sleepover at the ghibli museum


Sleepover at the Studio Ghibli Museum

As you know, a devastating 8.9 earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011. I happened to be visiting Tokyo at the time, staying at a hotel in Asakasa with a group of friends. To be more specific, myself and three others from our group of seven were at the Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka (45 minutes away) watching a Miyazaki short film in a theater. What followed over the next eighteen hours was an experience I will never forget.

To say the least, the initial rumblings were a surreal event. The Ghibli short, Pan Dane To Tamago Hime was playing and we were in the small Saturn Theater enjoying the film. The score’s piano was playing to a crescendo just as the earthquake struck; initially with some small rolling, but nothing too severe. At first I thought it was people moving around on the floor above, shaking the room. All of our Japanese counterparts were still focused on the film, so I kept watching as well, unaware. As the trembling and shaking continued though, my California upbringing convinced me it was an earthquake. People’s focus started leaving the screen, but they all stayed calm despite the quake lasting for minutes. It seamed like forever. After the rumbling finally quit, we sat around waiting for the staff let us know what was to happen next. A nice Japanese man who spoke wonderful English helped us understand what was going on, but what they knew at the time was very minimal; only that an earthquake had struck northern Japan and the trains had stopped running so everyone should stay put. They eventually allowed us all to continue the tour of the museum and things seemed to be back to normal. We all were a bit shaken, but not too unsettled. We finished the film and then returned to enjoy the rest of the museum.

As we continued our visit we began talking about the aftershock possibilities. One of us mentioned that this precarious bridge that connected the two sides of the second floor (which were currently crossing) was probably the worst place to be. As soon as the sentence was complete, an aftershock struck. Again everyone was held still and waited for things to settle down. After a few more aftershocks, the staff was instructed to clear out the museum and we were all ushered out into the park that sits adjacent to it. At this point I think we all realized that something larger was going on and the quake had not been a standard one. Luckily for us we ran across the same Japanese man from the theater and he was able to interpret the messages that were being sent out over the loudspeaker and megaphones.

“7.9 earthquake struck northern Japan.”

“All trains are no longer running.”

“You are welcome to stay in the museum until we have further information.”

They eventually let us back in and people started settling into holding patterns around the museum: inside the cafe, the outside patios, and the main halls of the museum. We were all just waiting to see how this would play out, although we were quite worried about what would happen. Are they going to close the museum? Can we take a bus back to our hotel? Would we need to find a hotel? What’s happening back in Tokyo? Would the trains start running again? Would we be able to return to our loved ones tonight? How bad was the damage across the country?

Announcements were continually being made and the few English speaking museum workers were helping us out with what was going on since we had lost track of our earlier friend once we re-entered the museum. They started serving tea to people and were stationed around the museum helping people however they could. A few times while we were sitting upstairs in a hallway they approached us to make sure everything was ok, if we were scared, or if we needed food or anything. They were very concerned for our well-being and it was heartwarming. Overall, everyone who was trapped there was calm and quiet throughout the whole ordeal.

Eventually as the 6 PM closing time of the museum approached, they told everyone that the trains were not going to resume that evening and that they were unsure what time they would resume in the morning. They told us we would be able to stay at the museum for the night if we wanted and that they would offer us tea and whatever food they could. This is how my three friends and I ended up spending the night in the house that Miyazaki built.

The place turned into a shanty town of sorts. People spread out into the hallways and little nooks of the building. The staff shut the doors of the exhibit rooms, but the rest of the cavernous space was open to us. A central control center was set up at the bottom floor hall with tea, water and snacks. They had the radio on, streaming news in Japanese, as well as a white board with information written on it. I assumed it was train status updates and other pertinent information, but I couldn’t be sure. We eventually were able to get in contact with our hotel and thus alert our other friends back in Asakasa to our well being and to find out they were safe as well. We were still unaware of the damage that the earthquake had caused and the magnitude of its affects.

Throughout the whole ordeal the staff and our fellow residents made the evening pleasant and endurable despite the external situation. Blankets and cardboard were handed out to sleep on. Everyone made the best of it. We ended up making our home in two nooks that overlooked the central halls of the museum. A few people were even allowed to sleep in the ‘kids area’, which featured a giant Catbus in the center of the room. People were nestled up against its furry side, sleeping on its paws.

The whole night was surreal. Trapped in a far away place: a historical and devastating natural disaster had just struck. We had been offered shelter at the famed Studio Ghibli Museum. We were disconnected from information. It was a foreign experience in all senses of the phrase.

Around 5 AM, just as the sun came up, they announced that some of the trains were starting to run again and people slowly started waking up to head to the stations. We got our things together, thanked our hosts as best we could and went out into the cold morning to make the long walk back to the station.

During the return journey I just couldn’t get over the calmness of the whole ordeal. Especially once we returned to our hotel and actually found out how severe the quake had been and the damage it had done. Everyone else in that museum knew the severity of the situation the entire time. They knew their country was in crisis and possibly someone they knew and loved was in danger or hurt. Despite all this they remained calm and civil, enduring the horrible possibilities in silence, respectful of the situation and their surroundings. I can’t say enough for the kindness we were treated with, the compassion and warmth that was extended to us by the staff at the Ghibli Museum. We felt at home that evening and it’s a testament to not only the graciousness of those workers, but the Japanese people as a whole. Godspeed Japan.

(thanks to James, Mark, and Laura, my stranded companions)