I arrived in Tokyo Thursday afternoon, ready to begin a six and a half week journey around Honshu, the main island of Japan.  This was to be my fourth trip to Japan in two and a half years, and my longest vacation by twice than any previous trip.  I’ve been in Japan during the late, hot, and humid summer (around Golden Week); at New Years in the mild winter, chasing snow in locations outside and to the north of Tokyo; and in late spring, at the beginning of the rainy season in Kyushu.  All were very different experiences, but I was never here during what is generally considered the high point of travel in Japan – the Sakura Hanami (Cherry Blossoms).  So for my fourth trip I decided I should see them, and as they bloom late March to mid-April on Honshu I made my travel plans.

My departure was to be decided by another aspect of Japan that I enjoy – sake (rice wine).  As it happens, there is an annual tasting in Niigata, Sake no Jin, which brings together over 600 types of sake one can taste over two days.  Niigata arguably produces some of the best sake in all of Japan, so I figured this would be a great way to kick off my vacation – I would spend two days at a shrine detoxing afterwards, and than three days at an onsen resting up before debarking on the remainder of my trip.

With the sake festival in Niigata happening on the weekend, it was than just a matter of determining the best time and method of getting there.  I debated heading there directly from the airport via shinkansen thursday evening but decided I’d rather take Friday to do a bit of shopping to satisfy my other interest – photography – before hoping on the shinkansen to Niigata Friday evening.

With my initial plans laid out, I arrived in Tokyo Thursday and got through security and baggage claim faster than I anticipated, giving me ample time to be confused about how best to get into Tokyo.  At Terminal 1, I headed to the trains (if only Toronto had trains to the airport…but that’s another story) and picked up my JR East Rail Pass at the ticket counter.  Fearing that Niigata was going to be a popular destination from Tokyo, I had reserved my shinkansen online and was able to pick up the ticket for Friday night – a 7:58pm departure from Omiya, which I would connect to from Shinjuku once I was done with my travels on Friday.

Heading into town Thursday by train was more confusing than it should have been, and as a result took longer as I missed a couple of trains/subways trying to make sure I wasn’t heading in the wrong direction.  So, 90 minutes or so later I reached the closest subway stop to my hotel on the map, landing me around the corner from Tsukiji – the fish market.  In my prior trips, I had never taken the opportunity to wake up early and head down to see the tuna auction, but figured this time would be different.

I arrived at the hotel around 6pm and headed out for dinner around 7pm, and wandered around looking for something interesting.  I was tired – and hungry – after a 13 hour flight in which I dozed for only an hour while in Toronto, waiting for the plane to be deiced; staying awake seems to allow me to acclimatize myself to the time change easier, and I ended up watching six movies in a row on the plane to keep awake.

Wandering around my hotel didn’t turn anything up that looked compelling for dinner, so I two choices – head to Tsukiji and check out what was happening there, or head to Ginza where I would be bound to find something.  Tsukiji was closer, so with camera in hand I headed over and wandered around the outer market area.  There were a few restaurants open serving up the days catch, and after walking around for a bit I finally decided on one that looked good – a mix of sushi and sashimi and a couple of beer later and I was ready for bed.

For those who know me, waking up at anything before 8am is a chore.  I’m just not a morning person.  Well, with the time change I figured I could manage it, and set the alarm for 3:30am.  And 3:45am.  And 4:00am.  With the tuna auction set to start at 5:35am, the general recommendation is to get there by 4:30am to ensure your spot.  I rolled out of bed just before 4am, grabbed my camera and headed out. The main reason I picked the hotel I am in is the proximity to the fish market – which allowed me to arrive at around 4:10am.  I was greeted by an empty lineup area with a sign that said all the spots for today’s auction viewing were taken.  Not what I was hoping for, but for the next few hours I wandered around the fish market snapping photos and generally trying not to get run over.  Near 5:30am I tried approaching the tuna auction area, but was rounded up by security and directed to leave the area.  The inner market I had been wandering around wasn’t officially open to the public until 9am, but they don’t seem to mind you hanging around there – if you’re not in the way, and they aren’t looking for you, you can pretty much wander about freely.  Just not near the tuna action.

