Far From Home (Week XX)

Japan’s past, present & future.


This is my 20th entry. Dang, how the time flies.

I am currently beginning this week’s writing onboard a shinkansen. I would like to start this week with a brief rant.

The Shinkansen is known as the “bullet train” in English. I think it’s silly that we feel the need to translate this word when it is something uniquely Japanese. They were the first country to really develop high speed passenger rails and the rest of the world has followed their path. So to change the name is to delude the Japanese due-credit. I occasionally tell students to refer to the bullet train as the Shinkansen. They get a real kick out of this.

As I said before, I am currently traveling 100 mph on board a shinkansen. I left home this morning just to get out of town for a long weekend. But before I can explain where I am going, I should tell you about what I’m leaving behind.

Despite the overwhelming concern the Western media is displaying, things in and around Tokyo are very calm. As far as I can tell, life is continuing regularly. People are shopping and carrying out their daily lives like normal. Do not be fooled, there is a concern in the air. However it is a guarded concern. The Japanese people that I know are staying informed with all the news. They are making rational decisions about how to react. Yet given the possible room for catastrophe, the general placidity is astounding. I cannot help but think how Americans would react to such a crisis. Hysteria is an understatement.

That having been said, things are growing increasingly tense here. The nuclear plant in Fukushima is very troublesome. It appears four out of the six reactors are having one kind of a problem or another. The government is assuring the people that they are working hard on fixing the problem. I do not doubt this. What I do doubt is the credibility of the news that I hear. This is the largest problem that the country is now facing; a lack of knowledge.

Per usual, it appears the western media is being very sensationalistic about the whole situation. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the Japanese government; who is holding back many details. They are not lying, as far as we know, merely they are abstaining from giving specific details. What this is resulting is in confusion. This confusion is being compounded by mixed reports. The mixed reports are a part of a vicious cycle, wherein the media makes a calamity out of whatever information they are given. In response, the government is reluctant to give details in fear of causing a panic. So somewhere between all of this is the truth. If you’re able to find it, let me know.

Now about me. I have maintained a very upbeat attitude through everything. I realize information is difficult to come by and often the government is short details. So I try to be patient. I also try to keep some perspective. I am very far away from the possible meltdown, which is sitting over 200 km north of me. There has not yet been any formal instruction from either the Japanese government nor the United States for the people in my city.  Even those remotely close to my neighborhood haven’t been told anything. Even if all hope is lost at the plant, I am fortunate enough to have enough distance from Fukushima that I am afforded a small grace time to react. Together these things have given me an even keel and are keeping me sane.

I am sane. The opposite of this is insane. This is what many foreigners are exhibiting. If the Japanese are tranquil, the average foreigner is not. With increasing occurrence, many foreigners I know are leaving. Some are leaving their cities for a while. Others are leaving the country forever. Originally this exodus began with the lack of knowledge I have previously mentioned. I am afraid now it has mutated. Now this fear is further being fueled by fear. Some people are leaving, so more people leave, and then more and so on and so on. I have watched this trend increase over the past week. This isn’t to say we are all losing our minds, but it means many are.

I am sane. I am also realistically balanced. The small pessimistic part of myself that does exist began honestly enough. I was bored. Per corporate mandate, classes in our region were cancelled for the entire week following Friday’s earthquake. Our shopping center was also closed for most of the week. This had left me largely at home, twiddling my thumbs, waiting. Waiting. I am still young enough that waiting is one of the hardest things I have to do. Imagine if you will, me in solitude. Although in frequent communication with friends and family, I was largely trapped at home. So there I was, trapped at home, with full internet and an international crisis brewing 200 km north of me. What did I end up doing? I read ever single piece of news I could find. At this point I could effectively build you a uranium fueled power plant. As the days passed I did not grow more worried, rather I grew more restless. I needed to do something.

