Tuesday, March 29, 2011


I've always been a terrible photographer: That's my apology for these series of photos, in which I tried, and failed, to get just one closeup shot of the cherry blossom buds about to bloom at any moment. Usually, this is the sight that fills the Japanese with anticipation and seems to accompany a sigh of warmth that spreads through the country. In Japan, the cherry blossom trees are literally everywhere and always seem to bloom together in one quick but extravagant burst of frothy, billowing petals.

I wonder, though, if this year, the sakura season that is almost upon us will pass with only muted and guilty appreciation. How can those of us lucky enough to do so enjoy the traditional picnics under the trees, when hundreds of thousands are still in mourning for loved ones, homes, and towns whose cherry blossom trees will never bloom again?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Dear R,

I'm a little worried about you--is that an embarrassingly gratuitous statement for a mother to make about her child? Although I've been told that a toddler's personality can drastically change as they gain independence and that the worst thing you can do is trap your kid with labels, I secretly cannot help thinking them in my head when you react to things in your distinct and, so far, consistent way: shy (the worst label offender), timid, cautious, sensitive, easily frightened, insecure, unadventurous, and slothlike (confession: I wanted to type "lazy"). I know, so many negatives.

It's just that while I try my best to be sympathetic, it is hard to soothe a frantic child because she is freaking out about a piece of string. Yes, you do this. I don't know, maybe string looks like the antenna of a bug or something? You hate bugs; but then, so do I. You still dislike walking and we have been having some major battles about your refusal to go up and down the stairs in our apartment, despite being perfectly able to do so. "Mama, hug," you say, which means: "Carry me"--even when I've got four bags of groceries hanging from each arm, even if I just want to run down quickly to grab something, but you refuse to wait upstairs alone for even 30 seconds.

I've been frustrated and short-tempered with you lately, R. I'm so sorry about that. I want to blame it on a combination of stress over radiation contamination and the stinkin' Claritin-D, which a quick Google reveals can affect your moods (I took one yesterday, too close to bedtime, and spent the entire night jerking awake, convinced we were having another earthquake). Maybe, too, it's the lack of sleep, since you've been waking like clockwork at 5:45am, ever since we got back from our three-week trip almost three weeks ago, so get back to normal already, please. But I also need to work on my patience, my sympathy, my tolerance for things I don't understand about you (e.g., Why is no one allowed to sleep in your presence? And do you have to attempt to gauge out the offender's eyeballs?). I just want you to know though that some day, if you ever want to get a tattoo, I won't freak out on you (well, as long as the design doesn't include a prancing unicorn or stretch across your face); your dad will, but we'll deal with that when we get to it.

One funny development: You are very into washing dishes right now. Of course you're providing zero actual help, and in fact are doubling the amount of time I have to stand at the kitchen sink. But the seriousness with which you attend to the task is cute. And to be honest, I'd just as soon wash dishes with you as play with some other game that would likely create a mess, a mess that I'd either have to clean up myself or talk myself blue in the face trying to convince you to help put away.

Your latest obsession is goggles. You first learned of their existence when you saw your grandpa wearing a pair while swimming. Next you saw a bunch of kids wearing them in a clothing catalog. You are adamant that you need green ones and even came up with the idea that washing your hair without tears and screaming might actually become a possibility, if only you had some goggles. I'm just not sure where to find a pair that might fit your tiny face.

Lately, you proved that you do have your usefulness. I was sitting on the toilet and realized there wasn't any more toilet paper. I asked, and you actually went and got me some. Awesome.

You're also very good--shall I go so far as to say naggy?--about reminding me not to forget things before going out: my keys, my cell phone, money (to buy you snacks--your words), the bicycle lock.

But I worry about you. Mostly, I hope you'll be okay about getting on an airplane again and moving into your great-grandma's old house in Okinawa. It'll be a totally new place; you still don't like new. You'll be living with people you haven't lived with before and you won't see dad for a while.

It'll be an adjustment for me, too. No more running around the house without my bra on--damn it. No more casual meals slapped together for just the two of us. No more crazy dancing around the living room. No more loud and impromptu singing sessions. Possibly no more Internet--it's an old, uninhabited house.

Oh well, at least we'll be together.

Friday, March 25, 2011

I always wanted to live...

...above a bakery or cafe. I liked the thought of being able to just pop downstairs for freshly baked bread or a good cup of coffee, first thing in the morning. Well, people, my dream is very close to being realized since...da da da da: Domino's Pizza has moved into the empty space on the first floor of our apartment. Well, whatever, it's food and it's just a short elevator ride away.

