* This blog entry only talks about the past year (post earthquake) in terms of living in Tokyo – the situation up North continues on and the year that’s been lived up there is beyond comparison to anything lived in Tokyo.
**The photo is from the lobby of the hotel in Bali when we first arrived. Sophie, Hayden & Annie.
March 14th is my youngest daughter’s birthday and significant to me in and of itself. Unfortunately, it will also always be remembered for the day we ran out of Japan. It’s been a year to the day that we threw random clothes into our suitcase, called a taxi, sat in hours of traffic and made it out to Narita for flights we had no tickets for. 48 hours after the 9.0 earthquake, the earth was still shaking with aftershocks, the nuclear power plant had blown and the air was literally thick with the unknown. We hadn’t left our apartment for two
days, worried about the unseen radiation in the skies. School was cancelled indefinitely. Tom had to stay behind to work and all I knew was that I had to get the f*ck out of dodge. We left early for spring break and headed for Bali. The name alone oozed calm. And it was the perfect place for us to wait out the storm. It was a strange “vacation”. Surreal at times as I’d look out over the incredibly beautiful rice paddies that were completely still and silent and think about what was going on back home. But after 10 days, we got the all clear (the schools were going to open) and we returned. What we returned to was a very different world then the one we left. The first thing that hit us was that someone had turned out all the lights. Tokyo, usually a city lit up like a pin ball machine was pretty much in the dark. And it wasn’t just the Tokyo Tower that was black – it was every store, school, club, post office, bank. So it became normal to live in this sort of dimly lit world. And then there was the water situation. We were told not to drink tap water and so your days became focused on finding water. Riding your bike around town stopping at every vending machine to purchase your 2 bottle allowance. Taking rides out to Costco hoping they got in a new shipment. It was THE topic of conversation. Friends were praised for their forethought on getting an office water cooler installed before they returned back to Japan. The heat was basically turned off as well. And for a country that heats every toilet seat including the ones in train stations and on mountain tops that was a huge sacrifice. And
then there was the hunt for food. If you weren’t spending your days finding water, you were studying maps at the grocery store. In Japanese supermarkets, they were selling Fukushima vegetables to support the farmers and the people of Japan were buying them and throwing them in the garbage. But of course, I couldn’t read the signs telling me where the food was from. National, the supermarket of choice for foreigners became ground zero. They were smart and posted large maps of Japan that were color coded and numbered and each fresh food item in the store had a corresponding number. Geography lessons during food preparation. Cooking for your family had never been so challenging. There were the absolute no-no’s. Strawberries, mushrooms, spinach. No longer options as these were deemed more toxic than other foods. And then there was the situation with dining out. Could you trust the food being prepared in restaurants? And the judgment from your fellow diners about the fact that you just ordered fish and spinach – how could you? Those must be filled with radiation! People were literally looking at what you were choosing to eat and making judgement calls. And for a city as safe as Tokyo, we started to think twice about letting our kids “hang” out in Shibuya or Omotesando. We wanted them close by and in the house. And people started to leave, sometimes without even telling anyone. Just packed up and shipped out. And friends who had left during the earthquake never returned. And so you sort of started to question your own decision to stay. There was a bit of an us vs. them mentality. A friend overheard two men speaking at the gym about the “selfish” husbands that made their families return to Tokyo – it made us angry and defensive. And then summer vacation came and as always the moms left town with the kids and the dads stayed behind. And they suffered through a very hot summer where the office thermometers were set at a steamy 29 degrees (84F) but they were allowed to wear “cool biz” outfits to work. And then September came and we returned happily home. Still, signs of the nuclear situation remained. The lights were still dim, the air conditioning on low. But then in September, the limitations were removed and life in Tokyo seemed to get back to normal. There were no more vegetables from Fukushima to sell (although they are still selling the beef in my supermarket but at least the sign was in English) and the lights went back on as did the heat. The aftershocks continued but less so and there are only 2 nuclear plants up and running in the entire country so the chances of anything happening to another plant is very low. They continue to try to get the situation at Daiichi under control but its not in the news every day. There are many people leaving Japan this summer for good but there are always people leaving – that is the nature of expats. So its been a strange year – one I won’t ever forget. And deep down there is a little bit of me that hopes that my decision to stay in Japan this year won’t come back to haunt us later on.