Friday, September 30, 2011

The Big One - March 2011

Is it just me, or does the news this year suck more than usual?  In just the first two months alone we’ve had flooding in Australia, a shooting in the United States, and an earthquake in New Zealand.  Plus riots are breaking out all over the middle east and things don’t seem to be getting any better in Haiti.  I know the news is rarely good, but somehow the number of bad stories this year seems disproportionately high.  Maybe it’s just that, for a change, I actually know people in many of the affected areas.

And so we come to March.

Near the beginning of the month one of my Japanese neighbours took me to the nearby town of Akiu for Hina Matsuri.  “Hina Matsuri” means “doll festival”, and I’m still not clear on exactly how it works, but evidently it involves a lot of dolls, usually dressed up in formal wedding clothes.  Most of the dolls we saw came in pairs, a boy and a girl, and they were all in different shapes and media: glass dolls, clay dolls, embroidered dolls, egg dolls, rabbit dolls, and rice-ball-shaped candle dolls.  After taking in these attractions we went to an onsen (hot spring) which is what Akiu is famous for.

I debated for some time what to give up for Lent this year.  There was no way I was repeating last year’s experiment of fasting during daylight, and it would be difficult to give up meat or any of my traditional items while still eating school lunch.  Indeed, there hardly seemed to be anything I could give up that would allow me to continue eating school lunch.  Which led, almost inevitably, to my eventual resolution: give up school lunch!  And every other lunch too, of course.  The difficult part was explaining the decision to my school without causing offence.  After running the idea by my supervisors, I printed off the Japanese version of the Wikipedia article on Lent, highlighted the relevant passages, and showed it to one of my junior English teachers.  She explained the situation to my head teacher (who is really nice, but whom it is a pain to try an explain anything in English to), who in turn explained to my vice principal and my tea lady.  None of them had ever heard of Lent before, but once they understood what I was asking for, they were quite accepting.  So from the beginning of March I stopped eating lunch.  In retrospect, it proved to be a remarkably good choice.

During the first part of the month I volunteered some time to help promote Sendai’s St. Baldrick’s Day event.  St. Baldrick’s Day is an international event to raise money for childhood cancer research.  Many people shave their heads bald, and it takes place the day after St. Patrick’s Day, hence the name.  Many of the Sendai ALTs are usually involved, and I agreed to help out too.  I’d already helped a little by participating in the December carolling group.  In March I started doing volunteer shifts handing out fliers in the Ichi-ban Chou.  It wasn’t much fun, standing around for long periods in the cold, holding out fliers and saying “onegaishimasu”* to people, only about ten percent of whom actually took them.  I was looking forward to the event, though.

Of course, since it was scheduled for March 18, the event never happened.

On Friday, March 11, at 2:46 p.m. I was sitting at my desk finishing up an especially dull day.  The school year was winding down and the students into exam preparation, so I’d had very little to do all week, and each day of boredom had been progressively more excruciating.  At 10:30 a.m. I was so restless I actually went and asked my tea lady if I could help her, and she put me to work cleaning the glass in the principal’s office.  That occupied me for an hour at most, and then I was back to being bored.  Around noon I made the shocking discovery that there is no such phoneme in the English language as “rh”, and there never has been.  (It might not seem like much, but what a thing to spend twenty-eight years of your life not knowing!)  And if that had been the most traumatic event of my day, the world would be a much happier place.  I actually thought of posting something on Facebook about it when I got home.  But as it turned out, I never went home that night.

So, as I say, I was sitting at my desk, just thinking that in less than an hour I could leave, when the school started shaking.  Now, there’s nothing very unusual about that.  Japan does sit at the convergence of three tectonic plates, and earthquakes are a common occurrence.  Since arriving here I’d experienced dozens of tremors, but all of them had been small, and none had caused any damage.  Just that Wednesday we’d had one slightly bigger than usual, but it still meant nothing more than some rattling windows and cups.  I mentioned the earthquake bus we got to ride in during our Sendai orientation back in August, but we hadn’t experienced anything remotely like the shaking we got there.  Still, we’d been warned that Sendai was overdue for a large earthquake, and that the Big One might happen any day.  So we all knew it was just a matter of time.

It started out like any other tremor: a little trembling, a little rattling.  But instead of settling down after a few seconds, it got stronger, and the room started to shake violently!  Here at last was something along the lines of what we’d experienced in August.  This was no minor tremor; this was an earthquake.  My vice principal ran to the communications panel with a worried look on her face.  I couldn’t understand what she was saying, and there were few other teachers in the staff room, so I didn’t have much of a lead to follow.  I’d never been told exactly what to do if caught by an earthquake at school, but I understood that the recommended course of action was to hide under something, so I got down on the floor and wedged myself as best I could under my desk.

Once under there, I felt pretty safe.  Short of the roof caving in, it was hard to see how anything could hurt me under there.  Outside my tiny hideout I could hear rattling and then smashing noises as cups slid off tables and out of cabinets and broke.  Papers and books slid off desks and carpeted the floor.  From where I was I could see my V.P. still standing at the com’ unit.  “Nagai, desu ne!” she kept saying.  “It’s lasting so long!”  And it was.  I always thought earthquakes were only supposed to last a few seconds, but this one went on for minutes!  It felt like I was under my desk for at least a good two minutes, all the time wondering how much longer it could possibly last, and whether the school was built to withstand this kind of shaking.

