Last year on this, the memorial day of the Tohoku Earthquake I wrote a post called “Where were you”. The year after the quake this phrase turned into a greeting phrase among people who were in Japan at the time. It was our way of relating to each other and to bond through an experience that made us all realize that we are in no way as invincible as our youth leads us to believe.
In that post I promised that I would tell another story which was that of not what happened during that day but during the days following it.
As many things do it started with a telephone call…..
The days after the quake I was nervously pacing my flat watching the news non-stop and trying to keep my phone battery fully charged just in case I would be needing it for a quick evacuation when my phone rang:
“Are you free to guide a Dutch TV crew to Ishino-maki?”
I had a quick talk with my wife and after a solemn promise to be as careful as humanly possible I decided to give the producer Peter a call. From what I understood they were camped out near Narita airport with a car, gas, food and everything they needed but a guide and driver who could speak the local language.
The first contact was quick but I wanted to make sure that these fellows knew what they were getting themselves into. We were going into a disaster area and I needed to know that they knew what they were doing. As it turned out my concerns were unfounded as they had all trained survival skills with the SAS and had been both to New Orleans after Katrina and followed the Dutch army into Basra.
I took a train out to Narita to pick them up at their hotel and arrived before lunch. The last thing I explained before we set off is that I wanted them to understand that since I was the only one that could understand the language my word was law. If I say we go it means we go. They agreed and we set out.
Before leaving I had gathered all the information I could possibly find. There was some very contradictory information about the nuclear power plant going out on the news with most Japanese claiming that “Everything is OK”. Seeing the pictures on TV of a plant with no roof I was pretty certain that it was not OK and called my good friend on the news desk at NHK. He confirmed my fears and told me to stay as far away as possible from Fukushima so I decided to drive across the country to Niigata and aim for Ishinomaki from there after waiting it out another night.
The drive to Niigata was uneventful but Gasoline queues were long and you knew things were not normal anymore. Everywhere we stopped we picked up gas and water and any kind of dried/conserved food we could find to make sure that we would be able to get through the days ahead.
At the hotel in Niigata we found a Sky news crew who couldn’t get a car and driver to take them no matter how much they were willing to pay. I spent the night calculating miles and gasoline to make sure that we had enough to get back. Reports were that there was nothing in the area and only one route to get us there.
I was expecting things to go from bad to worse once we got closer to Sendai but the truth is that it was not that bad. The earthquake itself had not really done all that much damage and roads were in very good shape. The main problem was of course that the large Route 5 which is the artery for goods along with train lines were all closed down which meant that not much food stuff or necessities were getting through.
Our first stop was Sendai city hall. Hundreds of fire truck with markings from all over the country were outside and all continuously running shuttle traffic to the beach areas. Army trucks loaded with soldiers made a strange impression on me as I have never seen the likes in Japan before.
Having done a couple of interviews at city hall we slowly made our way down towards the beach. I do not know how to explain it but the feeling as we got closer was extremely primal. You could almost feel the rage from the ocean to which there was no way to get closer than 3km from all the rubble in the way. The information was that we would get a 15 min warning if there was another Tsunami coming in so we parked the car facing in the escape direction and I gave the instruction that no one moves further than 500 meters.
Filming down by the sea we met locals and managed to interview them as well. I am not sure if I would be up for speaking on camera after having lost 4 members of my family so I must express the strength I felt from these survivors. They were picking among the rubble made up of everything from roof tiles to a suitcase to ski boots and a ladies hat. Someone found a photo album which turned out to be his high-school graduation album amongst all this and carefully cradled in his arms while slowly walking away towards the shelter were he was staying.
We followed in the car and went into one of the schools which had been designated as a temporary shelter. Every single person we asked had a story where they had lost members of their families and friends. One gentleman had been swept away by the tsunami while driving his car and managed to escape through the back window. His son, who had been in the passenger seat, no one had seen or heard anything about since.
As the day drew to an end and we had finished the interviews for the night we made our way back up into Sendai to look for a place to stay for the night. Needless to say the hotels were all full and we started to get used to the idea of sleeping in the car as we roamed around the city with a soft bed after a long day on our minds.
And then it hit me……Love hotels…..For the uninitiated these are rooms you can rent for a couple of hours to spend with your special friend when staying at home is just too cramped. We found the area and after a quick search there it was, like a beacon in the sky, the Sakura Inn. Not only did they have 3 rooms available but what was even more incredible was that they had both electricity and hot water!!!!
We checked in and went in search for food. Sendai is known for barbecued cows tongue but of course we were willing to take just about anything hot we could get our hands on. Most restaurants were closed since there was no electricity but our luck held to the point were we came across a local hole in the wall barbecuing outside and selling it in plastic bags. They even had beer. So I had grilled cows tongue and a cold beer in Sendai on March 13th 2011. Thinking about it today I almost feel guilty…..
As we settled in for the night I could not sleep. I had been up 18 hours and driving for 12 but with the news it was just impossible. Rumor was that the second reactor at Fukushima was about to blow and I was not sure I wanted to be in Sendai when it happened. There is a mountain ridge between Fukushima and Niigata and if I had a choice that is where I wanted to be.
I gathered the team and asked their advice while translating the news on radio and TV as they came in. In the end we made the decision to drive back to Niigata which with hindsight proved the right decision since the second reactor went up like a firecracker later on that night.
The trip home proved uneventful even though we nearly ran out of gas on the Shuto-Ko highway after a wrong turn. My dutch friends went home and had a radiation test done which showed that they were not exposed to any large degree which made me calm down as well.
With hindsight perhaps going up there was a fools errand but I simply could not sit still and do nothing when It was in my power to do so. Spreading the message to the world meant more support and aid from the international community and I hope I at least played a small part in bringing that about.