Saturday, March 26, 2011

Back to normal?

Perhaps it's sign of returning to normal...

I went with Shuji (a friend who works in the international student office next to mine at Asia University) to Koganei park with his dogs, Mei and Kopi.

Of course, we had to schedule a trip to a ramen shop! In Musashikoganei, near the park, there is a street nicknamed "Ramen Dori" - (Ramen street). Among the many ramen shops is Jiro ramen, famous for the size and taste of their ramen - mostly their size, though. With 33 shops in Tokyo, it is a kind of White Castle of Ramen.

We arrived around 3 pm to find not an empty seat. So, we ordered the small, basic ramen and settled on to the waiting stools. As we watched people tuck into their ramen, we saw some patrons served their ramen - huge, heaping, steaming bowls of ramen. We looked at other each with fear in our eyes. Shuji said, "Oh my God, I hope that's a large!"

Nope. It was the small. Delicious. Ginormous. Distended-belly making.

We struggled through the ordeal, groaning and whimpering like everyone else in the shop. Finally, we declared a partial victory and fled to the sunny street. Luckily, we were headed to the park after lunch and were able to walk some of it off.

While I would recommend the experience, we may have to wait awhile before we can muster the courage to do it again!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tokyo update

In general, things are good here in Tokyo. We arrived back just as the news was flashing around about the radioactive iodine found in one water treatment plant. Of course, there was a run on bottled water and even vending machines seem to be out of small bottles, as well.

So, our solution? We'll just stick to beer! It's a sandwich in a can anyways... However, it may make the coffee taste funny. A Japanese friend was telling us about buying what she thought was a bottle of plain water that turned out to have a fruity flavor. She didn't realize it until she tasted the coffee she made with it...

Tokyo, overall seems normal. However, there are just enough small things to let you know that things are not quite... Our first sign up returning to Tokyo was that the lighting in Starbucks was at about half strength. Most stores just have minimal lights on; it is more than enough to see but definitely not the glaring, surgical brightness. Many of the external lights and signs of stores and restaurants are turned off at night, too. It's quite nice and makes one think about how much light we actually need...

On a side note, tonight is third annual Earth Hour, where everyone is asked to turn off as much electrical use as possible from 8:30 to 9:30 pm. Candles and beer? Sounds romantic...

Another thing was that the escalators at the train stations are turned off. The elevators work, for which Joan was thankful - still on crutches but getting better.

A friend in the restaurant industry says that business is way down. People are going home right after work and staying home.

There was a tweet today from someone who spoke with a Tokyo taxi driver who reported that fares were down 50 %. All of this is unfortunately going to hurt the Japanese economy just a little bit more, as people become even more cautious about spending. Deflation is a big concern here.

The supermarkets can be kind of disturbing, too. There are open shelves for the first time. And if there is bread, milk, or water, it is gone quickly. In fact, I went to Hanamasa grocery near our station and could not find any milk and cream - what's a coffee drinker to do? For a variety a reasons, I could only get about half the items on my shopping list. Even the fruit and nut muesli was out! However, a lot of it has to do with disrupted supply chains as roads and shipping is still snarled from the earthquake/tsunami; plus, a great deal of those resources are helping those up north, as they well should. We are more than happy to accept a little suffering in light of conditions up there.

The size and extent of the disaster is truly overwhelming. We are not sure what the Japanese government is going to do. Many areas along the coast were completely wiped out and will require a complete rebuilding, if they decide to build. Like many places in America, some areas were economically stagnate and only afloat due to government subsidies or because people have always lived there. Should the country rebuild what was there or try to design/re-imagine a new way forward? There will have to be some serious soul searching here in Japan. With a horribly clean blank slate to start with, anything is possible...

We hope for the best and are hopefully positive that Japan will find a way to recover.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Going home to Tokyo!

So, the plan is to head back to Tokyo tonight on an night express bus. My university has pushed back the start of school two weeks, so now we have a set date to plan our lives around.

We have been talking with our friends still in Tokyo, Japanese and American, and the word is that everything is OK. Things have calmed down, and the supply of food and other things have somewhat stabilized. There have been some blackouts but not many or sustained. A friend who works for the U.S. embassy says that all their experts have given Tokyo a thumbs up.

Also, there is electrical power to all the reactors in Fukushima, and the systems (control and cooling) seem to be operational. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric and Power Corporation?) seems to finally be in somewhat in control of the situation with people and resources in place. For awhile, it appeared that they were just reacting to an unfolding situation, and that really made us uncomfortable.

However, those pesky afterquakes keep happening (a 6.0 and 5.8 in the Fukushima area this morning), so that is a little disturbing...