Finally the shaking died down.  My V.P. beckoned me out from under the desk and indicated that we had to get out of the school.  I made a perfunctory attempt to clean up some of the papers around my desk, but she yelled at me, “Ato de!”  “Later!”  So I grabbed my keys, retrieved my coat from my locker, and ran out onto the muddy field, still wearing my indoor shoes.

All the students and teachers filed out of the school and assembled in the field.  The students got into their class groups and waited, standing or squatting in the mud, most of them without coats despite the chilly March weather.  Teachers were trying their cell phones and finding many useless; the networks seemed to be down, although some people could still access the internet.  One of the English teachers had internet, and I asked her what she had heard.  It seemed that this wasn’t just a local earthquake, but had been felt over a wide area.  I asked her where it was centred, and she said that we were quite close to the epicentre.  Well that’s good, I thought.  At least if it was strongest here, it can’t have been much worse anywhere else.  But she told me that the quake had spawned a tsunami, which had hit the eastern coast of Japan.  And then I asked the obvious question, the one we ask when we want to distinguish the minor occurrences from the major disasters.

“Is anyone dead?”

“Um, yeah.” she said.  “Yeah, I think maybe a lot of people are dead.”


I was surprised by how shaken I felt.  The earthquake itself hadn’t felt so bad, but the growing uncertainty was beginning to make me nervous.  Moreover, the shaking had not completely stopped.  We kept feeling aftershocks of the original earthquake.  Every time it seemed that things had calmed down and we could go back inside, another one would set the ground trembling and the windows rattling again.  My tea lady came up to me and asked me whether I kept shoes by my bed at home.  I gave her a funny look and told her, no, I didn’t keep shoes in my bedroom.  She made a gesture of entreaty, and I suddenly got it: if there was another big earthquake during the night, I would want to have my shoes at hand.

After about an hour, we finally went back inside.  We’d lost electricity.  I got my purse, which I’d stupidly left behind, and tried to use my cell phone, but I couldn’t reach anyone.  The English teacher with the smart phone offered to let me use it to check my e-mail.  I debated whether to send a letter home or not.  I didn’t know if the quake had been big enough to make the international news, and if it wasn’t, I didn’t want to worry my mom unnecessarily.  But if it did make the news, I didn’t want her to think something had happened to me.  So I sent her a short message letting her know I was alright.  In the days that followed I was extremely glad I’d done that.

The students were sent home.  The teachers held a meeting.  The school was a designated refuge area, which meant that people who felt unsafe in their houses would be coming there.  Therefore some of the teachers would have to stay to help out.  About a third stayed; the rest started to leave.  My head teacher asked me what I wanted to do.  In the first couple of hours after the quake, I had thought there was nothing I wanted so much as to get home to my apartment.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realised what a bad plan that would be.  The blackout had affected most of the city, meaning that my place had almost certainly lost power.  I wouldn’t have light or heat; I might not even have gas or running water.  And it was still winter.  The thought of being alone in my dark, freezing apartment filled me with dread.  And what would happen after that?  With no phone service or internet I wouldn’t be able to contact anyone, and with no buses or trains it would be difficult to get anywhere.  Here at least I would be with people, people I knew.  I’d have access to food and heat and information.  And if anyone was looking for me, this was the logical place for them to do it.  So I told my head teacher I was staying.

I have to hand it to Japan: the response to the emergency was wonderfully efficient.  Not long after it got dark, a truck arrived with supplies: blankets, portable toilets, bottles of water, packets of crackers, and “Alpha Mai”.  Alpha Mai is a kind of instant rice (just add hot water and leave to sit for an hour) with wakame (a kind of seaweed), which became the staple of my diet for the next week.   Kerosene heaters were brought out for warmth, flashlights for light, and battery-powered radios for information.  When families started to arrive, we made a place for them in the budōkan, the gym the students use to practise kendo.  We cooked the Alpha Mai and portioned it out to the refugees along with improvised miso soup.  Then we sat in the staff room, huddled around the heater, trying to keep warm.  We talked, or rather they talked, and I listened to people conversing in a language I didn’t understand.  Eventually, I went to sleep at my desk, stretched uncomfortably across three swivel chairs, and shivering despite my puffy coat and blankets.  The aftershocks continued through the night.

In the morning someone arrived with a newspaper.  For the first time we were able to see images from the coast, images of houses and cars being swept away by the ocean.  The quake had measured 8.9 on the Richter scale (later upgraded to 9.0).  It had been the fifth largest earthquake in the last century.  The tsunami had also hit a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, and there were worries about an explosion.  Using the school phone I called one of my supervisors to let her know my status.  She thanked me, and gave me the names of the other ALTs who had reported in.  It was good to know which people were safe, but the list was far from complete.  Later that day the phone lost batteries.  So did my cell phone.

