Thursday, 31 March 2011

Tokyo Supermarket Sweep


(Still circling the local supermarkets on my bike. Until I return, here`s a copy of an article I wrote for a magazine last week.)


We start the morning with a cluster of magnitude 4`s at 5.30am and a couple of lower 5`s around 9am, all of them originating just north of Tokyo. I am under starter`s orders and outside my local Co-op supermarket at 9.50am. This puts me about 30th in line. When the doors open at 10am we all press into the semi-darkness and proceed at high speed up and down the aisles in a giant snake. At the first stop, the bottled waters, a sign reads that water is limited to one bottle per family. But the shelves are empty. People begin grabbing bottled teas and Calpis and Mitsuya Cider, any clear liquid.


Last week we were told that no radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear reactors could possibly reach Tokyo in any quantity that could be dangerous. Then yesterday the Tokyo Metropolitan government announced that radioactive iodine in sufficient quantities to harm infants has been found in the city tap water and we all learned the word `becquerels`. The level allegedly poses “no immediate danger” to adults, by which most Tokyoites take to mean that they will announce that it IS a danger to adults this time next week. This is the drip-drip method of informing the Japanese public of any major disaster or balls-up, releasing gradually worsening news slowly so that we get used to it and don`t riot in the streets. So the announcement surprises nobody. We simply redouble our efforts to obtain anything edible or drinkable that is not radioactive.


Round the corner to the milks and there are several dozen but it is unclear where they are from and it takes time to read the backs of the cartons so we keep moving. The yoghurts are very confusing. There are about 10 large pots but none specify their prefecture of origin. Some people grab one anyway. I pick up two pots of tapioca pudding in coconut milk, and we move on. There is no rice, Pot Noodles or tofu. In the fruit and vegetables section I pick up bananas from the Philippines. A notice on the spinach shelf reads, “This is not from the affected area” but no-one is going for it. There are some breads and rolls but now people are wary. What kind of milk and water was used to make them? Into the final furlong, and I pull ahead and get the last packet of toilet rolls. I`m checked out at 10.10am. As I hurry home, dozens of women are arriving on bicycles. The city tannoy comes on to announce the day`s blackout schedule.


I dump my haul in the porch and am on my bicycle by 10.12am. This time I cycle to a supermarket that is closer to the train station. Mama`s Plate is used mainly by commuters so I figure fewer housewives will put this shop on their hit list. I go first to the water section. There is none so I buy three bottles of club soda and a carton of tropical pineapple juice. Fukushima is not known for its balmy climate. Or at least it wasn`t before the nuclear reactor caught fire. At the milks, an old man is conferring loudly on his mobile phone with his wife who seems to be in another supermarket up the road. “It says `Oishii` (Delicious) brand milk on the packet. Is that OK?” He is given instructions. He calls over to a woman stacking shelves and asks where the `Furusato` (Hometown) brand milk is from. I am examining a carton of Nagano milk but am hesitant. Nagano is south west of Fukushima. In what direction was the wind blowing yesterday? And would the cows have been indoors or outdoors in the rain? The stacker shouts back that the `Hometown` milk is from Hokkaido and several of us make a grab for it. I add a papaya from Chile and check out. I make my regular stop at the electronics store but there are still no torches, no batteries and no portable radios of any kind, just `sold out` signs hanging from gaps on the shelves. All the gadgets are switched off to save electricity and there are more sales clerks milling around than customers. As I leave the shop empty-handed two Chinook helicopters fly over, heading for Fukushima.Cycling home, a road is temporarily blocked. There are now so many people cycling in all directions that there has been an accident at the crossroads. A young man is sitting on the tarmac looking at the grazes on his hands. When I pass the Co-op again, the bicycles stacked up outside look like a giant pile of scrap metal. Just as I turn into my road, a delivery truck goes by with a group of middle-aged women cycling furiously behind it. I am back home by 10.40am, ready to begin the day`s work but with no inclination to do so. It will be the same drill again tomorrow. This constant struggle to get safe food and clean water is making us all realize how good we had it, and how well-ordered our lives were before the Tohoku earthquake on Friday 11 March.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Clean us up, Scottie ...




Queues and rationing. Naoto Kan was right, it IS like the Second World War. Milk, rice, water, tofu, and toilet paper are all rationed to one per household. So you`ve gotta get to the supermarkets early. I arrived 15 minutes before opening time yesterday and I was still 30th in line. AND they`ve put up the price of water. Last week it was 98-120 Yen per 2 litre bottle. Today in the one shop that had any at all, it was 298 and 368.

