Waiting for the flowers to bloom

Erin Sharpe is a Newfoundlander living and working in Japan. In this week’s Stray Puffin, she describes the experience of living through the 2011 earthquake…and the amazing story of what came after.

Late January 2011:

I had just started a new job, but my new apartment wasn’t ready yet. Luckily, I had lots of friends in Tokyo who would let me sleep on their couches until the new apartment finally came through. I was walking back to a friend’s apartment one night, and I noticed all the red flowers on the bushes, still green, in the rectangular, concrete flower boxes outside the rectangular, concrete apartments. And I felt kind of guilty.

“Japan is a country with four seasons,” people will tell you, over and over (and over). But Tokyo doesn’t really have a winter, not what a Newfoundlander would call winter. Winter means the ground is frozen and there’s snow up to your knees, or armpits, or over your head, and it certainly does NOT mean boxes of beautiful red flowers blooming comfortably OUTSIDE in JANUARY. At the end of the long, hard slog with winter, when my mom says “the back of the winter is broken now,” like it’s some mugger we’re fending off instead of a season to pass through, when the crocuses start to peek out through the grass and remaining patches of melting snow, we sigh in relief because we made it. Maybe that combination of living through Newfoundland winters and Catholic schooling created this feeling, but I feel like I need to EARN spring.

So flowers in January… how can I deserve the coming spring if this is what passes for winter?


…was a little colder, the red flowers dried up and blew away.

It even snowed once, and the snow stayed on the ground just long enough to delay my train home, but not long enough to have any fun with. I got settled into the new job. My future plans involved planting tomatoes behind the coming apartment (still delayed), some music projects at work, and finally joining a band that had invited me to a rehearsal.

In March…

…the long awaited apartment finally became available. Now settled, I started working on my plans for real. I met a senior colleague at work who was interested in some of my ideas – we planned a meeting for the following Monday. My last class of Friday afternoon was already done, and after a few more hours in the office I’d be home for the weekend, with plenty of time to prepare for that Monday meeting.

But then the floor started shaking.

There had been a shakier-than-usual earthquake earlier in the week, so at first we didn’t worry too much. Earthquakes are frequent in Japan and the buildings are built to take them.

But this time it kept shaking.

We decided to get out. Walking down the stairs, one of our staff members started to panic. I had a moment when I might have panicked too. I thought about the people who had died in the recent New Zealand earthquake that we had been canvassing donations for. People died. We could die. But I think my panicking friend saved my mind from wandering down that path, because she gave me something to do. I had to take care of her. I saw the tiles crack beneath our feet, and tried not to let her see them. On the street, people were pouring out of buildings, cars were stopped in the street. Someone suggested we head to the park; if windows smashed we would be less likely to get hit by shattered glass.

I saw the tiles crack beneath our feet…On the street, people were pouring out of buildings, cars were stopped in the street. Someone suggested we head to the park; if windows smashed we would be less likely to get hit by shattered glass.

It was weird – there we were in the park, folks from different businesses and a local university, all hanging out in this park. The earthquake had ended, but the aftershocks were coming every few minutes, shaking everything: lamp posts, trees and tall buildings swaying like bamboo in the wind. Some people dropped to the ground screaming, some just stood there.

In the coming days, we got the real news of what had happened up north where the quake hit hardest, and where the tsunami wiped away coastal towns. Roads and communications were damaged, everyone wanted to help but no one knew where to start. At work, we got organised. A team was sent up in a few vans with food and supplies. When they got back, a plan was set up, and we started sending volunteers. We worked around the clock. Strong aftershocks continued to hit, and we would all send messages to our groups of friends to make sure everyone was okay.

Soon, that was the new normal.

Spring came anyway.


The new apartment was about a 15 minute walk from a station called Ohanajaya, meaning flower teashop. There are two parallel streets that go straight down from the station to my street. One is lined with magnolia trees and one with cherry blossom trees. So one was beautiful at the middle and end of March, and the next one was beautiful at the beginning of April. I went to work every day of the week, doing my regular job and helping out with the emergency relief, and I could walk through those trees every day and be happy to be alive. But I didn’t plant anything in that garden I had waited for, during those weeks of sleeping on friends’ couches. Rumours would fly about the rain and the wind direction. I would get calls warning me not to get any rain on my skin today – it was radioactive.


We knew even less at that time than we do now. There were TV specials about what it was safe to use water for and what it wasn’t, offices were giving boxes of bottled water to employees, nobody knew the truth, so what could we do? Even if it were just a tomato plant, I didn’t feel like helping start any new life, only to get it contaminated.

I would get calls warning me not to get any rain on my skin today – it was radioactive. Maybe.

When the cherry blossoms bloom, Japanese people have picnics under the trees, cloudy with thick blossoms. Folks eat and drink and get a bit drunk, and enjoy the brevity of the beauty. The governor of Tokyo made some choice remarks, he said the earthquake and tsunami were a judgment from God for Japan’s greediness. That went over really well. I felt like I was listening to an American politician, or a mayor of Toronto.