I did what I could to amuse myself during the day.  I helped out as much as I could with cleaning and distributing supplies, but there wasn’t a lot of work to do, and always a glut of helping hands whenever something did need doing.  It didn’t help that I didn’t speak the language, and that there was only one English teacher on hand who could translate for me.  I offered to help a lot, and followed the crowd every time there was a burst of activity, desperately trying to act like a member of the staff, and not like a glorified refugee, which was how I felt.  In the quieter moments, I took advantage of the daylight to write some long-hand letters home.  Not that I expected to be able to mail them any time soon, but at least they allowed me to feel like I was keeping in touch.

I had assumed that the aftershocks would die down after a while, but they didn’t so much cease as become chronic.  Throughout the weekend few hours went by without us feeling at least one, and often more.  Some of them were big enough to be frightening, especially when they woke me up in the middle of the night.  But none of them were truly serious or caused any more damage.  I quickly grew very good at detecting even small ones, although in my paranoia I may actually have been imagining them.  Several times I thought I felt the beginning of a tremor; then my pulse would quicken and I would sit very still, wondering if the vibrations I was feeling were truly the earth moving, or merely the pounding of my own heart.  For the first few hours, I was terrified at the idea of another big earthquake hitting us, but by Saturday afternoon my attitude towards the aftershocks had mostly turned into annoyance.  “Just shut up, already!” I would think, rolling my eyes and wondering how much more of this we would have to endure.

If you want to know what earthquakes are like, it depends on the magnitude involved.  The mildest ones give you the kind of shaking you would expect from a train or large truck going past.  I learned to ignore those really quickly.  If you’re indoors, you primarily notice the rattling, but outside there are fewer cues, and what you mostly notice is the sensation of rising and falling, as though one were on the back of a giant turtle that had decided to go for a walk.  If you ignore the danger, those ones can be almost fun.  The very worst ones feel as though someone had actually grabbed the building and started shaking it like a box of dice.  At that point all you can do is to find a safe corner and pray that the roof holds.

There were many moments when I felt I was on the verge of tears.  I didn’t panic when the earthquake first happened, because I didn’t understand what was going on.  As time went on and the uncertainty mounted, so did the stress.  I could feel it building up inside, and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before it broke forth in a flood of weeping.  But it never did.  Maybe in the end it wasn’t all that bad.  Or maybe I just never had the opportunity.  If anyone had offered me a hug during the whole time I was at the school, I could easily have collapsed sobbing against their shoulder.  But whether it was my own personal relationship with my co-workers, or a product of the famous Japanese reserve, no one ever did.  In fairness, I didn’t see them hugging each other either, so I don’t think it was anything personal against me.  But it’s hard to collapse against someone’s shoulder when there’s no shoulder to collapse against.

I spent Saturday night much like Friday, except that this time I slept a bit more comfortably on the budōkan floor.  I awoke the next morning to discover that we’d lost water.  Fortunately the school had a cistern, so we would still be able to drink, but it was not an encouraging development.  My mind started flashing to the post-apocalyptic novels I’d read recently and wondering how long it would be until we all started eating each other.

That day a co-worker offered me a ride to my apartment.  I’d resisted going home up to that point because I didn’t want to be stranded there on my own, but she promised me a ride back in the evening, so I accepted.  My flat looked like… well, it looked like it had been hit by an earthquake!  I don’t know what I was expecting.  To put it in slightly more accessible terms, it looked like the Tasmanian Devil had been through.  My desk, fridge, and table had moved from their usual positions; food had fallen off the shelves; dishes had fallen off the counter; papers that I’d carelessly left lying around were all over the floor; and my T.V. was sitting flat on its face.  For all the mess, though, things were actually not that bad.  I didn’t have electricity, but I did have gas and running water.  Very few things had actually broken.  I had lost a bowl, and soy sauce had spilled onto the floor, but most of my dishes were still intact, and the television screen had not been damaged in its fall.

I had eight hours, and I made the most of them.  I started by cleaning – no! packing – no! scavenging, and by jumping repeatedly between several different tasks managed to turn the visit into a respectable salvage operation.  I reached into my closet and pulled out my 70 L back-pack – if I hadn’t bought it for just such a situation, I don’t know what I’d bought it for!  I filled it with everything I thought I could use: my pillow, blankets, candles, flashlights, toiletries, and feminine hygiene products (you really don’t want to be caught without those!).  I boiled enough water to give myself a sponge bath and wash my hair, a luxury I knew I might not be able to enjoy again for several days, and changed into some cleaner, more practical clothes.

I went to the local grocery store and stood in line for an hour.  The queue was long, but organised; everyone seemed to be making the best of a bad situation.  The store had brought their goods outside and was rationing them out; everyone was allowed to buy only one or two of any given product.  Everything was priced with nice round numbers, generally below what they would normally have been.  The products available were mostly limited to dry staples: drinks, instant noodles, tissues.  I bought a couple of bottles of water and some toilet paper.

Back home I gathered up all the extra food I thought I could reasonably carry: cookies, peanut butter, salted nuts, cornmeal, brown sugar, an unopened carton of milk.  Other teachers had been bringing food to the school to supplement our wakame rice and miso soup diet, and I thought I should do my part.  Knowing that the stuff in the fridge couldn’t keep forever, I even cooked up some macaroni and cheese and brought it back with me!

