Travel Stories

Japan 2012 Technine team trip – Rumble in the streets

Caught in the Japanese ‘quake

Words and Photos: E-Stone

When photographer E-Stone planned a trip to Japan with the Technine team, he thought a clash of egos was the worst that could happen. He hadn’t reckoned with mother nature…

The feature was scary enough as it was. Jake Devine was just dropping in for a test run. He jumped onto the rail but was a little off balance, catching his toe edge. He hit hard, and as his neck and back cracked on the cement, we knew it was bad. It soon became obvious he was going to have to take a trip to the hospital, but being hard as nails Jake insisted that he sit tight and let someone else give it a try first. Jonah Owen and Lucas Magoon grabbed their boards and headed to the top. They didn’t say a word to each other, but their silence wasn’t just anxiety about the rail – since their “incident” the tension between them was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Gooner was on a tear, finally feeling himself and riding well again after his traumatic brain injury last year. However, his confidence didn’t help him when he hit the rail – he was going too slow. He caught the very end of the redirect and let out a scream. Something had popped in his knee. Damn, what was wrong with this rail?!

Our guide yelled: “Look at the mountain!” I could see the trees moving, wobbling so hard it looked like they were all going to topple over

As Lucas jumped up and unstrapped, he was yelling something about disturbing the spirits. I wasn’t so sure, but there was a Japanese shrine next to the spot we were hitting, and soon Lucas was lying on the ground next to it praying. It was only as I was helping Lucas stand up, that I realized something was wrong. Something was very wrong – it felt like a huge weight was pushing on my body. I grabbed the shrine to steady myself, but it felt like a huge weight was pushing down on my body, some strange energy in the air was throwing me sideways. I was knocked to the ground and everything started violently shaking. Our guide yelled: “Look at the mountain!” I could see the trees moving, wobbling so hard it looked like they were all going to topple over. As we ran for cover my first thought was that we were going to die. There had been a lot of tension, a lot of bickering and fighting since we had arrived in Japan, and now we were going to die. Maybe we had messed with the spirits too much? I had felt earthquakes in my lifetime before, but this was like nothing I had ever experienced. As the tremors subsided and we struggled to get our heads round the magnitude of what just happened, I heard our guide Tim say solemnly: “Today, thousands of people will die in Japan.”

Things on the trip hadn’t been right for a while though. Just hours before the quake, we’d been waiting for the sun on an obstacle, when heard some yelling over by the van. “Go ahead, hit me! Punch me in the face, right here right now… see what happens!” Lucas Magoon was squaring off with Jonah Owen. Apparently an ill-placed shovel load of snow had gone right into the van, hitting our Japanese friend Masa in the face. Tension had been building between Lucas and Jonah since the night before and now they were face-to-face and spoiling for a fight. Any time you travel this tends to happen. Snowboard trips might look like they’re all fun and games, but the reality is that tight quarters and being crammed in a van together all day and night allows stress to get the better of people. As Lucas’s voice rose and expletives flew from his mouth, Jonah snapped. He lunged at Lucas but instead of punching Gooner, his fist fell like a hammer on our guide’s sideview mirror, completely knocking it off. TK, the most quiet and reserved of our Japanese guides, had been watching the whole affair like a ticking time bomb. He exploded and charged at Jonah. Jonah saw his mistake and realised what he had done to TK’s van; he had blown it. Tears streamed down his face and he ran off into the Japanese countryside.

As soon as Jonah disappeared, the sun broke and Jake declared he was ready to ride – but we couldn’t do anything until we got the situation in order. We jumped in the van and went on a hunt for Jonah. We found him lumbering through a small town nearby, and as we pulled up to him he said he was over the trip and wanted to go home. I walked with him through the dusty streets. The smell of Japanese food filled the air as we walked past noodle houses and fish markets. It should have been fun exploring all this with the crew, but this whole situation had gotten way out of control. It took thirty minutes to convince Jonah to come back to the spot and wait for us to get the shot of Jake. As soon as that was done, we were planning on heading back to the hotel and calling it a day. My new mission was to keep Jonah and Lucas separated.

The guardrail to redirect we were hitting was on an old man’s property. He’d given us permission the day before but he’d told us to stay out of the cemetery close by. All of his relatives were buried there, and one day he would be too. Snow melted from the top of his house dripping down onto the landing of the feature and into a stinking trench of brown water, running off into a muddy area under the bridge that was the landing of the redirect. About five feet from the landing, directly under the cemetery, was the shrine. It had eighteen odd-shaped rock monuments with carvings of people on them that we didn’t really understand. We had prayed to them and tossed a couple yen in the collection box for tradition’s sake anyway though. As the bungee went back for that first hit, one of our Japanese friends Hiro told me that he’d had a weird feeling. Apparently the shrine had been put there to commemorate a horrible accident, with each statue representing a soul that had been lost. So we were already feeling uneasy when Jake dropped in – all the tension from the riders fighting didn’t make matters any better. I readied my camera and I told myself everything would work out, that this was just the stress of travel getting to us. Little did I know, one of the worst natural disasters ever was about to shake things up.

