Earthquake Adventures

Friday was one of those chaotic days when nothing seems to go as planned. Aya and I were supposed to meet at the Ikebukuro station at eleven to go see a movie together, but ended up meeting at noon. We also had planned to watch the movie first and then eat, but thanks to our starving stomachs, we ate lunch first and bought tickets to the next showing…and when we finally sunk into our comfortable theater seats, completely prepared to experience a world of adventure and action through the eyes of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, the earthquake happened.

…and that was when Aya and Aozora’s long day of thrilling adventure began.

I had just finished gobbling up a packet of chocolate-filled pretzels and was wondering to myself how the other three packets could last me through the two-hour movie if I had already devoured one just during the previews, when I began to feel queasy. At first I thought I was going to pass out like I did on the airplane, because everything seemed to be rocking. “Aya,” I whispered, my smile turning confused, “I feel – ” Yet I could not finish, for at that moment, the whole movie theater jolted side to side – and kept on jolting. There was a hush – then everyone in the theater – young couples, friends and families – began to talk all at once. The word “earthquake” rumbled like thunder throughout the theater and lit the match of panic inside of me. My brain went into overdrive as to what to do in this situation so unnatural to me and I threw out question after question to poor Aya, who grabbed my hand and pulled me down in between the seats. While the world shook and the screen blacked out after a particularly heavy shake, couple after couple gathered their belongings to rush out of the theater. Watching this, Aya and I locked eyes and grabbed our belongings as well, but our hands stopped mid-air when we overheard a conversation between the young couple behind us. “It’s okay – just don’t move,” the guy was telling his girlfriend, the powerful tone in his voice not quite disguising the fear and panic there, too, “DON’T MOVE.” With that, Aya and I squatted down again. Eons seemed to pass until the shaking finally started to subside – but when it did, we breathed a sigh of relief and stood back up. Soon a theater representative entered and asked those of us who were still left to please evacuate, using the stairs.

“I am so scared, Aya,” I kept repeating as we rushed our way down to the ground floor, to look with horror at the sight of crowds and crowds of people down on the streets of Ikebukuro milling about, all looking just as confused as we were. It looked as if every single square foot of the sidewalks below the gigantic skyscrapers were taken up by people. I assumed that all of the shoppers from every building in Ikebukuro had evacuated, like we did. With that came the scary realization that hoards of people and twenty-story high buildings added to a large earthquake could only result in severe danger. Just imagining buildings collapsing and all of those crowds and crowds of people screaming and rushing, toppling over each other to get away from the falling objects was enough to cause a gigantic tsunami wave of panic to sweep over me. “Aya, we need to get out of here!” I cried to my friend, who was looking bewildered as well, “We need to escape to a park or something!”

So that was how we found ourselves pushing our way through the crowd and into the Ikebukuro train station. Yet when we arrived at the entrance to the JR line (a safer choice than the subway, according to Aya, because they ride on top of land, getting rid of the risk of the tunnel collapsing and not being able to get out), we were greeted by a rare sight. I was used to seeing the liveliness of people rushing a million directions in train stations, but instead of this, we saw large numbers of people just standing in the station. An announcement on the speakers informed us of the reason – all of the trains had stopped moving because of the large earthquake, which had apparently occurred in Northern Japan.

Deflated and terrified, we jumped to Plan B, which was to communicate back home. Aya tried to call her parents while I texted my host mother to inform her of my situation and to ask what I should do. We both had trouble getting through the phone lines, but after many tries, were able to call and text eventually. Both my host mother and Aya’s mother answered that we should wait in a safe place until the trains move again, and come home then.

The safest place to be at, we soon learned from a kind, elderly man on the street, was the central plaza, because it is an equal distance away from both lines of skyscrapers. He also explained that the buildings would topple not sideways, like a tree, but were made to crumble straight down. Aya and I followed his advice and sat down in the middle of the cement plaza. Aya cursed herself for deciding to wear high heels. I then received a text and missed call from Sae-san – a member of Daddy’s host family in Nagoya – wondering if I was okay, and it hit me then that all of my panic and terror were gone. Yes, I was in the middle of one of the most populous shopping districts of Tokyo with no way home – but Aya was there with me and I had a strong gut feeling that everything would turn out fine.

On the cement, Aya and I layed out all of our belongings and figured that we were pretty well prepared – we had lots of snacks, a book and ipod to keep us company, our cell phones and even an umbrella. But we lacked water and Aya was becoming cold sitting in the vast, windy plaza, so we made our way across the street and to the nearest cafe. To our dismay, it had closed and did not even let us receive a drink of water. Looking around, we saw that most of the shops and restaurants in Ikebukuro had closed down because of the quake.

Even though two hours had passed by this point since the earthquake happened, the trains were still not moving and an exhausted announcer kept repeating that he was deeply sorry for the inconvenience and that he did not know when the trains would commence to move again.

