Another week, another typhoon. Except this one, Super Typhoon 19 Hagibis (meaning “speed” in Tagalog) was reported to be the strongest “in decades” and was going to pass right over central Tokyo.
I found out when I arrived at work on Friday that all lessons in all schools in the Tokyo region had been cancelled for both Saturday and Sunday (I already had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off, yay!) because of the typhoon. It was due to hit on Saturday and I was working late on Friday night. As a result I didn’t get an opportunity to “stock up” at my usual supermarket as it closed by the time I got home. I had noticed some of my students in the evening were carrying shopping bags, one explained he had been stocking up on his way home.
Elsewhere in Tokyo people had been stocking up on food and water leaving shelves empty. It wasn’t because they expected the storm to last a long time, but if it resulted in water and electricity being cut off for several days, they wanted to be prepared.
It was a genuine concern. Some parts of Tokyo are reclaimed land and very vulnerable to flooding. Other parts (like mine) have multiple rivers running through them. I didn’t find out until it was too late, but in my ward they recommended everyone evacuate to a public facility due to the risk of flooding.
I wasn’t too worried. I’m on the 2nd floor (in UK terms) and my building is nestled among many taller buildings. The Brazilian handyman guy who lives here (I presume in some official capacity – he’s always putting the rubbish out and tidying) had been taping up the windows and filling every available receptacle with water.
Through the morning and afternoon it was blustery but not especially powerful. I mostly slept through this stage. I didn’t go out but I heard lots of loudspeaker messages (either from mobile sound-cars or from the emergency public address system). I had no idea what they were saying, it could have been “everything is fine” or “flee for your lives!”
All the trains and buses were cancelled across the city. All the businesses were closed, even the 24-hour convenience stores. The streets were empty, apart from emergency vehicles and the odd private car taking a risky journey for who knows what important reason.
I could smell the ocean when I opened my Venetian-style windows a crack. That salty-ozone smell that tells you here, I’m dumping a small part of the Pacific Ocean all over your city.
It started to get especially fierce around teatime. The wind became a permanent background drone, like in a mountaineering or arctic explorer movie. The rain hammered against the windows. Sometimes the windows rattled a little from the wind.
I could hear banging from upstairs. I’d never been upstairs. I gingerly crept up to have a look. There was a door leading out to the roof, it was open, and swinging violently in the wind. There were a couple of pairs of slippers on the inside.
Wary of being sucked out and hurled off the roof (I may be overdramatizing a little), I edged along the wall, grabbed the door and secured it shut with the twist lock. Then I looked at the slippers. Was someone out there? Why would someone be out there? How desperate would someone be for a cigarette? Have I just trapped someone on the roof in a typhoon?
I opened the door again and stuck my head out. I couldn’t see anyone, but I couldn’t see the entire roof. I stuck my head out a bit further and tried to peek round the corner. All I could see was other buildings, driving rain and darkness. No-one would be crazy enough to be standing out there. If they were I’m sure I’d hear them banging the door in desperation. I locked the door and went back to my room.
My supply situation wasn’t bad. I couldn’t make any meals but I had a cup noodle, some tubs of ice-cream, cereal, crackers, chocolate, plenty of crisps and fizzy drinks, not a whole lot of water. It was around the time I was demolishing one of the ice-cream tubs that I heard something large and metallic crash, bounce a couple of times, and hit the ground. I still don’t know what it was, I thought it might be the outside part of my air-conditioning unit (it wasn’t). I had no desire to even open a window to try and look.
Water was coming through windows that were even closed and locked. I don’t know how. Not much but the odd drop. The big wire-mesh windows in the hallway, my best albeit still restricted view of the storm, were moving back and forward continuously. The trees in the precinct outside were taking a hell of a hammering. I saw a figure in the distance come out of one of the high-rise houses. I can’t think of any reason to explain why they would do that. I saw other people moving along the open balcony pathways from door to door, on the sixth floor! Not for all the money in the world!
For the first time I thought it might be prudent to check the internet for advice (I still had electricity and wifi). That’s when I found out about the evacuation centre in my ward. Definitely too late now. Anyway, there were plenty of other people in my sharehouse who had decided to just sit out the storm here.
Around 9 or 10 pm, the continual drone of the wind abruptly stopped. The rain pattered on for another hour or so then eventually it too ceased. The storm had passed.
Because I had napped most of Saturday afternoon, I stayed up all night and at 8am decided to go out and take a look at the damage. I’d never been to the riverside, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to make that walk.
For the first time since Friday, I opened the front door, and I saw… leaves. So many leaves, strewn across the steps down to the street. As I stepped out it wasn’t just leaves, whole branches were lying around.
There wasn’t really much debris, to be fair. For one thing, Japanese are so tidy that there wasn’t much out there to blow around in the first place, for another, they were already up cleaning and sweeping and tidying their little parts of the street.
It very quickly became clear that the major casualties of the typhoon in this part of Tokyo were umbrellas and bicycles. Splayed umbrella skeletons seemed to be wrapped around fences and lamp-posts at regular intervals. And anyone who had left their bicycle outside in a public parking space will be lucky if they come back to find it still there, never mind in one piece.
Several businesses had hand-written signs taped to their windows which I presume said “closed for the typhoon, back Sunday (or Monday). Sunny Mall seemed to be due to open at 10am as usual. Aeon Mall was already open! So my worry about not having stocked up was unnecessary.
I kept walking in the direction of the river, taking occasional pathetic pictures of the “devastation” (oh look, that tree is leaning slightly. This trellis has come apart from the wall) to the bemusement of locals. I don’t think I’m going to win a Pulitzer for this one.
The walk was worth it for the river view though. It is actually 2 rivers running alongside each other, the larger Arakawa river, and the Naka river on the east side. The thin embankment that separates them supports an overhead motorway. Neither river seemed particularly close to overflowing, and like the rest of my walk the amount of debris visible was minimal.
On the way back I passed some of the houses that live on the other side of the Naka embankment, below the normal level of the river. These had quite sensibly set out sandbags and other precautions against potential flooding, and I could see why the evacuation centres might have been necessary after all.
It was a hot, sunny morning. Not just short-sleeve weather, it was swimsuit weather, in the middle of October. People were out and about, kids playing in the street, mamas on their bicycles with kids front and rear, older folks sweeping and tidying and fussing. Typhoons come and go but the good people of Tokyo endure.