I suppose I'l start at the beginning. It's still an overwhelming blur of events, so pardon me if I lose my train of thought here or there. The initial earthquake hit around 2:30pm on Friday afternoon. Nikki, our translator Sisko and I had just arrived to visit the Buddha in Kamakura, a town about two hours outside of Tokyo. We had not been on the shrine grounds more than ten minutes when the earth began to shake. At first, our translator pointed it out with a giggle, as it's something the Japanese are quite used to and I had recently told her I'd never felt one myself. After about a minute however, her expression quickly changed. She said, "Okay, this isn't funny anymore," pulled us into the center of the courtyard and told us to sit as this point was furthest from any tree or statue that could fall. There we sat still and silent while the earth shook almost constantly for an hour and a half. None of the phones were working and Sisko was repeating that no earthquake had ever lasted this long and she'd never experienced something like this in her life. The look in her eyes told us that this was very bad. But we didn't know how bad until the shaking finally subsided around 4:00pm and we felt comfortable and safe enough to get up and leave the buddha's watchful eye. We stepped outside to a world much different than the one we'd left at the shrine gates just hours before. Cars stuck in gridlock traffic, a total power outage, emergency sirens blaring and a complete state of shock and concern in the air.
We knew we had to dive into traffic immediately and head away from the oceanside and back west towards our hotel in Tokyo. An earthquake of this magnitude was inevitably due for major aftershocks, and there was likely a powerful tsunami coming. But, we couldn't go anywhere just yet. Our car was being held into a parking lot by an electricity-powered metal rod that could now no longer be released. It took the hands and determination of about four men and two women to finally remove the rods, releasing the six trapped vehicles approximately two hours later. No one left that parking lot until every car was free and every rod was fastened back in its original place. I was so shocked and comforted by the selflessness and community of these people in a time of such immediate crisis. It calmed my initial panic to know that we were all in this together. We were all Japanese that day. Once everyone was free from the parking lot, we finally began our seven hour journey home.
Our van had a small television that was playing the news. As soon as it turned on, we saw the terrifying live images of the tsunami flash across the screen and that burning panic rose in our chests once again. We asked our seemingly calm translator Sisko to tell us the truth despite her instinct not to, as we needed to know the severity of our current situation. We asked what the chances were of the tsunami reaching us here in Kamakura and she took a breathe and said simply, "It is possible." The images on the screen suddenly overwhelmed our imaginations and Nikki and I knew we had to turn off the TV, eliminating our only source of light on the pitch black drive. We cried quietly in the darkness of the barely moving traffic.
After seven hours of driving, endless conversations varying from life/death to our favorite home-cooked meals, and a hike up almost 1000 stairs, we made it to the comfort of our hotel room on the 48th floor. Thanks to the internet we were finally able to contact my parents and were relieved to see their reassuring faces on the other end of Skype. Online social networking services were the only reliable form of communication over there. The power of the internet has never proven more valuable to me. Being able to see and speak to them was the only thing keeping us sane as we prepared ourselves for the terrible aftershock earthquakes bound to come.
About an hour into the call, the entire room began to sway with the force of a turbulent ship and the walls began creaking like something out of a bad horror film. I instinctively yelled, "Nikki, doorway!", and we ran to open the front door of the room to wait out of the first of many aftershocks to come. Of course, aftershock or not, at 7.4 on the richter scale, each moment still feels like it could be your last. My parents could no longer see us and were worried about what had happened so suddenly. I could hear my dad on speakerphone with my mom while she was on Skype, unable to see the room still in tact, saying, "Oh my God. Did it just go down?" I screamed, "No! No! I'm fine!" at the top of my lungs, in an attempt to reach the computer mic sitting 30 feet away in the other room. When the first shock subsided I ran to grab the computer (and shoes, just in case) and sat back in the only spot that offered some security, the doorway. Their relief in seeing our faces reminded me we were still okay. But hearing the tone in my father's voice as he said the first sentence he'd say should the building have collapsed with me in it will resonate with me for the rest of my life. It can all end that quickly, so be grateful for every single moment you have. That's what I kept trying to remind myself when the second bout of major swaying quickly began upon my return to our safe spot.
