Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fear & Loathing in Tokyo (15 March 2011)

I am writing this final blog whilst sitting on the window seat of a Japan Airlines flight back to Australia having left Tokyo in what could only be described as completely unforeseeable and extraordinary circumstances. My last blog was about living through an earthquake in the heart of the city. This one is about the aftermath.

The weekend was a strange one. Friday night I watched reports on the quake and had an early night after a few scotches to calm my nerves. After sleeping in on Saturday, I planned on visiting one of my favourite areas, Shimokitazawa. I walked along Aoyama-dori (near Akasaka), a well-to-do, upmarket area and was struck by the quiet on the streets. I walked into a convenience store and was greeted with empty shelves – no bread, no milk and little much else. So I jumped on the train at Shibuya station and rode a few stops to Shimokitizawa. The mood felt grim.

I walked around Shimokitizawa, an area heaving with bars, second hand shops and cafes, and full of students and other scene kids. The place was desolate. Most shops closed, the open ones, empty. I went to a café called Bear Pond and it was there, after finishing the last drops of a strong black coffee late in the afternoon, that another patron asked whether I had heard the news about the nuclear reactor explosion – “no, in fact, I had not.” Probably better things to have been asked by a random stranger in a café.

I left straight away and frantically googled anything I could find on the topic. The stranger had been correct. There was an explosion close to one of the reactors. Why? Well, without having any sort of scientific background, I now know that a nuclear meltdown is caused by the build up of heat in a reactor such that the nuclear rods melt. Following the quake, the power company worked to cool the rods, including by using sea water. The explosion, we were told, was a “hydrogen” explosion which was a build up of steam resulting from the cooling of the rods.

From that point on, the mood in the city become very tense. The news agencies sunk their teeth into the explosion like Schapelle – the Australian papers claimed the most dire of events: “Nuclear meltdown”, they exclaimed. Local media was a lot less despondent about the situation. Japanese Prime Minister Kan, in a press conference, proclaimed that Japan was facing the most dire situation since World War II. In my mind this was a very strange comparison – one a once in a lifetime unavoidable natural disaster, the other surely lay at the hand of man himself.

I spent the rest of Saturday watching CNN and religiously refreshing the news wire services, eagerly sipping a calming scotch, which was not as calming given the images that were appearing from the regions most affected by tsunami. The reports of the death toll were clearly not even close to what would result in the coming days and weeks.

By about 10pm Saturday night, I had had enough and decided to venture out for some post (or pre?) apocalyptic partying to take my mind off things. With two other guys, we headed to Roppongi – where else would you go when Armageddon seems imminent? Roppongi is a bit like a Japanese Vegas without casinos, equal as many foreigners and more strip clubs. If ever there was to be a tour of Babel, tonight was the night. I was taken to a long list of establishments, each seedier than the next, some in basements, some on random floors of an office block. We moved hedonistically from bar to nightclub to bar till the sun came up – and, from having been to Vegas, I can safely say it never looked nearly as good in the daylight.

I slept in late the rest of the day, only to wake to similar morbid news stories. I switched them off and went back to sleep, hoping for something more uplifting the next morning. Going into work on the Monday morning after the quake was a strange experience. Most people were still very shaken up and all conversations would start with: “Are you ok?” Although everyone responded that they were, the truth of the matter was clearly that it had effected them all like never before. After arriving at work, turning on my computer, checking a few emails, I felt a heavy aftershock. Some complain about Monday mornings at work, but an aftershock is certainly the worst way to kick off a week. Later in the day, reports came through of another explosion at one of the reactors along with rolling blackouts being announced to save power. The situation seemed to be becoming more grim as the hours wore on. Even worse was the limited news flow and guidance coming via the government.

After discussions with colleagues and friends, the feelings were mixed on whether to stay or get out of the city. One friend had travelled south to Osaka, some of the lawyers had since departed offshore. I eagerly watched the news on Tuesday night hoping for something better.

I woke up on Tuesday morning to another heavy aftershock, which I previously had not felt in my sturdy second floor apartment. I switched on the television to be greeted by even worse news – more major problems at the reactor, to the point where one was apparently spewing radiation, resulting in the extension of the 20 kilometre evacuation zone to 30 kilometres from the plant. Next, one of the Tokyo electric power company (TEPCO) spokesman was being interviewed about the problems and clearly was refusing to answer certain questions, and the ones he did answer did not fill me with confidence that TEPCO were in control of the situation. After receiving an email from work noting that the office was closed due to transportation issues and the nuclear issues, I decided it was time to make my move. Within 2 hours I had packed, booked flights, booked an airport bus booked, collected items left at the office and then, my last meal of sashimi.
It wouldn’t be one of these blogs if I didn’t mention the food – I walked in at 11:20am and was the only person in a deserted restaurant in Akasaka. I looked at the great meal before me - sashimi, a cup of hot tea and a miso soup and thought to myself, it’s been great. The sashimi was so fresh. I thought of the city sushi roll I would probably soon to be eating back home, with a tough, chewy, stringy piece of salmon, and realised that the fresh, smooth and soft piece of deep red tuna I was eating might be the last time I get to experience true authentic Japanese sashimi.

On my way to the airport, I noticed that readings of radiation had been found in Tokyo, so I felt that I had made the right decision to depart, but who really knows? The upside of it all is that I am on my way back home, presumably radiation free, to see family and friends. And a little sooner than expected, I have to say sayonara to Tokyo.

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