Sunday night was the worst.  We still didn’t have electricity, and we’d lost water.  The aftershocks were still going strong.  But it wasn’t my own situation that worried me.  On the contrary, given the opportunity, I would have reassured my friends and family that I was fine, that I was safe and well-fed, and convinced that things would only get better.  But I had no way to reassure my family or friends.  I was glad I’d at least sent that e-mail to my mom, but I couldn’t be sure she’d received it.  And even if she had, what sorts of images must she be seeing on the international news?  What scenes of devastation and death must people be associating with the place I lived?  “I’m okay,” I wanted to say.  “It’s fine, really.  Don’t worry about me!”  But I couldn’t.  Sunday night.  That meant Sunday morning in Canada.  My mom would be in church.  They’d be talking about me, and probably saying prayers for the country.  And here I was, miles away, sitting in the dark with people I couldn’t talk to.  I thought about how worried everyone must be, and I felt terrible.

Monday morning the situation had not changed.  Someone started running a petrol generator, and teachers were using it to charge their phones.  My charger had been one of the things I’d picked up at my apartment, so I plugged it in, hoping that the networks might be working again.  It occurred to me that my church wasn’t so very far away from the school; I could probably walk there in under an hour.  It would give me a chance to get news on people, and goodness knew I had nothing better to do with my time.  I ran the idea past my head teacher, and she told me that because of the situation with the reactor, there were warnings about black rain that day.  Forget that!, I thought.  Radioactive precipitation really didn’t feel like the thing to brighten my day.  Feeling restless and frustrated, I spent my morning sweeping out one of the school entrances, into which a huge amount of mud had been tracked.

Around noon, I was sitting at my desk starting work on another letter, when suddenly the lights went on and we started hearing the hum of idling machines.  We had electricity back!!!  We jumped up and down, laughing for joy.  Then I remembered my cell phone, which by that time was charged.  I turned it on, then stood looking at it for a moment, wondering whom I should call first.  My supervisor?  One of the other ALTs?  My church?  Or… hang on a minute…

I called home.

I don’t think I'd ever been happier to hear my mom’s voice, and I’m sure she was never happier to hear mine.  I reassured her that I was fine, and gave her a rundown of my situation.  I’d expected to start crying, but instead questions poured out of me.  She told me that she had indeed gotten my e-mail, as well as fourth-hand confirmation that I was alright, so at least she hadn’t worried too much.  She’d also been in touch with most of my friends and family, so they also knew I was okay.  We talked for over an hour.

When I finally hung up, I started calling everyone else I could think of.  One ALT I got in touch with told me that all the ALTs in the city had been confirmed safe, so that was a relief.  I also called my church and got confirmation that all the members I knew were also fine.  Once we got the internet working again, I sent e-mails to everyone I could think of who might be wondering about me.  I went on Facebook, and though a firewall prevented me from posting anything, I was at least able to check up on people I knew.  I’d never been a fan of Facebook before, but I have to admit it was a wonderful tool for getting and disseminating information during the crisis.  It turns out that no one I knew was seriously hurt by the disaster; even my acquaintance from Fukushima was alright, though she had been forced to evacuate.

I stayed at school for a total of six days, eating rice twice a day, supplemented with whatever food got donated to us, sleeping in the budōkan, and helping out whenever possible.  I checked up on the other ALTs as much as I could.  Many of them were feeling scared and uncertain, and most people had concerns about the situation at the reactor, which still wasn’t under control.  Our supervisors explained repeatedly that there was no danger, no chance of the reactor China-syndroming on us.  This was reassuring to an extent, but I couldn’t help feeling that our supervisors had a vested interest in encouraging us to stay.  Besides, their explanations all depended on the reactors behaving in a predictable fashion, but it was the unpredictable situation that scared me.  ALTs with more access to transportation started talking about evacuating.  Over the next week a lot of them would get out of the city and either go home or take refuge in other parts of Japan.  I didn’t really consider that an option, though.  On the one hand, my apartment and school are both way out in the north-west corner of the city, which had suffered much less damage than places nearer the coast.  On the other hand, getting around was quite difficult.  Petrol was in short supply, which meant the buses were only running on a very limited basis.  Damage to Sendai Station had stopped both the local and the bullet trains.  And the tsunami had taken out Sendai Airport, so there was no getting a flight out of the city.  In other words, I didn’t feel much need to leave, and even if I’d wanted to, doing so would have been complicated.  I felt it would be better to wait out the situation and make the best of it.  I did start considering my getaway options, though, just in case.  And on my dad’s suggestion I quickly registered with the Canadian Consulate, something I’d neglected to do theretofore.

I talked to some of the other teachers, and they agreed to unlock the library so we could get inside and have a look at it.  I’d expected a war zone, and was shocked to see everything in comparatively good condition.  A few books had fallen over or tumbled onto the floor, but most of them were still sitting neatly on their shelves.  It seemed impossible that they could have stayed that way through the big earthquake, but I couldn’t imagine who would have gone into the library and put all the books back exactly where they belonged in the past few days.  It was a mystery or a miracle, I guess.  We cleaned up what mess there was.  I liberated the Japanese translation of Book VI of The Lord of the Rings (oddly the only one of the six books the library had), and a colleague handed me a stack of Sazae-san comics which were in Japanese and English, so I had reading material.