Trying to occupy myself, I called the head office on Wednesday morning. I wanted to know a few details including if there was an evacuation plan should it come to that. They told me what I already knew. Be prepared, watch the State Department, be smart. If I wanted to leave, they said I was more than welcome to do so. And I would be guaranteed my job when I came back. This option wasn’t very appealing to me. I did not want to leave the country, and I don’t know anyone else in the country that I could go visit.

By sheer chance the trainers were making a list of people that wanted to temporarily leave their cities. They were going to take a small number of foreign teachers to the corporate headquarters. This list was only volunteers, who had called in and expressed concern. I thanked the trainer and hung up. I weighed by options. I could stay and hope everything worked out. Or I could take a trip 800 km south, and get put up in a hotel for a long weekend. If things got bad I would be under direct supervision by my employers and would have a much better chance at being immediately cared for.

Talk about a no-brainer.

I called back and was put on their list. They told me several times that it was highly unlikely for me to make the cut. They were evacuating based on proximity to Fukushima. While the government had ordered an evacuation of a 20 kilometer radius, they were pulling everyone out that was within 80 km. Again, I sat more than 200 km out. I figured there was no harm in trying. Sign me up.

I called back and got on the list. I put down the phone and got dressed for work. Today was the first time I was allowed to reenter the building since the earthquake. I was thrilled. Finally a chance to work and begin a routine. I arrived to work through the employee entrance. I navigated the back halls and finally came to the eighth floor. The whole building was dead. Lights off, no one around. Perhaps we were the only people working. I soon busied myself with tedious work. Chores that I wouldn’t normally be excited about. Today I was thrilled to take out the trash and dust.

Shortly before we left the office I got a call. I was selected to go to Okayama. A trainer told me all the details. They were very specific; take this train, be at this place at this time. I wrote everything down, thrilled that I once again had direction. I spent the night packing and calling people back home, telling them I was pulling out, albeit just for the weekend.

Thursday morning. My eyelids split open moments before my alarm clock was to go off. I sat up, 7 AM. I cleaned myself and the dishes. I love coming back to a clean apartment. I put on a business suit and necktie. It felt great to be professionally dressed again. I was out the door by eight, stopping by the convenience store to pay some utility bills first. I had a long commute for the day.

The early morning March air was cold, stinging my nostrils as I breathed it in. I walked the two km to the station at a brisk pace, suitcase in tow.  My first train, Odakyu line to Shinjuku, moved tediously slow. I made a transfer and took the Chuo to Tokyo station. I crammed into the train car full of commuters and other people leaving the city. I read the TVs over the sliding doors. Multiple train lines were temporarily suspended due to the rolling black outs. All of my lines checked out. Luck.

I entered Tokyo station for the first time ever. I  walked up to the first station employee I could find, “Sumimasen, Nozoki line doko desu ka?” Meaning, “Excuse me, where is the Nozoki line?” Of course this came out very course. I was pointed in a direction and found the ticket booth. I used my best Japanese and was able to purchase a Shinkansen ticket. I was lost in this new station. I asked for directions a dozen times. Somehow I managed to end up exactly where I needed to be. At exactly the right time. Luck.

I boarded my first ever Shinkansen. I found my reserved seat, an aisle seat. Yes! I was a very excited white boy. Next to me, an older Japanese man sat very sternly. He could sense my enthusiasm and leaned over to make a comment. “Oh I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.” I said this with a big dumb grin on my face. He grunted and returned to his meditation.

The Shinkansen was fast. But my expectations were too high. I had hoped to be locked in to my seat from all of the thrust. Rather we were traveling at about 150 mph. The ride would take approximately four hours from point to point. I passed the time by sleeping, reading and people watching. I wondered to myself why Okayama was in “western Japan.” Traveling from Tokyo to Okayama is a southern migration, not westwardly. My friend later tried to explain it to me. “Imagine if you took the country and rotated it 90 degrees to the right.This is how they have divided the country into north, east, south and west.” Very odd I thought, but sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Seven fellow foreign teachers arrived in Okoyama on Thursday evening. Two Canadians, two Australians, two Americans and a Briton. The majority of us had come from around the Tokyo area, except for two men; they had made their journey from Fukushima. Wow. Naturally we were all flustered having relocated so far from home. We made contact with our two ETERNAL representatives. Introductions were made and we had a short walk to our hotel.

