Japan: Wasn't So Bad?

Jan 03, 2015

March 11, 2011 

There’s a long-standing tradition for Americans who visit Tokyo. By a quirk of timezones, you will wake up well before dawn on your first morning due to jet-lag. Every guidebook ever written on Tokyo will tell you to embrace that and head to Tsukiji, one of the world’s largest fish markets. Ideally you’d arrive early enough to view the tuna auction, wander around the stalls selling everything that’s ever grown in seawater and then have a sushi breakfast at one of the tiny sushi bars along the outside of the market, ordering the omakase (chef’s choice) and washing it down with green tea.

So that’s what I did. Too late for the tuna auction but I perused the small shops, oogling at a store selling nothing but bowls, another filled with dried seaweed, one just stocked with kitchen knives.

Tsukiji Market

Tsukiji Market

Tsukiji was not built as a tourist attraction, it’s a working market that moves millions of dollars of merchandise a day. And all that merchandise has to be moved—specially designed carts for Tsukiji that give little heed to tourists and whip around corners carrying pallets of frozen fish.

Tsukiji Market

I was on the receiving end of more than one glare from the cart drivers. They aren’t happy when tourists get in their way.

I didn’t go for a sushi breakfast, I (at the time) didn’t want to spend the money and the set menu costs around $35. Instead I hopped on the metro and went north towards Ueno Park, one of Tokyo’s more traditional areas, filled with temples and small shrines plus the Tokyo National Museum.


An old Japanese man saw me as I was walking into the museum and somehow got across to me that he could get me in for free. He only spoke about four words of English and all I knew was arigato but it worked. I can only assume he worked there. Immaculately dressed for the occasion, he showed his pass to the clerk and I was waved through. I didn’t know what to do after that—was I supposed to follow him? How do I show my gratitude for something like that, what’s appropriate? I have yet to figure this out.

Tokyo National Museum Tokyo National Museum

In my various travels across Asia, I always seem to run into this sort of impossibly friendly old man. Tokyo, Ayutthaya, Nara. Again and again and I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do besides awkwardly repeat “thank you” in the local language.

He didn’t say a single word to me after we entered. I somewhat followed him, still confused, until I eventually decided that there was nothing to be done and just finished my tour of the museum and left.

Adjacent to the museum is Ameyokocho, possibly the only part of Tokyo still harkening back to its immediate post-war black market years. Still a market area today, filled with stalls of old women selling tea and fish and other items I didn’t recognize.


I poked around the stalls a bit and bought a small sachet of green tea. Street markets like this are common in the rest of Asia but few are left in modern Japan. I don’t know why Ameyokocho survives, or why the surrounding neighborhoods of Ueno, Yanaka and Asakusa remain the way they are. These feel more like the small towns I’ve visited on other trips to Japan, the places that aren’t in our popular image of this country. The sites of the bars and geisha houses Hawkeye Pierce would’ve visited on his R&R jaunts to Japan. Not ancient, not futuristic. Just here.

Continuing my whirlwind tour of Tokyo, I crossed the city by metro again heading towards Ebisu, what was then an up-and-coming area filled with new shopping centers, hotels and attractions centered on the Yebisu Garden Palace complex. I went up to the observation deck to look out over western Tokyo’s endless expanse of concrete and then went to the adjacent Yebisu Beer Museum.

Yebisu The skyscrapers of Shinjuku off in the distance

And that’s where it happened.

After going through the obligatory tour (of which I remember nothing—I wasn’t drunk, it was just boring) I sat down in their tasting room and exchanged one of my little plastic tokens for a beer. After a few sips, the building began to shake. I didn’t think much of it, my first thought is that a train had rumbled under us or a particularly heavy freight truck had passed by.

Then we shook again, a little harder and I realized we were in an earthquake. The man at the adjacent table turned out to be from California, we just looked at each other and shrugged. “Not that bad, maybe a fiver.”