A day or two after I talked to my mom, I got a call from a reporter in Ottawa who was doing a story on the disaster.  I answered his questions as best I could, though I didn’t really feel qualified to talk about the situation.  I was pretty isolated from what was going on, and reading the same information on the internet as everyone else.  Soon after, my mom sent me the link to the story he had written.  It was weird seeing myself in print; I’d never been the subject of a news story before, and I didn’t think I liked it.  Although I couldn’t find anything in it that was inaccurate per se, I felt there was a disconnect between the intent behind my words, and how they got interpreted in the text.  I kept thinking, “Did I say that?  Really?!”

As you may imagine, the situation got me interacting with my co-workers in new ways.  Even when you don’t speak the same language as someone, there’s a certain camaraderie that comes out of eating together, cleaning together, or standing around making rice balls together.  I stretched my limited Japanese skills as much as I could in order to communicate.  I wouldn’t say my Japanese got better while I was there, but I definitely got good speaking practice.  And I did add a couple of new expressions to my vocabulary.  One of these was “jishin”.  It means “earthquake”.  I picked that one up quickly.  The other was “Ki o tsukete,” which means “Take care.”  That became my standard parting salutation during the crisis.  Some of my co-workers also made an effort to talk to me.  I was surprised to discover that people I’d barely spoken to before the earthquake did in fact speak a little English, and were willing to use what they had to communicate.

On Thursday morning, another co-worker offered me a ride home for the weekend.  I called my neighbours, and ascertained that gas and water were still functioning in my area, and that electricity seemed to be back too.  Now that the phones were working again, I didn’t feel so isolated, and I wanted to begin putting my life back together, so I accepted.  I packed up all my things and left with the promise of a ride back the following week.

My flat did indeed have electricity back, and as I’d never lost water or gas, it was actually a pretty pleasant place to be.  At any rate, it was nice to sleep in my bed again.  As it was a long weekend, I stayed there for five days, cleaning up the mess and enjoying having internet without firewalls.  I re-packed my bag with everything I thought I might need in an emergency, filled my bathtub with water, and put my shoes and a flashlight next to my bed so I’d be ready for anything.  The trains were still down, so it was hard to get into downtown Sendai.  Fortunately I still had some food at home, and I was able to go shopping and buy a little more.  Most of the restaurants and convenience stores in my area were closed, but the grocery stores were still opening on a limited basis.  They no longer had long line-ups outside, but were allowing people inside to choose from the limited selection of items they were selling.  It was hard to tell whether their goods were being replenished or they were still rationing off what they’d had when the earthquake hit.  The tsunami having taken out the ports, a lot of shipments had probably been stopped, but they may have been getting stuff in by truck.  They had some produce, but perishables in general were short, and there was no milk.  It felt a bit like living through one of the World Wars – or at least as I imagine living through a World War must have been like.  There was the same sense of privation and of worry about a situation we knew could still get worse.  But there was also the sense of making the best of things, and learning to do without.  I spent the week living on white rice, miso soup, and cereal with water.  Yuck!

I spent some time with my neighbours, glad to be able to reconnect with people.  I went over for dinner one night at my ALT neighbour’s place, and another night at my Japanese neighbour’s.  She was super earthquake-prepared, and told me to go to her any time I felt unsafe or in need of company, an offer I really appreciated.  On Sunday I went to my church, which had also become a refuge area.  The American English teacher who worked there had been sent home, but most of the others I knew were there.  The Japanese seminary student had even brought her family from Fukushima to stay there.

I started getting calls from the Canadian Consulate about evacuation plans.  Few countries were doing organised evacuations in the days immediately following the earthquake, but as the week wore on, various embassies began to arrange buses and flights for their citizens, and eventually Canada jumped on the bandwagon.  As I’ve already said, I didn’t feel particularly unsafe, but at least now evacuating was an option for me, and one I had to seriously consider.  My mom urged me to get out of the city.  One of my closest ALT acquaintances took her embassy’s bus and went home to Singapore.  Some of the Canadians were sticking around, but others had fled to places like Osaka or Taiwan.  Although the danger seemed minimal, it did seem like it would be only prudent to avoid it as much as possible.  And although my cardboard box of an apartment had held up so far, I couldn’t help wondering at times how many little earthquakes it would take to do it the damage of one big one.

That weekend was the worst.  Every time I got a call about a bus, I politely told them I wouldn’t be on it, but I was constantly second-guessing myself.  On Friday I was told that the last bus would leave the following morning.  I again declined the offer, knowing intellectually that it might be my last chance, but not really wanting to believe it.  I debated with myself all the rest of the day about it.  I was angry with the Canadian Consulate for not making the situation clearer.  When I asked naïvely if this was an “official” evacuation order, they told me it was as “official” as it was going to get.  In other words, they couldn’t tell us whether to leave or not, only give us the option to do so.  Having that option was all very well, but it begged the question, was there any actual danger?  Were they sending buses because they thought we needed buses, or because the Americans had sent them first?  And what if the situation really did get bad?  What if radiation actually made its way from Fukushima all the way to Sendai?  Were they going to send more buses then?  Were they going to be there when I actually was in fear for my life, and wanted to escape?

