Monday, April 25, 2011

Hope & Reliance - tohoku earthquake part seven

The ramen shop was flooded with light and familiar smells. My wife and I, our boys between us, sat across the low table from Jun, his brother Yu and his friend (girlfriend?) Miki. We ate as we would on any night, though the cooks couldn’t make a couple of dishes for lack of certain ingredients. We talked as we would over any meal – hometowns and high school memories, jobs and friends and the soft-boiled eggs Yu had this thing about. Yamato slurped his noodles, splattering his soup. Seiji fussed and laughed and ate and refused in turns. The radiation we had run from seemed far, far away.

Yet the reason we were there wouldn’t fade from my head. Not completely. Not for a moment.

Back at Yu’s apartment we would share snack food and drink a random assortment of beer in cans. Yamato was given his first taste of video games and Harry Potter. Seiji entertained before he started tiring; my wife would skip his bath tonight and try to get him down. We talked more, about all manner of things, though somehow – as it seems to happen in Japan – we never scratched too deep below the surface. This because maybe the Japanese are inclined on all levels to remain one of the group; tipping the conversational scales in any one person’s direction, particularly their own, is not the overriding inclination.

On this night we had all we needed to keep ourselves connected without anyone standing out.

As the evening drew on we fell fully back into reality. ‘Flights out of Akita are full for the next two days,’ Yu said, pecking at his laptop with one hand, thumbing his cell phone with the other. Jun coaxed what information he could out of a second laptop, looking for options for a family with no specific wants save one: get us out of Japan as soon as possible. ‘Tokyo might be overrun with people trying to leave.’ Herds of weary travelers sleeping on the terminal floors, waiting for a seat to open up – it wasn’t hard to imagine. ‘Do you want to try to fly to Itami and then transfer to Kansai International? Or maybe fly to Seoul?’ So went the conversation with Jun and his brother, accidental hosts to a family of refugees. They were calm and intense at the same time as they searched for better options, quicker options, for getting us on a plane out of the country. Their country, which they most likely would not be leaving, no matter what melted or exploded in Fukushima.

Outside the snow continued to fall.

I posted a note on facebook, first in English, later in Japanese, for anyone with a friend in Morioka to let me know. Staying one night in Yu’s tiny apartment after hitching a four-hour ride with Jun was much more than we could have asked for, more than a neighbor who hadn’t found a moment in the past year to ask someone his name deserved. I sent text messages to friends in Tokyo and Osaka, even Nagano, not knowing where we might end up, nor when, asking for small favors based on ‘if’ and ‘we might’ and ‘by tomorrow we should know for sure’. A friend who I’d worked with in Osaka seven years previous and was now living in Tokyo dug up some info on the shuttle buses running between Haneda and Narita, Tokyo’s two main airports, offering to reserve seats for us and even, if needed, go ahead and pay. ‘Get me back whenever, don’t worry about it, just get yourselves out.’ A former student of mine from Osaka who now lived in Yokohama had gone back home to be with her family, away from the aftershocks and rolling blackouts. She had a young boy close to Yamato’s age. ‘If you need a place let me know,’ she replied. ‘Our house is not very big but we will make room for you.’ She lived minutes from Itami Airport. ‘It would be no trouble to come get you, and even drive you to Kansai International if you need me to.’ The food and gas shortages hadn’t reached the Kansai area; still, if they had, I was sure my friend wouldn’t have offered us anything less.

Jun and his brother kept at it on their laptops, thumbing their cell phones at the same time though it all seemed to be going nowhere. Mayumi finally got Seiji to sleep. Yamato fought to stay awake, engrossed by a fantastic make-believe world of wizards and magic. I continued with the text messages, alternately please and thank you to friends from various times of my life in Japan while offering similar sentiments, over and over, to our two new friends who had assumed, it seemed, the role of caretaker. And here I began to understand Jun’s hesitation back in front of our apartment building in Fukushima as I stood in the street asking him if we could join him in his car.

So much goes unspoken in Japanese society. When there is a barrier – cultural, linguistic – even more is left unsaid. Jun would probably never say, and I probably would never suggest, but I think his momentary reluctance (as much as I perceived it) to give us a ride to Morioka had nothing to do with taking us there but what he could or couldn’t do for us once we’d arrived. ‘I can only take you to Morioka,’ he had told me. ‘And I don’t know where you can stay, the hotels might be all full, I’m not sure.’ A few minutes later, as my wife and I scrambled to get our immediate future into two bags Jun called his brother to ask if he would let two adults and two little boys move in for the night. For me a ride to Morioka was more than enough, more than we could hope for at that moment and beyond. For Jun, I think there was more to it.

