This is the story of my flight from Tokyo. On Monday my University decided it would be easier and safer for us all to stay home because the municipal government had introduced rolling power cuts (5 hours a day!) and the train system had switched to electricity conservation mode, which meant queues of two hours to get onto trains.  Getting to work was hard and with aftershocks still rolling by (there were two significant ones while I tried to sleep on Monday night) nobody thought it would be particularly safe to be traveling to and from work. So we were told to work from home. I realized at this point that working from home can be done just as well from my partner’s home in Beppu, where I was living before – well away from earthquakes, nuclear fallout and even Godzilla (if the fallout heads over the sea). So, on Tuesday I left Tokyo for distant Beppu.

Of course I took the Japanese internally displaced person’s preferred mode of evacuation – the shinkansen (bullet train). I chose this means for several reasons – prices don’t change depending on time before the booking, you can pay for a non-reserved ticket that can be used anytime (very handy for evacuations, especially if you want to have a coffee before you get on the train), you don’t have to do the hour-and-a-half trek across town to the airport (or arrive early), and the shinkansen rocks.

By Tuesday morning Tokyo was in nothing like the state I had expected. On Monday night the rolling blackouts were canceled, and when I got to Kichijoji station at 11am it was as silent as any normal day in Tokyo. The only slightly unusual thing I saw was intense activity in the local supermarkets, but this was probably as much due to their restricted hours (10 to 4pm instead of 9am to 1am) as any panic buying. Everything appeared to be operating normally, though some convenience stores were slightly less well lit. I suspect that the energy conservation needs were met by the many big businesses that have shut down this week, and the train system running on a reduced timetable, plus individuals’ efforts, and the blackouts were no longer necessary.

So, onto my train I hopped, and off to Tokyo station to find my steel salvation. Not that I felt very much in need of salvation, and actually I was feeling twinges of guilt about leaving Tokyo as I passed through a completely normal day with the intention of “working from home” on the other side of the country.

But all that changed when I reached Tokyo station, the shinkansen departure point, which was thronged with people all sharing one goal – to get out. I saw it as soon as I arrived – huge queues at the shinkansen ticket booth, perhaps a hundred or more people in each, plus a constant queue 3 deep at every ticket vending machine, as thousands of people descended on Japan’s fastest escape route on a Tuesday midday. Where usually the station would be quiet, and the shinkansen counter being visited primarily by groups of businessmen or little groups of pretty ladies-who-lunch off on a day trip (perhaps Haiku writing, or off to some seasonal event) today it was packed with families, with children and pets, waiting to buy their exit tickets. There were many foreigners also trying to find tickets, and most telling of all the Japanese were carrying their luggage with them. Usually when a Japanese family go on a trip, they plan ahead and arrange a courier to deliver their bags overnight to their destination (this costs about 1200 yen). But this time they clearly hadn’t had time to arrange such niceties, and were dragging their clothes, valuables and pets with them on the train. This, I am sure, is the first and clearest sign of genuine panic.

But panic there was not, with everyone going about their evacuation business in the calm, orderly way in which Japanese people do everything. Nobody jumped queues, people apologized for moving through your queue if it was in their way, and everybody waited patiently while the person in front of them struggled with the vending machines. There were many staff yelling instructions, so in that strange way that Japan does, where everyone is quiet and goes about their business calmly against a backdrop of strident business-like yelling, things proceeded merely as if it were the start of the long national holidays. The staff at the station – barring one idiot – were calm and reassuring, and everything happened with ease.

First I asked a polite young lady for lockers, and put my luggage out of my way, then I went to the exit from the station and asked an extremely agitated and ignorant older man if I could buy a ticket outside the station. He said no, I would have to go back inside the station to the shinkansen counter and wait with the other million people to buy my ticket. I foolishly believed him, and spent the next 20 minutes trying to find the right queue, and then trying to operate the vending machines (I’m no fool but I couldn’t even get the English language version to produce a ticket). Worrying about spending all my available cash on the wrong ticket, I asked a helpful station chap what to do and he told me “there’s a ticket shop right outside the gate – it’ll be quieter there!” I think he even patted me on the back. So I toddled out past the idiot who had misdirected me before, turned left and found a completely empty ticket counter, with noone waiting. It was quiet, airconditioned, calm, a few people using the machines… so my ticket purchase took all of a total of 25 minutes – 20 minutes of confusion, 4 minutes of ticket purchase[1], and 1 minute of helping an extremely rude American woman ask questions of the staff, for which she did not even thank me.

