My personal account of a year in Japan. Stories of a Genki Traveler.
As a performer I have been fortunate enough to travel and perform my way around the world, working in TV, Film and theatre.
No place however would be as profound and as life changing as my year in Tokyo, Japan. Having always wanted to go to Asia, you can imagine my excited when I received a contract to be a performer at the Tokyo Disney resort in the show Big Band Beat. I was obviously over joyed and jumped at the chance to work in such an amazing country doing what I love.
Tokyo Disney holds quite a big prestige in the dance world as they don’t hire very many western performers, and after a quite intense very specific audition I was lucky enough to be one of the few who got offered a contract. Working out in Japan was probably the best 13 months of my life. Don’t get me wrong, like any job it had its ups and downs – 18 hour days, injuries and illness but I wouldn’t change my time there for anything.
I learnt a lot about myself on that contract and I owe a lot of my new career drive and upbeat disposition from being out there and being inspired by meeting some amazing people and experiencing such a great country. The Japanese ( especially in the surrounding areas to Disney) are besotted with ‘Gaijin’ – foreigners and being in a show over there meant ever day was almost like being a celebrity. Walking to and from work was like being on a red carpet at a movie premier at times with fans of the park always taking photos and asking how we were, shaking our hands and getting autographs. Although at times it was tiring it was nice to get such gratification and see how we as a cast and show had such a positive effect on people.
Tokyo is by far one of the most random but amazing places I have ever been to. Constantly getting asked to stop for photos as we were “kawaii gaijin’ (cute foreigners) while walking around the city, being able to watch a Sumo wrestling match in the morning and then go to a restaurant in the evening where you were served by Ninja’s who would jump out of nowhere take your order and then vanish just as quickly as they appeared or go to a ‘Cat Café’ coffee shop where cats just wandered around and sometimes wore hats.
I was fortunate enough on my time off to be able to travel around the country getting to see the beauty of Okinawa, the history of Hiroshima, the Golden temple in Osaka as well as so many other amazing cities and temples. Japan is truly such a breath taking country with so much to offer, with something for everyone.
March 11th though was the day that changed Japan and the world!. Sendia, the largest city in the T?hoku Region of Japan was hit with a 9.0 earthquake, the 4th biggest earthquake recorded in history, followed by a tsunami that caused just as much destruction.
I remember the day well – the majority of the Japanese cast members had apps on their phones that sent out warning messages if an earthquake was going to hit. We had all felt a quake before but there was something different about this one. The shaking went on longer, the movement was more violent, and it wasn’t until a crewmember ran into our changing room and told us to run outside that I realised this one was no ordinary little quake. The shaking went on for what seemed like 30 minutes, outside we could see the Tower of Terror ride waving in the air from side to side, a few of the cars in the back-lot started to roll down the road. Unable to go back into the building for safety reasons we sat outside for hours.
Luckily some of the cast members had wifi and were nice enough to allow the rest of us to jump online and a make a quick call to loved ones, most of whom were still asleep and yet to wake up to this devastating news. Sitting in the back-lot of Disney we had no idea of the devastation that had fallen on Sendai and the rest of Japan. Shin Urayasu, the area that Disney and our accommodation was on, was once reclaimed land, so with the quake roads had split, water mains burst and shops and pavements had dropped a few feet. Walking home once it was deemed safe(there was no public transport due to the quake), it was like seeing the aftermath of a disaster movie, seeing craters in the road and cars half submerged in wet mud and soil.
The next few days were tough, with only having water rations and an odd electrical black out here and there, but that didn’t discourage Japan and you could tell that this country was not going to sit by and do nothing.
The British news made the event seem like the earthquake had hit Tokyo the same way it had Sendai. The news would report “Over to our correspondents in Tokyo “ and then while a reporter spoke in the safety of a newsroom in Tokyo, they would show images of the devastation in Sendai with houses floating down the street on fire and people stranded etc. This was not the case in Tokyo, so it was understandable why so many of our families were heartbroken and devastated as they thought their child, partner or parent was in direct harm, but luckily for us that wasn’t the case, shaken but not harmed.
The very next day, pickup tracks and crews were out in force, digging out homes and supplying the supermarkets with water etc so the local people could still eat and drink. There was such a sense of community and everyone was there to help each other out. Anywhere else in the world you would have expected to see riots with people pushing to get water etc, but no, not in Japan!. There were orderly lines where people would queue anything up to 3 hours or more for water with no questions asked.
It sickened me when I was still out in Japan later on in my contract to see about the riots (2011) in London and other areas and how something got blown out of proportion and how barbaric people could be. In Japan, 1000’s had died and yet this only brought everyone closer together and the same happened while at Disney. The new casts’ had just arrived and instead of the usual welcome gathering, everyone was thrust together in such an extreme scenario. This helped everyone to form such tight bounds and life long friendships were made.
I wouldn’t wish that earthquake upon any country but if it had to happen, Japan was the country best equipped to handle the situation. With buildings on specially designed rollers to help with reducing structural damage – although while during the quake being on wheels made the buildings look like they were rocking and rolling making the quake seem even worse. Within 2 weeks roads were flat and shops were open. Myself and some fellow Disney employees were out trying to help the local area and although we were sent home for 10 days I was eager to get back and continue my life out in Japan and to complete my contract.
I don’t think the true impact of the event really hit me until I came home at the very end of my contract. Retelling the story to friends and family really made me revisit a lot of thoughts and emotions that I didn’t feel at the time, or realised I didn’t process at the tine. The most traumatising aspect for me, was that for the first few days we were having to sleep fully clothed with an emergency bag packed by the door with your passport in it just incase of another earthquake and you had to evacuate quickly. Given the fact that there was on average 70-150 aftershocks a day for about a week after, there was a fair bit of jumping out of bed and running down the stairs. . Granted this was a troubled time but the sense of family among the Disney Employees was such a safety net. Some people who had literally just met were helping to calm people down or even to help people pack if they n wanted to terminate their contract and go home.
None of us were ever trained for such a situation, the term’ triple threat’ in the theatre world doesn’t stand for ‘dancer singer survival expert’, but we managed to make the most out of a bad and completely unexpected situation. As I said, earlier everyone reacted differently – some people bonded together and helped the local community and some people really panicked and booked the first flight home. I knew that from watching enough movies that you could either panic or stay calm in this type of situation and for me the easiest options was to try and stay calm. It was hard, waking up in the morning and finding out someone else you knew had left on a plane home. Being a mainly international cast and company of performers most of those people you knew you would never see again, unless you went out of your way to vacation/visit them, but as I said everyone dealt with it in their own way – there was no right or wrong in this situation.
Oriental land co and Disney took such great care of us, some of the English speaking staff members even moved in with us and helped arrange our flights home or answered any questions we had. As you can imagine they were under constant questioning from the international cast and not only did they have to deal with us and our understandable concern and panic but they also had to worry about their own families. Moving in with us must have been exhausting but they did the best they could – finding us hotel accommodation so we could have running water, booked us flights home and just generally helping us to try and go on as normal. We can never thank those members of staff enough for helping us at that extreme time in our lives. So many of my fellow cast mates across the entire performance team are still out in Japan or are returning for contracts. I had such an amazing experience out there and would recommend it to any performer or traveler – Japan has so much to offer whether it be working out there like me or just enjoying everything else the country has to offer, so why not give it ago and experience Japan for yourself…