Earthquake March 11th 2011

Minamisanriku,a scene of devastation Monday 14th March

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.

A fishing boat beached along with devastated buildings in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture

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?

Japan March 15th 2011

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.

A refuge centre in Iwate Prefecture, March 13th 2011

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. 

Searching for family and friends

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.

Food/Fuel shortages are present in all of Northern Japan

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.

 
 

Yukiko Umehara, center, reacted with delight after finding her cousin's childhood diary in the ruins of her house in Tanohata, Iwate Prefecture

 

 All of the images on this post are taken from  the New York Times website.

 

 

 

Return of The Sparrow

つつめ Restaurant

March is here, already its March. The weather is very unpredictable with long warm spells melting all the white followed by days of snow dumping to rebuild the mountains. Overall it is gradually dripping away though, the snow line lowers and lowers regardless of the dumps, two steps forward, one step back.

Spring is in the air every other day which makes it easy to jump the gun and head for the bike in the shed but the snow queen is still lurking for sure. When spring really does arrive I think it will be the most excited I have ever been for a season. Living in a place where each season is so extreme makes you constantly long for the greener grass/ whiter snow that lie’s ahead. I barely used to notice trees blossoming in Ireland but it’s all that anyone talks about here. When will the blossom bloom????Watch this tree.

 Last weekend myself and Atsushi returned to the ‘つつめ’ (Sparrow) Restaurant. This is where I had my first experienced with the ‘Shirako’ so the nerves where high, (the stuff is everywhere its haunting me even in my sleep). This time it came sneakily concealed as tempura, heartbreaking as tempura is my all time favorite. I lashed it into my mouth before I had realized what it was, sure enough the slimy explosion got its usual body squirm reaction. I do apologies to Japanese people, it’s nothing against their cuisine, I’ll pretty much eat any other food from this glorious county but this is just not swallowable for me. I have eventually worked up the courage to tell Atsushi ‘It’s really difficult for me to eat it, it’s nice, but my mouth is just not used to it’ thankfully he adores it so I donate it after the compulsory first bite.

 

Tempura Shirako

 

 

Tempura Shirako

 

This meal was pretty much all raw fish, newly experienced ‘Fugu’ which is puffer fish was a bit strange all right. It is so light and delicate to lift but actually rather muscly and stringy when you chew it. Atsushi made me eat his because he had taken my Shirako, generous man but one plate of it would have been enough for sure, (wish Japanese people where more greedy sometimes!) Whopper oyster was amazing once I got over the fear of putting it in all at once. I am so glad I had watched uncle Len wolf these on many occasions in Lahinch, it gave me the courage I desperately needed! Len you champ!





 

Puffer Fish

 

We started with the sea slug again here, but I just ate it as quick as I could once it arrived (no time for the camera), I needed to get it down asap before I had time to think about the ridiculous chewing. Took an entire beer to wash down every chew.

 

Sashimi

 

 



Sashimi

 

Crab

 

Oyster

Oyster

Sushi with Atsushi

 

We finished at Aomori’s famous Gyouza Bar, it was claimed by a food critic that these are the best Gyouza not only in Aomori but in Japan. Would not argue with that at all. They are like a garlic explosion so if you don’t like garlic don’t go anywhere neaar the perimeter of this place! Blow your mind kinda garlic gyouza!

Gyouza

The End of an Era

First and last visit of the year to Namioka Special Needs school

Japan as a nation have decided that March is the end of a school/ work year . April, a fresh start, maybe to mirror spring and a new beginning.

Graduation and goodbyes came flooding this week, and quite unexpectedly too. On Monday it was Nishi Koko graduation, I put on my black formal suit but walking to school I felt off balance and out of sync. I had it in my diary of course but mentally I had not believed it. March is just another month in my calendar, one that is before April and so to me it is the end of winter, that’s about it (and St.Patricks day of course). I felt unaccepted into this big ‘end’ that everyone else was stuck in. Think of the feeling of finishing school in May and then put your calendar to March, it’s like a dream where you have mixed everything, I could not grasp it at all.