Financial tip: Only `Scottie` loo paper and tissues seem to get getting through. They`re in most shops when the doors open but they go quickly. Buy shares in whoever owns that brand. You could really clean up...

Friday, 25 March 2011

Tokyo Disneyland ...Liquifaction



Eastern Tokyo was hit much much harder than the west, where I live. Urayasu is said to be sinking slowly back into the sea of Tokyo Bay. This area was created from reclaimed land. So was Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea. Take a look at this news report of the damage inflicted by liquifaction during the quake. It`s in Japanese but you don`t really need to understand the words, just look at the pictures. The pavement moves, liquid seeps up from the ground. In many homes there is no sewage, no gas and no electricity. And Disneyland is still closed. I can hear the wailing of my students from here. What are they going to do in their free time now ... homework?!

I hope to be back blogging by the weekend but I am currently too busy doing the supermarket sweep, heading out every morning to try to get basic food supplies and water.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Wednesday 23rd March 2011


Freezing cold last night. This March weather is very strange. It should be warmer by now. I planned to have a nice lie-in this morning and just get up seconds before my local supermarket opened at 10am. But here in Japan we start the day the earthquake way, with a 6 at 7.12am (in Fukushima, not as strong in Tokyo) and several more until 8am when I gave up and got up. The tremors/quakes can last 2-3 minutes so I suspect it`s not just the one quake. Apparently the big one last Friday was three quakes, with one setting the others off all down the tectonic plate.

I put my glass bottles on the floor and headed out the the supermarket at 10.03am. It is 30 seconds from my apartment but I passed two people coming away with packets of toilet roll. Was I too late?! Apparently I was. When I got in there, all the loo roll had gone. There was no tofu, Pot Noodles or rice. The only cereal they had was All Bran. There were some meats but I think most people are being careful with food that must be chilled or frozen because of the power outages. There were a few yoghurts but I couldn`t understand why they hadn`t been snapped up so I didn`t touch them. There was no soya milk but I got a soya drink called, `Nice Soya, like Milk` or `Milk-like Nice Soya`. Water and milk were limited to one bottle per household per supermarket visit. I guess Japanese families can send family members in one at a time but I`m too conspicuous to get away with that. The last time I saw another foreigner - a middle-aged couple - in my local supermarket was last summer and I stared and stared. They were lily white and flabby, with real bottoms and muscles in their upper arms. I got one 2 litre bottle of water from the southern Japanese Alps because the supermarket own brand didn`t specify the region of origin. I think there`s going to be a lot of that in the future. If manufacturers could just write "Not from Fukushima, Ibaraki or Miyagi" in large letters on the front of packets that would be a great help. I also got egg biscuits with a shelf-life of six months and Kanpan which are Japan`s traditional `disaster` biscuits with a shelf-life of a year (no, I don`t know why the packet has a Scotsman playing bagpipes on the front). When I got to the checkout my hands were frozen. There is no heating in the store and people shop in semi-darkness.

I was back home in ten minutes and straight on my bike to the Summit supermarket further up the road, slightly more upmarket. They had no flat water at all but I got some sparkling. They had Scottie toilet paper only. No yoghurts at all, some Pot Noodles, some soya milk. There were plenty of vegetables, fruit and some milk but I noticed that everyone spent a lot of time reading the backs of packets. I bought a mango from Peru, a papaya from the Philippines, and a pumpkin from New Zealand. I was back home by 11.10am. I think I am now pretty well set up for the next few days as long as I can get bread from somewhere. As long as you aren`t too fussy about what you eat (but are strict about where it comes from), you can get by.

What I didn`t buy: I didn`t buy any mixed vegetable or fruit juices because I couldn`t know where each item came from. I was going to buy a piece of hot, spicy chicken from the deli counter but I noticed that no-one else was touching it and I thought a ready-cooked chicken might be a good way to hide the evidence.

The city tannoy system keeps coming on and announcing something. Surely no-one in my neighbourhood can hear the words. For the first week it was a man`s voice which didn`t carry at all. Now it has been downgraded to a woman`s job we can at least hear a high-pitched `Arigatou gozaimasu` (Thank you) at the end of the mysterious announcements. It`s probably about the blackouts.

After lunch I got back on my bike and cycled to the station bakery. They had a couple of varieties of white bread,`Royal` and `English`,(since when has anaemic white bread been English?) but no wholemeal, so I didn`t buy anything. On the way back I paid my Tepco electricity bill, grudgingly.

