Typhoon Hagibis, a personal account from Kyoto

Typhoons have been on my mind more than anticipated over the previous 12 months. A year ago I wrote a post about the extraordinary 2018 typhoon season in Japan. In October 2019 I found myself in the potential path of the biggest typhoon to make landfall on the main island of Honshu for over 60 years. Typhoon Hagibis, named after the Philippine word for speed, displayed unprecedented features. Needless to say the uncertain path and intense energy of the Super Typhoon were unsettling. My previous post about typhoons in Japan was as an outside observer, this time it is a personal account from Kyoto using images to tell my story as it unfolded.

My first encounter with Typhoon Hagibis was on October 8th when a Tasmanian friend sent this screenshot from the Japan Meteorological Agency website. For the next week keeping an eye on the typhoon became my priority.  In the early stages Hagibis was predicted to make landfall close to Kyoto on the weekend of October 12th/13th.  The code TY1919 at the top right of the screen means that Typhoon Hagibis was the 19th typhoon given a name in 2019. Typhoons are regular events in Japan over Summer and early August. Hagibis however was something out of the box.

This report, from October 9th,  shows a satellite image of the size and intensity of the Super Typhoon as it approached Japan. Hagibis was definitely something to be concerned about. Living with the knowledge that there was an immense storm in the atmosphere, which would release untold energy when it made landfall, was a sobering experience.

On October 10th I saw the first sign of preparations for Typhoon Hagibis in Kyoto. Special covers were placed over three power lines in front of my accommodation, presumably to prevent them from starting a fire or shorting out if they touched each other. Normally they are the width of the bottom line.

The next day, on October 11th, I made a trip to my local supermarket to buy some provisions. This was the first time I had seen signs in Japan encouraging people to stock up on basic items for a typhoon (the two kanji in red read Taifu). Water, packaged food and gas bottles were being offered in preparedness for any loss of utilities such as electricity.  Loss of power and water had been experienced only a month before when Typhoon Faxia caused considerable damage to homes near Tokyo. The most recent damaging typhoons to occur in Kyoto had occurred in September 2018 (see here and here for reports about Super Typhoons Jebi and Trami).

As Typhoon Hagibis moved closer to Japan its path veered to the east, with Tokyo directly in its path. While the status was changed from `Violent` to `Very Strong`, the typhoon was still very big and very damaging. Much media attention was paid to the impact of the typhoon on the World Cup Rugby Games and the Formula 1 car racing which were both adversely affected. My thoughts were with the millions of Japanese and visitors who were preparing for the brunt of the storm. Headlines like this put me on the edge of my seat, as they are intended to.

Evacuation orders were given to towns close to the path of Typhoon Hagibis due to the threat of damage from high intensity winds, flooding and landslides. These orders are designed to save lives – as a friend pointed out it is important that people who have limited mobility are assisted at this stage. Smartphones and social media played a central role in dissemination of information before, during and after the typhoon. Apps are also available that provide safety tips for responding to natural /man-made disasters in Japan. People trying to travel to Tokyo and surrounding regions were also affected with trains and planes cancelled due to Hagibis (affecting people who had pre-typhoon plans to leave as well). My friend Rebecca Otowa was scheduled to run a workshop at the Japan Writers Conference in Tokyo that weekend. Her plans, like thousands of others, had to be revised with considerable disruption to many.

Typhoon Hagibis was predicted to make landfall near Tokyo on the evening of October 12th. Widespread rain preceded/surrounded the eye of the storm, including in Kyoto. At 10.04 am on the morning of the 12th I received an Emergency Alert on my phone saying that flooding in low-lying areas could be possible in Kyoto and to be aware of the emergency meeting places. I used Google Translate to make sense of the message, then contacted a friend who reads Japanese when further assistance was required.

In Kyoto, the highest windspeed (that I saw on my weather App) on October 12th was 47 km per hour. This only occurred for a short period. Other than that, persistent rain and an orange sky in the evening (see next image) were the only indications of a typhoon that I experienced that day. Afterwards I learnt that Nijo Castle had been closed because of the typhoon, a sensible precaution. My thoughts were with others who were less fortunate, as well as friends who were on a pilgrimage over the weekend of the typhoon. They had travelled in the opposite direction to Hagibis yet still experienced some storm impacts on their journey due to its wide reach. It was a relief to hear that they were safe.

By late afternoon on October 12th the rain had stopped in Kyoto. It was very calm. The sky was an eerie orange colour, something I hadn’t experienced before. Apparently in Tokyo the sky was purple due to the scattering effect the typhoon has on light. It is understandable that these forces of nature are objects of fear and awe.