A moment later the staff asked us to evacuate. I left the tasting room (and my unfinished beer) and emptied into the main square of Ebisu only to be surrounded by a sea of office workers fashioned with hard hats. I had no idea what was going on and just assumed this was standard procedure in an earthquake so I walked over to the train station where access to the tracks had been closed.

NHK was playing on a television above the fare gates and while the text was all in Japanese, I could make out the “8.9” on the banner. A British expat was standing nearby translating the broadcast into English for a group of foreigners. That was how I learned that Sendai had just been struck by the largest recorded earthquake in Japanese history (later upgraded to a 9.0).

The station manager announced that trains should be back online within an hour so I took a seat against a wall and waited. An hour passed and still no trains ran. I started getting antsy but once again we were told trains would be running soon. I grabbed a snack from a nearby combini (Japanese convenience store) and waited. I opened my phrasebook and began practicing “Excuse me, do you speak English?” in case I needed to ask any questions.

Three hours after the earthquake, an announcement was made that no trains were running anywhere in Tokyo and we may as well all leave.

The only map I had was the tiny, borderline-useless map in Lonely Planet Japan and all I knew was that I was quite a distance from my little hostel in Asakusa. I tried to use a payphone to call home, to let my parents know I was okay, but I couldn’t figure out how to dial internationally. I walked around the area trying to find a Wifi signal to get some information and send an email but Tokyo is annoyingly short on open networks. Fortunately, the quake struck at midnight for them and I was able to send an email before they woke up.

I joined a taxi queue of hundreds of people waiting but no taxis arriving. After an hour of being confused I finally just started walking in the direction of Asakusa. I had a metro map and I knew that most major intersections had signs in English pointing to the nearest stations so I figured if I stuck to main roads and followed the metro line above-ground, I could find my way to Kuramae. I set off around 7PM, five hours after the quake.

Walking through Tokyo after a disaster was a surreal experience. Looking back I almost don’t believe it happened to me. Power was going out to parts of the city and the sun had gone down, leaving me to walk through concrete canyons sometimes lit, sometimes dark, making my way out of the pleasant business district of Ebisu and into the fleshpots of Roppongi following the Hibiya line.

If there’s any better introduction to Tokyo than wandering around at night, confused and a little scared, I haven’t found it.

Following the main road under a highway I walked through what must’ve been the biggest traffic jam in history. No trains were running (or so I thought) so everyone had poured into cars and taxis and motorbikes and hit the road. Everyone just sat still on the road, bicycles weaving around them. Roppongi was a blaze of honking horns, ground floor bars dimly lit with those who decided to ride out the evening with a beer in hand, upper floor bars filled with those looking for something warmer, the bars the State Department warns you against visiting.

Despite the chaos of Roppongi (which is hardly unique to such a day) I was struck by Tokyo’s calm. Immediately after the quake, police officers swarmed the area with notebooks and cameras, documenting even the tiniest piece of damage. Those hard-hat-clad office workers calmly waited outside and then went home (how, I don’t know, since so many come in by train). As I walked across Tokyo, I was asked a dozen times if I knew where I was going and if I needed any help.

I reached Roppongi after what felt like two hours, though was likely closer to thirty minutes. I noticed people were going down into the metro station. I assumed they were just going to the shops—large metro stations in Tokyo are cities themselves—but I needed some water so I went down the escalator only to see people passing through the fare gates.

Two police officers were standing nearby and one of them spoke very good English. He explained to me that the Oedo line had been cleared to run again, it hadn’t been damaged, and was the only metro line in Tokyo currently operational. In an incredible stroke of luck, the Oedo line went from Roppongi to the station next to my hostel, Kuramae. Exhausted and relieved, I flashed my Suica card over the fare gate, boarded the train and made it to the hostel.

At the hostel I found the guests had raided the 7-11 across the street of beer and were, like their Roppongi compatriots, drinking away the disaster. The quake had been large, yes, but Tokyo was fine and there hadn’t been any major aftershocks so we thought the worst of it was over for us.