Escape from Japan


I stepped inside iBrew – one of the most frequented craft-beer pub in the Ginza area of Tokyo. The beer at iBrew is all Japanese and comes from across Japan. iBrew is located about ten minutes from the Kyobashi exit of Yurakucho station on the JR Yamanote line. Its is a seriously tiny place. It can accommodate a maximum of 12 normal sized people inside and that is sitting shoulder to shoulder. I always like to sit on stool next to the bar counter. But then you must book this seat in advance. The concierge of my hotel had done the booking for me. He gave me a tag that had my name written in Japanese. “Show this card to the girl at the door” he said.


The iBrew 

The girl who ushered me to the counter  had a smiling face and looked busy and efficient. She spoke some “Jinglish” while getting me a stool and asked the barman to give me the “catalogue”. The barman asked me “Sir, Do you want a weizenbock? A pilsner? A wheat beer? Or an IPA? I was lost. All I knew is that the place was cheap. Too cheap for craft beer in Tokyo. Regular glasses, about 220ml, are ¥421 that included tax, and large glasses, about 450ml, are ¥745 with tax.


So many taps of Craft Beer

When she saw my confused face, she asked me to start with Iwate-kura. This old ale is like the symphony of hops. It is perhaps the bitterest ale in the world once voyaged from England to India and now brewed in Japan. The Barman said that my last glass should be Tazawako to end with something mild and sweet. I nodded.


iBrew sported more women than men

The Japanese woman sitting next to me was having a wheat beer. She was having an animated conversation with the Barman. She seemed to be alone and looked real tired of the long work day.  I could only see her face in the dim lights. The face looked pretty. She sported dimples. The woman finished the first regular glass and asked for one more – this time a large one. She turned to me and said something in Japanese pointing to the Iwate-Kura I was having. Obviously I did not understand but perhaps she was appreciating my choice as I saw expressions on her face. I said “well, not my choice – it’s a recommendation from the girl”. The woman said “No Understand English!” with an expression of helplessness.

But the woman carried on. She opened her purse and took out a family photograph. I could see her in the photograph, with her husband and two children – a boy and a girl in the age of 25 to 30 years. Looked like a recently taken photo. She pointed to the man in the photo standing next to her and said something in Japanese. And I said “Husband?”, “Aha – she said and spoke at length about him in Japanese. I didn’t understand a bit, but just from her animated talk and expressions of love on her face I guessed that she probably said “See how handsome he is, so loving and I love him too!” I may have been right.

She had a large gulp of the wheat beer and then pointed at the girl in the photograph. “She America”, the woman said with a face how she is missing her daughter. I told her “my daughter also America and I miss her too”. She held my hand and smiled. “And this my Son”, so the last member of the photograph was introduced. “He study in Miyako”. She said this proudly. I had heard about Miyako city in the Iwate Prefecture. The woman touched my glass of beer and said “Iwate.. Iwate-Kura”. Oh now I understood why she liked “my choice” of the craft beer.

We continued our “conversation” thereafter. I wish I had my family photograph with me to show her. It was about 11 pm and I decided to leave. When I got up from the bar stool to say good bye, the woman got up and said “domo arigatou” (means thank you). I then realized how pretty this woman was. She had an elegant body between the age of 45 to 50 (but could be more as you cannot easily tell the age of a Japanese woman). She then called the bar girl and spoke to her for couple of minutes in an exciting tone. Once she finished, the bar girl spoke to me in Jinglish “She go to Miyako tomorrow morning with Husband. Her son Jim study there. She wants you to wish well for Jim”.    I said “Oh Yes – very much – I wish him all the success”. And I could see happiness on the face of the woman. I left iBrew and reached back to the hotel.

The next day I had a meeting at the office of Asian Productivity Organization (APO) on Strategic Planning for the Green Productivity Program. There were 15 of us. The meeting was good. I was staying in a nearby hotel – just a walking distance.

On the first day night, there was a tremor. I was on the thirteenth floor of the hotel. There were strong vibrations. The alarm clock on the shelf in my room fell down. The bed quivered. I was worried and called the reception. The man in the reception said “Don’t worry. This happens in Japan”. I wasn’t very much convinced but managed to sleep.

The next day evening, we decided to go out for the dinner and I chose to go to “Ishoto”– the famous vegan restaurant in azabujuban in Minato. My good friends at APO Setsuko Miyakawa and K D Bharadwaj (KD) had earlier introduced me to this wonderful small two room restaurant. Three participants of the APO meeting joined me.