Yesterday, I actually received a visit from the store manager--a fresh-faced boy who introduced himself, winced and apologized profusely for the noisy construction that had been going on until now, reverently offered me a coupon for a free pizza as well as a prettily wrapped box of Japanese snacks, and then bowed so low I felt tears prick my eyes (who am I but a lowly foreigner, after all) and remained bent over until I closed the door. Only in Japan.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I can't help it. Every time I look at water now, I wonder. Every time I wash my hands and dry it on that same hand towel, is the radiation building up on its surface? My eyes were itching badly from pollen allergies just now and I splashed water over them to cool the burning--have I introduced radiation into my system that way? What about washing R's toothbrush with tap water? What about bathing? What about laundry?

I heard it was yesterday's rain that caused the contamination. It's raining again tonight--was snowing earlier. My rosemary plant is outside on the balcony.

which way to go

I don't know if it's really apparent from my posts, but my emotions have been yo-yoing like crazy, the past week. In my last post, I was feeling calmer, more resolved to stay in Tokyo. Then today, the latest news: radioactive iodine-131 levels detected in Tokyo tap water had risen to 210 becquerels per liter of water. The news was telling us to avoid giving tap water to babies one year old and younger, and also for pregnant and breastfeeding women to be cautious. To quote the linked article above, "For all people over the age of 1, 300 becquerels per liter of water is the standard regulated level, but pregnant and breast-feeding women may want to tighten the standard to 100 becquerels per liter." R is two; she won't be getting tap water any longer.

But A and I agree that maybe it is time for me to consider taking R out of Tokyo--without A. The biggest problem right now is that bottled water was already hard to find before today's latest announcement. Stores have been limiting customers to one bottle per person. I have a feeling that by tomorrow, bottled water will be constantly sold out. And if I am to use bottled water to cook R's food as well, we'll need a lot more than what we have and what's available.

I can't convey how torn I am, how distressed. This contaminated water could be a long-term problem. If R and I leave Japan, we may not see A for months.

But it seems the decision to leave has already been made. It's only a matter of time before we run out of bottled water. The question now is where to go. There are two options: back to Singapore, to stay with my parents, or Okinawa with my in-laws. Can I be totally honest and admit that the prospect of living for months with either my parents or in-laws makes me queasy? My parents are, hands down, more annoying--but at least I can yell at them and tell them I think so. The in-laws are wonderful people, but when I'm with them, there is a certain level of civility and restraint that must be maintained, and the thought of not being able to totally relax ever is distressing. The main reason I'm leaning toward Okinawa, though, is because it's only a two-hour flight from Tokyo and at least A could come visit us once in a while. On the other hand, R is already familiar with my parents' home, since we were just there for almost a month--they have a crib for her, toys, books, a car seat; their apartment complex also has a pool, which R adores. My in-laws' home in Naha is admittedly super-old, completely unfamiliar to R, pretty far from any public transportation.

I just don't know.

Friday, March 18, 2011

lost and found

Four more people I know have left or are planning to leave Japan. Yesterday, I bumped into a neighbor who was on her way to the train station and headed for Osaka. I can't deny the jolt I feel when someone sends me a "By the way, I'm in Canada" email.

But for now, I'm staying (I think someone actually started a Facebook group with a name like that. Seriously!). The reasons, listed in order of importance: I can't leave my Japanese husband behind, I don't want to disrupt R's life when she's so obviously happy to be home again, we *just* got back from being overseas and I'm not eager to board a plane any time soon, and I still don't think we are close enough (240km, to be precise) to the Fukushima nuclear plant be at risk of exposure to dangerous radiation levels.

I do not judge the people who are leaving. If you have the luxury of somewhere to escape to, if you have people you want to protect, if you're starting to go bald from the stress of waiting for something to happen, GO. But I think those of us foreigners who are choosing to stay have ties to this country--or at least spouses who aren't budging. Not only is my husband here, so are R's grandparents and great-grandparents, so is my sister-in-law who is four months pregnant. Heck, my dog is here--am I supposed to put him on a raft with food and water and wish him luck?

Somehow, without me realizing it, Japan has become more of a home to me than anywhere else. Maybe that's not saying much, considering I've never felt strongly about the places I've lived. But this realization is a surprise to me and, despite the circumstances, makes me glad. Now let's just hope the big fat heading on tomorrow's newspaper isn't: Get the Hell Out.

latest stats on post-quake japan

Taken from recent Reuters article:

Supplies of water, heating oil and fuel are low at evacuation centers, where many survivors wait bundled in blankets. Many elderly lack proper medical supplies. Food is often rationed. [I saw on the news what the people at one evacuation center received for lunch: a ball of rice the size of a plum and a quarter of an apple.]