Meanwhile Typhoon Hagibis was causing havoc in central and eastern Japan (especially the Kanto region) with record rainfall, flooding, landslides and high intensity winds. Concern was expressed from around the world as people followed the path of Typhoon Hagibis, as I had, for several days. Some areas near Tokyo that were affected by the typhoon were only just recovering from Typhoon Faxia, while others further east had been badly affected by the triple disaster in 2011. It is no wonder that the Japanese are known for their resilience in the face of multiple set-backs.

On October 13th, the day following landfall of Typhoon Hagibis, Facebook gave relevant users an opportunity to indicate that they were safe, and to offer help or donations to those affected by the storm. This was an efficient way to let family and friends, connected through Facebook, know that you are fine. A friend who lived in Nagasaki for two years said that prior to social media he used to call his family in Australia to let them know he was OK, a time-consuming and expensive exercise. The role of social media over the period of the typhoon highlighted some of the positive aspects of this form of communication. For those who prefer not to engage with platforms like Facebook, or don’t have access to the technology, other ways of accessing and sharing information during events like Typhoon Hagibis can be utilised. 

On the morning of October 14th Typhoon Hagibis had moved north east of Tokyo, still carrying considerable energy. My friend Yoshihiro-san, who lives in Kagoshima (the blue spot), posted this striking image. He keeps track of the activity of typhoons, earthquakes and volcanoes in Japan. Of all my Japanese friends, Yoshihiro-san is the one that keeps the closest watch on these elemental forces. When these forces cause damage in Japan such as witnessed after Typhoon Hagibis, recovery operations are quickly put it place – currently more than 100,000 rescue workers have been mobilised to assist people in need and help rebuild infrastructure.

What really bought home the impact of Typhoon Hagibis were the personal reports from friends on social media, such as this one. Iiyama City is in the same valley as Nagano (next door to it) yet did not receive as wide media coverage despite having significant flooding. The damage in Nagano, where the river banks were breached, was extensively reported in the media and rightly so. The images of several Shinkansen (Bullet Trains)  inundated by water there is critical to convey – the loss of so many carriages will have a considerable impact on transport services in eastern Japan.  Google Translate struggled to capture my friends response to seeing these images from Iiyama City, images that hadn’t been televised. Even so, the essence is there. I know that he and others are doing their best to assist with the recovery efforts as they come to terms with the extent of the damage. Meanwhile, the media will move on.

Typhoon Hagibis made landfall briefly yet its impact will be felt across a wide area of Japan for some time. 77 people have died, with 10 still missing. Countless homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed. The estimated financial cost is over 9 billion USD. The human cost is immeasurable. Being in Kyoto over the period of the typhoon gave me a better sense of the nature of these phenomenal storms and how people (including myself) and institutions respond. Facebook set up a Crisis Response system as one way to connect people with useful information in the recovery phase, with nearly 1000 offers of assistance to date.  Sharing my story as a blog post is my way of contributing in the aftermath of the most devastating typhoon to hit the Kanto region of Japan in over 60 years.

2 thoughts on “Typhoon Hagibis, a personal account from Kyoto

  1. I very much appreciate that you decided to write this post about your experience of being in Kyoto at the time of the typhoon. I only realised yesterday, that once the typhoon had passed, it had pretty much dropped out of the news cycle, and I was reminded of how fickle news services can be. Reading your images and captions has allowed me to feel as close ‘to the eye of the storm’ as I ever hope to be. The reporting of your thoughts and feelings of having been in Japan at the time of this national disaster has given me so much more insight into the before, during and after than any newspaper article could ever provide.


    • Thank-you for your reflections on the post. This story wanted to be told. It kept tapping me on the shoulder while I was wondering whether I should write a second post about typhoons in Japan (the other is called `Typhoons on my mind: the extraordinary 2018 season in Japan`). The perspectives are different and complementary so I am pleased that I listened to my inner voice. Uncertainty is associated with all of the elemental forces in Japan – typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes. Experiencing that personally has been an eye-opener. It seems that typhoons are the principal natural force that you can ponder their impact for some time as they approach, while still not knowing exactly where they will land. The others come from nowhere, relatively speaking, but the potential is always there. That is a train of thought to further pursue. Writing the post also made me wonder what happened prior to all of this technology. Perhaps people were more attuned then to the signs of nature that warned of an impending typhoon.

      Liked by 1 person

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