On the one hand, the risk of staying seemed minimal.  I was nowhere near the ocean, so I wasn’t going to get hit by a tsunami, which was what had caused most of the damage in the first place.  We were unlikely to get hit by another big earthquake, and given how well my area had withstood the first one, I thought it would probably survive a second one too.  We were a hundred kilometres away from Fukushima, with no indication of increased radiation levels here.  And if things did get bad, there were always other options for getting out.

On the other hand, even if the risk was minimal, why take it at all?  Why make my family worry unnecessarily, or stick it out in a disaster area when I could be safe and sound at home?  This was a time for caution and prudence, not for stoicism or machismo.

In the end, the thing that tipped the balance was remembering why I’d come to Japan.  I came here because I wanted to break out of my routine, to broaden my experience, to challenge myself.  In short, I came to have an adventure.  And adventures aren’t always fun.  Tolkien described them as “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things”, and living through the aftermath of an earthquake had been nothing if not disturbing and uncomfortable.  I’m not saying one should seek out discomfort, and if I’d seriously believed that my life was in danger, then of course I would have left.  But given that I was relatively safe – as I believed I was – then it was stupid to run away as soon as life got interesting.  And anyway, one doesn’t go home in the middle of an adventure.

All the same, I began to think that it might be a nice time to plan a vacation.  Spring break was coming up.  I had intended to work through the holiday but natural disasters have a way of disrupting one’s plans.  Tokyo had been hit by the earthquake; instead, I settled on Osaka.  It would be an interesting vacation spot.  I knew some of the Canadian ALTs were there.  And if I had to, I could get a flight out of the country.  I used the internet to find a cheap hostel and book a room for a week.  One of the things I love about Japan is that few things require credit cards, so making the reservation was quite easy.

On Tuesday, the last week of the school year began.  The petrol situation was starting to get better, but there still weren’t buses to my school, so a co-worker gave me a ride to work.  I actually packed my back pack full of stuff, intending to stay at the school for the rest of the week, but she was able to give me a ride home in the evening and every other day of the week.  The school had water again, so things had kind of returned to normal.

On Wednesday we finally held the graduation ceremony that had originally been scheduled for March 12.  As I still had nothing to do, I spent an extremely dull rest of the week sitting at my desk reading the news.  Every so often there’d be another aftershock, often accompanied by someone’s phone alarm going off.  Or a phone alarm that would go off without the company of an aftershock.  Over the course of two weeks I grew to know and loathe those phone alarms.  I could never see the point of them.  If you’re in an earthquake, the last thing you need is an alarm to tell you you’re in an earthquake.  And if you’re not in an earthquake, then an electronic voice “fweep-fweep”-ing at you is just going to cause unnecessary stress, and we’d all had enough of that, thank you.

I requested nine days of paid leave, almost half my yearly allowance.  I informed everyone of my travel plans.  Then on Friday afternoon I said goodbye to those co-workers that were still hanging around, and went home to prepare for my trip.

In the news this month, Japan got hit by an earthquake.  Now, whom do I know in Japan …?

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Kick-Ass – Seriously messed-up movie about a whiny teenager who decides to become a superhero and a little girl whose father raises her to be a professional killer.  Nicholas Cage is delightfully hammy in places, but otherwise I thought this movie was a bad combination of annoyingly goofy and really disturbing.  (Two stars)

Books I’ve read this month:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien – A few months ago I was feeling depressed and homesick, and decided it would be a good idea to read a book about a guy who goes on a journey, gets stabbed, stung, maimed, and soul-raped, comes back home traumatised to find that everything’s changed and no one appreciates him, and ends up saying goodbye to all his friends and travelling to a distant land beyond the Western ocean from which he will never return.  What was I thinking?

All the same, I’m glad I took this opportunity to re-read The Lord of the Rings.  I thought for sure it would take me the better part of half a year, but I’m actually quite pleased with myself: I read the whole thing, appendices and all, in just over six weeks.  Having not read it in ten years, I was due.  This was also my first time to read the book since the release of the movies, and having gotten the film-version of events fairly deeply ingrained in my head, I was glad finally to go back and re-discover the source material.

Book 1: I always liked the little side adventures in this book, and while it’s understandable that they were cut from the movies, it was nice to re-read them.  I realised I’d forgotten a lot about this book, including most of Chapter 3, and how creepy the Ring Wraiths are.  My favourite part is the scene on the Barrow-downs.  One complaint, though, is that all the characters seem flat.  I got to the end of the book and I still didn’t have a strong sense of who Frodo was or care much about him – not a situation one wants for a protagonist.

Book 2: There are some great sequences in this book that didn’t translate well onto film, including the Council of Elrond, the stay in Lothlórien, and the wonderfully creepy way in which Tolkien re-introduces Gollum.  There were even some moments I’d completely forgotten about, like the vision at Amon Hen.  Frodo gets some character development, so that by the end of the book I liked him a lot better.  And this may seem like a strange thing to say, but I’d forgotten how utterly loveable Sam is!

Book 3: This is without question my least favourite of the six books.  Although I question some of the choices made in the film version, I think it does a much better job of handling the characters and plot.  The one element that is much better in the book, though, is Treebeard and the Ents, who actually come off as wise and thoughtful, rather than just comical and stupid.