The school was bursting with flower arrangment for the graduation ceremony

 

 

 

Nishi Koko Graduation

 

I forgot that students would be leaving, leaving and never coming back. I hadn’t thought of watching them farewell the school with tears streaming down their faces. They do a great job of setting up an atmosphere of sadness, very formal yet very patriotic.

At the ceremony the home room teachers call each of their students for the very last time. Students must answer and stand to represent their thanks to their parents / classmates and teachers. All they say is ‘hai’ (yes) but the way they shout it and rise so quickly and confidently gives it a very sentimental feeling. Then they belt out their school song for the very last time, I had never heard my school song until I graduated, it meant nothing to me but they knew this song off by heart and had sung it for the past 3years, this was followed by the Japanese national anthem. The speech made by the leader of their year reminds them all of what happened through the years, places they went, tests they completed, matches they won/lost, I didn’t understand it but could feel the sadness especially surrounded by both students and teachers quietly weeping.

Red and White, the colors of graduation.

All the teachers received these graduation gifts from the school; bean paste buns with the school logo

 

The last part I’ll admit cracked me. The home room teachers stand on stage in a line, the students rise to their feet, bow together and loudly chant ‘otsukaresama deshita’ which translates to ‘thank you so much for all your hard work and efforts’, the teachers respond with force and bow back. Then one row at a time the students stand, repeat the chant, the teachers respond together and the rows file out. Such a heartfelt and emotional way of saying ‘thanks a mil teacher’ all infront of the rest of the school students/ teachers and parents. The home room teachers stood tall on stage with tears on their faces as they continuously bowed, it was touching to see them so broken.

Myself and Noda Sensei (my supervisor) on graduation day

 

One student since I have arrived here has come to my desk every other day, to say hello and have a chat, she is the sweetest girl. She arrived into the staff room on Monday afternoon and it suddenly dawned on me I may never see her again. Megumi handed me a letter and said she was too upset to say good bye in person so she wrote to me instead.

 I wish I had prepared myself for all the farewells, but I have been truly stuck in the western March.

 

Megumi's letter

 

A Glorious Send Off

In Japan hitting 60years old means retirement, no ways around it, 60years old it is. Well actually you can do a maximum of two extra years but at 60 you are officially retired and given your send off. At Nishi KoKo the principle and two other teachers are retiring this year and so an enkai was held in their honor. There was an endless amount of speeches where I laughed when they laughed and clapped when they clapped, completely oblivious but strangely I enjoyed it all and was happy to bask in the atmosphere they were creating. The teachers were often paraded on the stage and presented with beautiful flowers, gifts and cards, there was even some teachers doing a dance to a pop song which was strange but very entertaining. Then what really threw me was next.

Nothing could have prepared me for this almost tribal act that was performed. The retiring teachers were displayed on stage while the head of second grade very ceremoniously removed his dinner jacket, rolled up his shirt sleeves and cleared his throat. I was so eager to know what was about to happen, wondering what on earth he was going to do that needed so much undressing. Then, then he let out an impressive roar and began to flay his arms around like crazy. I was in such shock that I just stood there amazed while letting out a few nervous giggles. The teacher continued to chant and fly his arms around like some sort of crazy chimp so I leant to the teacher beside and asked ‘Is this normal?’ But before she could answer the whole room burst into unionized clapping. I had to use all my concentration to try to follow and copy the lot of them, terrified of clapping when I shouldn’t. This ceremony act was given to each retiring member so I eventually got the slight hang of it and enjoyed the bizarreness a lot.

After the chanting we all formed an arch way for the retiring teachers to crawl through and out the door to end the enkai. It felt like I was at a party of my childhood when you make an archway and trap people when the music stops, the music continued but I was still encouraged by my arch partner to trap and squeeze the principle, felt a little nervous but it was all in good spirit so I just laughed it off like everyone else.

Another experience to add to the ‘wow that was so weird’ list or as some people say ‘only in Nippon’

 

I asked the teacher if I could record the last one, although it’s through a crowd you can occasionally see the flaying and can definitely hear the chanting. Don’t worry I asked the school and head cheerleader if I could post this. Turns out he was on the Japanese cheer squad in university hence his professionalism and extreme enthusiasm, without him this act would not have been possible so he is my new hero.