I got back home at 3. Same drill again tomorrow.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Monday 21st March 2011

First of all, thanks to everyone who turned out to help me record my podcast and also to those who joined us for dinner afterwards. It was all very short notice but luckily I travel prepared, even when I am fleeing disaster areas. While Romanticists seem to live in the 18th century and never leave home without their fountain pens I, as an oral historian, am never without my audio gear, generally enough to sound engineer a Rolling Stones concert at short notice. Thanks everyone.

Sunday morning I awoke with a very sore throat which I blamed on Christopher Robin`s smelly bags of mothballed books. Apparently bookworms are eating some of his antiquarian editions. They particularly like the tasty leather-bound volumes but avoid those that Christopher Robin purchased off a chain smoker (possibly Coleridge). So he thinks mothballs might have the same effect and treats his books by putting them in bags with mothball tablets. The stink is appalling.

However it wasn`t the mothballs. I had actually caught a cold. Nevertheless today, Monday, I travelled back to Tokyo. The regional blackouts were cancelled but rail companies are running disrupted services, lights are off in stations and the trains which do run are not particularly crowded, especially when you consider today is a national holiday. My apartment suffered almost no damage from the second quake (last Tuesday). I went straight down to my local supermarket to buy bottled water because, since some radiation was detected in the tap water, I think I will use bottled water for the foreseeable future. However there is no water, no tofu, no meat or fish, no rice or Pot Noodles or sliced bread. And VERY LITTLE CHOCOLATE! I will try again tomorrow morning. In the mean time I will drink beer.

Finally, thanks SO MUCH to Christopher Robin for putting me up and putting up with me for a whole week. Thanks to CR, I am the only person in Japan to have fled the disaster and promptly improved my standard of living. I don`t know if he reads my blog because he`s not good with new-fangled 20th century gadgets like computers but if you are reading this, CR, I owe you a fancy dinner at the restaurant of your choice next time I am in town. And a new fountain pen.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Saturday 19th March 2011

A friend of Christopher Robin`s says that the main effects of the quake/tsunami/reactor disasters will be economic, that Japan is about to enter a nuclear winter without having experienced a nuclear explosion. His friend is a lecturer on nuclear issues in Tokyo, where he is staying put.

Christopher Robin makes us Avocado milkshakes from a recipe he was taught as a boy by his Sri Lankan maid. (His family have two maids.) He loves cooking but says that at home he never had to think about food. It just arrived. He didn`t clean either.

But Saturday is cleaning day. He gives me a cloth and tells me to wipe all the surfaces. Then he gives me a wet cloth and tells me to wipe all the surfaces again. Then he sparingly sprays the bathtub and I wipe it with a dry cloth and then a wet cloth. (He doesn`t like using chemical cleaning products.) These are his small rituals to cope with the chaos of my presence in his apartment.

In the afternoon, we go to his university where a group of us record a radio podcast that I have written about Japan and academic life. Then we go out to dinner (again). I ask my Japanese friends if they are worried about Fukushima radiation but they say they are worried about the fact that the Hamaoka nuclear power station is just up the road, and that the quakes seem to be making their way down the country. To prove their point that night we have, not a quake, but a jolt.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Friday 18th March 2011

Wake to the sound of the Hallelujah chorus which Christopher Robin uses to time his boiled egg. It must be firm on the outside and completely raw on the inside otherwise, he says, his day is ruined. He and the English lecturer head off to an antiques fair, while I take his supermarket `Heart Point` card and buy bread, grapefruits and tea. There is little bread but plenty of rice and Pot Noodles. And plenty of everything else.

There is one minute`s silence at 2.46pm for the victims of the quake and tsunami but I don`t find out about it until later. (Christopher Robin doesn`t watch television – too modern, I am guessing.) But I am asleep anyway because I am exhausted. Having said that, I was also dozing last Friday when the quake struck.

In the evening a group of us go to Yamachan which is famous for its fried chicken wings. Then to Karaoke. I sing `Anarchy in the UK` because I am tone deaf and can still sound good.

My Japanese chum spends the evening referring to her i-phone. Apparently there has been some nuclear development. We are now at Level 5. As with much else we have heard this week we don`t know what it means (except for Ukranian D H Lawrence who says that Chernobyl was a Level 7). Is it out of 10? Apparently not. Should we be worried? D H Lawrence just wants to sing and shake his tambourine.

