The long, post-earthquake walk home in Tokyo

Thousands of commuters were stranded when rail lines were shut down

Though they are located some 300 km south of Sendai, the closest major city to the epicentre of Japan’s 8.9 earthquake, the residents of Tokyo experienced significant disruptions today. Many rail lines remained closed in a city where literally millions of commuters depend on them, and officials have hastily set up dozens of shelters. Here is the story of one Tokyo woman, 36-year-old Rie Wakabayashi, a paralegal who was on her way to a business meeting in Roppongi Hills when the quake hit at 2:46 p.m.

When the quake hit and everything started to shake I was in a public bus under an overpass. I was convinced the overpass would collapse and that I was about to die. It was a scary moment, but still people reacted in a surprisingly calm way.

After what felt like two minutes or so the shaking stopped. Nobody was really aware of how serious the quake had been, and some people in the bus started watching television on their mobile phones to try and get some news. When we realized the bus wasn’t going anywhere we all started trickling off.

I was still in a hurry to get to my business appointment, on the 31st floor of a high-rise in Roppongi Hills, and was able to hail a cab. When I arrived at the high-rise I found everyone in the building had fled and were standing outside and that the elevators weren’t working.

It was really cold and windy out and everyone was standing around waiting to get back in the building. People started talking about where they’d been when the quake hit, and we all lined up at a nearby Starbucks to get hot coffee and warm up.

People still didn’t really realize exactly what had happened. Our mobiles didn’t work, and we could not send text messages either. Pretty soon really long lines started forming around public telephones and people just started sitting down in the streets.

After about an hour and a half of waiting I decided I should just go home. All the trains had stopped and everywhere people were trying to hail taxis. Luckily, the buses were still running—they were packed—and I got on one bound for Shibuya [a major commuting hub west of Roppongi]. The traffic was so bad that what would normally have been a 15 minute ride lasted an hour.

When we finally got to Shibuya the bus had to stop because the streets around the station were clogged with people, cars and transit buses. I got out at around Daitabashi [west of Shibuya] station and decided to walk home.

Unfortunately I had worn high heels. The streets were clogged everywhere with people and cars. A lot of people stopped along the way at discount department stores like Don Quijote to buy cheap bicycles and flat footwear, but I didn’t think of it till it was too late!

I walked for hours toward my apartment in Kugayama, west of Tokyo, which is usually a walk of about an hour and 15 minutes. Because the streets of Tokyo are so complicated and circuitous, I had to find my way using the GPS function on my cell phone.

Along the way many shops and restaurants had posted signs outside inviting people to use their toilets. At convenience stores the teenagers working behind the counters were handing out free maps for commuters who had to walk but didn’t know the way. The food sections in all the stores were empty. The only thing that seemed normal was the homeless people in Tokyo, who were just carrying on as usual.

About three-quarters of the way home my feet were really sore, so I stopped in at a bar I frequent called Sabani. It was open, and people were drinking beer and talking with other people from the neighbourhood about the quake. Some of the people had walked all the way from Odaiba [an entertainment district built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay], which at the best of times would take four hours. Another gentleman said his large collection of beautiful drinking glasses broke in the quake. I thought my house would be devastated.

I left the bar and found that my train, on the the Keio Inokashira Line, was running again (otherwise I might have decided to stay at the bar). When I got home it was around 12:10 a.m. I found everything was still in its place. And the heat was on.

Somehow I was able to get through to my parents, who live in Chichibu [a small town in northern Saitama Prefecture, located above Tokyo, closer to the quake’s epicentre], and found that everyone was safe but that they still had no power.

And I learned that many people were sleeping in train stations or in schools, unable to get home.

Suddenly, I felt so lucky.

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