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Notes From Japan - A World Nomad Returns Home Safely

AUSTRALIA | Wednesday, 23 March 2011 | Views [2907] | Comments [1]

Jesse Perez is a producer and writer for the Safety Team at The World Nomads Group. He went to Japan on the 10th of March for a brief holiday and a work stint. The very next day, the country was hit by a massive 9.0 earthquake, and a resulting tsunami with waves reaching up to 15 metres - completely leveling towns and leaving thousands dead. The Tohoku earthquake, at such a whopping magnitude, is the most powerful to have hit Japan, and is in the top 5 of the largest earthquakes in recorded history.

Luckily for Jesse, he was in Osaka, not in the dangerous areas in Japan like Sendai or Tokyo. He had planned to go to Tokyo to work on a project for World Nomads, but the Australian government issued a warning urging all of its people in Japan to return home - and being a safety writer, he took his own advice.

Luckily for us, Jesse has returned home safely, and has penned this recollection for us.

I Wasn't There, I Swear

This column is not going to provide you with any great perspective from within the danger zones of the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami. It is not a bold, brave account from a writer who went deep into the eye of the storm to witness the carnage and chaos first hand. It’s not going to tell true tales of courage and dignity in the face of the adversity. Why? Because, to put it simply, if I tried to, I’d be lying to you. The truth is, I was hundreds of kilometres away, in the relative safety of Namba, Osaka.

So really, all I can do, is give you my experience from the then and there. But the then and there was enough to produce a valuable insight into the heart of a country that has been torn apart by many invisible arms.

Japan Shakes...And The Pachinko Balls Keep Rolling

The earthquake hit at 2:46pm Japan Standard Time.

Based on time stamps from photographs I took, I was standing smack bang in the middle of one of Namba’s largest Pachinko Parlours – Big Event. For those who have not been to Japan, Pachinko, a whizzing, hypnotic combination of pinball and gambling, is one of Japan’s most quizzical past times. The ferocious energy inside one of these bigger rooms is a sight to be seen in itself – and it wasn’t the lure of prizes but rather the unbelievable, ridiculous cacophony inside these parlours that hooked me in.

Mouth agape at the display in front of me, I found myself deep inside the parlour’s kaleidoscopic environs, a place filled with an extraordinary combination of high pitched shrilling, deep thumping of energetic techno, flashing lights, firing animations and constant fevered spruiking from the Pachinko parlour DJ.

Inside, the room was almost shaking like a plane taking off, and now, on reflection, I wonder if it was actually a product of the 9.0 magnitude quake that would bring Japan to its knees, or just a physical manifestation of Pachinko madness.

Some people said they felt the effects of the quake in Osaka, but for me, I’ll never know if it was the rumblings of Japan’s largest ever-natural disaster, or simply someone winning the jackpot.

Aside from the ironic name of the venue I was standing in (Big Event), it is strange to think of the duality of human existence right at that exact moment. On one hand, you had a Japanese girl in her mid-20’s sitting at a parlour game, crates upon crates of silver balls worth thousands of Yen sitting by her side. And on the other, a few hundred kilometers away, you had entire towns with tens of thousands of people literally smashed to bits by the unwavering forces of that unruly, tempestuous bitch, mother-nature.

Back To Reality...

Completely bewildered by Pachinko, and completely unaware of what was happening across the country – I retreated with a friend to a quiet counter bar for a late lunch. It was only then, looking up at the broadcast, that I realized the quake had hit.

Like I wrote in my previous entry, the next 24 hours were a whirlwind that had everyone glued to the screens. No one, not even the Japanese people, had any idea what was going on. And they could understand the broadcasts fluently.

I was called by several Australian newsrooms that evening, to give an account of what was happening – but as far as I could see, if we hadn’t turned the TVs on, no-one in Osaka would have any idea that Japan was so drastically crippled.

I could only report on what I was seeing – and all that was, was a barrage of 2D death and destruction, observed from the relative safety and comfort of a hideaway rock-and-roll bar in Dotonbori.

...Where It Kicks In, Hard.

As the days passed, however, more was revealed to me. I resigned myself to the fact that anything could happen, at any time, in Japan now. Nowhere was safe. The whole map was flashing, reds, oranges, and yellows. Indecipherable Kanji, and bewildering Japanese analysis. Decipherable reports of the reactor melt came through in odd-bursts of Wi-Fi, in those rare instances when we were able to read English news, and wade through the reams of messages from back home for concern of our welfare.