Nearly 320,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather as of Friday afternoon, Tohuku Electric Power Co said, and the government said at least 1.6 million households lacked running water.

The National Police Agency said on Friday it had confirmed 6,539 deaths from the quake and tsunami disaster, exceeding 6,434 who died after the Kobe earthquake in 1995. But 10,354 people are still missing.

naked shaking

You know that thing people always say about not wanting to be caught without undies in the event of an emergency? Well, guess which idiot decided to take a long bath when earthquakes are on everyone's mind and aftershocks are still occurring daily?

I had good intentions. The living room was so cold yesterday because I've been trying my best to conserve energy, by not using the heater. Edward the Dog and I looked at each other, both of us shivering and miserable, and I decided that at least one of us should be given a short reprieve. So I ran myself a bath, got out an old paperback novel, and settled in for a nice soak. Unfortunately, just as the water was approaching that uncomfortably lukewarm point, another quake started.

I'm ashamed to admit that for longer than a moment, I hesitated. Book held aloft, I assessed the shaking--or, rather, the sloshing water--and decided that (a) it was just another mini aftershock and (b) it would be *really* cold getting out of the water. That's really wrong, isn't it? I should have leaped out and at least put some clothes on. I'm worried that I'm getting complacent.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

what's left behind

Almost all the foreigners I know have fled Tokyo or even Japan--probably at the urging of concerned loved ones glued to their tellies. My mom tells me on a daily basis that she fears the situation in Japan is getting worse and sends me frequent little emails of impending doom predicted by CNN. And yet, today I woke up feeling a lot calmer [damn, I think I spoke too soon: we're having another quake...ohhh-kaaay, not as bad as yesterday night].

Yes, the mini quakes that occur daily keep us a little on the edge of our seats. Yes, I'm terrified at the thought that I'll be upstairs and R downstairs if another big earthquake strikes. Yes, we are now having to deal with four overheating nuclear reactors and I can't help thinking "Is that it?" when the big solution seems to be: So we're going to drizzle seawater over 'em.

But I've heard that meat and rice are reappearing on the supermarket shelves. Now I just have to keep my fingers crossed about diapers--Amazon Japan and Babies R Us Japan were sold out the last time I checked--though I have enough for now to last me over a week.

And I just learned that they have started testing the radiation levels in Tokyo on an hourly basis and are even publishing the results online. In this regard, the government is trying to keep on top of the situation and I feel more assured than I did yesterday.
Finally got to watch some news with simultaneous English interpretation on TV and feel so ashamed of my self-absorption with the threat of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Although it seems that's the topic on almost everyone's mind, rather than the thousands of people who are currently stranded without water or heat.

It is bitterly cold tonight. Even R didn't want to go outside this afternoon, for which I was supremely grateful. But the conditions over here are nothing compared to what many people farther up north are enduring. The news reveals that those towns destroyed by earthquake and tsunami are now turning white with heavy snowfall. And many of the people over there are without adequate clothes, blankets, heat, food, you name it.

Even worse, there are people around the 30km radius from the nuclear plant who have been all but stranded and deserted. There is no gas to travel out. And truck drivers are too afraid to venture that close to the plant to bring basic supplies, even though that distance is in fact still safe.

The multiple issues over at the nuclear plant are serious, no doubt. But I fear that a lot of people are suffering because the media is focusing so much on the dramatic radiation threat and building up our anxieties to the point that we have forgotten there are people facing far more immediate, critical, and real problems.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Yikes, we just had another quake. Not big (3 where I am, but 6 in another region), but longer than the average mini quakes we regularly get in Japan. They've been happening pretty frequently since the big one on Friday. Deep breath,

Monday, March 14, 2011

I can't shake this constant feeling of dread and anxiety and I don't know if it's because there's a damn nuclear reactor leaking radiation a bit too close to home or because that's how I tend to feel when I'm taking Clarinase. Yeah, that's right, seasonal allergies don't get put on hold just because there are more pressing issues at hand. Apologies in advance if any of my comments seem to have come from a fuzzy brain--they have.

I keep encountering conflicting scenes that are keeping me in a state of unbalance. Yesterday, I was completely taken off guard when a visit to the nearby supermarket revealed a scene of restrained chaos. The first shock was that the shelves that normally hold diapers and toilet paper were completely emptied. And no one knew when new stock would arrive. And I only had two rolls of toilet paper left in the house. As my footsteps unconsciously sped up, I spotted more and more gaping sections of shelves where meat, rice, and bread used to be. It was hard not to panic, not to start snatching up whatever was left, not to take things I ordinarily wouldn't reach for.