It was quite clear that everyone in Ikebukuro – thousands and thousands of people – wished to go home. There were lines – a quarter of a mile long, at least – for to ride taxis out of the city and for buses. There were crowds around the koban (police station) of panicked people yelling out questions. People lined the outsides of buildings, train station stairs and the central plaza – sitting, standing, couples snuggling close to keep warm, trying to contact someone – anyone, to come get them – others playing games on their phones and ipods – all waiting for to go home.

After three hours of waiting, it became terribly clear that the trains would not begin to move until very late that night. Aya’s parents realized this as well and since the roads were already clogged with cars not able to move, they resorted to the final and only option left – to walk across Tokyo to come and get us.

Four hours in, we both had to go to the bathroom, so we entered the train station again. There – perhaps because of it was warmer inside – even more people covered the stairs and pathways. Aya and I agreed that if another large earthquake came, this would be the most dangerous place to be at, since we would be unable to get out. When we reached the bathroom, we were taken back by the sheer number of women waiting in line. Funnily enough, though the women’s line snaked across the station, there was no line to speak of for the men’s room next to it.

An hour later, we decided to head to a place where Aya’s parents could find us easily. We ended up at a karaoke shop in south Ikebukuro which – thank heaven – was open. We were able to sit, wait, and eat our remaining snacks with fellow stranded people in the warmth of the shop. I wrote while Aya slept. I could not seem to let myself close my eyes, as well, though I was exhausted. But still, calm Zoe prevailed and continued to conquer until Aya’s parents finally arrived two hours later.

By that time, it was ten at night and Aya and I had been waiting in Ikebukuro for a total of eight hours. Aya’s parents looked pooped – and justly so – after trekking for four hours across Tokyo. Aya’s mother, a tall woman with a big laugh, was carrying a four-year-old dachshund in a pouch in front of her like a baby while Aya’s father had been carrying a mountain-climbing bag that he opened then to give Aya a change of shoes and an overcoat.

After filling the room with relieved cries that we were alright, Aya’s father promptly collapsed on the seat to rest his exhausted legs while Aya’s mother refused to sit, saying how she knew she would not be able to get up if she did – and rocked the large-eyed, terrified-looking dog instead.

While Aya used the restroom, they filled me in on how the sidewalks all throughout Tokyo were crowded with people – all walking home. Their eyes got wide when they filled me in on the gigantic, rushing tsunami waves they saw in a river near Ochanomizu – an effect of the earthquake. “Those waves – it was nothing like I have ever seen before,” Aya’s mother told me with feeling, still rocking. Aya’s father just had the energy to nod in agreement.

They had tried to buy snacks for us on the way, but every store they passed were sold out of rice balls and most snacks – with no doubt every Tokyo-ite was not stocking up on food and water in case another large earthquake came, this time to Tokyo.

Perhaps because I still did not know the disastrous effects of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake on the northern part of Japan, or maybe because I was punchy from exhaustion – but as we started the long walk home, I found myself laughing quite frequently. There was a kind of happiness and relief that filled me to the brim as I put a skip into my step and pointed out the slice of the moon shining brightly in the sky, to Aya. It was dark and cold and when I think of it now, a bit unsafe to be walking across a large city at night, but for some reason, I was overflowing with love and happiness.

Aya’s father looked as if his legs could not carry him any longer, so we took a taxi through part of the city until we hit a traffic jam. After walking a bit more, we found a train line that had begun to move and decided to take it home.  When we arrived at the entrance to the station, we gasped at the large line of people waiting to take the train. Luckily for us, they were all waiting for the Namboku line (a line I take to school) while we were riding another.

The station was filled with people and when the train came, we had to cram our way into it. Coco – the little dog – began to shake uncontrollably, so we decided to get ff at the very next stop. Coco had been rescued from being abused and mistreated, so she does not trust anyone but Aya’s mother and feared trains.

Thus, we continued the walk home, with Aya’s father stopping from time to time at stop lights to stretch and to rest. We passed baseball stadiums, ferris wheels, large college campuses, the famous Sumida river and the newly constructed Sky Tree skyscraper, which was in competition to be the world’s next tallest building…and I was thankful for the fact that I was able to see all of these sights at night and that I could have this unbelievable experience of walking home in the dark.

Three and a half hours into our walk, Aya and I were sharing a pair of earphones and listening to Lady Gaga when Aya’s mother told us excitedly that we were a ten minute walk from their home. We stopped then to stock up on ready to eat rice and other foods and carried it all the way up to the sixth floor of their apartment building – the elevator had stopped because of the quake – and then, upon entering their apartment, all four of us collapsed on top of the rug in the living room. Aya’s house was trashed by the quake – her parents did not have time to clean up before setting out to get us – CDs and books had fallen to the ground and the china above the TV in the living room were leaning up against the glass of the pantry, looking as if they could fall any minute.