More understandable for the women in the group is the internet gossip that Kimutaku (SMAP boy band member) may be about to divorce his wife and may be planning to announce this news during the current crisis in order to bury it. Apparently he was seen going into a love hotel with a `beer lady`. Japanese people are good at looking for hidden news. In honour of the occasion we sing their hit “Dynamite (my Honey)” although I have trouble reading the Japanese fast enough and don`t catch up until the chorus.

This week has actually been a case of making the best of a bad situation. At times I`ve even had fun. Like everyone in Japan I have felt very stressed because I don`t know what is going on or what is going to happen. Also, except for those in the immediate disaster, area there seems to be nothing we can do. Except donate money. But Japan is a very wealthy, high-tech nation. They`ve got plenty of money to deal with the situation.

At least I THINK so. After the Kobe quake in 1997, the government said that everything was under control and no help was needed. I was living in Hamamatsu at the time, about two hours by train from Kobe, when a colleague suddenly got a call from a fellow teacher in Kobe asking them to send the basics, in particular food and nappies. So they got in their car and drove to the outskirts and handed the stuff over. And even on the 10th anniversary of Kobe, people were still living in the emergency housing. Kobe is another reason why no-one believes what they hear now.

Anyway, I am planning to head back to Tokyo on Monday. I need to clean my apartment, prepare for the new semester and get back to work. I will take a bag of food. A Japanese friend says that her mother is wearing her hard hart indoors in north Tokyo. She says I should buy one. But there aren`t any. Never mind. I really just want to get back to normal. I`ve had a break, calmed down and met up with old friends. But enough is enough. I actually want to get back to reading my academic journals... Even if it is by candlelight.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Thursday 17th March 2011 - morning




Photo: Maxiumum radiation levels detected in the Tohoku and Kanto region.

Woke this morning to news that the British Embassy was going to charter planes to evacuate British citzens to Hong Kong. The flights will be free for those from the immediate disaster area but will cost 600 pounds for those outside. SIX HUNDRED POUNDS!! FOR A FLIGHT TO HONG KONG! The benefits of privilege are becoming apparent.

I would like to know how company expats were told (by whom?) to leave on Tuesday while the embassy did not officially advise British citizens to leave Tokyo until Wednesday. Were companies given an unofficial tip-off? Company expats will have departed, probably in business class, to some expensive hotel in the USA or the UK – or to their homes. Us local hires make our own arrangements. I am a university prof and have the money to buy my way out if need be. One British colleague has relocated to the Sheraton Osaka. Another, an American, departed for the US from Fukuoka. The real losers in this situation will be the young graduates who are working here at language schools to pay off student debts. Average language school salaries are about 250,000 yen per month (1,932 pounds). They may not be able to afford to leave. And they may not be allowed to leave. Japanese universities are on spring vaction until 1st April but language school employees work around the clock. If they leave, they may be fired. Having said that, there must be plenty of empty classrooms this week. With lights off in Tokyo and few trains, most people will be staying home. But the teachers must still turn up.

Yesterday morning I went into the HIS travel agency in Nagoya just to see what flights were available. All English-speaking staff were dealing with non-Japanese-speaking foreigners. Is it OK Japanese? said a clerk. Yes, it is. An American woman sitting at the next counter said she was flying to Guam. You should go there too, she said. It`s an American ..... She couldn`t think what to call it. She settled for `territory`. While my travel agent looked for available flights from Nagoya and Kansai airports, I asked him if many foreigners had been in. He gave me a big smile and said, Oh yes. There were various flights at different prices. On some airlines there was just one seat or there were seats only in business class. Other airlines were charging over 400,000 yen for a seat. But Emirates was less than 100,000 yen. I said I`d think about it. The new semester begins in two weeks. If I fly out , I`d just have to turn around and come back.

I phoned my university and asked what the situation was. They said there was going to be a meeting about whether the new semester would begin on time or not. I said I was considering flying out for a few days and was told, “Well we can`t stop you”. Well we can`t stop you. What is that supposed to mean? I appreciate that admin must have a lot to do, particularly as they had been trying to contact students in the north, but like Japanese officials they seem to be reacting to events rather than having any plan of action. Decisions seem to get made on an ad hoc basis. A couple of hours later I got a text saying that all university clubs and circles had been cancelled. You think? Like the Japanese people, I would like a clear statement from my leader, in this case the university president. I am getting one lot of news from the Japanese press and a completely different story from the foreign press and nothing at all from my university. The Japanese people too are seeing this disparity.

