A long overdue post, I wrote this a few days after the earthquake with the plan of posting it straight away but ended up leaving Japan that day and returning to Ireland to my extremely worried family and friends. I will return to Aomori soon now that the news of the nuclear plant is very slowly getting more positive. This is from me, I am giving an honest opinion of my experience, I am not ashamed to say I was scared.
The ground beneath shakes and shakes, I am standing on what seems like a floating island that has lost its footing and had its pride completely shattered. My water bottle on the table quivers every 20 minutes so I close my eyes and hope it is just another aftershock. It has been three days since the first of many earthquakes hit Japan, here we are as a nation desperately trying to scrape back to a routine, yet still terrified and more exhausted than ever.
At 3.30pm on Friday 11th of March I was in work on my countdown to the weekend, the desks began to shake, we laughed a bit thinking it was another small earthquake like the one that had come earlier that week. Very quickly we began to realise that it was far stronger and more dangerous, the lights flicked out and before we knew it we were hiding underneath the shaking desks, gripping the table legs and praying for it to ease. It lasted what seemed like a life time
Being Irish meant I had no experience of earthquakes before I came here. I arrived to Aomori City in Japan in July and in August had my first rumble. The small ones you barely notice, you feel a bit faint and then see the curtains sway. It’s not nearly as loud and obvious as I had ever imagined. After a few small earthquakes through the months I had been lulled into the false security that they were merely an uncomfortable nuisance. A bit like a thunder storm, they are never welcomed but with an edge of excitement you could secretly enjoy it from safety.
Friday 11th March was a whole other story, I found it loud and obvious and completely terrifying, no guilty pleasure or excitement. The fear that grew inside with every bump from below left me a nervous wreck. Surfacing after the strong shake everyone warily rose to their feet, staring at each other, searching for a face that didn’t have fear all over it. We all stood nervously waiting and watching and hoping that that was it. The Japanese teachers suddenly started shouting across to each other breaking the silence in a sudden burst, I had no idea what they were saying, I felt alone and helpless…. and then it hit again. The first after shock came so quickly and so strongly it was enough to have us back under the tables. The fear on people’s faces turned to panic, you could see the stress but the Japanese are known for hiding their emotions, everyone felt the panic inside but kept it there, hoping it was just one bad earthquake followed by its powerful aftershock.
Club activities were quickly cancelled and students were assembled by their teachers to be sent home immediately. Thankfully we and the buildings were still standing but the horrible thought of more on the way made you wonder was it just the beginning or was it the end?
Living as I was in a very old third floor apartment meant it was not the safest place to be, on top of that there could not have been anything worse than the thought of being alone. So I made my way across the city to a friend’s house. Driving in the dark (with my supervisor) with no street lights or traffic lights meant the traffic was crazy, and the people driving the cars where just as crazy. The snow fell and the ground continued to grumble, swaying the cars from side to side. As I watched everything around swing, it kept my heart racing and my hands covered in sweat. It felt like a race, constantly trying to get to a safer area but forgetting to realise that you can never escape it, it’s below you, you are helplessly depending on the shaking surface to support you, you cannot climb off, it has complete control. We experienced earthquake after earthquake throughout Friday night followed by endless aftershocks in between which continued through the weekend, barely being able to tell the difference between the earthquakes and aftershocks. We counted maybe twelve strong shakes on Friday night and lost count of the wobbles between them. What I heard was Aomori city got earthquakes between 5-7 on the richter scale that night and all through Saturday. It was not just the one 9.0 in Sendai that everyone heard about, it was one huge terrifying one followed by hundreds of others. The aftershocks still continue to shake the nation, rumours are they could last for weeks, if not years.
It wasn’t until 22 hours after the first earthquake on Friday that our power came back and we switched on the television. To our complete horror we watched (along with the rest of the world) the floating houses, containers and cars, the fires, the stranded families and felt sick to our stomachs but appreciative at how lucky we had been. The earthquakes were unpleasant to say the least but we were safe from the tsunamis and what we got was nothing compared to the horror that was only a few hours away.
Aomori city is in Northern Japan and is the shape of a U, the city is nestled in the very base of that U protected from the Pacific Ocean by a large land mass. Hachinohe, which is in the Aomori Prefecture is a close drive away, was devastated by the tsunami and seeing images of the streets that we had walked a few weekends ago piled with debris and ships made us shiver to the bone. After only a few minutes we turned away from the television realising the images were doing nothing but exhausting our already shattered spirits. For now we were safe and had power which meant replying to the hundreds of worried emails from friends and family. We had no heat, no water, no phone coverage and little food but we were alive and completely unharmed. The survivor guilt began to grow inside from the minute we saw the images of our neighbours, day by day we have slowly recognised the scale of the disaster and our fortunate positioning away from the coast.
(This short video shows the huge number of earthquakes that swarmed the country, it’s worth being patient and waiting for the video to end.)
The fear of what we had just gone through was still strong inside us but it was now mixed with a fear of what we had escaped and a fear of what lay ahead. I spent Saturday and Sunday together with friends, waiting for time to pass, watching the strings we had put on the wall for movement, to help us detect what was coming and just wishing so hard that the worst was over. Drifting in and out of sleep between the earthquakes was difficult if not impossible, we constantly stayed fully dressed and ready at any stage for an escape. Torch, phone, money, and a granola bar stayed plastered to the inside of my heavy ski jacket which barely came off my back, my shoes never left my feet.
It feels like the island has been uprooted from its spot on the earth, we hear that it has moved eight feet on the surface of the earth which adds to the shocking images that constantly stream every single television channel and this is topped by the news that there is a 70% chance of another strong earthquake on the way. And so today is another day that distances us from March 11th and Japan lifts its head and tries to stand back on its feet, every day is a fresh start even though the shakes are still constant. It is a never ending feeling of sea sickness, a gentle rocking back and forth which keeps you lightheaded and always in fear. It’s back to work and school for the people of Aomori city, those at least who can make it by car or by walking, the trains are still down and the buses are cut short because of the lack of fuel, life must go on despite the constant reminder below your feet and the dizzy feeling it makes above. Seeing teachers with friends and family still missing choking back the tears while trying to keep a smile on their faces gives others strength and courage to appreciate their lives and it helps us realise our blessings.
The subject of the nuclear disaster is almost ignored, people cannot handle the devastation of everything that has passed as well as thinking of another potentially catastrophic danger lying ahead. This is their home, they cannot leave, they have nowhere to go and so all they can do is rebuild what was crushed and hope for the best. They have given all of their trust to the government because they do not have the energy to consider any other option. The news is left on all day but people are exhausted from listening to it. The fear of everything that has gone and the danger of what is ahead is inside everyone but is trapped inside for the sake of sanity. The shortage of food, water, electricity, heating, petrol is worrying and stressful but it feels like a small price to pay for the luck we were blessed with on that Friday.
This disaster will have touched every soul in Japan and millions more around the world. The nation will rebuild the devastation with its hard earned money, excellent standard of work dedication and manpower but it will take years if not centuries to bury this horrid feeling of fear.
All of the images on this post are taken from the New York Times website.