We booked our flights on January 30th 2011. Departing from London for Osaka on March 28th & leaving Japan on April 11th.
I spent the next weeks feverishly researching our trip, booking ryokans and hostels, buying our rail passes and generally being too excited to sleep, repeatedly muttering “we’re going to Japan!” into my boyfriend’s ear. He wasn’t so keen on that.
Then on March 11th, with 17 days to go, the most powerful known earthquake ever to have hit Japan, and one of the five most powerful earthquakes in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900 struck off the east coast of central Japan. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, it was officially an “undersea megathrust earthquake” which sounds Bond-villain level of evil. The quake was so mega it shifted the whole island a few metres east and altered the the Earth’s axis by a few inches. The resulting Tsunami reached heights over 40m and travelled as far as 6miles inland.
Due to clever planning and building regulations, the earthquake itself caused surprisingly limited damage (for the biggest quake ever, you know). However, the size of the tsunami was unprecedented and it caused devastating damage across great swathes of the east coast of Japan. Around 20,000 people were killed or remain missing. Entire towns were washed away. It was the greatest disaster to hit Japan since WWII.
As you can imagine, it was a mega bummer for me and my holiday plans.
I spent the first few hours trying to contact my friend in Tokyo to check she and her family were all ok. I then spent the next few days watching NHK non-stop. My heart was broken for Japan. It was worse than any disaster movie I’d seen. The footage was crazy.
Then the nuclear problems started to come to the fore. There was a feeling of distrust between the public, TEPCO, the government and the press (local & international). It seemed no one trusted the energy company and the nature of a “nuclear crisis” resulted in a deeply unsettling sense of fear and uncertainty.
I learned more about nuclear power & radiation in those 17 days than I ever thought I’d know.
My friend in Tokyo relocated to Osaka with her dad. Her mother and sister flew back to Holland. At that stage we kept checking with the Foreign Office to see what their advice was (they advised avoiding Tokyo and the entire quake-affected area). As our flights were to Osaka, we figured we’d still go to Japan, but alter our plans re: Tokyo. My thinking was that Japan needed our tourist dosh and if the south was unaffected then it’d be stupid not to go.
My aunt was freaking out about us going and demanded we take iodine tablets to protect against radiation. She even offered to pay for us to go on a cheap European holiday instead. These texts document her worries & overuse of “omg” & me incorrectly counting the number of days til we were due to fly.
I’d been in touch with my friend who was now in Osaka. As the situation began to slowly stabilise she planned to head back to Tokyo. The Foreign Office was still advising against travel to Tokyo, but as I really wanted to see my friend and Tokyo – we decided that if she thought it was safe enough, we’d go with our original plan to fly to Osaka, and travel to Tokyo the next day.
We’d stocked up on kelp tablets (a natural form of iodine) to reassure our worrying family and prepared to pack for our uniquely timed trip.