This one seemed to last longer, and to move more aggressively. That, or our spirits were finally worn down. Either way, this time it seemed more real. Nikki and I sat knee to knee, our legs and hands gripping one another and focused hard on breathing deep and keeping our heart rates down. Since the chaos began we knew in order to survive, when one of us started to lose it, the other had to keep it together or we'd fall apart entirely and I felt like it was finally my turn to be strong. That now familiar feeling of my heart climbing into my throat began again until I saw the tears streaming out of Nikki's shell-shocked eyes. It was my turn to hold on for the both of us. In a calm voice, I told her to look in my eyes and keep looking at them. What was happening all around us was just absolutely crazy and if we let ourselves pay attention to it, we would soon be too. I tried to smile and asked her to promise that no matter what happened around us to not focus on it and just keep looking at my eyes. She finally smiled back through her tears and joked, "...My, and what beautiful eyes they are." We laughed for a brief moment and went silent again. Staring back at each other, silently praying, and waiting, trying desperately not to imagine all the possibilities of what could go wrong.
All the while, my poor mother and stepfather watched our profiles on Skype in awe of these two girls sitting face to face, hand in hand... and in complete disbelief that one of them was their daughter. For the first time in my life, my mom knew she couldn't convince me everything was going to be okay because she truly didn't know. And so they watched and waited and prayed. And after what felt like an eternity was probably only ten to fifteen minutes, the second after-quake finally passed.
The rest of the night went by much quicker once our Japanese mommy, Yaz and our hero-kitty, Yoshiki arrived to keep us company. Several more quakes came and passed but our brave Japanese caregivers convinced us that we were still safe, even outside of our beloved doorway. Six hours and many, many conversations later, it was well into morning and time to pack and head to the airport. Yoshiki finally got up to go home and we couldn't begin to express our gratitude for his company all night long. It was actually very hard to part ways after sharing such an intense experience but we all knew that we were now eternally bonded.
We initially began our drive at ease, relieved to know we were on our way out of this surreal situation and feeling the tremors much less in the motion of the car. It wasn't until about an hour into the drive that the anxiety settled back in. Traffic had come to a halt and we were watching the clock inch closer and closer to our departure time. Yaz (aka Supermom) was on multiple phones trying to find any later flights available and we were trying to manifest our forces optimism...but all to no avail. We reached the airport moments passed our scheduled takeoff and dove into the sea of people crowding the ticket booths, all trying for the exact same thing. That was when I really broke down. I knew I wasn't going to get out of the situation as immediately as I'd hoped and my gut told me the situation in Japan was still going to get worse...either my gut, or my nausea from the constant shaking I'd noticed again since setting foot into the Narita airport. Everyone else seemed stressed but calm and I so badly wanted to feel the same but my instincts were just too unsettling to ignore. We finally accepted that we'd have to wait until tomorrow afternoon to catch the same flight we'd missed earlier that day. It was time to head back to the hotel for one more sleepless night.
We finally started to relax on our ride back to Tokyo, knowing that there was an end in sight and our hotel doorway would offer sufficient comfort until then. But shortly into the drive, Yaz received an unexpected call from Yoshiki informing her that he was in the process of trying to book us tickets out of Haneda airport on the other end of the city. Of course at this point, this kind of news stirred up anxiety instead of excitement as luck hadn't exactly been on our side thus far. While we nervously waited for confirmation, I received an even more unexpected, and much less promising, phone call from a friend who was also in Japan at the time. He called to alert me of the recent nuclear explosion that occurred north of Tokyo and warned me to get out as quickly as I could. I certainly appreciated the heads up but at the time, it wasn't particularly helpful as I'd just managed to overcome my panic about not being able to leave that day. The Japanese people in the car were once again calming me, translating the live news, which assured there was no immediate need for concern in Tokyo. I tried to listen and hung up the phone but once more, that burning lump in my chest started to rise.
By now, it was becoming easier to push it back down and focus on my determination to reach safety and stay calm until I did. I sat in the car, silently looking up and found myself praying again. To who or what, if anything, I'm not 100% sure but I knew it was giving me a hope I was having a hard time finding when I first hung up that phone. I sat and I prayed and Nikki did the same and we'd occasionally look at each other, force a reassuring smile and tell each other we were going to get out and we were going to be okay.
Finally, our prayers were answered. Our hero-kitty called Yaz confirming our flights out of Haneda airport at 12:30am that night. I immediately started to tear up again, but for the first time in the past 40 hours, they were tears of joy and relief. I couldn't let myself give in to this foreign feeling for too long though because I knew at this point, anything could happen from now until our plane's wheels leave the ground. We were still in survival mode.
The second installment of this post will appear on Friday, April 14