I think this is the issue that is really annoying the Japanese people. Naoto Kan was on his way out before this disaster. No-one trusts him or his government. It was reported that he became very angry when he found out that Tepco had been lying to him about the seriousness of the reactor situation. If he doesn`t know what is going on, who does? The emperor? I asked a Japanese chum how she felt about watching the message from the Tenno (Japanese emperor). Was she impressed? She would have been more impressed, she said, if he hadn`t been speaking from Kyoto.

The emperor is in Kyoto? I said, amazed.

Yes, she said, he`s been evacuated down there with all his family.

Way to send a message of calm and solidarity to the Japanese people. I told her that the Tokyo crows seemed to have disappeared too.

Of course, she said, They are very clever birds.

The key to staying safe is to follow the crows or the Emperor then, I said.

Follow the crows, she replied. They are much smarter.

So this is why Japanese people are panic buying and why foreigners are voting with their feet. There`s no clear message or instructions from any respected leader and now Japanese people are worried that anywhere east of the Emperor in Kyoto is going to get radioactive fallout.

Japanese people are the best at keeping things on track. The trains run on time to the second, every food imaginable is easily available here, and there is little crime. But when something goes badly wrong, it seems very difficult for authorities to get a grip of such situations. We saw this with Kobe and with Aum Shinrikyo. Which is why no Japanese person with any common sense believes the government now.

So now no-one knows what is going on or what is going to happen. The newspapers carry worst-case scenarios which show that Tokyo is perfectly safe from radiation. I`m sure it is. The real problem is that there there is little transport and no food and more quakes and power outages.

Since I have nothing to do down here, and no books or journals to read, I went to the British lecturer`s lecture. It was on Magic and the City. Christopher Robin introduced me to many of his colleagues, I am a Romanticist, said one. I am a Romanticist, said another. I am not a Romanticist. I am a historian. I felt deficient in some way. I asked Christopher Robin why there were so many Romanticists and he said that it was because it was an interesting period in literary history, when the industrial revolution and the ability to do mass printing sparked the birth of the modern novel. That didn`t explain however why so many Romanticists were taking notes using expensive fountain pens. The old guy next to me kept taking a fountain pen out of his breast pocket, unscrewing the top, writing a note in copper plate, screwing the top back on and replacing it in his breast pocket. Every five minutes. I thought it might have something to do with the weight and importance that literary types place on the written word but Christopher Robin said that many Romanticists actually live in the 18th century. His thesis supervisor lives in a Georgian house surrounded by 18th century literature. He had the curtains replaced with shutters because this was the norm in the 18th century.

The main point I liked about the lecture was when the lecturer talked about the self and its relationship to place. Peter Ackroyd wrote that the chaos of a large city can only be controlled by means of private ritual, and that people focus on something small to make sense of something frightening. This has been very true this week. It was not the quakes nor the reactor fires which caused me to leave Tokyo. It was the small breakdowns in my daily routine: the power cuts, the lack of food, the dimmed lights.

Half way through the lecture an alarm went off. People jumped and Christopher Robin had to explain that it was just the bell for the start of lessons.

After the lecture I met up with my Japanese chum and we went out to a kaiten sushi (conveyor belt) sushi bar on the pretext that pacific ocean fish was probably going to be contaminated, expensive or just unavailable in the near future. A couple of of ojisan (middle-aged Japanese men) next to me ordered whale sushi. It was 525 yen a plate and it was snow white.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Wednesday 16th March 2011 - afternoon

Yesterday afternoon I met up with my Ukranian lecturer chum (I don`t have many normal, non-academic friends) and we went for a walk around my old Nagoya haunts (I used to live and work here.). As soon as I stepped outside it began to hail. The weather - and the wind - is coming from the north. We went to a secondhand/recycling shop and I bought a Mah Jong set which I`ve wanted for a long time. We talked about Chernobyl. He was living in the Ukraine when that disaster happened so I asked him about “death ash” which the Daily Mail (yeah, I know but I like the women`s page) had written about. He didn`t know anything about it. But he did remember that the Chernobyl disaster happened before May Day because they still held the May Day parade and people got rained on. Also he said that it took many weeks to build the concrete sarcophogus and during that time radiation was spewing freely out of the reactor. But he seems healthy. He`s grown a beard and looks the spitting image of D H Lawrence. He said that the 10km radius is still uninhabitable but that people are now living in the 30km exclusion zone. He told me a Chernobyl joke.

