Star Travel man escapes from Tokyo, safe in Hong Kong. But the guilt lingers
This is a report from C. James Dale, a frequent contributor to the Star's Travel section, both online and in print. He's been living in Tokyo and files this report, post-earthquake/tsunami.
HONG KONG – When you’ve had an earthquake-tsunami-nuclear threat kind of few days, you get a good idea of who your friends are pretty quickly.
I’m writing from the guest bedroom of a cozy apartment in this city’s leafy Pok Fu Lam neighbourhood as my wife enjoys some much needed down time, reading and catching up on email. We wouldn’t be here without the help and hospitality of our good friends, Peter and Helen, British natives who’ve called Hong Kong home for several years
I think this calm and quiet is what we’ve been looking after an emotional rollercoaster ride that started at 2:46 p.m. on Friday, March 11. We’re survivors of Japan’s big quake, but we’re by far the lucky ones. Lucky enough to be away from the destruction caused by the monster tsunami, or the health risk posed by some of the country’s volatile and unstable nuclear power plants.
“I can’t believe we’re out of there. I can’t believe any of this,” my wife just said to me, looking up from her magazine.
It’s something we’ve both voiced and thought many times recently, and the word “surreal” is getting a lot of play, too. How to describe that feeling of helplessness and fear as our low-rise apartment pitched back and forth like a boat in rough seas, or the anxiety generated by the constant aftershocks? As these emotions played out, they were enhanced as the sentiment in Tokyo shifted from relief to dread, thanks to those runaway nuclear reactors and to the warning by Japan’s Meteorological Agency that another earthquake could strike in the coming days.
At a certain point it became clear that many people in Tokyo, ex-pats and Japanese alike, were planning their exit. The risks seemed too great, and the images of the misery from the country’s northeast weighed heavily. The time came when we started to think about what we would do.
My wife and I had been staying with our friend, Catherine, in Tokyo’s Hiroo neighbourhood for no reason other than we felt safer watching this crisis evolve together. But soon we were checking travel websites, calling agencies, and strategizing. Should we take a high-speed train west to Osaka? Should we go somewhere else in Asia? Should we just go back to Canada?
But when you’ve been running on three hours sleep a night, making decisions is tough work. In the end, Peter and Helen made it for us. They called their travel agent in Hong Kong and had found a flight out. Were we interested? Minutes later, it was booked.
By the time we got to Tokyo's Haneda airport Tuesday morning, we were doubting ourselves, even though we’d been woken up by an aftershock at 5 a.m. Were things really that bad in Tokyo? Yes, some food supplies were running low, but it wasn’t anything like what people have been facing in the hardest hit areas, not to mention folks looking for loved ones (see AP photo, couresty of the Star). The “abandon ship” guilt was gnawing away at our guts. So we asked the agent at the counter if we could put our ticket on hold until Friday.
“You can, but you’ll be on the waiting list,” she said. “The flights are all filling up.”
We looked at each other and decided to go. Turns out we weren’t the only ones with conflicting emotions. Before I sat down on the plane, I met Anil Kumar, a diamond seller who’s lived in Tokyo for 30 years. He was getting a connecting flight in Hong Kong to Delhi, heading home for two weeks or a month with his 13-year-old daughter, Arisa. His wife couldn’t get a seat on the plane so she left from Narita.
“I feel like a rat. I don’t feel good about it,” he said. “It’s like leaving everything behind when actually you’re needed out here.”
But Anil said family and safety come first.
Satomi Ito also seemed worried as I talked to her on the way to customs after we landed safely in Hong Kong. She’s taking a sightseeing trip to get away from Japan for a while. “I needed a rest,” she said.
I only came to terms with my own decision to leave Japan when Peter and Helen picked us up at the airport. Another nuclear reactor had experienced an explosion, they told us. Health officials had recorded low levels of radiation in Tokyo. The airports were filling up and tickets were in short supply. Some airlines, such as Lufthansa, were avoiding Tokyo altogether.
Now it’s close to midnight and this long day is almost over. My mind is racing after the events of the past few days. I’m worried about the friends we’ve left behind in Japan, Catherine and others, my fellow journalists who are working tirelessly to cover the developments of this disaster, and of course the people who are facing hardship in the northeast.
In the end, this kind of decision is never easy. I’m just lucky to have friends, family, and a wife who have my best interests at heart. I promise to pay it forward.