parents didn’t even allow me to take Japanese even though it was offered, so I studied after school without their knowledge. When the Japanese teacher offered for me to join their trip, of course I was going. About three nights in, we were in Hakone when I felt a light shake.
So that was an earthquake, I thought. Huh. No big deal.
But in Chiba, that tremor wasn’t “light”. It was earth shattering. The train whimpered to a halt and the doors flung open.
We were in Oosakura. I’d never heard of it before, hell, I had no idea where we were until much later when I’d hiked to the nearest town center. It was suburbia northeastern of Tokyo, not far from the airport, but a good four hour train ride from my own home. Middle of nowhere.
We all calmly got out of the train, and held onto the platform- no station, just a piece of concrete with some rebar- and held on for dear life as the concrete cracked.
It was surreal. There were knots in my stomach.
This wasn’t the first major natural disaster I’d get caught up in, nor would it be my last. Google “Cranford, NJ” and “hurricane” and you’ll see my old hometown flooded to the point of canoeing down streets. I’d lived on a boat for a good portion of my life, too, and we’d been in storms directly while on the ocean.
But this was different. That earthquake ride in Universial Studios doesn’t really prepare you for this.
And we were up in the mountains, pretty safe, and it was still the entire earth sifting beneath us.
For the next hour, we alternated, sitting in the doors-open train cars, and running to hold onto the rebar. Most people had luggage; the train’s terminus was Narita Airport.
Eventually, I get a call. My mom was lucky enough to bump into someone who spoke English and had a Japanese cell. Mom and Catherine were safe, the airport had been evacuated.
I was going to get to them, no matter what.
Eventually, a group of us walked to the nearest city center, where I hitchhiked to the airport. Nothing but 2000 Y in my pocket and the clothes on my back. If I hadn’t gone shopping that morning in Asakusa, I would have already been at the airport waiting for them- I’d missed the train I wanted.
Because I hadn’t planned on getting souvenirs until after graduation, that used purple kimono I’d bought for graduation ceremony was my only souvenir of my trip.
The next week was a flurry of sleeping on floors, getting cracker boxes from the Red Cross, and waiting. Lots of waiting, until we could get a flight home. Graduation was cancelled, of course, but that’s particularly strange in Japan, who is so big on ceremony. Not wearing kimono and hakama and walking for one’s certificate is the epitome of strange.
In the end, I was outside, on the periphery of it all. Myself, my friends, and their families were all unharmed, other than loosing some of my possessions from the quake. Stuff is stuff.
Thousands of Japanese lost their homes or livelihoods. I lost my paper diploma. So what? At the end of the day, it wasn’t much more than a minor inconvenience, a blip on the cosmic scale compared to what others went through.
Yet, when I’m walking under a bridge and it shakes... I freeze. For moths I wasn’t myself, back in the USA. shaken, frozen, and generally depressed. Empathy? Worry for my own hide? I don’t know. Life’s more complicated than we can imagine, and I wasn’t sure if I should have been upset or grateful.
It’s been five years now. I haven’t left the US since then, even though I traveled extensively before. I have to go back, hopefully sooner than later. I have friends there, some in grad school, others working.
Life moves on and we rebuild.