(This was our television screen for the next 7 days)

The pieces of the puzzle were jagged, disparate, and all belonged in separate boxes. There was a real feeling of submission - not much could really be done, from so far away anyway. Donations were made, fingers were crossed, and the information trickled in.

It didn’t help either, that police cars in Japan sound like air-raid sirens, coupled with high-volume car-mounted megaphones that the police use to verbally reign in criminals. Many slumbers were abruptly terminated by the sharp panic of a possible building evacuation – but after a while, it blended into the background. But every minute, in the back of your mind, you are thinking - "Will it hit here next?". You try not to run through too many hypotheticals, but they aren't far from the forefront.

Getting On With It

Naturally, the air of disaster was thick, but it didn’t stop the famously stoic Japanese from letting it get in the way of their normal lives.

The following days in Osaka, Nara and Kyoto saw celebrations, spontaneous and ritualized, continue unabated.

In Nara, the Buddhist Fire Festival, Otaimatsu, saw the Todaiji Temple awash with embers, a result of masses of fire plumes burnt to mark the beginning of spring – the warmth of both the fire and the resonant hums of the chanting monks penetrated the hearts of all in the crowd like soft arrows. The Buddhist philosophy of impermanence and submission to the forces of nature a sobering reminder of what was happening across the land.

(Picture courtesy of my travel partner, Alex Wain, at Colours And Light)

In Kyoto, the Seiryu-e parade at Kiyomizu, saw the temple’s giant dragon emphatically turning to the crowd to give a roar over deep, hypnotic drums, amid an early bloom of the cherry blossoms and a gentle snow cover. Couples in traditional dress embraced, priests bowed, and people soaked in the infectious magic.

(Picture: Alex Wain - Colours And Light)

And throughout the bustling city centres, life continued to be celebrated and relished. While stories from Japanese nationals would reveal of concern for family and friends in neighboring prefectures, the worry was usually honoured with a few shots of sake. Dignified salutes to the sanctity of life were the order of the day – but it didn’t get in the way of the more modern Japanese tradition to seek fun and spontaneity.

(Story sharing with some crazy new Kyoto friends - Picture: Alex Wain - Colours And Light)

Time To Get Out

However, my stay in Japan was to be cut drastically short – I was planning to go to Tokyo to work on a special video project for World Nomads (completely unrelated to the disaster), but it was not to be.

Aside from the Australian government’s urging for all Australians in Japan to return home, I was also informed that my good friend in Tokyo, Ivan, would need to flee the increasingly dangerous city and head west.

Ivan was a key element to the World Nomads project, and without him, it couldn’t be done – so alas, my love affair with Japan would be briefer than I imagined. I just counted myself lucky that I had somewhere to go to – for the millions who call Japan their home, their options were not as bounteous.

Facing The Heat With Quiet Resolve

But in spite of the doom, actual and potential, one of the most interesting things I noticed about Japan is its persistent dedication to adherence to social structure and civil order – the politeness of the Japanese people is infectious, and even hairy barbarian westerners such as myself cannot help but be touched by the grace.

I found myself bowing, speaking softer, and generally reserving myself a great deal more than if I was back home in my drastically floppier home country of Australia. It was this dedication that could be easily observed, beyond the language barrier, in the face of such incredible chaos.

More unruly countries would not only have to face the massive destruction to infrastructure and social services, they would also have to deal with the basic human problem of looters, civil unrest and societal breakdown. Not so in Japan.

Thousands upon thousands of people, patiently waiting in line for the next train home, which seemed like it would never come. Lines formed for emergency food relief, with not a single person stepping forward to cut in ahead of someone else in desperation.

It’s these kinds of things that make or break a people in the face of abject devastation, and while Japan faces exactly that, it is their unwavering resolve and consistent dedication to doing the right thing that will see them shoot through this disaster quicker than it is imagined.

Also, in Japan’s favour is their tremendous generosity towards other countries that have been affected by disasters in the past. These good deeds did not go unnoticed, and countries from around the world have returned the favour with great speed – which has led to a relief fund for Japan in the scores of billions.

Japan faces some incredible challenges in the months, and even years ahead. It has endured tremendous hardship and suffering, and this pain will continue for some time.

But my brief glimpse of this beautiful country was enough to confirm, to me anyway, that it truly has the resolve to with their trademark lightning efficiency and infectious dignity. In the short time I was there, I immediately fell in love with Japan, and will return at a later, and safer date to finish what I begun, and help where I can. In the meantime, we can only pray that the worst is over for beautiful Nihon.

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Tags: japan, japan disaster, japan earthquake, travel-safety-tips




  coswold Nov 5, 2011 12:30 AM

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