By this point, Aya and I had brushed off the earthquake as minor and Aya had even said that she believe it would not go down in history, but turning on the TV proved how wrong we were. Images of flooded towns, fires at nuclear plants, tsunami waves crashing into houses and blowing them to slitherines filled the screen…and on the top right corner of the news broadcast : over five hundred lives lost and counting.

At once, my calm and contentment disappeared as I realized that as I waited in Ikebukuro, lives were lost and whole towns were destroyed. It was a shocking and awful truth.

After informing everyone in America of my safety and as the aftershocks rocked the house, all at once my energy drained and I craved sleep more that anything in the world.

As I lay down in Aya’s room and closed my eyes to sleep, scenes rushed across my mind – I saw myself stuck in Ikebukuro for eight hours, the horrible traffic jams on the roads and the sight of so many people stuck in the city with no way home. Then the scenes on TV flooded my mind – of floating bodies, fearful families awaiting news of the whereabouts of relatives and fires burning throughout the night. Finally, the kind, worried voices of my family and friends in Japan and in America – all calling out to me to know of my safety – rang in my ears.

And I realized then the reason for my unending calm that day – it was because it had not felt real and I had handled it like a dream. But right then, the reality of it all came crashing down on me and filled me with terror…and as a faded into Dreamland I hoped with all my might that when I woke up the next morning, everything would turn out to be just a horrible dream.

Yet still, the nightmare continues…


  1. Jen says:

    I am really glad that you are safe! I read your post on Chicago Breaking News and was amazed at your writing — it is excellent! I will keep you and your host family in my thoughts and prayers. 🙂

  2. barbara says:

    dear dear zoe, i write this as i watch the clock and pray for you to be safe and sound on that sacred soil your fingers, your nose, your heart and soul know so utterly wholly.

    so your aunt terra is a smart one, a wise one. she was right. newspapers did LEAP to publish your post above. it was splashed all over page 2 of the chicago tribune today. your name was even on the front page. i have to tell you that all the editors were BLOWN AWAY by the beauty of your writing. they called to ask all about you—how could a 17-year-old write so beautifully, so gracefully? how could a 17-year-old who was alone thousands and thousands of miles from home, and had just lived through a historic earthquake?

    you are one amazing soul, sweet heart. and we are all holding our breath for you….know that angel wings and prayers of hundreds will hold up that plane and bring you to soft, safe landing, where i know arms that have known and loved you all your life will be waiting…….i cannot wait to say welcome home. this should be a book, this whole beautiful blog…..

  3. Van says:

    Gosh Zoe- I didn’t know you were in Japan. I’m so glad to hear you’re safe. I can hardly watch the news right now, it seems like the world is ending.
    My wife and I have friends in Hamamatsu City and they are safe also. But the rest of the news is just terrible.
    Stay safe,

  4. Larissa says:

    yea what Gabby said!!!

  5. Yvette says:

    Thank you Zoe for your beautifully written eye witness perspective…so glad that you are protected and I’m sending you continued blessings for your safety, security and college admissions! Everything in perspective. Be well.

    1. chasingyume says:

      Thank you so much, Yvette!! 🙂

  6. Gabby says:

    This was really interesting and well-written. So glad that you’re safe. Try to stay that way. You’re not allowed to get hurt, you hear? Or I’ll kick your ass.

    1. chasingyume says:

      haha! I’ll try not to, since you said that!! 😀

  7. Rhea says:

    Zoe this gave me chills!!! You do not know how happy I am that you are safe though…When i woke up that morning the only think i knew was that there was a horrible earthquake in japan with a tsunami coming. and that my best friend was IN japan. I was so scared that you were hurt or had died until i had started looking up news articles and stuff on the internet. have you had more aftershock-y earthquakes? And how about the nuclear power plants?? I heard that they are scared for one that is really close to tokyo!!

    i hope i can talk to you really soon! be SAFFEEEEEEE! Idk what i’d do without my asian sister!!!

    1. chasingyume says:

      aww i love you too 🙂

      I’m scared for the power plants in Fukushima…they keep exploding. But don’t worry about me…I’ll get through this!!

      The aftershocks are still coming multiple times a day…and they are going to cause power outages across Japan to put back power in the northern region of Japan.

      I’m keeping safe. Don’t worry 🙂

  8. barbara says:

    Oh my god. Breathtaking to the extreme. The love of aya’s parents–they walked eght hours. Thank god you are safe. And your poetry is intact…….bless you. Stay safe, sweetheart. I can’t stop thinking of you—and how hard this must be for your mom and dad and those two beautiiful brothers….

    1. chasingyume says:

      I love Aya’s parents.

      Aunt Terra says I should send this to newspapers and such…

      I might not have access to the internet soon.
      But I’m keeping safe in Tokyo 🙂

      love, Zoe

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