To try to save face and look like he cared about the people suffering from that divine judgement, he called on citizens of Tokyo not to have cherry blossom parties, out of respect for the victims and survivors. This decree was not only ignored, but the opposite was sanctioned by governors from northern prefectures. They asked people further south to celebrate – to enjoy life even more – because it can go so quickly. How fitting is that. Japan is covered in cherry blossom trees – the variety that bloom beautifully but don’t actually produce any fruit. They bloom for a very short period – only about 10 days. I think the plum blossoms, coming out in February, are more beautiful in their vibrant pink, and the flowers last longer, and they even create something edible in the end. When I expressed this, an old man explained to me that it is not that cherry blossoms look more beautiful, but that they appear more beautiful since we have such a short time to appreciate them. The cherry blossom is the ultimate sign of spring and the coming of new life in Japan, but it is also the ultimate symbol of the fragility and impermanence of that life, and how we should take time to enjoy and appreciate it.

So, it fell to me to organize the hanami-bokin party, or the cherry blossom viewing-fundraiser party. We picked a spot in Yoyogi Park, one of Tokyo’s most famous, and set out our signs, flyers and donation boxes. We got a nice bit of money, and a nice bit of interest. As for the governor’s suggestion, it was rejected  completely. The park was packed. All the time the cherry blossoms rained their petals on us.

The mud was everywhere. It was cold and the sky was cloudy and everything was covered in mud or dust…The mud was full of rotting fish, broken glass, children’s toys…

And then it was my turn to go to the disaster zone.

The most strongly affected areas were much further north from Tokyo. As we drove north, I watched the cherry blossoms get fewer and fewer; finally there were none, and we were at the end of the magnolias again. We drove through the night and arrived in the morning to set up our tents. We got into protective gear – that mud that came up out of the ocean in the tsunami is toxic – and got to shoveling.

The mud was everywhere. It was cold and the sky was cloudy and everything was covered in mud or dust. We shoveled the mud from the streets, from homes and gardens, from a medical clinic, from a business. The mud was full of rotting fish, broken glass, children’s toys, bits of clothes or shoes, packs of gum, kitchen utensils, everything.

By the end of the week, the cherry blossoms had made it to Ishinomaki, the town in Miyagi prefecture where we were shoveling. We saw one cherry tree standing at a tilt with half the roots sticking out into the air and blooming anyway. Just like the people of Ishinomaki.


Back to Tokyo and spring became summer. I finally got around to planting some tomatoes. The rainy season was

Erin Sharpe atop Mount Fuji
not as rainy as usual, but it gave way to a hotter than average summer. Summer in Tokyo is oppressively hot. There are flowers, but the stronger impression is left by the huge leaves, the buzzing of cicadas and the intensity of the heat and humidity. We survive the winter in Newfoundland, but in Japan it’s about surviving the summer. The way most folks accomplish this is with an air conditioner. But with the nuclear power plants shut down or melting down, people were asked to conserve energy. So folks turned off their air conditioners. A daily report was displayed on the screens on my train about how much lower the energy consumption was than average. The request from the government was to cut power use by 25%, and it was nearly always met. I slept with an electric fan blowing on me and plastic bottles of frozen water at my feet.

Work life returned to normal, except we were still working on relief. The emergency relief team was re-organized into a separate unit, not just everybody doing extra hours. I wasn’t on it, so my contributions became less frequent. Day to day life returned almost to normal. But when grocery shopping, many people were suspicious of lower priced fruit, vegetables and fish. Was it cheaper because it was contaminated? Or because people were afraid it was contaminated? Or – something else entirely?


Autumn is really great in Japan. The autumn colours are nice, although outside the specially attractive leaf-viewing spots, they’re not particularly amazing. I would rather see the colours on the South Side Hills or along Waterford Bridge Road. The reason autumn is so great is that it stops being so bloody hot. Fields of cosmos start to bloom, and the persimmons get ripe. If you live in the right area you’ll get them for free. Someone with a persimmon tree will be trying to get rid of them so they don’t rot all over their property.

We’re bouncing back, the way humans and half uprooted cherry blossom trees do.

My tomatoes, planted late, finally started to produce a few tiny fruit. At work, I was back to working on music projects and doing my regular job. The relief effort had scaled back as the situation changed, as the needs of the people in affected areas changed, as public interest dropped. But our organisation carried on helping out up in northern Japan. The new project became organising the Global Conference for a Nuclear Free World. The earthquakes calmed down quite a lot, the strong shakes dropped to less than one a month in Tokyo.

Full circle

And now – Winter again.

The autumn leaves have gone, the fruit isn’t as cheap. The shocks are less and less frequent. Those red flowers are back, and there isn’t a hint of snow or even frost. I picked the tomatoes, none of them red. Since Tokyo’s ‘winter’ reminds me more of early spring, I am itching to dig weeds and put in fertilizer. Our organisation continues to send volunteers to help people in the affected areas put their lives back together. The anti-nuclear power conference went well, though the Japanese government apparently still needs to be convinced. This winter, lots of people in northern Japan are living in temporary housing. Lots of parents near Fukushima are worried about their kids getting cancer. But people are helping them, and they are helping themselves. We’re bouncing back, the way humans and half uprooted cherry blossom trees do. It is not going to be easy: it will be years before things are ‘normal’ again in northern Japan, and they probably never will be again in some parts of Fukushima. But the red flowers will bloom every winter, and the cherry blossoms will come back every spring.

And this year, I am going to plant my tomatoes on time.

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