The Ginza Line was pulling out of Ueno Station when the quake hit, jolting the train to a hard stop, then vibrating it like a car revving to free its tyres from thick mud. For a moment, I thought somebody must have thrown themselves under the train, until the vibrations turned to violent shaking and the flickering of the carriage’s lights signaled that something else was happening. Down the other end of the carriage someone screamed. The turbulence began to drain faces of colour.
I don’t remember how long it was before the announcement came from the driver. There had been a big earthquake, he said, and as the train still shook and jolted, people started reaching for cell phones. My hands were damp as I tried texting my wife. I hadn’t realized I was scared until then.
By the time the shaking had stopped and we were being led through puddles of water collecting on the platform and then calmly ushered to street level, the first news was coming in. The epicenter was up in Tohoku. And it was big. I heard someone walking next to me say “Shindo 7” (the highest earthquake rating in Japan) into his cell phone, with intonation that rose toward disbelief. I feel a sense of guilt thinking of it now, but I was relieved when I knew it wasn’t our “big one”; that it was happening to Tohoku, not us.
Out on the streets of Ueno I walked around aimlessly until I received a text back from my wife to say she and our son were safe, and with that all my worry was purged. At some point after, though events are too scrambled to say exactly when, I stopped in front of a shop window where a small crowd was watching NHK. There was no sound coming from the TV, just images of a dark liquid mass flowing steadily inland in Sendai, claiming everything it met. In one corner of the screen a map showed flashing tsunami warnings almost encircling the entire country. At one point a woman watching next to me wiped a tear from her cheek. I’d never seen a Japanese cry in the street until Ueno on 3/11. That’s when I began to realize what had happened up north. Everything had changed for Tohoku.
Originally written shortly after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and published in different form on quakebook.com