Friday started basically as planned – the freshest sashimi you’ll ever find for breakfast (a mix of maguro and uni for me – tuna and sea urchin), followed by some shopping.  I had three stops to make that day before heading out to Niigata, and did the first two before 1pm.  My plan was to head from Nakano (my last stop) to Omiya via Shinjuku to catch my shinkansen to Niigata late afternoon, so I grabbed my luggage at the hotel and proceeded to make my way.  Nakano is about 4 minutes by limited express train from Shinjuku, so with luggage in toe, I got onboard the train around 2:45pm and we headed out.  And that’s when it struck.

I happened to be in one of middle cars on the train, and given that it was only a 4 minute ride decided to stand.  My backpack was heavy but balanced on my back, while my suitcase stayed in front of me.  Given how long this vacation was to be, I had decided to try and pack light.  That rarely works of course – and as I was heading into snow country, I actually had to plan for multiple seasons.  About a minute into the train ride, the car started shifting side to side – trains and subways in Japan have gas powered shock absorbers you can hear going off as the car shifts from side to side.  A cushion if you will that once you get used to is so much better than the harshness I normally associate with trains.  However this wasn’t the usual swaying – the car seemed to shake and looking forward I could see the car in front of us moving at odds to ours very noticeably.  Trying to keep my balance was also a challenge, and my luggage started skidding around too – at which point the train came to an abrupt halt.

I was still unsure of what was happening.  I can’t say as I’ve every really felt an earthquake, certainly not one strong enough to recall or describe.  But something was causing the train to shake.  My first reaction was that there was something wrong with the train or the tracks, but that cleared up pretty quickly when the shaking continued, and a view out the side window of the train told the story – people were coming out of buildings, trees were swaying, and sign posts were vibrating.  This was an earthquake, and not a small one.

My initial reaction was amazement – in Japan, earthquakes are fairly common, and this was my first real experience.  After 20 minutes or so of waiting for the train to start up, that amazement was starting to turn to worry – I had a schedule to keep if I was going to get to the Shinkansen on time, and being stuck on a 4 minute train ride between stops was not in the plan.  The people around me started checking their phones for news, and watching live news updates.  Amazing what technology can do in a time of crisis.  While I listened in on the broadcasts, I was clearly not getting it all – my command of the japanese language isn’t great on a good day.  But there was one thing that caught my attention – the number eight (hachi), and I deciphered enough to realize that was the magintude of the quake.

Several aftershocks later, it became quite apparent that the train I was in wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  I was watching the video screens in the train as they described our current location and estimated time of arrival – of course, none of that correct any longer, when the current status switched to inform of us of which train lines were stopped and that the cause was earthquake.  Many train lines got listed, and of course in reality all were stopped for what would apparently be quite a while.

One of the JR staff came through the train about an hour after it had stopped, telling people that we could get off the train if we wanted to – we had just passed one of the local stops (that the express trains don’t stop at) and the last car in the train was right at the edge of the station.  There was no indication of when the train my start moving – at that time, there was still hope, and getting off the train didn’t seem to be helpful.  I stuck around for another 30 minutes before she came through again and by then it had become clear that no trains were going to be running anytime soon and that we should get off.  An elderly gentleman conveyed this to me in broken english, as the JR staff was unable to speak any english, so we chatted a bit while getting off the train.  He had experienced several earth quakes in his 70 or 80 year tenure (I didn’t ask), but this was his first on a train.  And it was the longest the trains had stopped since the war.

So, in an orderly fashion we walked from car to car, exiting through the last cars open doors down a ladder to track level, across two tracks, and up a ladder to the platform.  There were people assisting us, and my luggage made it’s way over before I did.  Of course, at this point I really had no idea where I was going or what I should do.  We were two stops away from Nakano and one (long) back to Shinjuku.  Heading out of the station into the crowd of people I had little sense for direction.  People were standing around, essentially waiting for the trains to get started again when it was clear that it would be some time.  I had thoughts of trying to flag a cab down, but I think everyone else already had that idea.  Instead, I checked out the map and decided the only thing I could do was walk.

I asked a couple people around me how far Nakano was.  It was 4.4km between Shinjuku and Nakano by train – 4 minutes by express (no stops), 7 minutes with stops in Okubo and Higashinakano.  We were in Okubo, 2 minutes by train to Shinjuku, five to Nakano.  Of course, I only realized that later – I’d head to Nakano anyways.  Dragging my suitecase behind me, I walked to Nakano from Okubo.  The path was not straight, and it was not flat.  Many people appeared to be doing the same thing, following the roads the paralleled the track as close as possible.  For what must have been a half an hour, I made my way to Higashinakano, the next stop on the local train line.  It was only upon reaching it that I realized I had yet another long walk ahead of me.

