March 11, 2011 will be another tragic day Angela and I will never forget.  I started the day on Misawa Air Base, in Aamori Prefecture (Northern Japan) finishing up two weeks of temporary duty.  There were multiple meetings Friday morning that ran late, and I was rushing to check out of the hotel and get to the train station.  I had to get on a morning shinkansen to get back to the Tokyo area in time for a surprise party.  Rushing I caught a taxi to the rural train station to begin my journey, running late and missing my intended bullet train out of Hachinoe.  I did manage to buy some local candy, including the regional cherry kit-kats for Angela, and some water before my train actually left. I bought a reserved seat, sat next to an elder lady, and promptly went to sleep as we sped up to 300mph speeds.

Dozing, I sensed we had hit some turbulence… then I woke up wide awake realizing I was NOT on an airplane. The lady next to me hit me a few times speaking excitedly in Japanese and shaking her hand, the shinkansen immediately jerked to a stop and the earth kept shaking. Realizing it was an earthquake I settled into my seat and waited for it to stop and then resume to the journey, thinking it was only another earthquake (we had several minor ones the week before).  Except I noticed that we had halted on a bridge (Shinkansen’s automatically stop in the event of a seismic occurrence) which made me uneasy and also the duration of the earthquake was long.  On a train that moves, the shaking did not seem that abnormal but I know everyone on land felt it much worse.  The shaking stopped and we sat on the tracks for a few minutes.  Pulling out my iPhone I texted Angela and checked the news and twitter, seeing there were multiple tsunami warnings issued.  Again I was not too concerned, as everytime there is an earthquake off the coast here a warning is issued.  Several minutes passed then the cell phone lines stopped working and the train lost power. Other passengers who had decent cell phone service (read: anyone other than SOFTBANK) started watching cell phone videos and got very excited… I realized later they were watching live NHK feed of the 13meter tsunami washing away countless coastal towns.  I spent some time trying to understand what was happening, but failed and tried to contact Angela, but the phones weren’t really working too well and my battery was being drained.  Then several aftershocks started rocking the train, and it began to dawn on me that this was not an average earthquake.

Several hours passed and we sat, cold, on the bridge. Most people were in business clothes heading to Tokyo for a weekend or home, and had promptly taken naps.  Eventually someone from the train came into each car and made some announcements, but I don’t know what they said.  Needing to talk to someone in English I went to another train car to find two Air Force guys on leave I had talked to earlier. They were sleeping but unconcerned.

As it became later in the day I realized we weren’t going anywhere.  There were no lights to be seen on the horizon, meaning the local area had lost power. I sent Angela a text, saying I was turning the phone off to conserve power, then tried to sleep.  It started snowing, and eventually we were handed blankets and “hot hands” pads in the dark.  Though I thought the hot pads were squid skin, which is sold everywhere in Japan, and while I has hungry, I was not at THAT point yet.  My dinner consisted of several packets of cherry kit kats and the rest of my tiny bottle of water.

I quickly developed a hunger headache that continued to worsen as the situation deteriorated. It was a cold, uncomfortable night.

In the morning several announcements were made, and I gathered we were going to be evacuated off of the train, and bussed somewhere.  Though I didn’t know where we were going, I followed along.  We got off on the tracks on the bridge, and walked what seemed a mile, then down a path to waiting busses. Everyone was calm and helpful.  Onboard the busses were breakfast snacks and bottled water. Driving through rural towns I noticed long, orderly lines outside gas stations and food stores, but the stores were not open.  There was no power I realized as no traffic lights were working.

We arrived at a large city, without power, and were dropped off.  I used the last of my cell phone battery to figure out where I was on google maps and to let Angela know I was ok.  Realizing I was in Morioka, north of Sendai but not reasonably far from Hachinoe, I started figuring out how to get back to Misawa, and at least be apart of my command.  It didn’t take me long to find out the trains were not running, and the busses didn’t have enough gas.  Taxi fares were out of the question, so I followed the line of people to the emergency shelter (Morioka City Theater Hall).  There I joined hundreds of other stranded travelers with locals (who I found out later had lost their homes to the tsunami) in the main auditorium.  While there was no power someone had plugged in a battery to a radio and it was blaring with news updates.  I of course had no idea what was being said. I made up my mind to concentrate more on learning conversational Japanese in the future.  As my headache was pounding, I left the theater looking for a convenience store.  Across the street was a Lawson’s (like a 7-11), and I went and got in a long line out the door.  With no power people were paying in cash.  As I snaked through the line I realized people were buying literally everything there.  All medicines were already sold out, as well as iPhone mobile battery rechargers, so I grabbed a few rice snacks, juice, canned coffee, and beer.  They had already sold out of water.  Looking back on it I am still amazed how orderly the ransacking of the store had been in an emergency situation, and everyone paid for their items! In America I know someone would have broken into the store and stolen whatever they wanted in such a situation… different cultures.

