A 26-hour journey across the decimated region between Tokyo and Sendai finds villages drowned in mud, message boards to search for loved ones and the earth still moving.
SENDAI - The journey from Tokyo to Sendai usually takes an hour and forty minutes on one of Japan's high-speed Shinkansen trains. Today, it would take you 26 hours. The bullet trains are no longer running, the motorway is barred to everyone but the emergency services, and on the back roads from Tokyo to Sendai the earth does not stop shaking.
The whole world knows that last week Friday, March 11th at 2.46pm, the biggest earthquake in Japan's history struck, rattling Tokyo in a way it had never experienced. The temblor measured 8.9 on the Richter scale. Yet, it is still hard to convey what this nation is going through now, the extent to which Japan's Pacific coast has become - for those living on it - like a gigantic floating vessel constantly negotiating a terrible, unfathomable swell from the depths of the earth.
The Japanese have always had to live with the fear of ‘when the big one strikes," the mythical earthquake that would lay waste to their country, and then submerge it with a tsunami. But since last Friday, instead, they have had to endure the long one. And they have endured it with a kind of stoicism, with the calm you find in the eye of a storm, as they are surrounded by a constant swirl of new earthquake alerts, nuclear panic, viral telephone text messages of rumors and incomplete information. The quavering-voiced announcements on NHK Radio and TV presenters in protective helmets on their screens, all has been received with an almost indifference by the Japanese people.
The airport is now just an immense pile of rubble.
Destined to be associated with impending nuclear disaster from now on, the city of Fukushima looks like a ghost town. The traffic lights no longer work. All the supermarkets are closed. The petrol stations warn they will soon run out of petrol. But a kind of calm reigns. On the road, all you can see is a lone woman selling the rubber galoshes required to negotiate the flooded, mud-drenched landscape. She is struggling to satisfy the demand for the boots. "Any cigarettes! Do you have a cigarette?" asks a desperate passer-by. Given food has now become impossible to find, the hope of a cigarette is optimistic to say the least.
The earthquake's violent tremors shook the people of Tokyo too, even though the capital lies some 180 miles from the epicenter near Sendai. And yet, you only get a sense of the earthquake's destruction just a few miles before arriving at Sendai. The devastation is concentrated almost exclusively on an area covering just a few hundred meters inland from the Pacific. "The mountain roads are untouched", a local confirms. More than the earthquake, it was the tsunami that wreaked a trail of destruction across the region. By the sea, the smashed remains of airplanes and cars litter the airport. Adjacent to it, the neighborhood of Yuriage reveals another scene of destruction. This is where great torrents transported houses and cars across the land, as the wave first submerged this suburb of Natori, before turning into the black mud that surged across the neighboring paddy fields.
Inhabitants walk in the rubble. A worn-faced woman staggers as if she is in the dark, calling out the name of someone who never answers. "We know about earthquakes. We have them all the time. But this tsunami really took us by surprise" admits Yuka Watanabe. In what is left of her gutted home, this mother tries to find something recognizably intact of her family's possessions. She is already thinking about how to rebuild her house. "Don't write we are unhappy," she says. "We are the lucky ones."
In front of her home, a row of houses facing the sea acted as a barricade, protecting it from the worst of the wave's onslaught. "My children were downstairs with their grandparents. First there was the earthquake. Then they heard on the radio: ‘The tsunami is coming". They had just enough time to take refuge upstairs." Suddenly, her face lights up as she finds an intact computer screen amongst the mess.
All around, desolation stretches as far as the eye can see. In the distance, the rice fields are still flooded, piled high with planks of wood, cars and even houses which have been dragged across several hundred meters. The only thing still recognizable at the center of this little village is the cemetery. Far off, a huge column of blue smoke towers in the sky. "It's an oil refinery burning" explains Yasuo Watanabe, a retired civil servant. "Another tsunami!" a man suddenly shouts, triggering panic for a few minutes.
Messages left on walls
Further on, along a deserted road in the middle of the fields, Mayumi Wako clutches a little pocket radio in her hand. A tiny woman, she is trembling and gulps in panic each time a new report announces ever-more menacing news. "It is my only link with the outside world; the phones no longer work," she explains. She makes her way carefully around the flattened countryside. She'd wanted to walk to Natori to see what was left of her house. Now she has lost her nerve and is turning back. "I was trying to tidy up the debris after the earthquake struck when I realized the water was about to wash over us. It came into the house, right up to my chest. I could hear a couple nearby calling for help. They were in a car being dragged along by the wave. I told them to come over to me and all three of us stayed on the roof until we were rescued." Her husband had gone to look for his sister, her husband and their children. They have still not been accounted for.
Two days after the disaster, the residential zone of Uriage has a confirmed death toll at 55, but authorities have only been able to locate 1900 people of the 17000 people who live there. At the town hall, an anxious crowd of people gather to painstakingly go through the list of the lucky ones who have been found alive. Searches for the missing have been hampered even further because mobile phones are still down. On the walls, personal messages have been scribbled hastily in felt-tip pen. Each clamors for your attention: "I am very worried! Call me!" signed Tokomo; "I am safe and sound! From Toshi. Nearby, well-ordered lines have formed outside the dozen telephone booths which are offering free calls.
A call for foreigners
A semblance of order has taken hold at Sendai. The town center has been largely spared by the quake. Here at least, the traffic lights work. The hotels are accepting guests again. They expect the water to be switched on the next day. At the town council, the homeless have taken over the meeting rooms, sleeping on their floors at night. Council officers distribute rice balls and seaweed to them, which they share as they all get to know each other.
Suddenly there is a strange announcement in English: "All British nationals must present themselves at reception." The British Ambassador has come to Sendai with a small team of diplomats to take stock of the situation. Another team made up of Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders are also trying to locate their nationals. The French Embassy has urged all French nationals to move away from Tokyo. Many French are leaving the capital, with some flying to Hong Kong or Australia. Others are happy to just go south, as far away as possible, towards Osaka or Kyoto. Expatriates' mobile phones are constantly deluged with callers telling them to "Get out! Escape!" The Japanese instead just go to sleep, waiting for morning to come. But for all, no matter their nationality, the relentless rumblings of the earth do not abate.
Read the original article in French
Photo credit - (Yurichiro Haga)