The earthquake struck while I was inside drinking coffee in Akihabara, a major electronics district of Tokyo.
My inner ear registered dizziness before it set in. Then, like a plane hitting turbulence, the world moved separately from my body with force. Strangest was the sound of buildings effectively moving on hinges; it sounded like the slow opening of a tin can. Light fixtures swung for two and a half minutes, people froze. We asked locals what to do: stay put. Young and old, those around us were shocked. Some stood under door-frames. Within seconds, mobile networks failed.
After the first quake, some office buildings and department stores cleared, but not all. There was no uniform response or coordination among the various businesses around me. Many of Akihabara’s famous stores remained trading, shoppers stayed shopping. Eventually, we heard a semblance of public coordination over the subway station’s loudspeakers in Japanese only, as police and station officials began shutting down trains.
Evacuees from other buildings huddled in groups on a chilly Spring afternoon, useless mobiles in hand. Some looked spooked, others joked with friends. Many wore white helmets. Tourists were visibly anxious; two Russians giggled in shock. A long-term Australian expat said this was the strongest he’d felt, and local Japanese agreed.
I was grateful for Wifi snatched from a cafe, which allowed me to send emails to my parents and friends from my phone. Without it, hours would have passed before I could contact them. Wifi briefly alerted us to tweets about devastation and a possible tsunami. With only the scantest information, and now fearing the worst, a powerful aftershock about 30 minutes later scared me more than the first. It rattled a metal exterior subway stairwell so violently a woman was carried out crying; more people evacuated. I remember the wrenching sound of metal on metal. People gaped as buildings and telegraph poles swayed like trees, a nauseating sight. Only later I understood this to be their magnificent design.
With the city at a standstill and Tokyo’s vital and complicated train system stopped, many chose to stay put, a boon for unfazed businesses that kept serving food to stranded office workers who slurped ramen while aftershocks rattled the bowls and glasses. We panicked, but locals displayed well-rehearsed nonchalance. Many hundreds of thousands, including us, chose to begin a long walk home through single figure temperatures.
The atmosphere was business-like and calm despite roaring sirens. Along a main thoroughfare to Shinkuku, in downtown Tokyo, fire engines and ambulances struggled to penetrate gridlocked traffic. Apparent panic-buying cleared sandwiches and batteries from convenience stores. Queues snaked from public phones — although even from those, international numbers worked on and off. Mostly off.
Tokyo’s streets are confusing for non-Japanese speakers at the best of the times, but a stream of like-minded locals helped guide the way. There were occasional moments of cheer: a middle aged Japanese woman told us, "Have a good day", then laughed at her accidental irony. The journey took two and a half hours, increasing in density closer to Shinjuku, a main transport hub.
Unable to make long journeys home to Tokyo’s suburbs, people took comfort in convenience stores and anywhere out of the cold: railway stations, police stations, bus stops. Hotel lobby floors were lined with city workers whose journeys home were now impossible. Shinjuku Ward Office, across the street from our hotel, was open as an official refuge facility.
A long sleepless night of half-hourly aftershocks followed, some of which on their own measured in the fives and sixes. Our tiny seventh-floor room shifted and swayed. Having jelly legs means it’s hard to tell whether we’re experiencing renewed tremors. "Is that me moving or is it happening again?" I asked dozens of times. Right now, while writing, another aftershock sways the building like a boat at sea — I can tell by the sound of creaking, like a house settling in winter, and lamps and cups shaking.
In the morning, Shibuya, usually one of the world’s busiest pedestrian intersections, was comparatively empty. Large 24-hour chain stores were closed. Locals queued for bullet train tickets at major subway stations, as mobile networks began working again, allowing an information vacuum to be filled and the real gravity to sink in. People stood watching rolling coverage in department stores.
For the first time, we witnessed the bulk of the devastating coverage much of the world had already seen: houses consumed by a combination of water and fire. I struggled to reconcile what I saw on the TV with the scenes of apparent normality around Tokyo, a capital in resilient order. A colleague who works for a major international broadcaster told me that every news reporter and their dog is rocking up. He called it a "clusterf*ck" of reporters.
Meanwhile, food stockpiling continued. Reporting about food shortages was inaccurate. A basement food court turned a steady afternoon trade in its usual vast variety of snacks. Our hotel, on the other hand, despite being quite posh, ran out of everything except ham sandwiches. In a country where customer service is paramount, our waiter struggled to bring us the news that the daily pasta was off the menu. Older residents remained in refuges. But the city was calm and, into the night, the streets were deserted.
Thoughts turned to the rescue effort and the nuclear waiting game mere hours to our north.
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