Editor's Note: The writer, Adrienne Smith, is a longtime Bronxville resident who, as the name of her column states, is a Constant Traveler. Where are you this week, Adrienne?
May 25, 2011: On March 11, 2011, a six-minute-long magnitude-9.0 earthquake, one of the five most powerful in the world since 1900, struck in the Sendai region north of Tokyo. It was followed within an hour by a massive tsunami, which rose to a maximum height of 128 feet and traveled as far as six miles inland in certain spots.
As we all know now, these natural events set off a cataclysmic sequence within the six nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, with consequent release of radiation, ranking it at the same level as the Chernobyl disaster. As of now, over 15,000 Japanese are known dead and another 10,000 are missing. In the total picture, this may end up being the most expensive natural disaster on record, currently estimated at up to $300 billion, surpassing the next worst, Hurricane Katrina.
Reports of the situation in Japan had been sketchy at best and ran the gamut from underreporting, in the case of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and the Japanese government, to alarmist, in the Western press. My contact with Japanese friends left me unsure whether they were being stoic or realistic.
I became an accidental earthquake observer when my family and I found ourselves in the middle of the 7.6-magnitude event in Istanbul in August 1999, so I determined to go to Tokyo to see for myself how the city had been affected. I booked a flight on ANA, and, 13 hours later, arrived at Narita Airport and boarded a bus for my hotel.
I chose to stay at the Hotel Okura, which is almost like home to me. I first stayed there with my husband and nine-month-old daughter in 1973, suffered through a bout of pneumonia there on another trip 15 years later, and enjoyed many other visits over the years. The hotel has been surpassed in glitz by a number of newcomers, including the Grand Hyatt, featured prominently in Lost in Translation, the Four Seasons, and a Ritz Carlton. But its old-style, quiet, and authentically Japanese elegance, combined with impeccable service, continues to make it a good choice.
On arrival, I inquired about whether I might join any group traveling near the earthquake region but quickly found out that nothing of that sort existed. As a result, I had to recalibrate my plans and expectations and try to glean what I could from a six-day stay in Tokyo, itself.
The Okura was operating on a limited basis. One-half of the hotel was closed, except for a few function rooms, restaurants, and bars. A sign in the lobby informed guests of reduced hours for the restaurants, possible elevator slowdowns, and closure of the business center. A number of the escalators were limited to the up direction only and sometimes closed completely. The air conditioning in my room was turned off, but, given the fine spring weather, this was not a problem.
Each day, the main English-language newspaper, the Japan Times, reported on radiation levels throughout Japan. These levels were given in microsieverts per hour (mS/h), a measurement that computes possible biological damage based on the types of radiation emitted. On my last day there, the reading was 0.063 in Tokyo and 3.08 in Fukushima. By comparison, the average radiation level in the United States in a given hour is 0.00034 mSv/h, a single mammogram exposure delivers 2 mSv, and a chest CT scan anywhere from 6 to 18 mSv. Most of Japan's readings outside the Fukushima area are reportedly below a dangerous level.
The region continues to be hit with aftershocks, although their intensity is diminishing dramatically. On my second day there, while sitting on my bed reading, I noticed that the bed was shaking mildly and that the curtains were swaying. This lasted all of a minute and then stopped. This was the only tremor that I actually felt during my stay.
Collection boxes for disaster relief are everywhere: stores, subways, even the Okura lobby. So, while Japan is not actively soliciting funds from abroad, domestic gifts are welcomed.
Daily newspaper stories reflect the uncertainty and uneasiness that the Japanese people feel. First, more detailed inspections of the reactors have revealed small holes in their housings, which complicates the issue of simply pouring cold water onto the fuel rods, since radiation-loaded fluid may then exit into the surrounding land and sea.
Second, the government is being heavily criticized for its failure to acknowledge the severity of the crisis, whether due to lack of relevant information or deliberate misstatements. This may ultimately result in its collapse.
Third, the $64,000 question is who will pay for the damage. Will it be TEPCO, which can simply turn around and raise rates to consumers, or the government, financing its payouts with increased taxes? In either event, the Japanese people will bear the brunt.
Fourth, with six reactors out of commission and another elsewhere in Japan recently shut down for safety concerns, how will Japan meet its energy needs in the short run, i.e., its approaching, typically hot and humid summer; and then in the long run, i.e., with a continued commitment to nuclear energy or a switch to other sources?
The Japanese people to whom I talked approached their situation with rational acceptance, reminiscent of attitudes in New York after 9/11. They said they would make do, cut back where necessary, and endure. But they also expressed concern about living on a geologically active archipelago, a place that one scientist said should never be the site of nuclear reactors.
Life goes on. The city is bustling. Time will tell.
Pictured here: The coffee shop in the Okura Hotel in Tokyo where the writer stayed post the earthquake.