The March 2011 Constructing Excellence study tour to Japan

All members of our Japan study tour are safely back in the UK. The last three days of the Japan study tour were extraordinary, and of course the full horror is still unfurling of the impact of the tsunami including on the nuclear power station at Fukushima. Events and emotions for us went something like this:

We finished our study tour at lunchtime on the Friday. The week had included visits up north to nuclear power stations under construction as well as meetings in Tokyo with many of the big contractors – including a fascinating visit to Shimizu’s research institute to see their latest earthquake-resistant buildings, very impressive. We had the afternoon off to see some sights or buy presents, and the party split up into smaller groups.

At 2.56, I was in my hotel room, with the TV on to enable an internet connection. A blaring sound came out of the TV and a red notice appeared on the screen, in Japanese. This awful sound is seared on my mind for ever more – it is the earthquake warning, and it comes about 30 seconds in advance of every earthquake of any size….. At first, it was terrifying – the 6th strongest earthquake ever and Japan’s biggest, 800 times more powerful than the Christchurch one – I was on the 10th floor of our hotel and it was like being on a small boat in mountainous seas, I eventually ran down the fire escape and got out to the street to watch the buildings swaying by 15 feet or more. The quake lasted some 7 minutes. It transpires that the island of Japan moved by 6 feet…???!!!! Elsewhere, one of our group saw cars lifted off the ground, and Jenefer from Balfour Beatty Vinci had the wit to film a temple shaking. People went back inside after half an hour or so, and I collected some stuff from my room, but the next hour saw six ‘after-shocks’ all stronger than Christchurch, so it was no fun at all and I soon went back outside. At last I found one of our tour party, and we went for a coffee and then to the hotel bar.

Next it was blitz-like, as we regrouped. Half found our way to the hotel bar within 1-2 hours, but the others had to hike 10 miles or more via the British embassy for a recovery halt. Others had been in meetings downtown, 3 of them even carried on with a meeting (?!) and so found themselves under tables during aftershocks. We began to think about a recovery plan as Tokyo became gridlocked and all planes, trains and buses ceased to run. We had been due to fly home the next morning, but it soon became apparent that all flights were cancelled or delayed. Black humour pervaded.

Then there was the horror and shock as we watched the impact of the tsunami on Japan’s eastern coast via the gripping live news coverage live on TV in the hotel bar, for many hours. This shock continues as we see more and more of the coverage now we are back in the UK.

Next it was impressive as we watched Tokyo stoically return to business as usual. Many office workers had not been able to get home so had slept in their offices. We saw that the city was virtually unscathed by such a huge tremor and the 200 after-shocks over the next 2 days, which continued to un-nerve many of us. Some of us decided to stay on the ground floor, and we set up a camp. Some went upstairs to sleep at one point, but then another big quake at 4am brought 7 of us back down to the ground floor and there we stayed until the morning.

The next morning the gridlock eased and the airports re-opened, so many of our party decided to head for the airport. Information about flight times was available, but unclear, and the journey for many was grim, 8 hours in a taxi and then 24 hours on the floor at the airport. Others were luckier, leaving it later and getting to the airport in normal time. Still little evidence of any damage in Tokyo – except a bent mast on the main TV tower! Finally, relief as the plane took off and the joy of returning to solid land which doesn’t rock or shudder under your feet every few minutes. But ultimately deeply worrying, as the nuclear power station story unfurled – not a station we had visited when in the same region 3 days earlier, but an incident into which many of our party had huge technical insight but needed our reports via emails and texts of the live TV coverage to understand it.

Fingers crossed for our new friends and colleagues in Japan, they are such a kind and considerate population and do not deserve this.