Tokyo, Immigration and Aftershocks

I thought I would post about what it’s been like since returning to Tokyo last night.  The plane arrived at four pm, and the flight attendants warned us to get what we could at the airport convenience stores. Not that there was much left: No water, no milk, nothing with preservatives remained on the shelves.  The Narita express wasn’t running, so I took a bus into Shinjuku station. Once in Asagaya,  I was so exhausted I went straight to sleep, woke up to my bed shaking —  and glory be to jet lag — fell immediately back to sleep.

As far as my immediate area, there are no blackouts planned, but electricity is being used very sparingly. No escalators, elevators,  limited train use and an eerie absence of lights. The food situation (again in my immediate area, and from my very limited perspective) so far isn’t as dire as warned, and nothing compared to what’s happening up north.  There are some scattered signs of panic buying with cup noodles, pasta, and water sold out in most places, but most people aren’t hoarding. Strangest are the scattered distributions of paucity and glut: Standing in a Starbucks, for example, and overhearing a couple talk about hoarding toothpaste while sipping their lattes, getting a quick haircut at a near empty salon and having the stylist ask, “You see that run on toilet paper in the pharmacy downstairs?” or walking past some fancy mall restaurant and watching people eat lunch by candlelight. The best word I can use to describe the mood of the city is half: Trains at half capacity, half the people on the street, the half  light and half-stocked shelves of things, which often seem very random, albeit I’m only half aware of what I’d need in an emergency.

Most of the panic took place at the immigration bureau this morning, where hundreds upon hundreds of people were trying to get reentry permits to leave the country. The line trailed out the door and down the block, with another one winding across the street. As I was just renewing my visa, I was able to go directly inside, but only after climbing over a few barriers set up to keep the line orderly.  Inside it was so crowded that we could barely move.  People were fighting for wall space to fill out their applications, and at one point there was a small stampede down the wrong hallway with some poor immigration worker trying to shout people back: “This is a line for the bathroom!  Please!  Unless you want to use the toilet, go back! Go back!”

I took a number (420. They were on 202), and miraculously found a seat. The woman next to me started chatting, smugly comparing our numbers (hers was 330), and warning me that they were calling them out of order so tough luck if I wanted to pee.  Then she glanced back at the jammed hallways and sighed, “Don’t know why they’re so panicked. I mean you’re going to die when you’re going to die.” Gee. Thanks!

With adequate, if not perfect timing, the room took her words as a cue and began a soft swaying number. But shy as we were, we just dug in our heels.  Ms. Grim, myself and two young mothers stayed put, smiling at one another through gritted teeth, and making inane comments like “This building is new,” and “This is a government building. No worries!” Who knew that talking like a safety manual could actually be soothing?

And so it went, for two, three more hours. Who was counting by then? By the time I got my shiny new visa, immigration had thrown up its hands and was announcing that people could now get their reentry permits at the airport, a little too practical for them, which naturally raised even more suspicion. No one moved. As I left the building, the line was still trailing around the block.

(Note: I could not hear the announcement clearly, so double check on that “getting your reentry permit at the airport” thing before attempting to do so.)