It was the end of the first week of December.
Japanese announcements were blaring from the intercom. We stood there, slightly speechless, staring at the electric sign that should’ve been lit up with details on the next trains incoming. It, instead, showed only one line, alternating between Japanese and English: all service on the Blue Line — the Yokohama municipal subway system — had been suspended, and people were advised to take alternate modes of transportation.
There had been an omen earlier: the line for the bus outside of the FamilyMart right beside the Mitsuzawa-kamicho station entrance was far longer than it usually was. We’d been joking that the line’d been long because maybe something had happened to the subway, and maybe we should instead swing by a karaoke joint in Wada-machi before taking the Sotetsu line from the station there instead, but it turns out: it was true. There were, in fact, no trains to take.
Something had happened on a Japanese train system that made it shut everything down, and we were at a loss on what to do next.
“Uh,” muttered one of my dormmates in our party of four. She was one semester our senior, having arrived here in April. Another word, this time a question: “What?”
“…is this the first time you’ve seen this happen?” I asked.
“Yeah, this is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen.”
We stood there for a while trying to figure out what the stationmaster was telling other customers about the situation, as we’d noticed some of them stop by to talk, then proceed downward to the platform. While we were musing, the stationmaster then picked up the intercom and announced something we didn’t quite catch. This was followed by the display turning on its first line to show an outbound train for Shonandai, delayed by 25-30 minutes.
After some deliberation, we decided we’d play the waiting game, and passed through the ticket gates. As it turned out, as we approached the platform floor, a train stopped by. This one wasn’t heading all the way for Shonandai — this particular train had been repurposed to boomerang back and forth between Azamino and Yokohama stations, and the one that just arrived for us bore an LED sign for Yokohama. Seeing as it was going in the direction we wanted to, we hopped on through the door closest to us. As one would expect, the train was a bit more crowded than usual, but thankfully nothing close to morning rush-hour. After a short live announcement in Japanese, the doors closed, and we were on our way.
Even though I’d always regarded it as an interstitial, nothing-to-do-here station, Mitsuzawa-shimocho station also had its fair share of people waiting to get on the train; in fact, the train doors were opened for a longer period of time to let more customers onto the train that were just barely coming in through the door. The same routine, as at Mitsuzawa-kamicho, happened: there was a short, live announcement in Japanese, and we were off.
And now, the inside of the train was approaching rush-hour levels. But it was fine, because Yokohama was announced as the last stop on the train, just as the LED sign had said — and the guides inside reflected this.
When we arrived at Yokohama station, everyone got off the train, and the LED outside swapped to reflect a train not in service as it prepared to go in the opposite direction. We met up with two more from our dorm, who were just as confused as we were; all six of us ascended the stairs to the ticket gates. There was a line waiting at the manned ticket gate; we didn’t know what it was until we passed by the automatic ones.
Turns out they were handing transfer tickets eligible for free rides to our destination on any other line. Since Gumyoji, where our dorm is, was serviced by the Keikyu line, we spotted another station attendant, got our tickets, and hopped on the Keikyu outbound Airport Express, which wasn’t as crowded as I’d thought it’d be.
As we were chatting, reflecting on what had just happened to us, we were just within sight of Gumyoji when the train came to a complete stop. Then: shaking. It rattled the train for a minute or so, and there was dead silence afterward. Pulling up Twitter on my phone, three tweets down in my timeline, I see a report of a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, off the coast of Tohoku.
Everyone was somewhat dumbstruck — 7.4 is pretty sizable. Was this going to be a repeat of 2011? Stepping off the train once it got permission to finally dock, stores were displaying NHK footage warning everyone on the east coast to evacuate their areas. Thankfully, we weren’t affected, but all of us knew we’d have to make a couple of status updates when we got back — of which we did without any further external delay. It just happened to be 1 AM back home, so I was able to contact my parents in a timely fashion; my school also requested an update, to which I likewise replied A-OK.
And that’s how I spent my first Friday in December.
As it turned out, there was a fire in one of the trains that day. See, the trains’ seats are equipped with heaters underneath (it’s pretty cold here, so it’s quite nice). One of them just happened to go awry, belching smoke and prompting a call to the firefighters, who rushed to the scene. As a result, the subway was in fact effectively shut down from Yokohama to Kamiooka (being the two closest major stations to Kannai), separating and forcing the opposite sides of the Blue Line to take other forms of transit. I’m not quite sure whether the Yokohama-Azamino trains were in service even when the displays said otherwise, but…ah, whatever. Yokohama’s subway system is back to normal, and things are proceeding as usual. ◆