Sunny Suzuki and her husband, Kaiki, describe the terror they felt when the earthquake hit in Japan. The former owners of Jazushi Restaurant in Jacksonville were able to bring their daughter, Aria, and golden Labrador puppy, Bongo, to the Rogue Valley a few days later. - Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell

'We're still shaken'

When the massive earthquake hit Japan on March 11, Kaiki and Sunny Suzuki were walking across the parking lot of a big-box store in Nasu City.

The 9-magnitude quake turned the asphalt into seemingly liquefied waves, they say. Screaming and terrified, the shoppers around them crouched low and hugged trees that waved back and forth during three minutes of unrelenting terror.

Owners of the now-defunct Jazushi Restaurant in Jacksonville, the couple hit the ground and hoped their 5-year-old daughter, Aria, was OK in her kindergarten class. She was. Her teachers had violated instructions to keep kids under desks and sent everyone flying out of the school.

"It was the scariest experience of my life," says Sunny Suzuki, whose family is staying in Jacksonville with a friend. "We just bought dog food when it hit. Kaiki grabbed my hand and yelled, 'an earthquake, really big, get down!'

"Cars and trees were swaying from side to side. People were screaming, running out of buildings. The rattling (aftershocks) went on for 45 minutes. We'd just seen '2012.' We were really scared."

The quake, about 80 miles away, triggered days of anxiety and panic, during which the family — and their golden Labrador puppy, Bongo — scrambled to find the basics: water, electricity, food and the answers to their questions about safety, which could only be found on the Internet and TV news, Sunny says.

The Suzukis already had plane tickets to the Rogue Valley, where they planned a vacation. With no gasoline available and the train system derailed, the only way to get to the airport in Narita was to take a bus. The family had to sedate Bongo and put him in a sack to take the public transportation.

The big issue, as it turned out, was not the earthquake — measuring 6.2 where they lived — or the tsunami that followed, destroying nearby Sendai and other coastal towns of eastern Japan, but the crippled nuclear reactors leaking radiation into the air, water and food chain.

Kaiki says he had "no panic or confusion" during the quake and tsunami, "but the nuclear disaster is a different situation. About nuclear disaster, I cannot help."

Born in Hiroshima, Sunny Suzuki saw her grandmother die of radiation poisoning and wanted her daughter shielded from possible dangers in the food chain.

She didn't feel Japanese authorities and media were giving the realistic story about how much radiation had leaked into the environment — or how much was "safe" for one human.

"They kept raising it," she says, referring to the hazard threshold. In addition, she says, the professor types who warned of hazards on television dwindled in numbers.

The family began taking radioactivity-repelling iodine gargle, swallowing it for the first three days.

"It was all so unknown," she says. "Are we going to die? Can we get out of the country? We were scared and confused about how bad the radioactivity is — and the aftershocks would keep rattling every three or four minutes."

It took seven hours to learn that Kaiki's brother in tsunami-slammed Sendai was alive. He sent a text saying simply, "I'm OK." It took a week to learn his aunt and uncle in the same area had found shelter after their seafood cake business was washed away.

"We thought they were goners," Sunny says.

At a panic-stricken Narita airport, the Suzukis worked to move up their flight date and get out of Japan as quickly as possible, finally achieving their goal four days after the quake — and ending up in Jacksonville at the home of friend Ilene Rubenstein, owner of Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens in Ashland.

They had tickets home to Japan for March 26, but pushed it back a month, to April 26.

"We can't go back there yet," Sunny says. "We have a 5-year-old child. We need more information about the radiation.

"We're kind of stranded," she adds, indicating a lack of confidence in the meat and dairy products in her homeland.

The family was also confused by Japanese government pronouncements that evacuation of 20 miles around reactors was safe, she said, while U.S. authorities were telling Americans to get 50 miles from it.

"They don't want to tell us how bad it is," she says.

"We're still shaken and in amazement. It's great to be here in Oregon where we can breathe freely, drink the water and enjoy the basics, without worry and without the rattle and shake."

After their Jacksonville restaurant folded in the bad economy two years ago, the Suzukis went back to Japan, starting a small antique shop and selling business supplies. They were about to break ground on building their new house in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, just south of now-devastated Fukushima prefecture, before the quake hit.

The couple awaken at 3 each morning to talk to friends in Japan, finding out how serious the radiation is and when it might feel safe to return — either to start life over once again or to fetch inventory and belongings and settle in the Northwest.

They also communicate with friends in the stricken area who are seeking connections for direct shipment of much-needed items, including pallet-size lots of diapers (for both babies and elders), socks, towels, batteries, toothbrushes and hand sanitizers, Sunny says. An overseas moving company in Seattle has agreed to ship lots gratis. Donors may contact the Suzukis at 206-953-1341.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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