A man is selling apples in a Ukranian market. “Apples, lovely Chernobyl apples” he calls. Another man says to him “You can`t sell Chernobyl apples here. No-one will buy them”. “Yes, they do” replies the man, “For their bosses, their mothers-in-law ...”

Ukranian D H Lawrence says that 300ml of wine (or 100ml of vodka) per day is recommended for flushing radiation out of the body. I asked him for the science behind this attractive survival tip but he doesn`t remember. Still, worth a try ...

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Wednesday 16th March 2011




I see now why some people left Tokyo yesterday. Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara said there was no cause for alarm. When Japanese officials say there is no cause for alarm, there is some cause for alarm. When Japanese officials say there is some cause for alarm, we know we will start dropping dead in the streets. This is the Japanese way. Tepco have been in trouble before for telling lies about radiation leaks. And Shintaro Ishihara is the man who said that the French don`t have a proper counting system and - my personal favourite – that women who have not given birth should not be eligible to receive the state pension since they have not done their duty to the nation. Was that him? Or another of the ojisan (old guy) politicians? I don`t have my books around me today. Anyway, Shintaro Ishihara is an incendiary version of Boris Johnson. You admire his hard work and outspokeness about issues he believes in but you know he`s a loony. So it was time to leave.

Last night`s quake was west of Tokyo, halfway between Tokyo and Nagoya, in fact. I can`t help but feel I`m being followed ... It was a 5-6 magnitude in Tokyo so I guess my apartment has been trashed again. I just hope the fridge door hasn`t fallen open. There were some tremors in the night but nothing serious. I had some trouble sleeping because I am “bomb-happy”; I jump if a door slams or the wind blows against the windows. Now I feel much more rested.

This morning I awoke to a hot shower, a cooked breakfast, half a grapefruit and a cup of tea. My chum is ex-British public school. He wears proper pygamas and a navy blue dressing gown. He has a newspaper delivered and reads it at the breakfast table while his morning choral music plays on his hi-fi. (Did you know there is a choral version of “I am Sailing”?) I am staying with Christopher Robin. He collects art and handicrafts, and I am sleeping in his library surrounded by first editions.

Also this morning a Japanese uni colleague phoned me and said that that the graduation ceremony on the 20th has been cancelled but certificates will be given to those students who attend at 10am. So I will (probably) go back to Tokyo on Saturday night to be ready for that. She also said that of our university nine students from the north of Japan cannot be reached. Hopefully that is just a phone problem.

The shops here have also dimmed their lights. There are no noodles, bread, rice or water. But there is plenty of everything else.

Tuesday 15th March 2011

On Tuesday morning, I wrote a quick email to some British women I was hoping to interview this week for my research on expatriate life in Japan. They replied that they had been advised to evacuate and were leaving immediately. By whom? And why now? I turned on the TV to watch the Prime Minister`s announcement of the fire and radiation leak in whatever reactor had blown this time. Advice to those within a 30km radius was to stay inside with the doors and windows shut and not to use their air conditioners. Don`t bring in washing. It was obviously an extremely serious situation. I went back to the internet to see what the expat bloggers were writing. Some wrote that a radiation cloud could reach Tokyo within five hours. I packed a suitcase, took it to the local convenience store and had it sent by next-day delivery to a chum in Nagoya. It cost about 5 pounds. Then I went home, had lunch, switched the gas off and left. There were few people out and only one other woman at the bus stop. She had a backpack, two large bags and a toddler.

As I took the bus to the train station, I could see that shops had switched off a lot of their lighting. There seemed to be vegetables but no rice, bread or noodles. At the station, Starbucks was still closed but I was just in time to catch a train heading for Tokyo station. I expected it to be packed, as the Chuo line always is. I got a seat. The train was nearly empty. Most of the other passengers, like me, had cases on wheels.

At Tokyo station, I queued for nearly an hour for a seat on a Nozomi (super express bullet train) and then waited another hour until it left. I wanted a booked seat because I knew the non-booked carriages would be full. The station was packed and the ticket lines were so long that station employees were arranging people in neat, very long lines so as not to block the station concourses. Tokyo station is always busy but I heard one of the station guards saying, “Sugoi” (Wow!). Passengers seemed to consist of women, children, young people and foreigners.

I left on the 4.40 train which was on time as usual (although it was a few seconds late arriving in Nagoya, tut tut). The man sitting next to me was Chinese and he spent an hour calling a travel agency and booking flights and hotels. I had bought a latte and two croissants at the station designer deli and I sat on the train thinking that this was a bizarre situation. I was now a refugee. A latte and croissant refugee on the bullet train..

