Japan after the quake: Part 1

LARGE GALLERY OF PICS AT THE FOOT OF THIS ARTICLE.

Various links throughout to some of the absurd media coverage, a great beach-bar and various other tidbits….

Those of you who know the movie ‘Withnail & I’ will remember the line when Withnail is sat in the cottage in Penrith, just after they have arrived there on a stormy, Lake District night:

‘What are you doing?’, asks I.

‘Sitting down to enjoy my holiday!’, says Withnail in terse reply.

3’00” in this clip…..

That’s pretty much how I felt the evening we arrived at Yim’s place in Zushi, in the early hours of March 18th. In fact, as Sam and I are both rabid fans of Withnail, I think I remember quoting this line at least once that night. And over the next few days we punctuated our days with more Withnail, excerpts of the Fast Show and various other comedic items.

Was it appropriate to get comedic? I think so, even given that we hadn’t lost everything in a biblical wave and had survived the quake in Tokyo intact.

I’d be lent a car, we’d had enough petrol to drive the 45kms from Tokyo to Zushi; we had food, a roof over our heads and we were all safe and well. Hiromi’d had word from all of her friends and family up north in Fukushima; despite the radiation fears and their being basically confined [under orders from the local government] to their houses, all was well with them too.

Rather than get scared shit-less by the constant fear-mongering of the foreign media, we’d chosen our channels of communication and were sticking to them: Reuters, 80% of what the BBC was reporting, the FCO, the British Embassy and keeping one eye on the American Embassy website, too.

According to the Daily Mail, The Sun, CNN and 90% of media outlets outside of Japan the end of the world was upon us: they were probably handing out free copies of the ‘2012’ DVD with every paper. I certainly wouldn’t have been surprised.

[However, this latest piece of shite from Richard Littlejohn means I would not even ever use the Daily Mail to wipe my arse on, for fear of contamination.]

But in the six days we’d spent in Tokyo since the ‘big one’ on March 11th, there had been around 690 aftershocks between the city and the north of Japan, each of M5+. Living eight-floors up tends to exaggerate those sorts of tremors and although our building is designed to sway – great for surviving quakes – all the swaying gets a bit much when the quakes are coming at the rate of 50 or more per day.

I’d had a lot of work cancelled which meant I wasn’t needing to go out so much and because none of us yet wanted to stray too far from each other for too long, we’d been spending a lot of time in the flat together. Cabin-fever was setting in and the best way of dealing with it was to get funny.

So, rocked constantly by aftershocks and under the imminent threat of satanic radiation clouds, all we were waiting for – if the foreign press or French Embassy were to be trusted – was the arrival of Godzilla. What better moment to start injecting a little humour into our predicament?

Again, those of you up to speed on your British comedy will know The Fast Show. Another favourite for Sam and myself and a show we’d entertained people in crisis before by reciting sections of it verbatim. It was time to bend The Fast Show around our current situation:

“This season I’ll mostly be sitting in my flat in Tokyo, swaying around like a bastard….’

or

“Aren’t earthquakes, you know, like….brilliant. They wake you up at 7.30am every day so you dont need an alarm-clock anymore. And they rock you to sleep at night, Brilliant.?’

Anything to alleviate the enormity of the situation, frankly. And the Brits, well, we’ll laugh at anything to make it seem more manageable.

First it was laughter, then it was silence that proved to be the best tonic, the latter something that I knew we would find in a certain temple in Kamakura which I had been to many times. That was where we headed on the afternoon of the 18th March. Two hours sleep after driving from Tokyo, then a three-hour queue for petrol: I could have been forgiven for sleeping in for the rest of the day but we’d come a little south to get into the outdoors.