In Hokkaido Highway Blues Will Ferguson tells his story of hitch hiking the length of Japan. I only got through the first few chapters but that would be enough for any reader to get a sense of the Japanese spirit. Invariably, after the person picking Mr. Ferguson up asked where he was going they would tell him they were only going to the next town or village or office building. And then, invariably, that person would drive far beyond where they said they were going – as far as time and circumstance would allow if they didn’t end up taking him all the way to his day’s destination. With Jun, I think the same mindset prevailed.

He could only get us to Morioka, and while that was fine with us I truly believe he wanted to take us as far as we wanted to go. He wanted us to be taken care of, he wanted us to have a place to stay and a place to go afterwards and a way to get to wherever it was we were going – which we didn't know, standing in the street in Fukushima just trying to get out of town, would turn out to be America. And, rather than let us go without a plan, he wanted to make sure, right alongside his brother, that we had a plan and the means to carry it out. Jun was not just giving us a ride. He was getting us to our destination, in whatever way he could. In Japan, it is not enough to simply give what is asked for.

It was midnight by the time I was able to convince Jun and Yu to stop searching and call it a night. We weren’t going to make it to Tokyo or Osaka the next day in any event; the only buses out of Morioka the next day would be leaving too late to make any flight out of anywhere a possibility. ‘We’ll find something tomorrow,’ we agreed. Then my family stretched out on Yu’s bed while he and Jun talked quietly and fell asleep on Yu’s L-shaped couch.

In the morning we all shared what little food we had between us while we got back to scouring the Internet for answers. I harbored more frustration than hope – proving to myself once again I am not the father my family needs me to be, not when we need all the strength and faith we can muster. The minutes wore on, and we soon had to accept the reality that we had only one option for the day: a bus to Ohdate, in northern Akita prefecture, in striking distance of Ohdate-Noshiro Airport should we find a flight out of there. ‘Fine, let’s go,’ I said as if I was making any sort of real decision. ‘So how soon can we fly out?’ I expected a three-day wait, maybe a week, before getting to Tokyo, or Osaka. Maybe to Korea, maybe all the way to Europe; my aunt from Germany was now digging around too, looking for ways to get us out of Japan. Friends sent their support; several were ready to send money. This I knew I would politely refuse. If nothing else I had the monetary capacity to take care of my family.

Yu found a website advertising flights out of Tokyo the next day. ‘Going to New York City,’ he said. ‘On China Airlines.’ I’d once sworn, for several reasons, I’d never fly another Chinese airline. But for six hundred and forty bucks a seat – the next day, in the middle of a mass exodus – I’d put my lofty principles on hold. I could deal with curmudgeonly baggage handlers and snot-nosed flight attendants if it meant getting my family out of there. ‘Or Continental to…Newark?’ Yu looked up at me. ‘New Jersey?’ On the same direct flight I’d taken to get home so many times before. ‘No way,’ I grunted, in an instant stuck between hope and angry disbelief. Now is not the time to screw with me I thought, focusing on the faceless entity on the screen now before me.

Ten seconds of scrolling and staring told me one of two things: either every flight had seats available or this was just a schedule and did not reflect one god damn shred of reality. I grabbed my cell phone; in the next breath Jun and his brother were also dialing up Continental. All three of us, dialing and redialing, trying to get through to a human being. At the same time Yu checked for a flight from Ohdate to Tokyo the next day – which he found, to everyone’s amazement. Where were all these flights yesterday? There were plenty of empty seats too. Moments later I got through to the miracle I still wasn’t banking on: there were exactly four seats left on the next day’s Continental flight to Newark.

Jun drove us to the bus terminal in downtown Morioka, his brother coming along to see us off. ‘No work today,’ he told me though I got the feeling he would have come anyway. The streets were clear of snow and glaringly devoid of traffic. We’d only seen Morioka under cover of night and through thick swirling snows, enough to make anything possible in the imagination, even normalcy. In the gray daylight we saw the incongruity that had befallen every other city, village and field between Fukushima and here.