So, having booked a ticket, off I went to get lunch, and here again I found signs of chaos. I went to the “Soup Stock Tokyo” to get curry rice, and the staff said to me – very apologetically – that they had run out of rice and were cooking more and could I wait half an hour? This was the middle of the lunch-hour rush. How could a shop catering to the lunch hour rush in Tokyo have run out of rice? This was a Japanese version of the cheese-shop skit. So I found myself, on a normal Tuesday afternoon in Tokyo, eating bread. Nonetheless, I found a relaxing cafe, took in the subterranean Tokyo atmosphere, and then plunged back into the chaos of the station to find my 13:30 train.

The train arrived on time, was prepped on time, and we all got in and found our seats. Next to me was an Italian chap, his Japanese girlfriend and their slobbery shitzuh dog, which looked at me with wizened eyes and rasped its slobbery rasp from inside its carry bag. The Italian told me that his embassy had advised him “If you can’t leave Japan head South” so he and his girlfriend were fleeing to Kyoto without a plan. But with a dog. Her relatives lived in Fukushima and she spent the entire train ride trying to call them on her mobile – also a big breach of Japanese etiquette, to use a phone in the carriage, but I presume if she made contact she was going to dash out of the carriage, and in any case everyone would surely forgive her. Apparently her relatives were safe but refusing to leave.

For those who have never had the singular pleasure of flying across the countryside on elevated rails, watching vast swathes of mountain and city flash by like they were Made In Dream, Japanese Shinkansens have separate carriages for reserved and non-reserved seats[2], with the first three carriages set aside for people without reservations. In rush hour these are like commuter trains, packed with people standing. But today, on a Tuesday afternoon, those carriages were so packed that people flowed over into carriage 4. And unlike a normal commuter morning, they didn’t empty out at Shinagawa or Yokohama – people were standing all the way to Kyoto, a 3 hour trip. More signs that this was an exodus, not a normal travelling day. I had visions of nuclear disaster up north, and JR rendering all carriages into non-reserved, so that every shinkansen leaving Tokyo was speeding through the Spring fog packed to the gunnels with desperate people leaving. There is a shinkansen every 8 minutes – could they empty Tokyo within a day? What a strange contrast to the survivors of previous eras’ disasters, shambling along roads with their possessions on their backs or on makeshift carts.

No, instead we in modern Japan are hurled out of the zone of chaos on metal rails, insulated from the world around us and listening to the calming voice of the announcer asking us only to smoke in the designated rooms and to refrain from talking on mobile phones. And once we were out we all felt that lifting of the spirits that comes with a worry left behind, and indeed once past Shizuoka (where last night there was a magnitude 6 aftershock, that damaged nothing) it was impossible not to be relieved. I walked up to carriage 8 to get a coffee just before Shin-Osaka and saw in every carriage a family with a pet in a cage[3], but once we were past Shin-Osaka the train returned to its normal quiet, nearly empty weekday norm.

And here’s the final beauty of it all … expecting delays in all the panic and confusion, my helpful ticket official at Tokyo station had booked my follow-on train at Kokura with an extra 20 minute wait, to ensure that I didn’t miss it. But everything went so smoothly according to schedule that I was able to catch an earlier connection, and reached Beppu an hour earlier than intended.

Only in Japan can an evacuation train arrive early at its destination …

fn1: for some unfathomable reason, Japan Rail tickets take an age to issue.

fn2: Unlike British trains, where you regularly have to turf someone out of your seat; also unlike British trains, Japanese train doors open from the inside

fn3: It isn’t entirely unusual to see pets on the shinkansen, but more than one in a whole train is weird. I once saw a Russian family with 3 perfect little Russian children carrying two ferrets and a rabbit, but in general one doesn’t see this sort of thing very often. No doubt there is a pet courier service that provides superior comfort and transport quality for one’s precious wan-chan