Well, hopefully Joan's leg will get better soon, and we can go for a trip to take advantage of the extra vacation!

We'll keep you posted! Mata ne! (See you later!)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Boring update - thank goodness!

Thought I'd just write a quick blog post to keep everyone up to date.

Luckily, there is nothing much to report! We are still in Osaka with Seth and Haruna. We went to a small "record" bar in the downtown area where Seth was one of a couple of guest DJs and listened to a lot of good music. It was a nice change, but we stayed up fairly late for this pair of old farts.

The weather has finally turned for the better with a high of 61.
We dragged ourselves out to the river bank today for a picnic lunch and welcome sunshine. Joan's swollen foot finally felt the rays of the sun. It shone bright pink, scaring fish right out of the river! She's now able to stretch it and put a little weight on it. We're pretty excited and
looking forward to crutch-free days.

As I said before, we hope to return to Tokyo this coming week. We desperately want to be home, just doing our regular things. This limbo of not knowing what is going to happen next or when we should go home is killing us! It's hard to focus on anything productive, such as studying Japanese, exercise, or writing - very frustrating...

If you have been following the reactor situation in Fukushima, today is hopefully the day they will be able to bring electrical power to the plant. Hopefully, they will be able restart the cooling systems and get some sort of control of the situation. Today could be reactors #1 and #2; tomorrow would be #3 and #4. Here's hoping...

It is so hard to truly get a feel of what is going on there. Media, both international and Japanese, seems all over the page and inconsistent. There's talk of not being able to trust the information coming from TEPCO (the Japanese power company) nor the government. Obviously they have to be very cautious with what they say. A panic would be horrible, but so would not telling the public what they need to and should know.

We talked to friends in Tokyo today, and they report that all is OK in our area and Tokyo in general. There are still some shortages of perishable foods, toilet paper, gasoline, but it is getting better. Trains are running. Life goes on. But.... Everyone is watching the situation in Fukushima.
And the worse thing is, it is taking the focus away from rescue (unfortunately, mostly recovery) efforts up north. The magnitude of what happened up there is still being assessed, and it looks to just get worse and worse. It will be extremely difficult and expensive to recover and rebuild; no one seems sure how it will be done, but everyone is resolute that it must be done.

We hope all is well with you and yours. I can't wait for our life to get so boring again that I'll forget to write on this blog for a looooong time...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Fleeing" Tokyo

I have been following developments in Japan via my wife's twitter account; it has been an excellent source of information.

However, there have been some tweets, mostly dismissive or scornful, about people who are "fleeing Tokyo," as if they are being panicky, thoughtless, or cowardly.

Well, Joan is on crutches from a leg injury. It is very difficult for her to move. If something were to happen (and I don't think that it will), there is no way that I want to take the risk of evacuation or panic. With a population of over 30 million people, any "incident" would be a nightmare situation to deal with. Our controlled departure to Osaka by night bus last night was extremely difficult and stressful, compounded with that 6.0 which occurred while in the basement of a skyscraper. It was horrible. Should I wait because someone called me a "chicken?"

The situation in Tokyo over the last few days has been a combination of earthquakes, tsunamis, reactor issues, decreasing food and utility supplies, and general upset of daily life (trains, etc.). In my seven years as a volunteer fire fighter and four years as an EMT, I have seen and dealt with many terrible situations. I have seen many people wait too long to make a decision. I also know how hard it is to make the right decision with so much uncertainty.

As much as I didn't want to leave the city that we love as our new home, after a great deal of painful deliberation and discussion, we made the difficult decision to leave Tokyo until things calm down. It was a risk I could not and would not take. It was not a decision we made lightly, and I resent the implication that it wasn't.

While I understand that emotions run high in times like these, I think it is very inappropriate and unhelpful to judge and criticize others for the decisions they make in difficult situations. It is even harder to make the right decision when feeling that one might be judged unfairly for it.

A teacher friend has recently gone to Nagoya with her young child to stay with her in-laws at the request of her husband. He has a long commute from home, works long hours until late and does not have the luxury to be there for his family. He is constantly worried about what is going to happen and what will happen if he cannot be there, if, God forbid, "something" happens. Should he have kept his family in Tokyo because some people might think he is overreacting, panicky, or cowardly? Perhaps we should consider the complexities of the situation before making snarky tweets?

While I cannot speak for everyone who has left Tokyo, I can only assume, they, like us, feel horrible and guilty about leaving friends, families and their lives behind. I question the decision every minute I am here, but I can't - and shouldn't - feel bad about it.