The Ishoto

Ishoto offers cooking found at Zen temples in Japan. It’s a cross between home and a small temple, and is beautifully decorated with old furniture and screens. Food is served in several small portions at a time. Food items include a riff on tempura with vegetables dipped in mochi rice instead of a dough. Asparagus wrapped in yuba. Tofu and maccha jelly (kanten) mixed together in the bowl. A broth (kombu base, I assume) with yuzu and yamaimo. It’s a beautiful, tasty and gentle food.


The owner of the restaurant was very kind and calm like someone coming from a Zen school. He offered me a low level stool to sit like he did last time as I am not comfortable to sit on the ground cross legged. He chose the food for us as everything was in Japanese! We were served around 8 dishes, the most interesting was the tempura with mochi rice.

When we finished, he came to see us off at the door. He looked into my eyes and said in broken English “My friend, thanks for coming again. I wish you all the blessings from the mountains. You sure need one”. He then bent down in the Japanese style and whispered “itte kimasu”. We returned to the hotel.

The next day early morning at 6 30 am I received a call from Thai Airways. I was to fly in the afternoon at 3 30 pm on Thai Airways from Tokyo to Mumbai via Bangkok. The lady said “Dr Modak, there has been some mess in the reservation system. You were to fly by the 3 30 pm flight but now you have been pushed to the 11 30 am flight. This flight will go Tokyo-Phuket-Bangkok-Mumbai”. I was raged. Not that I had any business or meetings to do in the morning, but I did not quite like this “dumping” of me. The new route would put me for 4 more extra hours in the journey. So I strongly protested and brought to her notice that I was a Gold Flyer on Thai Airways and flying business class. “How can you treat me like this?” I almost screamed at her. The lady at the other end was calm. She said “I fully understand your anguish, but there is nothing I can do for you as of now. You will have to take the 11 30 am flight today or 3 30 pm flight tomorrow. I can confirm your seat for tomorrows 3 30 pm flight if you wish”. Under these circumstances, I decided to take the 1130 am flight. It was Friday March 11 and I wanted to be home on the weekend.

I checked out of the hotel at 8 am and took the Narita Bus. The sun was shining with cool breeze around. It seemed a very pleasant day. I checked in at the Thai Airways counter, completed the immigration formalities and boarded. The flight seemed to be quite light. I requested for a champagne after the take off.

When we landed Phuket, we were asked to deplane as there was a change in the aircraft.

The Phuket airport was in chaos with TV screens showing a disaster in Japan. There was a severe earthquake that struck Japan off the Pacific Coast of Tōhoku on the scale of 9.0 (Mw). The island of Phuket was given a Tsunami warning.

The earthquake occurred at 14:46 JST on March 11, with the epicenter approximately 70 kilometers east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku and the hypocenter at an underwater depth of approximately 30 km. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded to have hit Japan, and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900.  The earthquake moved Honshu (the main island of Japan) 2.4 m  east, shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 10 cm  and 25 cm, and generated infrasound waves detected in perturbations of the low-orbiting GOCE satellite.

The first thing I did was calling home. All at home and office were simply panicked as they knew that I was to take the 3 30 pm flight. They were trying to reach me desperately and had found my mobile phone “unreachable”. To them this was a sure sign that something terribly gone wrong with me. Actually, my mobile phone was unreachable as I was in the aircraft. When I spoke to Kiran my wife and Sunil in my office, all were relived.

The Newsreader on the TV screen at the Phuket Airport was speaking. “The earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 40.5 meters in Miyako in Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture, and which, in the Sendai area, traveled up to 10 km (6 mi) inland. Miyako city stands devastated”

Miyako? I remembered the woman I met at the IBrew. And her loving face and picture she showed me of the family. She and her husband were to leave for Miyako the next day to see their son. I also remembered the Zen looking owner of Ishoto restaurant and his words of parting “itte kimasu” that literally means “go and come back.” And he was absolutely right. I visited Japan later several times.

This story is hard to believe but true. I still wonder what would have happened to me if I were to board the 330 pm Thai Airways flight on March 11. If not the earthquake, the sheer inability to access my daily blood pressure and cardiac medicines would have killed me. I survived.

It was a miraculous escape from Japan.

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  1. Being in the moment is generally what all of us tend to do in every situation. Mostly ‘reacting’ rather than ‘responding ‘. 10 out of 10 times we see the error on our part much later. Divine intervention manifests itself irrespective. And sheepishly we see how foolish we were to show our displeasure with ‘change’. A good reflection and I would think at a very apt time in life for many of us. Not giving in to change is like swimming against the tide….’Twill surely tire one….

  2. Katta & Meeta brilliant story teller with fine details of food/delicacies,human interest.This
    aspect helps in creative cool and productive discussions for which the travel is undertaken.

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