On arrival in Nagoya I met chums at a restaurant for dinner and had a very large beer. I told them about the constant quakes, the radiation leaks, the lack of food and the power outages, and they told me about a lecture they had just attended. The lecturer, from a British university, and I are now staying with my chum – also a lecturer. We went back to his place and I sat down. Phew, I said, it`s great to be out of it. At which point I felt vibrations coming up through the chair. We are about to have an earthquake I said. Rubbish, said my chum. Yes, we are! Said the lecturer, positioning himself in a door frame.. It was his first experience of an earthquake. Bless.

Monday 14th March 2011

Last night I took an early shower, prepared my dinner, put a torch in my pocket and checked yet again that the gas was off. At 6.19pm I lit a candle, which I didn`t particularly want to do with tremors every hour, and I counted down to the Tepco power outage. Nothing happened. I checked the TV for the next half hour until they officially announced they had cancelled it.

I got to bed around 1am and slept on and off being woken every so often by tremors or quakes or aftershocks, I don`t really know the difference. When does a tremor become a quake? And does it really matter? More than the jolts it`s the continual swaying that tires you out because you don`t know if it`s going to turn into something. Lying down you feel it more too. At 5am there was a quake that had me crawling towards the table – I was sleeping on a futon next to it – but it was fairly short. It also woke up the neighbours. I waited to hear if they were going to go outside but instead they took showers and went off to work.

I am punch-drunk with fatigue. I`m a heavy sleeper but being woken every hour or so is very draining. You tense in case you need to move quickly, but then it`s all over and you have to try to go back to sleep. My neck is so stiff I can`t turn it properly.

This week – this week! It`s only been 4 days! - has been a steep learning curve for me and the Japanese people. We have all learned what a microsievert is. And how to get to places when you have to walk there. And what to buy when the shelves are emptying.

As a foreigner here I have felt more isolated than usual. My previous university had a large foreign faculty and we made a “jishin tree”, an earthquake list detailing who to phone and whose house to check after a quake. At my current university there are only four other full-time foreign staff and they all have families. A Japanese friend emailed me, “Be careful when walking around and living alone”. No-one will be rushing to dig me out if the building goes down.

So I have learned to watch people closely. Where are they going, what are they buying, what are they saying to each other? Listening in to a few conversations in the supermarket, most are saying, “I called and called but I can`t get through at all”. Getting through to anyone by mobile or landline is problematic. You get the engaged signal most times. Since I don`t understand all the news bulletins I am resorting to going round the shops watching people, looking for clues as to what I should do. Surprisingly, several local shop-keepers have asked if I am OK. Granted, I am the only white foreigner in my neighbourhood but I never realised they remembered me. When I went to the 100 Yen shop to buy a spare torch (I got one the day before they all sold out) the shopkeeper welcomed me back. Did she think I`d do a runner? I am not French.

I have to say that Facebook has been a real lifeline. I never wanted to join, I only did because my students asked me, but when the phones failed I was able to get a lot information quickly, and give it out to those who understand less Japanese than me.

The only thing I don`t understand yet is, is everything in Tokyo back to normal now? Because if so, I want to drain the emergency standby toilet-flushing water from my bath and have a nice long soak.

Question: Where did all the crows go? I`m a big fan of crows and one of my favorites can deconstruct a bin bag in seconds before the Monday morning rubbish collection. A couple roost in a water tanker on top of an adjacent building but they are not there. I haven`t seen a single crow since the quake.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Monday 14th March 2011

Mood: Extremely short-tempered because I am very very very tired.
Health: A sprained back from having to push the fridge back into place.
Favourite hat: The blue fire-proof hood in my new profile picture. Do they sell matching fire-proof gloves?
Favourite book: Anything that stays on the shelf.
Favourite food: Carbs. Biscuits, toast, chocolate. I now realise that my stocks of earthquake food are completely wrong. When the (next) big one strikes I do not want to eat tinned sardines or Spam. I want Tim Tams and chocolate-covered Macadamias.
Not-so favourite friends: All those people who are saying that the quake up north has put an incredible strain on the faultline under Tokyo and we are really in for it now. You sods.
Scariest moment: Being only 99.9% sure that the Japanese-language gas company manual, showing a very complicated diagram of the outside gas junction box with pipes and meters and blinking lights, said, “Press red button once to restart gas supply”. And then pressing the red button.