Myohon-ji Temple [see this link for its location and the full route of a walk I’ve done in Kamakura with students a number of times] is a beautiful, secluded temple set in woodland just south-east of the main-drag of Kamakura’s tourist trail. It’s consistently empty of the kinds of crowds one gets in the more popular parts of the town and that’s the main reason it’s always one of my first ports-of-call in Kamakura.  My friend Sam had seen a fair bit of Tokyo before his holiday had become dominated by the earthquake but I hadn’t gotten around to showing him anything of the tranquil, countryside Japan I’d planned to take him to before all our plans had been changed irrevocably by events. Original plans included a trip to Kyoto and – thank god we changed our minds about this one – picking Sam up from the airport on March 5th and driving directly to stay with our relatives in Fukushima, from where I would have undoubtedly [because I’ve had some great days roving around there before] ended up touring him out by car to the seaside towns around Iwaki City. Places which were largely destroyed in the recent tsunami. I’ve had nightmares since March 11th, featuring Sam and myself driving at high-speed from the fishing docks in Iwaki to get away from the tsunami. I can’t even remember why we changed our minds about going to Fukushima straight after picking Sam up, but I’m ever so glad we did.

After an hour or so at Myohon-ji, I found Sam up on one of the higher tiers of the cemetery that borders the temple. He was standing with his back to a grave, soaking up the cinnamon incense that someone had left burning for their departed relatives.

“This is one thing you can’t preserve with a photograph,‘ he said.

“A smell……..’

So we stood a while and let it waft over us, ‘recording’ it with our clothes and hair.

The peace and tranquility was total. I looked at the clock on my iPhone: it was 1.46pm. One more hour, exactly, and it would be a week since the earthquake. We stood a while longer and thought of our own good fortune and what those far less fortunate than us were going through up north. It was the first time I had cried since I’d stopped, a few days before, watching the harrowing TV footage coming out of Sendai and Miyagi. That was good too: emotions need a way out of my body. They always come out eventually. I’d cried the night my mum died but it took me two and a half years to cry for my dad. Weird thing, emotions.

Before we left Myohon-ji, I got chatting with a local taxi-driver who had parked next to us and who was taking a cigarette-break sat on the rear of his car. He showed us his photographs, of the local flowers and trees mostly. We had a few nice minutes of chat, which I translated as best I could for Sam.

Over the next few days we toured the area by car, being careful to use as little petrol as possible but trying to pack as much in as we could. Sam, after all, was on holiday in our country and we all felt that it was time to show him some of the places that we love and – in whatever way we could – give him back some of the holiday he had come to Japan for.

I had never seen Enoshima as quiet as it was the day we visited and it felt like we had the place to ourselves as we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over Mount Fuji from the wave-cut platform on the far side of the island. The streets and shrines were empty. Most of the shops were closed. We walked the island and gave thanks in the shrines for our family, our friends and for the north.

Another day we drove down through Hayama and along the coast all the way down to Jogashima. The beaches were, predictably, deserted all but for a few locals out walking their dogs or collecting seaweed. One couldn’t help standing on the beach and comparing the tranquil, sunny scene to the images we were could see on the TV and internet every day, of the coasts of Ibaraki, Sendai and Miyagi – which had been destroyed in the tsunami. A more immediate sense of needing to be prepared for anything meant that whenever we were near the coast we would check the maps and local tsunami shelter information carefully.

Standing on the beach at Hayama and taking in the peace and beauty of the bay, I’d been reminded of a line from Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’, in particular the chapter ‘The Eve of the War:

It seems totally incredible to me now that everyone spent that evening as though it were just like any other. From the railway station came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. It all seemed so safe and tranquil.

Walking along the high-tide mark I felt a sense of relief after the days of stress we’d had in Tokyo. Relief mixed with feelings of guilt for enjoying a walk on the sand in the spring sunshine when so many people had perished just a few hundred kilometres north. I felt strange, too, at my being able to find peace, tranquility and joy in being beside and enjoying the sound of the same ocean that had been roused so powerfully by mother nature – just a week before – that it could sweep away whole towns and their populations.

Whilst we were on the Miura Peninsula I’d wanted to try and show Sam one of our favourite ‘let’s get out of Tokyo for the day’ places; Kaneyo Beach Bar near Mabori-kaigan. It was where myself and my friend Julian Ryall had celebrated our 40th birthdays together with families and friends. I was also keen to check in on John, the Japanese-Californian owner of Kaneyo, as I imagined he’d taken a fairly big hit on his business since the quake. Who wants to go to a beach bar when tsunami are washing away towns farther up the coast?

Well, people like us, I guess….

