2:46pm, March 11, 2011. Tokyo, Japan.
I’d just finished a yoga class at my studio in downtown Tokyo and walked down the street to have lunch at Ootoya, a favorite cafe. I’d just placed my order when the building started to shake. I was on the second floor of a five-story concrete building built in the 1970s, and when the shaking started, I looked around at the other diners to see if anyone else was alarmed. No one was. Tokyoites are famous for their calm in the face of earthquakes, which are frequent and even expected here in Japan. But the shaking continued and became more and more ferocious. I looked at the woman at the table next to me and said, “I think we should get out!” She nodded, and we ran out of the building. Others followed. As we poured out onto the street, we were joined by people running out of neighboring buildings. “This is it,” I thought. I really did think my time was up.
The street buckled under us, and the four lanes of cars heading towards us slammed on their breaks, but they rocked back and forth. It was surreal. The quake continued for two entire minutes. That’s a long time for the earth to shake under your feet and the giant buildings around you to creak, rattle and groan.
Two highrises in the distance swayed back and forth. I prayed they didn't fall, and that glass, concrete, metal and debris didn’t rain down on the street. People took out their cell phones and punched in numbers helplessly, but no one was able to place calls. I thought of using my cell phone to take a video of the skyscraper swaying back and forth, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Maybe my hands were shaking, I don't know. A woman next to me started crying and screaming. I reached out to hug her. Comforting her somehow gave me comfort. I took deep breaths and tried to stay centered. If I ever needed my yoga practice, it was now. Focussing on my breath reminded me that I was still alive. As long as I had my breath, I was safe. That’s all I did, just tried to stay calm and focussed on my breath.
When the shaking subsided, I went back into the restaurant. The staff was huddled at the kitchen door. Without hesitation, they said, “if you’d like us to prepare your food, we will, but given the situation, you can cancel your order and we won’t charge you, of course.” I cancelled my order and thanked them. Some people went back to their lunches!
Then I returned to the yoga studio. There was a class in session and I wanted to make sure they were safe. It was a restorative yoga class, and the students were lying down in blankets over bolsters. The teacher, who was Japanese, thought they'd be safer inside than outside, but the building was old and I wasn’t convinced. I made them clear out. As one woman was putting on her Converse high tops, which seemed to take forever to lace up, a second big quake hit. The building supervisor was calmly going from office to office making sure everyone was safe, without a thought for his own safety as the building started to lurch and jolt. I noticed a big crack in the wall of the yoga studio as we ran down the stairwell to safety outside.
In the middle of the road was an open space normally reserved for waiting taxis. There were no taxis in sight, just a crowd of people sitting, standing, squatting, trying to use their cell phones. Some were in shock, some were talking. Others were sitting quietly, many were crying. I was glad we had gotten out safely, but aftershocks kept coming, and no one knew whether another big one would hit. The truth is, we never know.
My next thought was of my five-year-old son, who was in kindergarden. I had to go get him. Normally it would have been a 10-minute train ride from the yoga studio to his school, but the trains had stopped running. By foot it would take over an hour. After walking a student who’d just moved to Tokyo from the Philippines toward her home, one of the yoga teachers and I started to walk to the school, holding out our thumbs in the hopes of getting a ride. Though I’d once hitch-hiked from Tokyo to Kyoto twenty years ago, people in Japan no longer hitchhike and we didn’t get picked up. By the time we got to my son’s school, the teachers told me that my 78-year old father-in-law had picked him up. Somehow, my husband had been able to call his father from the land-line in his office and ask him to get our son, though the school is about a mile and a half from our house each way and my father in law can't walk so well. I was very grateful that he'd come to pick up our son.
The teachers said they’d tried to stay calm for the kids, though they too had families of their own and I’m sure they wanted to go home to be with them. I later learned that the last child didn’t get picked up until 9pm. All the teachers stayed until the last child was home safely. More aftershocks continued and news of the devastation in the north from the tsunami trickled in.
