Day One Back in Japan

March 20, 2011

Although I am once again on the ground in Japan, I think it is likely that most folks in the Western Hemisphere, and probably quite a few in the Eastern Hemisphere as well, have a better grip on what happened in Japan over the past ten days than I do. When the Sendai earthquake and the resultant tsunami hit, I was in Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the southeast coast of Bali. Of course local TV programming was interrupted, and the screens filled with images of the disaster, but little of it was in English, and most of the Indonesian-speaking folks on hand didn’t have the English skills to translate that sort of thing. It is one thing to be prepared to respond to questions about local festivals, menu items, and the like, but another thing entirely to be able to translate technical details to an information-hungry international clientele. How strong was the quake? How long did it last? How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit? How fast does a tsunami move? And how does the Fukushima nuclear plant situation compare with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? No idea. I was able to receive a few short emails from Japan, but those were mostly concerned with status updates on family and friends, and very little on the overall situation.

I plan to comment only briefly on these few things, as all of the information is out there on the internet, analyzed and commented upon by those more learned than I; an appendix of source websites is included below for those who want to follow up in depth. How strong was the quake? As most everybody knows by now, the quake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, the most powerful earthquake ever to rock Japan, and one of the five most powerful on record. For comparison’s sake, it was about 8000 times stronger than the one that levelled Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2011. How long did it last? It varied from place to place, as is the nature of earthquakes. Basically, in the heavily damaged areas, it ranged from three to five minutes. How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit? The tsunami hit Sendai within eight to ten minutes of the earthquake, so quickly that even those with the presence of mind to plan an escape immediately would have had precious little time to effect it. Other towns along the Honshu coast had as much as a half hour. How fast does a tsunami move? In the open ocean, it can travel at speeds of 800km/h, about the same speed as a modern jetliner. And how does the Fukushima nuclear plant situation compare with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? This is a complicated question, too much so to be addressed in any depth in this forum. A couple of brief observations, though: the Three Mile Island partial meltdown was a plant-related issue only; the surrounding infrastructure was intact. By this I mean that the roads were all perfectly usable, or at least as usable as Pennsylvania roads normally are; the supply channels were uninterrupted; there was no major issue with the residents, other than securing their orderly exit from the affected area. In Japan, there are tens of thousands of displaced residents, impassable roads, shortages of necessary supplies, and a heavy dose of wintry weather in case the other problems weren’t sufficient. Also, at Three Mile Island, only one reactor was at issue; in Fukushima, four of the six reactors are in trouble. By contrast, the reactor at Chernobyl was not surrounded by a containment structure, in retrospect a deadly oversight; a dramatic power surge caused two explosions, releasing some 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere.

At this writing, there is news here of a recent pressure spike in one of the reactors; only time will tell how that part of the scenario will play out.

Tomorrow is a national holiday in Japan, Syunbun No Hi, the day when people gather to visit the gravesites of their departed loved ones.  It speaks volumes about the heart of a nation that a day would be set aside for this, and it is unspeakably sad that so many loved ones departed so recently.


Back Online!

March 20, 2011

After nearly a month in some fairly remote parts of Indonesia, where my internet access was either extremely limited or nonexistent, I am finally back online. I have more than a dozen posts ready to go, most of them handwritten in a borderline indecipherable journal that looks like it (barely) survived a trip through the “none-too-gentle” cycle in your mom’s Maytag. I filled up two two-gig SD memory cards with photos while I was gone, and most of a third one as well. So tune in over the next couple of weeks, and I will try to load at least one blog post per day, some about Bali and the out islands, some about Japan in the wake of the quake, as well as some other random stuff that crossed my idle mind as I whiled away hours and days in the tropics.

I got back to Tokyo yesterday after a trip comprised of Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, as well as Boats and Buses (I offer this title for free to the producers of the Steve Martin / John Candy flick in case they ever decide to undertake a sequel). The ANA flight arrived at Narita at oh-dark-thirty in the morning, having departed Jakarta around 10pm on Friday night. As you might imagine, not too many people are heading for Japan nowadays, and as a result, I was able to score an entire three-across bank of seats to myself. I managed to stay awake until the first pass by the food-bringers, and then stretched out and dropped off into as sound a sleep as could be expected with seat belt moorings poking me in the lower rib cage and thigh. Please understand, I am not complaining; if you have to be sitting up in an economy airline seat, ANA offers some of the best; it was my choice to lie down, and the onus of the protruding seat belt moorings is mine alone to bear.

I came very close to not making the flight, as it happened. Thursday morning started well enough, with a swift and smooth speedboat trip from the island of Nusa Lembongan back to Sanur, on the south coast of Bali. From Sanur, I took the shuttle to the inland tourist mecca of Ubud, the name of which will be familiar to those who have read Eat, Pray, Love (known to the locals as “that damn book”, about which I shall write more in an upcoming post). So far, so good. Then, virtually without warning, I managed to get massively sick. Oppressively, three-dimensionally, gastro-geyser sick. Apparently, without my foreknowledge or permission, my lunch had purchased a round-trip ticket, and was not about to be dissuaded from using the return portion thereof. I’ll spare you the grisly details except to mention that Indonesian food is richly textured and exceptionally vibrant of hue, and that chilies and South Asian spices intensify remarkably after having cured in one’s digestive juices for a while. I think it is safe to say that I won’t be eating green curry again anytime soon.

My trials and tribulations lasted throughout the night; when Friday morning rolled around, I was thoroughly wrung out, but at least I didn’t feel like I was going to die imminently, a marked improvement over the night before. The lady who ran the guesthouse was kind enough to let me stay in my room well past checkout time, and I was feeling almost human by the time the taxi arrived at 12:30. I figured that if I could survive the two-hour taxi ride, I’d be okay to do the two-hour airplane trip from Bali to Jakarta. If I was too thrashed after that, I could always postpone the Japan leg of the flight, and go a day or two later. In the event, though, several hours’ wait in an air-conditioned terminal helped out, and by the time I got on the ANA flight, the notion of food actually held some small appeal. I decided to play it safe, however, and had only a buttered roll and a couple of bites of fruit before retiring. If the food cart ever went through again, I must have missed it, because the next thing I remember was the flight attendant gently shaking me awake for the landing.

Tokyo must have been happy to see me, as it gave a small shudder of joy shortly after my arrival. Three-point-something on the Richter scale, but enough to let me know it had not forgotten me. Then again today, another little three-pointer, just to keep me alert, I guess.