Looking around at the people I noticed some JR track maintenance people and approached them to ask about the status.  I learned then that no trains were running – none.  Including the shinkansen.  I still had a faint hope that there might be a “late” train running, or extra trains to help with commuters trying to get home once things had settled down, but that was unlikely at best.  The JR maintenance crew were doing a visual inspection of all the tracks.  Imagine that – thousands of JR maintenance staff all over the country visually inspecting every track segment.  One of the JR maintenance crew decided he’d walk with me to Nakano, so we chatted a bit (he spoke some english) about the status of the trains and events and I get some background on the severity of the crisis, the fact that Sendai had been hit the hardest, and that anything north or west was inaccessible.  The magnitude of the event was starting to settle in, and any plans I might have made to head north were pretty much over with.

For what must have been another 45 minutes at least, we wandered the streets and hills, me still dragging my luggage (ok, it had wheels, but it was heavy!) until finally arriving in Nakano.  I had been here on previous trips as it’s well known for manga, anime, and has a very popular camera store, so I recognized it instantly.  The train station was packed with people trying to get information, with long lineups around the block of people trying to catch a bus out of Nakano.  It was around 6pm, an rather than get in line, I decided to wander around a bit first.

As I had reached my destination, it was apparent that I would need a place to sleep that night.  My hotel in Niigata was well out of my reach, and the lineups at the phone booths confirmed that cell service was not working yet either.  As I was in town, I figured I’d stop by the camera store, where I inquired about a hotel – I was directed to one, but I didn’t get the impression they thought I’d be in luck and I was right.  Entering the hotel there were signs up and dozens of people waiting in the lobby.  I inquired at the front desk, but it was clear that a lot of people were stranded here.  Nakano is not a big city and my knowledge of it extends only a few hundred metres from the train station so spending time wandering the streets looking for a hotel didn’t seem logical.  Instead, I figured I’d try and make my way back to Shinjuku where at least I thought there would be more hotels and a better chance to find something.

Heading down to the train station, I looked at the long line I had passed on my way in and figured I’d walk to the end of that.  I thought I heard a few people mention Shinjuku so figured I had the right line.  Having gotten to the end, I confirmed that I was, in fact, mistaken.  I was in the line to head out of Tokyo in the direction of Takao.  The line to Shinjuku was on the other side of the tracks.  I was already exhausted by this time, but headed back towards the station, under the tracks, and around the other side.  The line kept going forever it seemed, as by now the workforce was trying to commute home.  Wandering around the bus pickup area, I asked about Shinjuku and was directed to a bus that was just leaving.  It was full – but two buses later another arrived heading to Shinjuku which I happily boarded and was on my way.  Traffic was a nightmare – and the trip was at least an hour getting to Shinjuku.

The Keio bus stop in Shinjuku was familiar to me – I’ve stayed in Shinjuku before and stood across from the bus station in front of an electronics store to find some free wireless internet on more than one occasion so knew clearly where I was.  Unfortunately, the free wireless wasn’t there this time, and I was in no mood to wander the back streets looking for one.  Instead, I decided to head over to the Sunroute Hotel, a hotel I’d stayed at on my first visit to Japan, and inquire about a room.  Arriving at the hotel, the first thing I noticed was the makeshift sign (in japanese) on the doors, which clearly indicated to me even though I couldn’t read it that the hotel was full.  I entered anyways.

The lobby was packed full of people sitting in chairs, the floor, the staircase – pretty much anywhere there was room, with their luggage huddled around them.  It was obvious to me that no trains were running, and no hotel rooms were going to become available – and I wasn’t interested in wandering the streets trying to find one.  So I did what everyone else was doing – found a spot on the floor and planned to spend the night.  A reporter from NHK was talking to people in the lobby, and I chatted with her for a few minutes about my experiences.  She was headed for the train station to cover the story there and was wondering how I found this place, what my plan was, and was quite apologetic about the state of affairs – kind, but entirely out of her control.

Internet was not working at the hotel, or was so busy you couldn’t use it – and after trying to make a few phone calls which ended in “Call Failed” response, it was clear that NTT Docomo was either too busy or not working at all either.  For the first few hours some people came and went – friends meeting each other, the lucky few who would find a room that night.  I moved around a couple of times to get further from the hotel door where a cold draft was coming in constantly as people entered/exited.