Suddenly, I spotted a woman holding the Holy Grail: toilet paper! Trying not to jump on her like a rabid animal, I asked her where she had found hers and quickly followed her directions to a nearby store. I guess I wasn't totally taken aback when I saw the long line of people snaking out the door. The store worker unpacking the toilet paper told us very sweetly to each take just one pack. Despite the feeling of desperation in the air, I noticed everyone around me remained kind and helpful with each other. No rioting for the Japanese, thank god.

While we waited to pay for the precious toilet paper clutched in my arms, R glanced back and forth at all the people ahead of and behind us, and asked in amusement what everyone was doing. Thank god she managed to be distracted by a banana, since our shopping trip had taken twice as long as planned. As we emerged from one supermarket, I noticed the checkout lines had tripled in length.

Later in the afternoon, though, a stroll through a nearby park revealed couples cuddling on benches, people walking their dogs, old men drinking beer and fishing. Today, we saw a man washing his car, two ladies buying flowers, a mother pushing her son on a swing, people tending their gardens: the mundane and the frivolous, everyday life. When all the images being repeatedly displayed on the news show entire towns swallowed up by water, fires at nuclear plants, people lost and crying, it feels wrong to want to buy vanilla essence because you're running out. I look at the man sitting in the real estate office, the construction workers continuing to build that new house across from us, all those thousands of people cramming the train stations to capacity, lining up for miles and waiting for hours to get on a train to get to work: I marvel at their determination and optimism. It's tempting to want to huddle at home and listen to the dire news on the TV and radio all day long, but I think a lot of people around me are doing their best to get on with life. Having a toddler around has forced me to do the same: There are meals to cook, dirty fingers to wash, sand to shovel, naps to enforce. No time to just sit around and brood, though that doesn't mean my mind isn't racing when it's given the chance.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I'm sorry that it took a major disaster to get me blogging again, but here I am, mostly for my own sake, to get all my fears off my chest, to calm the panic, to share what's going on here in Tokyo.

The funny thing is that A, R, and I were all out of the country when the earthquake struck. A was in the US on a business trip. R and I were overseas, visiting my parents. Unfortunately, we were all scheduled to fly back the following day. A part of me hoped Narita Airport would stay closed, forcing all of us to stay away. It didn't. So here we are, back in Japan, four days later.

We actually arrived Saturday afternoon, our two flights close enough in time for A and I to meet at Narita and attempt to return to our apartment together. As soon as I called A from my cell phone after getting off the plane, and he explained the transportation situation, that's when the doubts started coming. The trains--really, the only decent way to get to and from the airport--had all stopped after the quake and many of them were still not running. Schedules were completely thrown to the wind. The only ones functioning were the local trains, which would stop at every single station. It could take hours--hours of standing, changing trains, waiting for new ones--to get home. And we happened to have a two year old with us, one who hadn't slept a wink on the plane and was already letting me know matter-of-factly that she was well and done with all this traveling business. I've bitched and moaned about it countless times, but never had the distance from Narita to Tokyo seemed so far as it did that night.

It was getting late, R was getting ornerier, and we finally got off the train, caught a taxi to Makuhari--a neighborhood near Disneyland--and checked into a hotel. It turned out to be an interesting stay. Makuhari is one of the newer residential areas, built on a landfill--not the most stable place to be during an earthquake. Although the proof of that wasn't clear until we woke up the next morning and took a walk down the street. Many of the sidewalks had actually buckled and cracked, and huge pools of mud had seeped through the cracks to cover entire sections of walkways and roads. And we were in Tokyo, which had supposedly been spared the full force of the quake.

I also saw, in a nearby neighborhood, people lining up for water.

Luckily, the trains we needed to get home were up and running, and we made it in about two hours. Even luckier, our apartment survived the 5.0 earthquake with only a single casualty: an overturned potted plant.

Unfortunately, the situation at the nuclear plant as well as the threat of additional earthquakes still hang over our heads, making the overall atmosphere tense. Well, I for one am feeling tense. And as selfish as this sounds, a part of me regrets returning to Japan. Yes, my husband is here, my home is here, but all I can think about right now is R. All my protective mom instincts are telling me that I should never have brought her back here. She's only two and doesn't have a clue what's happening, what could still happen. If it were just me, I would have come back to Japan and A without hesitation. But now I'm scared. I wonder, if there's another big earthquake, if everything comes crashing down and the streets are impassable, how am I going to get her to safety? How am I going to keep her safe and warm and clean and dry and not hurt, not hungry, not thirsty, not terrified?

The people in Sendai and the surrounding areas are the ones suffering right now and in desperate need of aid. I know I should be getting my act together and doing all I can to help. I know that.