The date of March 11, 2011 lives on as a reminder of one of the worst disasters Japan as a country has ever faced: The Great Tohoko Earthquake, the tsunami that followed and the nuclear catastrophe it eventually culminated in.
The magnitude 9 earthquake lasted for 6 whole minutes and in the aftermath 16,000 people lost their lives, many more thousands were injured and a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant made an entire region uninhabitable.
Back then I lived in Tokyo (Nishi-Waseda, Shinjuku) and the morning started like any other normal spring day in Japan but nothing would ever be the same by the end of the day, let alone the week.
That morning I took a train to Ueno and then to Akihabara in the afternoon when the earthquake struck. It was probably the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had in my life and certainly the longest 6 minutes of my life.
The train service stopped and people were scrambling to make their way back home, cellphone service was sparse or not available at all. Many lived outside the city and to my surprise even more who live in Tokyo had no idea how to navigate in their own city. They only knew how to take the trains. Together with a group of about 12 people we walked back towards Shinjuku with the help of a random tourist map I got at the train station and by following the JR tracks. Some roads were blocked and/or damaged making a casual walk impossible.
My Japanese was terrible (still isn’t great) and the other people in our group spoke almost no English but I had walked a lot in Tokyo in the past years and was able to at least somewhat navigate. We reached Shinjuku 6 hours later, it was way past 10pm when I finally got home.
Here is a video from that day I found on Youtube:
That day you wouldn’t know what other terrible events were already underway unless you were glued to the TV at a safe place outside the city or abroad. Not many people on the streets knew about the tsunami until eventually it was possible to get to a television or connect to the internet.
And then of course there was Fukushima, a name that has become synonymous with the earthquake because of it’s catastrophic consequences involving the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station located near the shore and which got hit by the tsunami:
A huge uncertainty lingered in the days following the dramatic situation in Fukushima. The few flights that were operating from Japan were all sold out. There were some exceptions though and it paid off that in the years past I had collected tons of United Airlines Mileage Plus miles.
United had flights from Tokyo-Narita to Bangkok and Singapore. These flights were completely sold out – except First Class. For some reason First was almost empty and bookable on miles. If you’ve been a United flyer on this route back then you might remember how insanely cheap it was to book/upgrade these routes. I believe a one way from Tokyo to Bangkok or Singapore was only 30,000 miles in First or even less.
Many of my Japanese friends and their families as well as some foreigners I knew from university wanted just one thing: Get out until more was known about the effect of Fukushima. In total with the help of a few friends in the U.S. (I didn’t have THAT many UA miles) we managed to book 20+ First Class award tickets on different United flights. Eventually after a few weeks all of us returned to Japan.
In total 16,000 people lost their lives in these days (RIP), hundreds of thousands had their existence upended and there is now an exclusion zone around the power plant and the greater Fukushima area. More than 150,000 people were evacuated from the area. Since 2010 and especially in recent years some residents have returned on their own risk to live at their old home again.
I only have very little left from that week when it comes to souvenirs or memories. Last December I found the half torn map I used that day in a box where I put it back in Germany, together with the watch that had a compass and made life much easier that day. I kept contact with two now good friends from that day as we walked all over Tokyo to get home. Now 10 years later there would be even more video material as everyone has a smart phone better than any camera.
This isn’t an event I hold dear in memory by any means, it was a disaster in the purest sense of the word. Little did I imagine that 10 years later we’d be stuck in yet another mess of this time global proportions.