“’Never’ is karma’s doorbell. Ding dong! It’s for you.”
Day 8: Some place you have been, Part 4
If I learned anything at all from the Japan experience, the greatest lesson is to never tempt the fates. I tend to be somewhat superstitious by nature, and this adventure pretty much reaffirmed why I have those leanings. See, the earthquake was my fault. I’d like to apologize to the people of Japan for my arrogance and big mouth, because if I had not tempted karma, we would not have been in that mess.
Right before I left, I was having a conversation with my supervisor. She knew that I had been stressed out by some of the things going on at work and she was looking for reassurance that the trip to Japan wasn’t going to make me want to quit my job and run off somewhere across the globe. So she asked, “You are planning to come back, right?” And in my foolishness, I replied (and this is an exact quote):
“Barring a catastrophic earthquake, I will be back.”
Ding dong! It’s for you.
You’d think that over the years I would have learned not to jinx myself. And yet, here we are, recalling the experience of a 9.0 earthquake and the subsequent aftershocks that gave me sea legs that lasted for three days after we got back to solid, nonmoving Midwestern soil.
When we left the Ghibli museum, we were headed back to drop Jason off at the hotel so he could get ready for his work call. The original plan was to have him get off the train at the Akasaka stop, and Andrea and I would venture onward to Asakusa to check out the electronics district. Had the earthquake hit ten minutes later, we would have again been separated from each other with no way to get in touch and a hard time getting back to the hotel. I still can’t wrap my head around the coincidences and near misses that put us where we were, when we were on that day. There are enough that I can’t just chalk it up to sheer coincidence, but then I feel guilty and arrogant because I don’t know what it means that we were allowed to be safe and together during the devastation, and there were many, many more who lost their homes, their families, or their lives. I know that I will never be able to make sense of it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t continue to try.
At first, we didn’t know what was going on. The train was between stations traveling at a pretty good clip when the brakes were thrown on. Jason said later that he thought maybe there had been a suicide, with someone jumping on the track. We stopped so short, we knew something was wrong. There was an announcement over the intercom, but it was in Japanese so we had no idea what was being said. Then the car started rocking.
Here’s my other admission of guilt: at first, I thought it was kind of fun. As the car kept rocking, we leaned to each other and decided that we were experiencing an earthquake. But it kept going. And going. And going. Jason said that he realized that something was wrong when people took out their cell phones and started texting. Japan is a very polite society, and using your cell phone in a public place, especially on a train, is seen as rude. Even if it was just to text, you never saw anyone with their phones out on the train. I didn’t notice it, but Jason said that people started pulling out phones and texting, and that’s when he knew it must be bad.
After about half an hour, the car stopped rocking enough that we were able to pull very slowly into the next station. Everyone exited the cars, which was another indication that something was not right. While we were standing there, trying to figure out both what was going on and where we were, a very nice middle aged woman with a strong command of English asked if we needed help. We asked what was going on and she explained that we had just experienced a major earthquake. She told us that the trains would be down for the rest of the day. We made our way topside and that’s when we really became aware of what was going on.
The sidewalks were full of people. Traffic lights didn’t work, cars were backed up in the streets, and everywhere were people wandering aimlessly, trying to make sense of what was going on. It was chaos, but a controlled chaos. I have to say, if you’re going to experience a natural disaster somewhere, Tokyo is the place to do it. There was no rioting, no looting. While it was chaotic, I never felt in danger from the people around me as much as from the elements of nature.
Andrea had been making a video diary of the experience, and managed to have the forethought to do an entry right after we came up from the subway. In some ways, it’s almost funny because we had no frame of reference and had no idea how severe the situation was. But if you look more at the objects in the background, you can see the buildings still swaying, the cars and the traffic lights, and the sheer volumes of people.
We walked back to the hotel which was, thankfully, only a couple of miles away from the subway station where we stopped. When we got there, everyone was being held down in the lobbies so the crew could check for structural damage before they let everyone back upstairs. This was probably the longest eight hours of our lives. The quake struck shortly before 3:00 p.m. Tokyo time, and it was after 11:00 p.m. before we were allowed to go up to our rooms.
The worst part for us was that we had no way to get any messages back home to let people know we were okay. Jason’s computer was up in the room, so we couldn’t use email or the internet, and the cell towers were all jammed so we could not make a call. For most of our friends, it wasn’t as big a deal because the earthquake happened overnight in the US. Our friends likely wouldn’t find out about it until the next morning. But Jason’s parents both work overnight shifts, so we knew they would hear about it right away and would have to sit and wonder if their son and his family were safe.
Compared to what others experienced, we came through amazingly unscathed. Yes, there were a number of plans that had to be changed, but all things considered, they were minor inconveniences, not catastrophes. It could have been so much worse, and for many people it was. I learned many things that day, about being grateful, about the kindness of strangers, about how to handle a natural disaster. But the biggest lesson? Never invite karma in for a visit.
Have you ever had a time when karma knocked you on your ass? What did you take away from the experience?