Travis Kennedy had been shaken so badly by the quake that he was half in the bed and half on the floor, but he’d slept right through it!

Right after the quake, Lucas started freaking out. His knee was in bad shape and for a kid who had survived intense head trauma just a year before I think the whole scenario was just too much for him. He asked me to text his girlfriend and tell her to meet him in the “The White Realm,” a place he swears to have visited when he was in a coma. To be honest, we were all struggling to make sense of what the hell had just happened. Tim tried to call out on his cell but all the lines were busy. I texted my wife Angie back home in Utah. She turned on the news to see live footage of a giant tsunami heading right for the coast of Japan. With no idea what part of the country we were in, she instantly assumed the worst. I assured her we were on high ground, far from the ocean and she had nothing to worry about. She gave us a full update of what was happening. It was bad, and about to get worse. I have never been so homesick in my life, but there was no time to think – we still had two riders that needed to get to a hospital!

As we made our way into the emergency room everyone was glued to the TV. They were saying the earthquake that had just hit northeastern Japan measured 9.0 on the Richter scale. It was the fifth largest earthquake in the planet’s history, and the biggest since the early 1900s. A massive tsunami was making its way to Sendai, and people were trying to evacuate. Another tremor hit as we made our way back out to the parking lot – having been told we had to go to a different hospital. The ground swayed forcefully as we got in the van. We were able to get the in-car TV working and every channel was showing the same thing: Images of huge waves that looked at least two stories high tearing in to Sendai. We actually watched live as the town was obliterated. Giant boats were swept over walls and into the city. Then a nuclear power plant exploded, a huge blast.

Every channel was showing the same thing: images of huge waves tearing in towards Sendai. We actually watched live as the whole town was obliterated

Luckily for us, it turned out that Lucas and Jake weren’t too badly hurt, and we were able to leave the hospital quickly. We were all pretty scared though and were wondering what would happen next. That night we all sat in our hotel not knowing what to do. Could we fly home? Should we be helping out somehow? Our instincts told us we need to get off the island as soon as possible but there was a part of me that wanted to get north and try, I wasn’t sure how, but try to help the victims of the tsunami. Our guide Tim found out that all the roads were closed because the government had to check all the bridges for safety. It looked like we wouldn’t be going home – or anywhere else for that matter – in a hurry. The Japanese members of our crew were calling loved ones to reassure them. One of the guys, Hiro, was desperately trying to call his best friend who lived in one of the towns where the tsunami hit. We needed rest but we couldn’t wrench our eyes away from what we were seeing on our TVs. Eventually we fell into an uneasy sleep, the screens still flickering in the hotel room, showing yet more images of utter devastation.

For the second time that day, I was pretty sure that was it – we were going to die

I awoke in the middle of the night not knowing where I was. Everything was moving. It was happening again. Another earthquake was violently shaking our hotel, and our room was up on the fifth floor. Worse, the hotel itself was perched on the edge of a cliff. Cole and I jumped up at the same time, hastily grabbed a few things and ran for it. For the second time that day, I was pretty sure that was it – we were going to die in this hotel. Thankfully, we made it down the stairs in one piece, and gathered ourselves out front. Travis Kennedy, Lucas and Jake weren’t outside though. Someone was saying that they were calling for another earthquake of 7.0 magnitude to hit Nagano in the next hour. We had to get those dudes out of the hotel. I ran up to Kennedy’s room only to find him still asleep! He’d been shaken so badly that he was half in the bed and half on the floor, but he’d slept right through it. Out in the corridor, Jonah was coming down the hall carrying Lucas on a roll-away bed, with Jake and his neck brace in tow. It looked as if Lucas and Jonah had put their differences aside in light of the day’s events. We piled into our van, drove across the street to a parking lot as far away from tall buildings as possible and waited. Most of us drifted off to sleep, it was 4am after all, but we were woken up swiftly after by yet more shaking. When would this end? I sent a text out to my closest friends to telling them I appreciated their friendship and missed them. I really felt like any moment could be our last. The next morning, after riding out a couple more tremors, we turned on the TV to see footage of train tracks that had come loose and tumbled down a mountainside. It was about a mile from where we had been shooting just a couple of days before.

In the end, we decided it was best to just wait it out and hope things had been repaired so we could fly home on the day we’d planned to. Our flights were three days away, so with a bit of luck the roads and the airport would be open for us. Our local crew, Masaki, Reo, Hiro, Masa, Japanese TK and Tim the guide decided we could all do with some spiritual uplifting so they took us on a day trip to the Zenko-Ji Temple – a 7th century pilgrimage site that houses the Hibutsu, the first statue of Buddha ever brought to Japan. We also visited a giant statue of Jizu, the protector of travelers. We were not the only ones seeking solace – hundreds of people were flocking to the temple praying for relief.