Wandering back to the theater I noticed large maps that looked familiar.  After spending some time in New Orleans after Katrina I recognized the maps as displaying city districts that had been flooded.  While Morioka is inland, it is along a river that the tsunami had crept up and must have washed out some homes and/or a dam broke.  The locals who were now homeless had segregated themselves inside the theater to aisles with large, cheap tatami mats marking their territory.  They were obviously exhausted and much quieter than all the travelers trapped there.  The locals had set up a table offering water, fruit, and cake to us.  I enjoyed several slices of cake and water then went to sit down.  My headache got worse and worse. Then my stomach got upset.

After taking a nap I realized the water we were given might not have been safe to drink.  So I spent the next hour in a pitch black bathroom (no lights) vomiting.  Between the bad water and my subsistence on sugar products no wonder my stomach was so mad at me. I didn’t even drink my beer, I felt awful.  Sometime in this period of time power was reconnected to the City Theater.  I started charging my phone at an empty outlet (they were all immediately swamped). Letting Angela know I was still ok she did a quick translation for headache medicine that I displayed on my iPhone and took it to the desk handing out food.  They read it and handed me a strange powder that I couldn’t read… so I did the responsible thing and downed the powder. Finding all the vending machines powered I used some yen change and got three bottles of water so I knew it was safe.  Feeling a little better I checked on my charging phone.  A great thing about Japan is I could leave my iPhone plugged in and walk away knowing no one would steal it.

The phone lines weren’t working but data network was, so I was finally able to talk to Angela on Skype.  That was when I found out how destructive the tsunami had been and for the first time heard about problems at a nuclear power plant.  Angela was glad to hear from me, and told me about the issues my command had trying to figure out where I was.

A JR Lines East representative gathered all the travelers into the foyer and made a large announcement.  I was talking to the Air Force guys who had discovered a local who knew some English, so we asked him what was said.  To get us home, JR Lines had set up busses to Sendai if that was your original destination, or for those headed to Tokyo we were presented with an elaborate plan.  With the trains on the east coast not running (due to a lack of power and the emerging threat from the Fukushima Nuclear plant meltdown) JR would bus us across Japan to the west coast, then take local trains south along the Sea of Japan to Niigata where we could pick up a Shinkansen into Tokyo’s western end.  Having no other options we prepared to leave at 5am the next day. I tried to sleep, but was still not feeling too well and had a hard time sleeping on the floor. Over the evening TVs were turned on to the news and I saw for the first time the devastation from the tsunami, and the growing concern over the nuclear plant.

The three Americans apparently overslept as we were up early only to find every Japanese traveler in line hours before we boarded busses.  We waited in line and got on our bus eventually, given bottles of brown tea and a bento box.  Then we headed west, away from the damaged coast and radiation and into the mountains.  The roads we traveled on were amazing as we cut through the passes with snow drifts 20feet high, the road literally a tunnel.  There were few cars on the roads until we made it Akita and turned south along the Sea of Japan.  Life was surreal as suddenly there was electricity, motion, life again. We disembarked the busses and got packed on a rickety train, standing room only, south for hours until we reached Niigata.  JR lines handed us what I named the “golden” ticket, a slip of paper with kanji on it that gave us a free pass onto virtually any train.  From Niigata we boarded a bullet train and road into Tokyo station, still fairly oblivious of the damage done.  I was even lucky to grab local lines all the way to our local station, not knowing about the rolling electrical blackouts that had halted most train traffic.  Angela and AJ picked me up and my surreal four hour bullet train journey from Misawa that turned into three days was over.  Only home did I realize the enormity of the disaster but was anxious and proud to get back to work to provide whatever aid we could to the stoic and brave people of Japan.