As Joan said, "I'd rather feel silly about leaving than stupid about not leaving."

These are difficult times for everyone, and we should spend more time supporting each other and less tearing each other down.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Safe(r) in Osaka!

We arrived in Osaka this morning after 7 am. Our arrival was delayed by...

You guessed it... Another earthquake!

After Takashi-san and C-chan, Joan`s farmer friends, dropped us off at the bus office in Shinjuku, we met with Kristina and Tim, who were also going to Osaka to visit friends. Kristina is a fellow teacher at Asia University, and they, too, had been looking for an excuse to get out of town. A night express bus in business class seats didn`t sound like a bad way to travel, and it would get us there relatively cheaply and efficiently.

We arrived somewhat early, so there was an hour or so of just hanging around in the basement waiting room - of a 54-story skyscraper, mind you...

Suddenly, there was that becoming all-too-familiar wiggle underfoot. The whole room, with probably close to 100 people, suddenly became silent as everyone looked around. The shaking got stronger, and some staggered a little. The hanging light fixtures started to sway. People began to make those little movements that showed they were seriously considering diving under the benches and tables. It was a looooooong moment....

It eventually subsided, and there was an audible sigh. Conversations started again with some nervous laughter.

Apparently it was 6.0 earthquake in the Shikouku area, southwest of Tokyo, onshore and directly in our path to Osaka. Up until now, most of the significant ones have been out to sea, and NONE have been in the Shikouku area. Reports later said that there had been some injuries and damage, but nothing too serious.

We left on time but were delayed in the night during the drive due to unknown conditions that were being assessed. Quite a nerve racking way to start our trip and perhaps further reinforcement that we kind of wanted to get out of town.

And let me tell you, being outside for the large earthquake on Friday was no way near as scary as being in the basement of that tall skyscraper. Your mind can really get you twisted up.

First thing on our cold, sunny morning in Osaka, we found a Starbucks and gratefully settled in chairs, sipping coffee and checking new reports via iPhone. Kristina and Tim left to go meet their friends, and Joan, on crutches, and I limped to the subway station to head to Nakatsu, Seth and Haruna`s nearest station.

With me carrying two biggish backpacks - one in front and one in back - and Joan on crutches, we were a slow, painful pair. That is one reason why I had wanted to leave Tokyo under our own volition. If there was any kind of panic or evacuation (which I 99.9% don`t think will happen), there was NO WAY I wanted to deal with that with Joan on crutches.

It has been very pleasant to hang out with Seth today at their apartment while Haruna is at work. It has allowed us to relax and get our heads straight. Sitting around in our apartment, watching all the disaster porn on the Internet and having the same nervous conversation with fellow teachers time and time again was really getting to us. Even though Osaka is probably just as likely to have an earthquake as any other random place in Japan, it is a welcome change.

We are not sure how long we are going to stay here. My university hopes to start up on time, which means the end of the month for me. However, with the reactors in Fukushima, unreliable electricity, gasoline, food and toilet paper supplies, and the whole earthquake/tsunami situation, everything is up in the air. We`ll just have to see how it goes for now.

For those who don`t know Seth and Haruna, he is the son of friends near where we lived in Michigan. He has lived in Japan for a total of almost four years. Haruna is his girlfriend who he met at Antioch college in Yellow Springs, Ohio; she is from Osaka.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Earthquake update followup

Well, I'm sure you have been following events here in Japan just as we have.

As if the earthquake and tsunami has not created enough suffering, death and destruction, the situation with the reactors in Fukushima has unsettled everyone.

And this morning, there was another explosion at one of the reactors. It is very difficult to keep track of what is going on there from all the different news sources. One seemingly significant piece of news is that the Prime Minister announced that the evacuation area around the reactors has been increased to 30 kilometers. It was 1o km at first, then expanded to 20 km when the second explosion occurred.

At this point, there is no direct threat to Tokyo. However, it is unclear and uncertain at this time.

Due to all of the above situations, many supermarkets are low or out of certain types of foods. There have been planned electricity blackouts that have not happened. Other utilities are fine, but there is concern for those, as well. There is limited train service which has severely jammed up Tokyo's daily life.

That all being said, we think that it would be a good idea to go to Osaka to visit our friends, Seth and Haruna. Things are much more stable down there in many ways. I still have vacation, so why not take a little trip?

We are leaving tonight on an overnight bus with three other teacher friends who have people to visit in Osaka, so we will have a little safety in numbers thing going on.

My main concern is being in a city of 35 million people if things get weird, wacky or downright dangerous. Especially since Joan is on crutches. I would rather proactively get out and have nothing happen here in Tokyo than any other option.