We found John in fine form. Quake-day had been a bit of a worry for him and the others who’d been at the bar. According to John, some time after the quake, the tide had gone more than 300metres further than it usually ever did. It had gone out, he recalled to us, at ‘a good walking pace’. At that point he and his friends and family had left and gone up the hill, so he said. Good move, I thought. The tide eventually came back in just a few feet farther up the beach than was normal for a high, spring tide. Worry over.

Since the 11th, John said, the bar had been pretty empty. Quite a lot of companies use it for photo-shoots – for surf gear, clothing and the like; three had cancelled shoots planned for the week following our visit. He was down a fair bit of income. I told him I knew how he felt. I’m currently down almost 2million Yen of income following the quake and people’s fears of the nuclear situation in Fukushima. But, as John and I both commented, it’s only money. We’ve lost nothing else. Something we could both agree was a blessing of unmeasurable magnitude.

Kaneyo is a kind of paradise for us; just an hour from home on the Keikyu Line but a million miles from the urban sprawl of Tokyo. We’ve had some great times there over the past few years since our friend Chizuru introduced us to John’s place and I was delighted that Sam felt the same way after visiting there. We enjoyed some of Kaneyo’s excellent food, soy latte and atmosphere and returned to Yim’s place in Zushi, collecting some bargain sashimi at a deserted supermarket on the way home.

In the following days we visited more shrines in Kamakura, including one – Zeniarai-benten – recommended to me by a couple of friends and which I had never been to before. With an entrance tunnel carved through the rock, Zeniarai has a sort of ‘Spirited Away’ feel to it and is famed for being a place where you pray to the gods of prosperity by washing your money in the purified waters, something Hiromi had been keeping a 10,000Yen note for it transpired. In similar Miyazaki style, Joe had the misfortune of having his ice-cream cone ‘spirited away’ by a swooping Red Kite. We’d missed the signs suggesting visitors beware of hungry birds. Poor Joe was a bit traumatised by the whole experience but some days later, when we bought him an ice-cream, he’d adapted to the experience by sitting down to eat it with one eye fixed firmly skyward.

Our second-to-last day was spent up at a friend’s place about 20km away from Zushi, over near Izumino – west of Yokohama. Yukiko is a college friend of Hiromi and we teach English to her kids and her friend’s kids once a week. Taka, Yuko’s husband, was my first male friend in Japan. We made friends on my first visit to the country back in 1999 and the evening we spent with them was one on which Sam found out about Taka’s ability to drink. The following morning we – myself, Sam, Taka and our hangovers – headed for Samukawa Shrine, for a bit of sightseeing, a prayer or two and a lunch of Japanese curry. Our 24hrs with Taka and family was rounded off with a visit to a lovely hot-spring; the perfect cure for a hangover, I find.

One last night at Yim’s, a last tour around some of the sights of Kamakura and we had reached Thursday 24th March; the day before Sam’s flight back to the UK. Rather than have him schlep all the way back to Narita on the still somewhat unpredictable public transport system [due to power outages across various parts of Tokyo], we decided to maximize our last few hours together and drive Sam to a hotel near Narita Airport, on the way enjoying lunch at a conveyer-belt sushi place not far from our flat. We also managed to get Sam one last little unique Japanese experience; the 1000Yen haircut, which ends up by having one’s head vacuum-cleaned!

Holiday over: Sam dispatched to Narita all safe and sound.

Goodbyes are never easy, especially ones that come at the end of some kind of huge, life-changing and shared experience. Sam says he had the holiday of a lifetime. He’s not prone to hyperbole, our Sam….. and this time isn’t any different. Great to have you here, Sam, during a time which across the span of my years in Japan rates as one of the most extreme. To be honest, I don’t think I could have handled the whole situation as well if you hadn’t been here to help with the kids, help me and Hiromi and for your just being another voice of reason during what proved to be some very unusual days for us all.

Look forward to your coming back, mate. Can’t promise Mother Nature will be quieter next time but our welcome will be as warm as ever. :-)

Here are the photos from our week in Zushi, Kamakura and environs. Hope you all enjoy them. At a time when so many of the images we are all seeing from Japan are imbued with tragedy and pain, I hope you – when you look at these galleries – can find something of the calm I found shooting ‘normal’, everyday Japan in the midst of it all.

Thanks.

Alfie

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