Dinner was of the combini variety (convenience store) – most restaurants were closed, and the combini’s were packed with people congregating together.  Many people in the lobby would leave there stuff, head out, and return with a bag of food from the combini, such is the safety in Japan that people really aren’t worried about you stealing their stuff.  You can leave your stuff in plain daylight outside and expect to find it when you return.

Around 2am half the people’s cell phones beeped and lit up in red – I’m not sure why, but it did that on the train several minutes after the earthquake as well.  I’m guessing that’s when service was restored, as I was then able to receive calls.  I was dozing on and off most of the night and missed a call from my sister as well as some text messages.  Rather than wait for internet service and skype, I figured I’d return the call and left a message.  I guess everyone was trying to contact me to figure out if I was safe – people knew I was heading north that day, and into the affected area.

I inquired at the front desk around 5am about the status of trains, hoping without much belief that the trains might be running north – no such luck.  I still hadn’t seen the devastation on TV yet that the Tsunami had wrought.  I had a brief conversation someone from the hotel reception about the severity of the quake and one comment she made resonated “I think Japan is broken”.  Responding to a few text messages and dozing until 6:30am or so, I headed out of the hotel lobby with one thought on my mind – find a hotel.   I first went to the JR Shinjuku station to see what the status was, and came across what must have been hundreds of people who had spent the night there waiting for the next train in conditions that made me glad I had stayed in the hotel lobby.  At that moment, I witnessed the opening of the JR Railway, with a few limited trains starting to be posted as running.  They had the TV’s running and reporters were there filming the scene, and I got to see for the first time the damage that had occurred and watch the helicopter rescues taking place.

I contemplated standing in line with the hundreds of commuters to try and talk with someone but gave that up quickly.  The best place for me to head was to Tokyo station where I could get more information and look for a hotel.  The Marunouchi subway line was running, so I caught a subway to Tokyo station and wandered towards the JR ticketing and information centre.  It was packed with people, lined up to buy tickets or inquire about availability.  I went to the front of the line to see if there was anything worth lining up for, and was able to confirm that only limited train lines were running – and absolutely nothing to the north, and definitely no shinkanesen.

From here I hit the streets to track down a hotel.  When I had originally booked my hotel near Tsukiji (Presso Inn) I had evaluated several others in the area so knew roughly where they were.  I figured I’d give them a call using Skype once I found an internet connection – which, as everyone knows, is available freely at the Apple Store in Ginza.  I walked to the Apple Store, camped outside, and started browsing the internet for hotels and phone numbers.  Trying to make a call over skype, failed unfortunately – perhaps the Apple Store was blocking that.  But I knew where I was and decided to check out a couple of hotels nearby – all of which were full.  Instead, I decided to head back to the hotel where I spent my first night and ask there.  It’s a business style hotel and not as popular with foreign tourists so I figured I might get lucky – and worst case they had free internet in the lobby.

It was about 10am by the time I arrived at the hotel Saturday morning, and was happy to find out that they had rooms available.  I booked four nights, thinking that by Wednesday morning train service might be running somewhere – anywhere.  People gather in the lobby to watch the television there, which day and night broadcasts the impact of the disaster and current cleanup/rescue status.  Getting north or north west is to Tohoku is not possible – trains and buses aren’t running, and highways are closed to traffic, some having severe road damage making them nearly impassable.  Tokyo, by that standard is doing quite well.

Unlike many tourists who arrived here for March break and decided to leave on the first plane out of here, I’m planning to make the most of my visit here.  The combini store shelves are bare, many businesses and restaurants are still closed, events have been cancelled, but the city itself is slowing returning to a semblance of normal, or as close to one as can be expected.  The JR train service has resumed within Tokyo, and the shinkansen to the south were running last night, although they looked empty so I’m not sure if they were just testing or actually officially running.

For me, there is little I can do but offer my thoughts and prayers to those who have been impacted by this crisis.  I recall sometimes the fact that I was only a few hours away from being on a train heading towards the impacted area, or in it when it happened.  The inconvenience I may be going through now is but a shadow of what might have been, and deserves reflection.   It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.

As I close this off, another aftershock just occurred.  I’ve felt many, and they are a reminder to me of what’s happened.  Let’s hope none are as strong or as damaging as the original one and the tsunami that followed.

– Published in The Whig Standard, Kingston, on March 15th, 2011