Things were going perfectly on schedule down to the minute as they do in Tokyo…my arrival was as pleasant as it was uneventful, and I was checked into my hotel in Roppongi and asleep by 11 after a quick trip to the convenience store and spending a little time allocating all my chargers and toiletries as I always do to make the next day go a little more smoothly. I was warned that hair and makeup would be getting to my room in the morning but I laughed this off with the knowledge that I’d be getting up early to make a couple quick blog posts and explore the breakfast options downstairs. After having my favorite makeup artist Mio prep me, we hopped into a taxi to the Nylon Japan studio about half an hour away, where I was excited to style out 6 looks using both my clothes and their selects. Honestly, my biggest problem was how to put together a nautical look that wasn’t too literal.
I was in the middle of exacting this when the floor started to quiver at a little past noon. We all looked at each other in mutual acknowledgment of the earthquake, but fear wasn’t really part of the equation yet. We started to wait it out..shelved items were remaining relatively in place and I was thinking it had to finish any second now. I was on the verge of going back to the clothing racks to mull over how I was going to color block when we realized it wasn’t stopping. It was getting much more violent. Worried glances upward turned into a flat out decision that we had to go outside. Now. We hurried to the stairs and came out onto the street, where an old woman grasping a scraggly dog and passing motorcycles were the only others in sight. I asked stupidly while looking at the surrounding apartment buildings, is everyone still inside?…to blank faces. The asphalt below us rumbled and shook strongly for what seemed like an eternity as we held each other and shivered. That shaky feeling of surfing is the only way I can describe how it was making my legs feel. Car alarms were going off and telephone poles swayed reed-like but structurally everything seemed to be holding pretty fast in our immediate vicinity. I learned later this was no mistake, Tokyo architecture being designed to do just that. My mind flitted briefly to evacuation training I’d had at the school I had gone to in Tokyo when I was little, and that every one of us had had this awkward chin-strapped yellow double pillow device to pull onto our heads in case of just this. This is a country about being prepared, ready, I reminded myself. After a few minutes it became hard to differentiate the actual shaking from how hard my heart was beating. It seemed to die down and we decided to go back up for the time being and see what the radio had to offer. A mirror had broken onto the floor and rolls of paper spilled across the room. As they found the best station, I loaded Twitter on my phone and did a quick search, immediately yielding photos of a devastated Tokyo Disneyland. The crew relayed that the epicenter was in Miyagi, 200 miles north. Level 5 here, level 8 there that was later corrected to be closer to a 9. Fuck. But my God, the levels of destruction it had and would continue to cause..we had no idea. The shaking started again, this time we grabbed our bags and headed back outside. Subsiding more quickly this time, we tried to resume regular business and finished the shoot, checking for updates throughout and wondering how we were going to get home with likely no taxis and trains completely down. It was dark by the time we were done and the photographer offered to drive however many he could fit into his car. My manager didn’t know what would be best, calculating the distance and probable state of home and office..while she mulled this over I sat stiffly and thought how lucky I was to be in a car and what the hell I was supposed to do once back to the hotel.
The scene on the drive back was unreal. Masses and masses of people, most wearing health masks, packing the sidewalks, spilling over onto the road, their faces stoic as they navigated toward shelters or home if they could. Bright convenience store windows displayed customers stocking up as shelves slowly cleared entirely. Endless lines awaited buses, seemingly the only semi-reliable public transport left. I looked up and saw a train that had come to an awkward halt on an overpass, imagined how odd it must have looked when the passengers had gotten off and walked the tracks to the nearest station. The soundtrack was what sounded like air raid sirens and not much else. And through all of this, there was no sense of panic, nothing near pandemonium, just people that knew that this was what they had to do right now.
At the hotel now, got out in the road in the middle of gridlocked traffic with my 50 lb. suitcase in tow. I reassured my manager that I would be fine on my own for the night and tried to believe myself, not even close to being about to take someone away from where they were needed most.
I went up the stairs to my room on the 3rd floor, still greeted courteously by the front desk….jammed my dead Pocket Wifi and iPhone into their chargers, anxious to check reports online and understand what was happening. Instantly sickened by what I was met with on Twitter and Google..instability and failing efforts to cool the Fukushima nuclear reactor worsening tweet by tweet, fires at an oil refinery in nearby Chiba, footage of tsunamis sweeping away everything in their paths like steamrollers, entire towns unaccounted for, skyscrapers swaying in Tokyo and the tip of the Tokyo Tower bent, 70,000 trapped at a flooded Disneyland, speculation about radiation poisoning from nuclear reactors whose cooling systems had failed, the coast shifting eastward 8 feet, talk that the Big One was still on its way….equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying. Sleep obviously wasn’t an option through the news and unrelenting aftershocks..this time measuring from 3-5, every one necessitating a decision to leave or stay. I intermittently read updates and Facetimed on a weak internet connection with Colin as I kind of broke down quietly. My mom emailed me from California and reported that my family in and around Tokyo was alright, my aunt saying that the force at her place was strong enough to flatten falling cans. But just relief.
The light of morning came with a call from my booker: “We’re getting you home”. I replied that I doubted the possibility of this, the Narita trains weren’t running, the roads blocked, but she was adamant to not take no for an answer. I quickly tossed my things into my bags and stepped outside. The air felt strange, piercing, and somehow my ears were ringing. I looked up at the buildings that had held so strong and walked out to the road, deserted save clumps of cars that would pass every few minutes. After trying and failing at multiple routes I think I already knew were hopeless and 10 hours of renavigation, I made it to the airport via subway with help from every direction that I didn’t deserve, most especially my Les Pros manager Noriko who didn’t leave my side until the very last second at security. Even afterwards she watched me walk down the stairs to immigration and messaged me that she wouldn’t be heading back until the flight was in the air. Remembering leaving her brings a lump to my throat but I know I’ll be back to see her soon. I am so, so lucky.
Tokyo held up pretty well compared to the Northeastern coast. The situation there is unbelievable and my heart goes out to the evacuees and families affected. The entire thing still doesn’t feel like it could possibly be real. Some links to illustrate the actuality of the situation if you somehow haven’t seen them yet:
- Firsthand video footage of water flowing into the streets (Jean Labelle)
- Tsunami wave spilling over sea wall, capsizing boats and cars (Russia Today)
- Buildings swaying back and forth in Tokyo (Escot2008)
- An un-sensationalistic and comprehensible analysis of the Fukushima Daiichi-1 reactor (Josef Oehmen)
- A comprehensive collection of photos of the catastrophic effects from Sendai to Tokyo (Big Picture)