To be honest, I am less concerned with the physical threat of radiation and earthquake than I am with how the general population and situation of Tokyo could react if things get worse, which they very well could do.

Hopefully, it will just be a nice trip to Osaka where it is warmer and the cherry trees are blooming earlier...

We will keep you posted!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake update

Sad that it takes this horrible disaster to get me to write again...

Yesterday morning, I had a conversation with Chris, fellow teacher, about earthquake emergency kits and what you need. And the day before, I went through and updated our own emergency kit which is stored in a backpack on a shelf above the door of our apartment. I even finally finished stocking the bare bones kit I keep under my desk at work.

All kind of horribly ironic. Maybe it's my Boy Scout "always prepared" thing or my time in the fire department and ambulance service where we trained for the worst case scenario. I think a lot about earthquakes here. I think about where I'm going to take cover when I'm inside. I try to identify the safest place from falling glass and buildings when outside.

After lunch, I rode my bike to check out the stock at a used bicycle auction down in Eifukucho, about 10 kilometers away. They had some really nice bikes that will be available, first come - first serve, that will be for sale on Monday.

After checking out the bikes, I started riding home along the Kandagawa canal toward Kichijoji and home. I was really excited and was debating with myself about all the different types. I pulled up to a cross intersection where I had to pause to check for traffic when I heard really loud splashing in the canal next to me.

"What the hell? Is it those really big koi (carp) thrashing down there?" I thought. I leaned over the railing and saw water sloshing back and forth. Still confused, I looked up to see the trees start to sway back and forth.

Oh. An earthquake... Oh. A big earthquake... Oh. A really big earthquake and it's not stopping.

I quickly staggered to the center of the bridge to get away from the buildings on either side and laid my bike down on its side. The shaking got worse and worse. The ground heaved underneath me. It swayed back and forth, lurching me forward and backwards. I went to one knee and put a steadying hand on the ground.

A mother with a young toddler was crouched down near me but up against a building. I called her to her and motioned for her to come out in the open, pointing at the building and pantomiming it falling down. With a look of startled understanding, she scrambled over to me, pulling her child along. We crouched there, telling each other how much we don't like earthquakes and how much we wanted it to stop.

Eventually it did. The whole city seemed to hold its breath and stand up at the same time, looking around. People started pouring out of their houses, clutching pets and cell phones. And, of course, the cell phone system immediately jammed up.

People seemed to shake themselves back to reality and got back to what they were doing. The nearby construction workers went back to constructing. The shopkeeper resumed sweeping in front of her store. It suddenly seemed like it had never happened.

I picked up my bike and said to my new friend, "Kiyo tsukete" (take care) and took off fast. I knew that Joan would be freaked out and wondering if I was OK. I came around a corner at the foot of a hill, stood up on the pedals, and pushed down. CRACK! The pedal crank arm stopped moving.

I looked down and saw that I had bent and broken the large sprocket. I was done riding. Crap. I was still five kilometers from home.

It was a long, strange walk home. The trains were shut down, and as I pushed my bike along the Inokashira line, I could see trains stopped on tracks, still full of passengers. Outside the stations, there were large crowds of people milling around. I don't think people knew yet about how big the earthquake had been at it's epicenter or where it was.

There was a 7.1 aftershock while walking home. Normally, it would be considered a big one, but people hardly seemed to notice. I stopped and found a safe place just in case.

I finally made it home to find Joan standing with her crutches outside the building with some teacher friends, all suited up with the emergency kit backpack on. There was some hugging, and there was some crying.

We spend the rest of the day answering emails and facebook posts about our status, as well as glued to media sources to see what had happened up north. At this point, you probably know as well as us the details and extent of it. One of the worst things to watch is the repeated video footage of the tiny cars trying to escape the fast moving wall of dirty, flotsam covered tsunami water and to see them inevitably overtaken and disappear. We're pretty sure this is going to be as bad as it looks.

There were aftershocks all evening and night, which kept waking us up. There's is always that hesitation and uncertainty - "Should we slide out of bed and under the desk?" One of the aftershocks was large enough for us to do that, but it was over before Joan was able to join me. We climbed back under the blankets and went back to fitful sleep. The shaking would wake us again, and we'd lie there thinking, "Is this it? Is this the big one?" Then it would fade away.

Sunlight and coffee this morning were never so good...

I feel guilty when I think about all those poor people up north in the cold, wet ruins of their lives. I'm just glad it wasn't us. In a city the size of Tokyo, it would be inconceivable... If that that an 8.9 from 230 miles away, imagine what it must be like at the epicenter.