"A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it." -- John Steinbeck
Late afternoon, April 15, 2016, after a 13 hour flight, Ritsuko and I arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport. With the flight from Chicago to Tokyo being the most arduous part of our journey, we were now very close to beginning of the fun part of our 2016 Japan trip. Clearing immigration and customs was quick and efficient, and we then had one more tedious task to complete before moving on to the city -- exchanging our rail pass vouchers.
2016 Japan Rail Pass
In the past, that had been a simple task, but this time, there was a line of people extending out of the Japan Railways office into the terminal. Making matters worse, the process had changed since our last visit, and the air conditioning in the JR office was not functioning properly. Dazed, confused, hot, and tired, we slowly moved forward. As we got closer to the counter, a group of young selfie stick toting jerks rushed to the head of the line, where their "place was being saved" by another in their group. Of course, these self indulgent twits all had to pose for selfies as they reached the head of the line, making the rest of us wait as they documented every mundane detail of their nitwit existence. Sensing my simmering discontent, Ritsuko gently squeezed my left arm. Other than issuing a muffled groan, I kept quiet, forced a smile, and waited patiently, as did the rest of the people in line while the noisy pack of self absorbed assholes ahead of us moved on through.
Upon receiving our rail passes, we proceeded to the airport terminal rail station, and boarded a JR Narita Express train for the 50 minute ride to Tokyo Station. By this time, we were pretty exhausted from traveling, and were in need of food and sleep. We sat near the rear of the car, and couldn't see much detail on the TV monitor on the forward bulkhead. It appeared to be news coverage of an earthquake somewhere. I figured that we would check into it later after we got settled in our hotel room.
By the time we reached Tokyo, it was early evening, and the station was a madhouse of activity. Pulling our bags behind us, we navigated through the crowds, finally exiting onto the street on the Yaesu side of the station. Our plan was to spend that night at the Hotel Ryumeikan, only a short walk from the station, and then return to the station at 6AM the next morning, and catch a Shinkansen to Osaka, where we would transfer to another Shinkansen that would take us to Kagoshima.
Tokyo Haneda airport - our plane for Kagoshima
We were so tired by the time we got into our room, that all we wanted to do was sleep. I spent just a few minutes entering the WIFI ID and password for the pocket WIFI device that we had rented from Japan Wireless into our phones and laptop, then went to bed. Ritsuko was already asleep.
I woke up at about 1AM, and couldn't go back to sleep. I quietly turned on the laptop, so that I could check email, and have a look at what was going on in the world. The home page resolved to Google Japan, and I saw that the earthquake that had been reported on the news in the train was in Kumamoto, and it was a big one. The event would come to be known as the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes. People were dead, injured, and missing. Massive amounts of property damage had been reported, aftershocks were frequent, and all train service into and out of Kumamoto was suspended. The train that we had planned to take that morning goes through Kumamoto, so obviously, we needed to formulate a new plan.
I woke up Ritsuko, and told her what was happening. She made tea and coffee as I checked email. We had emails from my sister, and from some friends back home, who were worried that we might have been in the quake area. After answering all the emails, letting everyone know that we were OK, I went online, verified that train service into southern Kyushu was suspended, and booked a flight on JAL for later that morning out of Tokyo Haneda for Kagoshima.
View of Sakurajima from our room on the 14th floor of Hotel Solaria Nishitetsu in Kagoshima.
Prior to the opening of Narita airport in late 1978, Haneda was Tokyo International Airport. Since that time, it has been primarily used for domestic flights. I always thought the kanji for Haneda is really cool. 羽田 literally means wing field. In the 1970's, I drove there several times, and was always thankful that the kanji for Haneda was so descriptive, especially when driving in heavy fast moving traffic in the tunnels of the metro expressway. Fortunately, we did not have to drive that morning. After breakfast, we walked across the street to the station, boarded the Yamanote line for the 8 minute ride to Hamamatsucho, and then rode the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport.
We had not flown on a domestic flight in Japan for 35 years, and this was a really pleasant experience, especially compared to domestic flights in the US. The flight was quick - about an hour and a half. Kagoshima airport is located in a rural area, and there is no train service, therefore we took a bus to Kagoshima city. After about 35 minutes we arrived at the bus Kagoshima bus terminal, which, coincidentally, is in the same building as the Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel.
This earthquake alert app helped us keep track of the aftershocks of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake.
Solaria Nishitetsu is a really nice hotel. We had reserved a room on a high floor with a view of Sakurajima, the iconic active volcano that sits on an islet in Kagoshima Bay, and were given a room on the 14th floor with a perfect view. Of course, shortly after we got settled in the room, a big aftershock hit Kumamoto to the north, and our building swayed back and forth at an intensity sufficient to cause the blinds to bang against the window. Maybe this wasn't an ideal time and place to book a room with a view. My jokes about "isn't this a view to die for" kind of fell flat too.
I found a good earthquake alert app for our phones, and that helped us stay informed as to the location and intensity of the aftershocks that continued during our stay in Kagoshima. We stayed there for six days, during which we spent some time with members of Ritsuko's family who live in the area, and we also ventured out to see a few places that we had never visited.
After the first day, the damage reports became more disheartening as the aftershocks continued. The numbers of dead, injured, and missing continued to rise, and the affected area now extended into Oita Prefecture on the Pacific coast. Immediately, people in Kagoshima responded sending aid northward to help those displaced by the earthquakes. Students stood outside Kagoshima-Chuo station every day, tirelessly collecting money to help the earthquake victims. Collection cups were at supermarket checkout stands, convenience stores, and just about everywhere else. What the quake victims must have been experiencing was just unimaginable.
Kagoshima Airport - waiting for our flight to Osaka
By now, all train and highway traffic was suspended going through a line from Kumamoto to Oita. We realized that we needed to reserve a flight for the next leg of our journey before all flights out of Kagoshima were booked. We were lucky to get tickets on a flight to Osaka for the day we had originally planned to leave. Fortunately, some of the airlines were adding flights to accommodate the increase in demand. Plan B would have been to book passage on a sea going ferry out of Kagoshima or Miyazaki to Hiroshima. That would have messed up our plan since we had hotel reservations in Kyoto for that night, but the ferry option does sound pretty cool. Maybe we will do that on another trip.
Every trip to this wonderful, fascinating country is different. Of course, it is always good to visit family, and it is always interesting to visit places of historical significance or places of inspiring beauty, but on this trip, the manner in which the people of Japan responded to a crisis affecting their countrymen was the inspiring beauty that touched me the most.