Book 4: At the end of Book 3 I was beginning to have my doubts about whether the novel was really better than the movies, but this book turned me around.  I’d forgotten how much Sam got to do, and how much depth and character development Tolkien gives him.  Re-reading some of his scenes I felt that the films missed out on some of the greatest moments of the story.  Sure, the fight with the giant spider works better on film, but “The Choices of Master Samwise” is a beautiful sequence, and I’m really sad it got cut.  Also, although Gollum of the movie is a remarkable creation, I quite like the literary version too.

Book 5: I liked this book better than Book 3, though, sadly, I will never be able to love book-Pippin the way I love movie-Pippin.  Most of the action sequences also, obviously, work better on film.  The one exception is Eowyn’s confrontation with the Witch King, which is much better in the book, but that’s because the scene is mostly dialogue-driven.

Book 6: There are a lot more great scenes involving Sam that got cut out of the films and that I’d consequently forgotten about.  Does it seem like I’m harping on Sam?  Well, it’s because he’s always been my favourite character in the novel – and now I finally remember why!  I love the failings that Tolkien gives him, and the cheerful pessimism with which he and Frodo pursue the last leg of their quest.  I also quite enjoyed “The Scouring of the Shire”, and, of course, I wanted to cry at the end.

Standing the book and the movies side by side my feelings are mixed.  In some cases, I was actually surprised by the similarities, such as the number of famous lines from the films that were actually taken from the book.  And there were many instances where I liked the film version better.  As a broad generalisation, I’d say that the book has a better story, while the movie has better characters.  But there are some notable exceptions to that: the story of Theoden and his family is better developed in the movies, while some major characters come of better in the book, notably Treebeard and Sam.  A safer generalisation would be that the movies have better action sequences, while the book has better writing.  Tolkien writes a very good story, and takes great pains to set it up well and make it internally consistent.  I like the way he uses humour to engage his reader.  I also enjoyed the creepier moments of the story.  Most of all, I think the book contains some profound moments that never made it into the movies.  Coming back to them again after so many years it felt like I was discovering them for the first time, and they made me realise why the book will always be superior to the film version.

And I’ll always have a soft spot for Sam Gamgee now, because he kept me company after the earthquake.

* “onegaishimasu.”: Japanese for “please”.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Winter Wonderland - February 2011

Since arriving in Sendai, I’d been looking forward to the famed ALT Yuki Matsuri trip. Yuki Matsuri (literally “snow festival”) is an event kind of like Winterlude that is held every February in Sapporo. Every year a group of ALTs go to Sapporo together to see the festival, and this year I was part of that group. We had a holiday and also took a few vacation days for an extra-long weekend. On Wednesday evening we took the ferry from Sendai to Hokkaido. I wasn’t a fan of the trip, which saved us money but also made me boat sick. We landed on Thursday morning and were checked into our hostel by early afternoon.

The hostel was relatively nice for a cheap place. I shared a large tatami room with seven other people, where we slept on futons on the floor. The only downside was the showers; they didn’t have individual shower stalls, just one large public bath each for the men and the women. Excuse me if showering in front of total strangers isn’t my preferred way to start the day! I locked myself into the room on the second day so I could have it all to myself, but as that didn’t seem like a good long-term policy, I washed my hair in the sink and otherwise did without for the rest of my stay.

Before the trip, it had occurred to me that I’d probably want to take pictures, and to that end I went out and bought myself a new camera. Up to now I’ve been taking pictures with my video camera, which isn’t very good, but now I should be able to take proper, nice-looking ones. The camera I found is a bit bigger than I’d like, but it has really good zoom and resolution, plus all the manual features I like, so I think it was a good purchase.

It’s a good thing I got it, too, because Sapporo was gorgeous! We had great weather almost the whole time I was there. In Sendai I’d gotten to experience the wussy pathetic snow that falls, blankets everything for a day or two, and then melts again. In Sapporo I was reminded what a real winter is like. The streets were lined with four-foot snow banks – the neatest ones I’ve ever seen in my life! The weather hovered around the –10 °C mark, but it wasn’t the wet, miserable kind of cold that sinks into your bones and won’t let you stop shivering. It was the crisp, dry cold that makes you feel invigorated. We had bright, sunny days with clear blue skies, punctuated with just enough snowy patches to keep everything looking fresh and white.

It felt like home.

On our first night, we went for dinner at the Sapporo Beer Factory. Dinner was yaki-niku (“grilled meat”) tabehodai (“all you can eat”). We grilled lamb with vegetables on Hokkaido-shaped skillets. We were all warned before going that the stink of lamb would get into our clothes and stay there for a week, which is true, but it was worth it for the dinner. Besides, as I realised when I once again found myself taken aback at seeing people light up in a restaurant, the stink of lamb is nothing compared to the stink of cigarettes. I left early. During the meal it had started to snow, meaning that everything outside was looking particularly lovely. I laughed when I arrived at the restaurant to see a Christmas tree standing out front, but the effect it created with the new-fallen snow was truly magical. As I walked back to the hostel alone, I was overcome with the beauty around me, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from skipping down the street. Okay, I admit it: there were a couple of moments where I didn’t restrain myself!

