The astute reader will notice Part 3 is missing. I’ll post it some time later.
On the morning of the 11th, Tokyo (東京) time, I got up at 4 in the morning to catch a 6 o’clock train to Kyoto (京都) for a one-day tour. The train took just about two hours from my hotel in Shin-yokohama (新横浜). The tour stopped by a number of different palaces and temples. While at one particular Buddhist temple, the tour guide, Machiko-san, suddenly mentioned that she’d gotten a text message about an earthquake up north. She told us about it, but I don’t think anybody realized how serious it was at the time and we just continued on with the tour.
As the tour was drawing to a close, the tour guide Machiko-san asked who was heading back to Tokyo that day. Only myself and an elderly Greek couple from Boston were planning to head to Tokyo. Machiko-san apologized and let us know that they were checking the Shinkansen (新幹線) tracks for damage and that it might be a couple hours before we would be able to get on a train. I decided to stay with this couple to figure out what to do. We crossed the street together to get to the train station and we made a beeline for the information center, where I asked in faltering Japanese if the trains were still running and if the Greek couple would be able to exchange their current tickets. After a bit, I finally asked if the man at the information center spoke English, but he didn’t, so I was forced to continue in Japanese. It was particularly difficult for me to understand him because he spoke Kansai-ben (関西弁), but I got the gist of it: “We have no idea when the trains will be running again. You will be able to exchange your ticket later.”
6:00 pm. The Greek couple decided to head back to the hotel where the tour group was dropped off to sit and wait for an hour before coming back and checking if they could go again. We agreed to meet at the information center in about 50 minutes. I texted my parents and Rosanna to let them know that I was safe and then walked around the train station killing time. There was a TV at the train station broadcasting news on the earthquake, but the audio was turned off and Japanese subtitles were scrolling by. I asked someone standing next to me if they knew where the news broadcast was talking about. Based on my obviously non-native Japanese, she asked me where I was from, and on a lark asked if I could speak Chinese. It turns out that she was an exchange student from Shanghai and in Kyoto on vacation. She had planned to take the train back to Tokyo around 3, but her train got canceled after the earthquake. I decided to wait around at the train station with her; it was nice to have someone to talk to, and someone who could understand Japanese better than I could to translate for me.
6:50 pm. We headed back to the information center area where the Greek couple had returned to check on the status of the trains. The trains were still down, so they went off to look for a hotel to stay at. They told us they’d already checked a couple hotels on the street, and all were already booked full. My new friend and I planned to wait it out at the McDonald’s through the night.
7:15 pm. The McDonald’s looked full, so we sat down at a cafe next to it and waited for awhile. All the restaurants and cafes around the train station were full of people sitting with suitcases, waiting for the next train. The whole afternoon’s north-bound trains were canceled. The McDonald’s turned out to not be a 24-hour one, so we asked the cafe waitress if she knew of another place that was open later. She pointed to a restaurant across the street that was open til 2; she didn’t know of anything that was open later than that. My new friend and I went back to the information center to check on when the next train was leaving. Apparently they had let one train up to Tokyo earlier, but we had missed the announcement. My guess is that it was pretty full. The next train was to be at 6:15 the next morning.
10:00 pm. We then wandered the train station looking for a place to sit and wait through the night. 8pm, 10pm, 11pm, 10pm… nobody was open until 6. Finally, we decided to head to the restaurant that the cafe waitress had suggested. We sat down and had dinner. After dinner, we just sat and talked. Eventually she just put her head down on the table and napped for awhile. Around 1:30, one of the waiters stopped by and told us that it was time to pay for the bill. We had already waited there for a couple hours.
2:00 am. Next, we went to a hotel nearby and entered the lobby. We met a group of Spanish tourists (one had a Japanese girlfriend) that were also stuck in Kyoto. They left a couple minutes after we arrived to search for a hotel. There were a pair of computers with internet access for 100 yen per 15 minutes. Both of us sat down to check our respective email and watch the news to find out what was going on. It was only at this point that I realized just how bad the damage from the earthquake was. The only other news I’d seen was the Japanese tv at the train station. I’m really grateful that I wasn’t up north or near the shore. It’s also probably a good thing that I was in Kyoto instead of stuck in Tokyo where the subway started running again later than the bullet train.
3:20 am. The man at the lobby desk, who had left us alone for the past hour and a half finally came out and asked us if we were hotel guests and told us we had to leave if we weren’t. I asked him where we could go, and he said that somebody had canceled a reservation and we could stay in the room for 5000 yen. Given that it was only another two and a half hours, we turned him down and left.
3:30 am. It was freezing cold outside and nothing was open. I found it hard to believe that in the area immediately surrounding the Kyoto station, there was not a single 24-hour cafe or restaurant that we could just sit down and rest at. We found a bar that was noisy and smoky and tried to go in, but they closed at 4, so we moved on. Finally, we stopped at a 7-11 and stood around reading magazines and waiting. It’s hard enough for me to read in Japanese without being as tired as I was. I downed a Coke so I wouldn’t fall asleep while standing up.
4:45 am. I’d been up for more than 24 hours now. I was getting antsy and wanted to move, but there was nowhere to go. I paced around the 7-11 getting more and more familiar with their inventory.
5:00 am. Hoping that the train station was finally open again, we headed back. The front doors were open and a crowd of people were already standing outside the gate waiting to get to the boarding area. The train station was open air, so it was pretty cold.
5:15 am. The boarding area still hadn’t opened yet. I was jumping up and down, trying to keep warm.
5:35 am. The doors to the boarding area finally opened and people streamed into the station. My friend had exchanged her original ticket for the second train at 6:17. My rail pass would only work for the third one at 6:23. We said goodbye and she headed up to the platform to get on the train to Tokyo. I waited downstairs at the waiting area, simultaneously nodding off and trying to stay awake to make sure I didn’t miss the train.
6:15 am. I headed up to the platform and got in line. I was a little early but I was scared that the train would fill up and I’d have to wait another hour for the next train that my rail pass would allow me on.
6:23 am. Got on the train and fell asleep.
8:40 am. Arrived safely in Shin-yokohama, walked to the hotel, stretched out on the bed, and went to sleep.