Our leader checked us into the hotel and gave us a very brief meeting. “Here are your keys, your breakfast vouchers, taxi tickets and maps. Please meet tomorrow at 12 PM at the training house. Are they any questions?”

I raised my hand and spoke up, “Who is our emergency contact and what is their number?”

“You are a very bright, young man,” she said. She apologized for initially forgetting the final papers and passed them around. “Right, sleep well and I’ll see you all tomorrow.” And with that they left.

We all took our room keys and went up the elevator. To the 10th and top floor. How snazzy. I set down my bags and met up with three other refugees. We had dinner at an izakaya and shared our stories. The two men from Fukushima far and away won that competition. Their building had near been destroyed from the earthquake. They had experienced every kind of black out. Although they were outside the government’s 20 km evac zone, they decided to leave. They didn’t know what the roads were like, so they packed to hike. They took food and water. No clothes or personal items. By the time they had reached Tokyo it was assumed they would never again have access to their apartments. Unbelievable. I felt guilty when I shared my story.

We soon retired back to our rooms for some rest.

The next day was spent at the company’s main office. We had some workshops and shared teaching styles. Lots of busy work. My evening was very relaxed. At eight o’clock I drew a hot bath in the spacious Japanese tub. I soaked in the steamy water for a long time with a cold beer by my side. I crawled under the blankets and watched an episode of Seinfeld before falling asleep long before midnight. Now this is a vacation.

Saturday’s routine was the same as Friday’s. Wake up early, eat a complimentary breakfast, take taxis to work. However instead of more busy work we were visited by a trainer from the Tokyo division of the company. He came to ask if we were “in or out.” Both he and the company were very sympathetic to everyone’s concerns. However classes were going to resume on Tuesday and we needed to get back to normality. To right the ship. This bit of news effectively ended our day of “work.” We were allowed to return to our rooms and speak with our families.

I met with the trainer and told him I was going to stay. I told him that my parents, unlike many others, were supportive of my decision. That they believed I was a rational young adult and could assess the situation better than they. That Japan is at a crossroad and that I should stay and help. He wrote down my answer and shook my hand. I’m sure not every teacher was so decisive and sure.

The rest of the day was very calm. Many other people spoke with their families and made a decision. I set out for some errands. I visited a few stores and picked up some supplies that were scarce in Tokyo. Items like flashlights and candles. And of course the obligatory new necktie that comes with a day of shopping. Saturday night was quiet. I was in bed early to get needed rest.

The following morning I woke early and quietly slipped out of town. We had an additional day off. I boarded another shinkansen and traveled 40 minutes further “west”. Before 10 AM I had arrived in Hiroshima. I had traveled all alone. The previous day I tried to convince my associates to come with me. Excuses were abound and they all declined. Fortunately the day before I had spoken with my parents and they both convinced me to seize the opportunity. I was sure glad I did! Hiroshima was amazing!

My first visit was to the Hiroshima Peace Park. The park and accompanying museums are dedicated to those that lost their lives from the atomic bomb deployed on Aug 6, 1945. The bomb immediately killed 70,000 people, destroyed the entire city and created an untold suffering afterwards. It was the first use of atomic bomb in the history of war. The subsequent bombing at Nagasaki three days later was the last time it would be used. The death and destruction these weapons wrought is ghastly.

I arrived at the park by a trolley. The first thing I noticed was the A-Bomb Dome. This building was the prefectural capitol building on the day of the blast. It was one of the few structures to “survive” the nuclear explosion. The city of Hiroshima has since maintained the building just as it looked after the bomb. It is a scar meant to remind the world of the atrocities of war.