I got up early the next morning and went to see the festival. It was a lovely clear day, and as we were relatively close to the festival site, I decided to walk. On my way there I stopped in at the former Hokkaido Government Office Building. Built in a western style and nicknamed “Red Brick”, this building has a garden outside and an exhibit inside, both free to the public. Eventually I made it down to Odori Park, where the festival was. Odori Park consists of a string of city blocks running east-west through downtown Sapporo. Think of a smaller version of the Mall in Washington D.C., and you’ll have the basic idea. The whole of this park was taken up with the festival.

First I met up with an ALT from Fukushima who had been part of the group that left Ottawa with me. We hadn’t seen each other since Tokyo orientation, and it was nice to reconnect. We spent the afternoon walking around the park. There were lots of snow sculptures, some of them really impressive. There was also ski-jumping, and of course the usual selection of fast food and souvenirs for sale. In the evening we went down to the Nakajima area to see the ice carvings. They were nice too, but not nearly as impressive as the snow sculptures. Although it pains me to say it, I had to admit that Yuki Matsuri is about five times cooler than Winterlude! The only things missing were Canal skating and beavertails, but everything else was awesome!

On Saturday I visited the Historical Village of Hokkaido. This is a large outdoor park where a selection of old buildings have been gathered together. Many of these are comparatively modern buildings in a western style, or combining western and Japanese elements. Hokkaido was only recently colonised by the Japanese, and when it was, a lot of North American experts were brought in with building and farming techniques suited to its boreal climate. That’s part of the reason downtown Sapporo looks so much more North American than other Japanese cities. I spent several hours wandering around, gravitating towards the more traditional and rural buildings. Highlights for me were an old school house, a fishing house, and various family residences.

My ticket to the village also got me admission to the neighbouring Historical Museum of Hokkaido, so when I was done I spent an hour or so there, learning about Hokkaido history. In the evening I went back to Odori Park to see the snow sculptures by night. Many of them looked even better than they had by daylight, and I took lots of pictures of sculptures I’d photographed the day before. For dinner I ate festival food, including a crab and some of Hokkaido’s famous potatoes (which weren’t as good as Yukon gold, unfortunately).

Having accomplished my main sight-seeing goals, I filled up my Sunday with sights of secondary interest. First I went to Shiroi Koibito Park. Shiroi Koibito (literally, “white lovers”) is a white chocolate cookie for which Sapporo is famous, and the park contains a factory-cum-museum where they are made. The place is wonderfully kitschy, from its mock-Tudor façade, to the “passports” they hand out at the door, to the fountain in the entrance. The chocolate factory aspect is not in itself particularly interesting. Shiroi Koibito are basically second-rate cookies glued together with second-rate white chocolate, nothing to get excited about. But the museum was worth it for its collections of antique hot chocolate cups, gramophones, and even vintage toys! If you’re ever travelling in Sapporo with children, this would definitely be the place to take them!

After the chocolate factory, I paid short visit to the Chitosetsuru Sake Museum (really just a sake shop with a collection of cups and decanters) and the Sapporo Clock Tower. For dinner I went to a convenience store for yakitori, a Sapporo specialty my tea lady told me I had to try while I was there. “Yakitori” literally means “grilled bird”, and is usually chicken, but Sapporo yakitori is pork. It was pretty good.

On Monday morning I got up early again and went out for a last look at Sapporo. We didn’t leave the city till the afternoon, so I had a few hours to kill. Yet more fresh snow had fallen, and everything was looking particularly dazzling. First I walked around Hokkaido University, which was right next to our hostel. Then I went down to the Botanical Garden. I’d heard that it contained a museum to Hokkaido’s Ainu people, an indigenous group that lived there before colonisation, and I’d made it one of my top tourist destinations. Unfortunately, that part of the garden was closed, so the only part I ended up seeing was the greenhouse. For lunch I walked down to Sapporo’s famous Ramen Alley, a narrow side street lined with ramen shops, and then found a place selling sakura ice-cream and bought one. That’s ice-cream flavoured like cherry blossoms. It wasn’t bad, although I think I would have preferred cherry.

In the end I wound up at Nakajima park, in the south end of downtown. I’d passed by it many times before, but never had a chance to explore it. I spent my last hour tramping through the snow, marvelling at the beauty around me and enjoying the stillness. Then I rejoined my companions for the bus ride back to the ferry terminal. Having been sick on the trip over, I decided to go straight to bed and sleep right through the return journey. We arrived home on Tuesday morning.

Back at school, I held my second swing dancing class. More students came than to the first one, but they had to leave early. I’ve put up a new English board about colour. At my elementary school, there’s been a kind of sequel to my “Canadian cooking” venture. All the grade two students, the ones I ate lunch with, wrote me thank-you letters, which were then bound together into two booklets and presented to me. I thought it was a really sweet gesture, despite the fact that I can’t actually read any of them. On the bright side, as they’re all written by seven-year-olds, the language in them is actually pretty simple, and they may prove useful down the road when my Japanese improves and I want some reading practice.

In the news this month, there are uprisings in Egypt and Libya. Closer to home, an earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, toppling buildings and killing dozens of people. I don’t know anyone in Christchurch, but there are ALTs here from the city. Fortunately none of their relatives were hurt.