As a foreigner with no local Japanese friends, I need to go out every day and see what`s going on. (I have local foreign friends but they have even less idea than me what is going on. Facebook has been very useful, the British embassy website pretty useless, BBC twitter very interesting.) At 11am at the supermarket there was controlled panic buying with queues all the way to the back of the shop. People seemed to be buying a lot of rice and eggs, and everyone was picking up a bag of toilet paper too. But when I went back in there 30 minutes later the queues were gone and there was still plenty of food. Milk is rationed to 1,000ml per person but there was plenty of it. The Japanese don`t drink much milk. There were salads, sushi, tofu, fried fish and plenty of vegetables. So either they have had some deliveries or they still had some stock which they put on the shelves after I had visited last night. By noon however, there was no loo roll, rice, eggs, yoghurts or water. But there was still plenty of beer. I went to several other shops and there is no bread to be had. There are a lot of men and kids about so I guess they have taken the day off. Many of the men have backpacks and are standing in shops holding lists or on their mobiles receiving instructions. The roads are very crowded and the side streets are packed with people on bikes. It`s a bit like a national holiday, only everyone`s carrying toilet roll.

Mitaka station has some trains running but all the shops there are closed including the bakery and .... Starbucks! So this is really a national emergency now. However Mr Donuts had all their donut varieties in stock. The video store was open. So was the bank and there was no queue for the cash machines. Some restaurants were closed, others open. The bike shop was open so I got my bike tyres pumped to the max for a quick getaway. (Prime Minister Kan was right, this IS just like the Second World War. The French are evacuating. Brits and Americans have been advised to stay put.) Back at home, the rubbish was collected and the postman delivered yet another academic journal.

Tepco annoyed me and a lot of other people by announcing and then cancelling the power outages this morning. I spent a long time last night trying to find out when my block would have no power (the Tepco website went down as soon as the outages were announced). Eventually I found out that my block would have no power from 9.20am to 1pm and I prepared accordingly. I did my washing last night and I had my breakfast ready to go. Then this morning they moved the outage to 6.20-10pm, and now we don`t know if there will be outages or not. Of course it is good news that they currently have enough power not to have to cut us off. Apparently enough people turned off their heated toilet seats.

We had one tremor this morning that had me reaching for my camera but it stopped quickly. Bright and sunny now so I think I`ll get back to my work.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sunday Evening

Just went down to the supermarket to see what Japanese people are doing. What Japanese people are doing is emptying the shelves. A shop sign says that there have been no deliveries. There is no bread, rice, cereals, tofu, or sushi. Packet food is gone and there are few tinned goods (still a lot of spam and sardines, I see). There is plenty of beer and milk. I stocked up on water, toilet paper, milk and nuts.

Power outtages start tomorrow and will last for 3 hours.

According to the government, there is a 70% chance of an aftershock in the 7 magnitude region within the next 3 days, so for the next 3 days I am staying put.

Sunday Morning

All tidied up and the computer monitor still works. On Friday the earth moved constantly. It was like being on a plane during bouts of strong turbulence. None of my neighbours made it home that evening so I had to read the Japanese manual and figure out how to reset the gas supply by myself. Which I did by torchlight at 9pm. It was only then that I realised I hadn`t eaten or drunk anything since the quake. Friday night I got very little sleep because there were strong aftershocks every 30 minutes. Saturday was calmer. We had a 6 this morning but the aftershocks seem to be lessening. My only injury is a large bruise on my head sustained when I got up in the night to go to the loo and forgot I was sleeping under the dining table. Worth every Yen, that table. I feel safe and cosy underneath it and so do all the spiders who are living under there with me.

As for the video, some friends of my sisters are on holiday in Japan and said that the tremors they experienced when they arrived on the 9th were an interesting experience. So after another tremor started on Friday I hunted around and got out my camera in order to take a video for them as a fun holiday souvenir. The tremor had been going at least a minute by the time I turned the camera on and, as you can probably tell, I wasn`t expecting it to get worse. We get tremors like that all the time.

Up north, foreign rescue teams are arriving. It is strange to see so many other foreigners arriving at the airport. The foreign population of Japan has probably doubled in one day. It feels odd that international rescue teams are required because west of Tokyo and for the rest of Japan it`s business as usual. I realise Japan needs specialist teams but it`s Sunday morning, the rest of us aren`t busy. Can`t we do something?

Friday, 11 March 2011