Office buildings rose like concrete shells, ten and twenty stories above the streets. Ramps and overpasses hung overhead, useless appendages lolling from the surrounding train station and adjacent bus terminal. Yawning intersections and comatose traffic lights, and block after cold, gray, inanimate block of a city that felt like it had long been deserted. Jun parked and flipped on his hazards, which would now seem a signal not that the owner would be right back but that the car hadn’t been altogether abandoned. In every direction, nothing but cement and an absence of life, in any form, save for the occasional car, hurrying, seemingly searching. We walked up a set of steps and emerged onto the elevated bus terminal, a loop that one week ago would be bustling with people. Today there was one line, for one bus – fifty people or more, standing in orderly manner. Many of them had bags in tow, gym bags or overnighters or compact suitcases, the kind that can be carried on board an airplane. All these people, all going the same way. The only way, perhaps, there was to go. All around us the city stood silent, a thousand windows of a thousand offices staring blankly out over the grays and whites of the world.

‘There are two buses,’ I heard someone say as more people appeared, lining up behind me and my older son. My wife sat with our little boy in the crowded waiting room, taking comfort perhaps in the notion that he was too little to understand – though not too young to know things had been very different these past several days. On the surface, both boys were going along with us effortlessly, even though the older one knew there were still earthquakes in the ground, and ‘bad gas’ in the air where we lived.

Jun and Yu smiled in the cold and snow, all too happy to continue waiting with us, passing back and forth between them our heavy green duffel they insisted on holding. I thanked them again for taking us in, for helping us find a way forward, for making sure we were safely on our way even as they would be staying behind. This was their country – and I was being treated like a king, ushered to safety by those who would remain to withstand the quake’s after-effects that had already turned their existence upside down. And though none of us would mention, it was possible that the worst was yet to come.

I kept thinking about Jun and Yu as our bus rumbled down the highway, taking us further north and west. The snow was blinding, the countryside awash in white. It was the middle of March, but winter was still alive and well and pummeling the land. We had our flights booked; our escape was lined up. Still, looking outside at a world that had never seemed so relentless I knew that any plans we had depended on the mercy of God and the earth. Everything was planned and paid for. And nothing was certain. Not in this place, not now.

The snow had abated by the time we pulled into the bus loop outside Ohdate Station. There were signs of life inside, though none of it had to do with the trains that weren’t moving. To the west, above the one-story shops and office blocks and houses in front of us, hotel fa├žades rose up here and there. One of them was ours. It looked a mile and a half away.

Inside the girl at the front desk greeted us as she would greet anyone on any day. The hotel, I learned, was nowhere near capacity. Their restaurant was open, though the menu was extremely limited. We could use the hot spring bath until eleven. Breakfast would be available from 6:45 am – enough time to eat what we could before heading back to the station to catch the bus to Ohdate-Noshiro Airport. My boys wanted to play; they needed sleep. There was Internet access in the lobby.

I stared out the window of our room, over the town and the distant fields and the fading contours of dusk. My wife was giving our older boy a bath. My younger son sat in my arms, looking around at yet another new environment. The snow was falling again, hard as ever. There were lights out there, scattered and few, fending off the encroaching night. We needed to get to the airport in the morning. We needed our plane to take off. We needed to get from Haneda Airport to Narita, an hour and then some to the east, out in Chiba prefecture. We needed just one more day of luck and God’s grace, neither of which I felt certain of, even as - or because - we had already received more than our fair share. People had died in these days. Thousands and thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands had lost their homes, their livelihood, everything they had, past present and future. And these were the ones who would stay behind as my family and I took off to comfort ourselves on the other side of the world.

I didn’t deserve to be one of the lucky ones. No one deserved to lose everything, yet so many had. The people who had been so good to me, the countless kind souls who filled my life for the nine and a half years I made this place my home – I was leaving them all behind. Leaving them to face what I could not allow to hurt my sons. Leaving them to their shattered existence so I could pick up and create a new one in a place most of them could not go, or would not go, for this was their only home. I looked at my son’s reflection in the window. His face was blurred. He might have been smiling, thinking that everything was okay. He didn’t know how lucky he was to be here; didn’t know how lucky his father had needed to be, to compensate for his shortcomings. My little boy felt safe in my arms, because he didn’t know the truth. Right or wrong, this was what filled my thoughts, sank into my chest, forced itself up behind my eyes in a flood of emotion that had been building up for five days. My little boy would soon be safe, but only if things worked out. If the weather cleared; if the ground kept calm; if a thousand things his daddy couldn’t control somehow remained in our favor. I’d done nothing to get him this far; it was all due to people better than me, forces more powerful than my own mind and will. And so the rest would go. All I could do was hold him in my arms, like I had my older son at 2:46 pm on March 11th, and tell him everything was okay even though I had no idea if it would be. And whisper in his ear the only thing I knew for certain. ‘I love you, buddy,’ I said.

My head fell against the window, and I started sobbing.