Once home, I tried to remain calm, as there was no word from my husband and the aftershocks came fast and furious. We played cards and read stories and ate dinner with grandpa and opened a linzertorte my friend Edgar had carried back from Vienna which I was saving for a ‘special occasion.’ It was the best thing I'd ever eaten. As night fell, my friend started the long walk home. It took her four hours to meet her boyfriend halfway. It took them another four hours to get home on his bicycle.
Later that night, my husband came home from his office. It took him 5 hours. He was calm and doing fine. My father-in-law went back to his writing desk and carried on with his work. We were lucky to have gas and electricity. Many places didn't. We even had internet and could use the landline telephone. I went on Facebook and offered our home to anyone who was stranded in the city, unable to get home. Others did the same.
The whole city was in gridlock, and for a usually bustling city like Tokyo, it felt quiet and peaceful. There were few sirens and few sounds of cars and motors. No one panicked and looted or went crazy. On the contrary, there were many reports of people helping others and giving offering food, shelter and supplies to those in need.
The staff at convenience stores apologized for running out of food when people began to load up on supplies in fear of radiation and nuclear meltdown. My neighborhood green grocer was full of purposeful activity, with the neighbors checking to make sure that everyone was okay. My Japanese neighbors were calm and focussed. Kids played in the street. People walked their dogs.
In the coming days, family members called from overseas urging me to leave Japan. People from Australia, India, England, America, New Zealand, Singapore and elsewhere graciously offered us their homes if we should need it. Many foreigners and some Japanese left Japan because of stress from the quake, aftershocks and the uncertainty of the nuclear disaster, while others chose to stay. Many of the planned blackouts were cancelled because people easily conserved energy. We realized that in fact we didn’t need to use half of the energy that we normally used in our household--and we don’t use much. Others came to the same realization.
We went ahead with a 6th birthday party for my son. Nineteen Japanese kids came as planned, and an American magician also made the trip out to our house to entertain them. Everyone was happy to have some joy and laughter in otherwise dark times. We baked a cake. We made a few pizzas, and planned to make more. but all the stores had sold out of yeast, which they normally have plenty of. After all, this is a country that eats rice rather than bread. People were preparing for the worst.
My son’s school held his graduation ceremony from kindergarden. Before the children were led into the room, the parents were briefed on what to do in case of another quake, and we were reminded not to panic, because then the children would panic. I was struck continuously by the composure and selflessness of the parents around us. As each child went up to receive their graduation certificate, many of the mothers and fathers cried.
I opened my yoga studio and kept it open so people who have chosen to stay could have a place of refuge. Our wall has a huge crack from the quake, but it’s cosmetic and poses no immediate danger. It wasn’t hard to remind ourselves that we were lucky, that so many people in the affected areas were so very much the worse off, and our energy would be best used towards helping them however we could. One of the teachers, Em from England, held classes every day, even with transportation shut-downs and blackouts. Many people came, often from far away and without guarantee of being able to return home. Just after the quake, our local Rabbi made many trips into the stricken areas to deliver supplies to those in the shelters. People brought tons of supplies to the yoga studio for Second Harvest Japan to deliver up North. Charity classes were held, thousands of dollars were raised in a very short time.Those efforts continue.
I feel lucky to be alive. I know that things change all the time and there could be another quake, this time far more devastating to Tokyo, which is much weakened by the many tremors. The nuclear catastrophe has far-reaching ramifications for us all, the effects of which won't be known for years. It’s been a wake-up call in the literal sense of the word. I have a much deeper appreciation for the beauty and wonders of daily life, just being alive.
In the aftermath of the trifold disasters of the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe, now more than ever, we have the opportunity to use our collective power and compassion to respect our fragile planet, to curb our outrageous consumption, to help those less fortunate, and to heal. We are all truly connected, and in times of disaster, we feel the power of that connection--to the earth, to each other, to the humanity in all of us.
When I look up at night I can see the stars. Usually the sky in Tokyo is too polluted and I can only see one or two. But these days, there are many stars shining in a clear bright sky. I hope we will always be able to see them in the Tokyo sky.
Causes Leza Lowitz Supports