Every time we turned on the news or the radio the death toll was rising. It was already in the thousands with many more missing. As the wave of sorrow and sadness washed over Japan in the wake of the tsunami, we felt like we a part of the whole thing. We’d been caught up in it too, and felt the same strange cocktail of emotions as the locals – relief that we’d survived mixed with horror at what we’d witnessed. We weren’t out of the woods yet either. The radiation from the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant was spreading. Dylan and Jonah decided to keep their skin completely covered, and wanted us to go straight to the nearest American consulate so they could be flown home. Back in the States, our friends and families were frightened to death. My phone was ringing so much that in the end I had to switch it off. For some of our crew of course, it wasn’t as easy as just calling home, or boarding a plane. That night, when we were supposed to go to dinner, Hiro was nowhere to be found. I eventually tracked him down to his room, where he was dealing with the devastating news that the friend he’d been tying to call was missing. The town and his family lived in had been washed away and they were dead. As a mark of respect, he decided to throw open his home in Tokyo to anyone from the tsunami-ravaged areas, and to help the victims in any way he could. We began to realize that with our homes and families to go back to, we were the lucky ones.

The radiation from the nearby Fukushima nuclear plant was spreading. Dylan and Jonah decided to keep their skin completely covered

The next day the situation worsened at the power plant, and there were more explosions on the news. The death toll just kept on rising, and so did the feeling that we were never going to leave Japan. How could anything normal like a plane taking off happen in the midst of such destruction? In the end, the roads did open, and we left for Tokyo as soon as we could. The highways were weirdly deserted, completely empty of traffic. More aftershocks were predicted, and the danger from radiation was still largely unknown. Jonah and Dylan were still really spooked. They wanted nothing more than to get home, and as we arrived in the city they insisted on being dropped off so they could get on the first available flight. The rest of us chose to spend our final night in Tokyo as we’d planned. There was a strange, ghost-like feel about the place though. All of the gas stations in Tokyo were closed. No fuel had been delivered. The shelves in 7-11 were empty. People had been panic buying, fearing the worst. The news said another large quake was going to hit Tokyo and that radiation could start leaking into the city. The aftershocks came in the night and the following morning, making our hotel sway back and forth. These lesser quakes shut the airport, so despite Jonah and Dylan’s best efforts, they couldn’t leave.

Later that day, the rest of us piled onto buses with tons of other anxious travelers and eventually made it to a crowded, but operational, airport. As we took off, I envisaged the earth opening up, and swallowing us. When we eventually touched down in the States, I had never been so happy to be home in my life. But my joy was bittersweet. I knew the people of Japan, my friends and fellow-riders, had more tragic times ahead. The last death toll I saw, published in mid-April, estimated 14,000 confirmed dead with another 14,000 missing. Around 136,000 people had been displaced by the disaster. Dangerous radiation continued to leak from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and it quickly became the norm in Japan to have a radiation meter in your home or on your person. I think about my friends in Japan all the time. What we went through with Masa, Masaki, TK, Tim, Reo, and Hiro made us closer, and made me realize how incredible the Japanese people are. I’m still amazed at how they collectively held it together in the face of this natural disaster. We have a lot to learn from them. I know they are strong, and I know they’ll recover, but they still have a long road ahead of them until a sense of normality is restored.

It might sound glib to say it, but the earthquake that hit Japan on 11 March 2011 literally changed everything. The final death toll from the quake, the tsunami and the aftershocks that followed was 15,698, with a further 4,666 people missing. On top of that, nearly lost their homes and livelihoods as entire towns were destroyed. Experts estimate that the overall cost to the economy could exceed US$300 billion. But while the reconstruction effort is underway and people are returning to the stricken areas of the country there is still more long-term damage to Japan that has yet to emerge. Radiation leaking from the damaged nuclear plant at Fukushima has not only seeped into the soil and the water, but also into people’s ways of thinking. The way the leak and information about it were handled by the government and the powerful Tokyo Electric Company led to accusations of a cover-up. Questions are being asked about why levels of radiation that were previously deemed dangerous are now said to be safe, and a lot of people have lost their previously unshakeable faith in the authorities. On the 26th August, the Prime Minister was forced to step down over his handling of the affair. Japanese people have been taking to the streets (a rarity in a culture where compliance is the norm) and demanding an end to nuclear power. Suspicions about how ‘safe’ the area being re-populated is still exist. So while the damage that can be counted in casualties and dollars is bad enough, the earthquake may also have had a lasting effect on Japan’s culture and way of life.


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