Shake, Rattle and Hitchhike

By Peter M. Beck
14 March 2011

There’s nothing like a massive earthquake to rediscover the kindness of strangers. I was on my first trip outside of Tokyo to get a taste of Japan’s famed skiing. Kagura is almost 200 kilometers north in Niigata Prefecture, but the bullet train makes it possible to leave in the morning, get in a full day of skiing and be home in time for dinner—on a normal day. An intense snowstorm struck around noon. I soon resembled a snowman. At -10 or -15 Celsius, I also began to feel like one. I was in a chalet half way up the slope warming my hands when the building began to sway. I thought it was the wind until the cooks came out of the kitchen yelling “jishin!” The word is close enough to the Korean (both come from Chinese) that I knew exactly what they meant.

With all train service halted, I was forced to spend the night. Officials (and the public more broadly) could not have managed the potential chaos more smoothly. Within minutes I had a room at a hotel near the train station. Because of the earthquake, international calls were free. No one was trying to make a fast buck. But at 4 the next morning, I was nearly shaken out of bed by an even more violent tremor. It was “only” a 6.6 on the Richter scale, which is almost nothing compared to the 8.9 that struck off the east coast, but this one was vastly closer. Even more unsettling were the aftershocks, which were frequent and at times intense. Two struck during a call to my family. By then I was estimating the magnitude with a surprising degree of accuracy. I grew up in California attending San Jose Earthquakes soccer games, but I was in Seoul teaching English to my future wife when the 1989 Bay Area quake struck and I slept through the 1994 Los Angeles tremor in distant San Diego.

Given all of the aftershocks, I knew it could easily be another day before train service would resume, but I was determined not to sit around in a hotel that no longer had water. I decided to revert to my preferred means of travel in Japan during my college days: Hitchhiking. One of my professors, the late Chalmers Johnson, had strongly urged me to give it a try. Back then, there were plenty of trains, but I had no money for them. Facing the reverse this time made the experience much less humiliating. I made a sign reading “Tokyo” in my best Chinese characters and stood near the entrance to the expressway. After nearly two hours, I was finally picked up by Naoki, who told me, “I gave you a ride because Japanese people are shy and you might have to wait a long time.” A former banker, Naoki had also been enjoying the superb powder at Kagura when Japan’s worst-ever earthquake struck. He was on his way with water and food for his parents, who live closer to the epicenter of the 8.9 quake.

When he had to turn east, he dropped me off at a rest area. It was fairly desolate and there was only an hour of daylight remaining, so I was not sure what I was going to do if it took longer than that to find a ride. Fortunately, I was picked up after less than half an hour by a young couple, Daisuke and Makiko. After listening to an eclectic array of songs on their MP3 player, I discovered that my driver is the bass player for the Japanese rock band LAYZis ( Even though I never cared for the group that most inspired him, Motely Crew, LAYZis has gained a devout fan.

Back in Tokyo, life had already returned to normal—a testament to Japan’s strict building codes. It was hard to believe that just one day earlier, millions had faced epic walks home. Shizuoka University Professor Nakamoto Yoshihiko informed me that it took him and his wife a combined nine hours to make their journeys. Other than bare supermarket shelves, it felt like a normal Saturday evening. Yet, I will have a reminder of this earthquake every time I look out my window: The needle on top of the Tokyo Tower now resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

***Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Fellow, Keio University, Tokyo.

See Beck's Jan. 2007 Article
"Meet an American Imperialist", April 28, 2007
"Expanding Korea's Soft-Power", May 26, 2007
"Leaving Seoul", July 11,2007
"Leaps of Faith", Sept. 2,2007
A Brewing Revolution, Oct. 2007
Talking-points for The Sejong Society, Feb. 2008
Every body should see the film, "The Crossing". May 31, 2008
Yonsei Univ. Syllabus, July 2008
When Bubbles Burst-Daewoo All Over Again, April 11, 2009
"Don't send Al". May 5, 2009
"Republic of suicides". June 1, 2009.
"Wall Street Journal Article". Jan. 4, 2010
"Annual articles to Encylopedia Britannica", Feb. 16, 2010.
"Foreign Policy", Dec. 30, 2010.
"Mubarak 2011-02-04".

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