Thursday, April 14, 2011

Refugee in Kobe


The earthquake caught us during the Vulcanus mid-term reporting session on March 11th. We were all in the EU-Japan Centre building giving our presentations and making plans for the evening reunion party. Just 5 minutes before the coffee break the shaking started and left us quite panicked under the desks. For all of us, including the Japanese, the earthquake was the strongest we'd experienced in our lives and we were just glad the ceiling hadn't come down on our heads, which at some point seemed very much possible. Fortunately, the epicentre was too far from Tokyo to do any significant damage to the city, apart from a few collapsed buildings or fires, especially in the industrialized area around Odaiba. The trains, however, stopped, as well as the mobile phone networks, but the peninsulas surrounding the Tokyo Bay shielded the city from any tsunami threat. At first we didn't quite realise how serious the disaster was and would be for Japan and our lives here, but it slowly got to us as we spent the rest of the day watching the horrible news from the north and, well... drinking, to celebrate we were together and alive. Late at night, the trains started running again, so I went back home, almost suffocating in a wagon packed with commuters returning to their families after a few worried hours of imprisonment in the shaky capital. Most of the Vulcanus students were still in the centre and some of them, especially those living to the north of Tokyo, wouldn't be able to come back home for weeks.

I spent the weekend mainly resting after the exhaustion of Friday, following the news and realising that more and more of my foreign friends were leaving Japan, or Tokyo at least, heading south-west. The reason for that was certainly not the vision of an aftershock (which by the way came a few days later but failed to really impress anyone) but the rapidly escalating nuclear threat of the now-infamous Fukushima I atomic power plant. While the western news agencies heralded the end of the world as we know it, the Japanese media and people themselves were relatively calm and trusting in the officials. This quiet confidence did not stop them, however, from panic buying all the pastry, mineral water and cup noodles (yeah) they could lay their eyes on. The situation got slightly more nervous when the electricity shortage caused by the tsunami damage to the plants resulted in controlled blackouts and train holdup. Initially cool, I also started to feel insecure with time, which was propelled by some embassies (not mine) evacuating their countrymen from the capital, indefinite holiday at work (cancelled after one day) and widespread panic among the Vulcanus community. Eventually, I snapped and with no regular trains running I got out of my place (don't ask how) and boarded the earliest Shinkansen out of Tokyo. It was Monday, March 14th. Finally calm, I was heading for the safer Osaka to stay with my friends, think things through and watch the uncertain situation from afar.

My second stay in the Kansai region wasn't quite as fun as the first one. A drowsy collage of nervous Skype calls home, disturbing news of hydrogen explosions (I also learnt the meaning of the word "millisievert") and rain that seemed more radioactive than ever before. After arriving to Osaka I learned that the Kozenji dorm, where I'd stayed last time, was full of runaway Vulcanuses and their friends (around twenty people in three small rooms) so I had no choice but to invade my friends in Nara. Along with Inigo, Cristina and some occasional Japanese guests, we established a second Vulcanus Refugee Camp and spent most of the week in the idyll of Nanto, playing with sika deers. Even though we were probably a bit of a drag to Giuseppe, Nadia and Emmanuel, they were always very supportive and uplifting. Despite working in the morning as usual, they still took us out a few times and simply were there for us when we needed them the most. Thank you guys...

Although I did little to no sightseeing during that time, always preoccupied with more important worries, I still visited some interesting locations in the wonderful Kansai. Along with the Kasuga-taisha in Nara (a shrine famous for its many stone and bronze lanterns) and the modern, seaside Cosmo Square in Osaka (where I went to get a re-entry permit in case I had to leave Japan and return here later), the highlight of the whole week was the trip to Kobe on the last day of my stay in the south-west. Kobe, a city itself experiencing a major earthquake in 1995 and still recovering from its long-term consequences, is one of Japan's most important sea ports and its sixth-largest city. With an uncontinous history reaching ancient times (which includes being the capital for five months in the XII century), Kobe has always been a cosmopolitan hub for international trade, hosting waves of foreigners from old Chinese Empire, Korea, Vietnam and more recently the West. No wonder that Kobe has both the beautiful Chinatown and the Kitano estates modelled after European or American houses of the colonial era. A large combined group of Osaka and Nara Vulcanus refugees spent the whole day walking around the coast and earlier mentioned exotic foreign districts. We saw a local j-rock festival, the Kobe Port Tower and lots of ships. We also witnessed some kind of traditional dancing event in Chinatown and tasted the legendary shark-fin soup (but not the more legendary Kobe beef). We made new friends and simply had a good time, forgetting about our recent problems and finding new confidence in our group. Thanks to this, going back to Tokyo in an overcrowded evening Shinkansen was a lot easier and even a bit hopeful.

Of course, these difficult days were full of other events I don't really want to elaborate on (like the tough negotiations between the students, the EU-Japan Centre and the companies to save our contracts). I like to think that despite the general confusion and panic, we still managed to hold on together. And Japan also proved to be a strong country of brave and cheerful people that now deserve some peace from mother nature as well as help and kind words from the rest of nations. Unfortunately, some of my friends had to leave Japan anyway, not to return even after the situation got more stable. I'm sorry it had to be this way and wish to meet them someday to reflect on what's happened here.

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