I then navigated through the park and museums. I had a twisted mixture of emotions throughout the day. Remorse. Tempered pride. Shame. Horror. Bewilderment. Numbness. Empathy.

Remorse; for such a tremendous loss of life.

Tempered pride; for belonging to a nation that could develop something so astonishing.

Shame;  for belonging to a nation that could commit such an atrocity.

Horror; for understanding the subsequent death & destruction.

Bewilderment; for trying to understand such gravity.

Numbness; for not being truly able to understand the event.

Empathy; for realizing people are the same, no matter their differences.

All of these emotions were multiplied by the terrible weather. A steady rain hung over the city all day. I walked about the park, alone, with my camera and umbrella. I chose not to wear headphones. I wanted the weight of the silence in the park to weigh on me. For some time I stood across the river from the Dome and contemplated. So much of the modern world, and everything in it, can be traced back to this single event at this one city. So much was lost. So much.

I also tried to relate the events at Fukushima to Hiroshima. No matter how hard I tried, I could not balance the two. Even if the wildest scenarios played out in Fukushima, it couldn’t measure what happened in Hiroshima. There was just such a huge disparity between the two. This helped to rest my fears. If the nation could overcome what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it could overcome anything. These are a strong people.

I left the park and walked a few kilometers across town. There stood an amazing castle. Originally constructed in the 1590’s, it was ruled by the Mori clan, who controlled the whole region. However it was totally eviscerated after the bomb in 1945. What I visited was a reconstruction. The castle served as a lovely distraction from my tormented feelings. My inner history-geek fully came out. Such a delight.

After the castle I meandered over to the shopping district. Which on a Sunday evening, was jammed packed with people. My stomach began to growl and I realized I had skipped lunch. Thanks to my trusty smart phone, I was able to search for nearby restaurants. My favorite Japanese food is おこのみやき, okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake. And okonomiyaki is very famous in Hiroshima. My google search brought me to building a short ways off the main strip. I examined the map on the outside, it was a four story building housing 30 different restaurants. Jackpot!

I explored all the floors and chose the most promising joint. I sat down and an English menu was thrust into my hands. While before in the streets of Hiroshima I had been one of many white people, I was the only white person that had stumbled into the Okonomiyaki nirvana. I ordered, in Japanese, just to make the attendant think twice before being so rude. I then relaxed with a beer as the chef prepared my food on the grill in front of me. Soon, two Japanese women in their 30’s  sat next to me with a young child. I told the woman her daughter was cute, in broken Japanese. We soon struck up a conversation in English. It seemed she was from Tokyo herself and had temporarily moved to Hiroshima, with her sister, until the nuclear scare passed. We had a lovely conversation and meal. Eventually I left the eatery and we parted ways.

I caught a train back East, had a few drinks with some teachers in Okayama and went to sleep. Nothing quiet beats a rewarding day like a good sleep.

Monday we began our journey back to Tokyo. Of the 21 teachers who had fled eastern Japan, 13 of us were heading back. We rode un-resevered cars back home, which means we had to fight for seats. A few hours later I was back in Tokyo, made the transfer to Sagamiono and was back home. I had a “welcome-home beer” with my new friend Sean Trevor. We had come back from Okayama together and were relative neighbors.

Back home my apartment was just as I had left it. Tidy, clean and organized. It was good to be home. I went to bed very early. The next day I would resume my normal life and start teaching classes again. I had had a lovely, unexpected, 10 day break from work. But I was ready to get back to it!


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About japanesealex

Alexander lived in Japan from 2010 to 2013. He is now pursuing a career in public service in Honolulu, Hawaii.

3 responses to “Far From Home (Week XX)”

  1. Nghia says :

    per accustomed, this blog is inconceivable. please, keep us enlightened about your journey forward, our desire to hear your comprehension of these events is stimulating.

  2. Claudia says :

    It’s awesome how you are handling and reacting to this. You always make us proud. I hope your journey continues with this luck!

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