KAHULUI - Experiencing one aftershock after another and sleeping in emergency shelters was too much for a 30-year-old Kahului resident who was teaching English in northern Japan when the massive earthquake and tsunami hit last month.
As soon as he could, Kyle Fukuchi, a 1999 King Kekaulike High School graduate, jumped on an airplane and came home.
"I (now) can get a good night's sleep," a more relaxed Fukuchi said this week in an interview in Kahului.
Fukuchi still finds his experience "surreal" and said that days after the March 11 earthquake he remained jumpy, getting scared when hearing something shake and thinking another temblor might be coming. He didn't shower for three days and lived off snacks he found at a 7-Eleven. His meals at the shelters included bread and water and a rice ball and a banana. His only hot meal was some macaroni he cooked in his apartment, two days after the quake.
So, three days after the quake he was on a plane to Hawaii.
"Through these experiences, thinking about things, I can recognize and appreciate the simple things in life like food and a hot shower," he wrote in an email. "And life, life, is a precious gift, I have to thank God for protecting me and keeping me safe and out of harm's way."
Fukuchi was in Fukushima City, in the prefecture of the same name, when the quake hit. Fukushima Prefecture is next to Miyagi Prefecture, which was hardest hit by destruction because of its proximity to the epicenter of the earthquake.
Fukuchi had just finished a routine checkup with a doctor at a hospital and was waiting for a bus to arrive when he felt the beginning of an earthquake. Listening to his iPod in a hospital waiting room, he first thought nothing of it because earthquakes happen often.
"All of a sudden the quake, the duration, (kept) on going. As the duration keeps on going, it gets more intense," he said.
People then started walking and then running to get outside the hospital.
"I ran out of the hospital," Fukuchi said, feeling that if the Japanese were worried he should be too. "I was like, I better get out of here.
"The quake was still going when I was running out."
Fukuchi and others headed to an open grassy area. He saw an old man holding on to a signpost, and Fukuchi did the same.
"It felt really long," he said of the quake that maybe lasted two to three minutes.
Just after the quake, Fukuchi's bus arrived to take him back to the train station. He headed back to Koriyama City, where he taught English at Koriyama Higashi (East) High School.
Fukuchi's job was arranged through the Japan Exchange and Teaching program; he had been in Japan for about two and a half years.
The aftershocks continued.
"I could feel it on the bus," he said. "The bus was shaking so it was scary."
Because roads were damaged, traffic was bumper to bumper. Fukuchi said he was worried because to one side of the bus was a tall hillside he feared might give way and to the other side was a gulch. He said part of the road had collapsed and a McDonald's billboard had fallen into the gulch.
When he got to the train station, there were no trains running. Other people were also at the station. He didn't know where to go.
"I can speak Japanese, but I'm not fluent," he said. "Here I am in Japan, I don't know what's going on. I just want to go home to Koriyama."
Fukuchi then went from hotel to hotel to find a place to stay. But he was turned away because hotels were not accepting guests.
He finally made his way to a shelter in Fukushima's City Hall, where he and other evacuees were housed on the eighth floor of the nine-floor building.
He and others wondered why they were put so high up with aftershocks continuing. He said some Japanese citizens noted that the building was new and could withstand the quakes.
Along the way to the shelter, he befriended a fellow American named "Brian." They even walked together to a nearby 7-Eleven to grab snacks because, at that time, the shelter only had breadsticks, bread and water.
Fukuchi got beef jerky, water, soda, chips and two corn dogs.
He said he didn't notice major structural damage in Fukushima City when he walked around, but there was evidence the massive earthquake had struck. Bricks had fallen and a drug store building remained intact but everything inside the store was "mangled."
After two days at the shelter and watching continuous news coverage on television, Fukuchi said he was able to catch a cab back to Koriyama City, which was about an hour's ride. He split the $150 fare with another man.
When he saw his apartment, he noticed no exterior structural damage, but the inside of his apartment was a mess.
"When I got inside, all my things were all on the floor," he said.
His microwave had been thrown aside and was broken, and his bookshelves had fallen to the floor, their contents tossed about.
As he tried to clean up, the aftershocks continued. He said he ran out of his building once or twice.
Because he didn't feel safe in his apartment, he went to a nearby shelter at an elementary school, where evacuees were served musubi, a banana and a latte.
He slept near an exit so that he could get out of the building if an aftershock hit. In Japan, he said people have alarm programs on their cellphones notifying them when an earthquake might hit. So at the shelter, he would hear alarms going off before the aftershocks hit.
On March 13, two days after the quake, he was able to contact members of his family in Hawaii via email; phone lines still were not working.
"They were really scared," he said.
He made his way to the high school he had been teaching at and told the principal he was going home.
Fortunately, Fukushima's airport remained open, and he was able to fly from Fukushima north to Sapporo on Hokkaido island and then back south to Osaka to catch a flight to Hawaii. He chose that route because airports in and around Tokyo were jammed.
Before Fukuchi left Fukushima, another aftershock hit, affirming his decision to get out of the country.
"The (airport) building was shaking. The people were all kind of nervous, panicking, jittery," he said.
For many, the experience Fukuchi went through would be too much for them to return to Japan. Not Fukuchi, he said he hopes to go back to Japan by May or when the nuclear crisis eases up.
The troubled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is 37 miles away from Koriyama.
"I like Japan. I'd like to go back. But I don't want to go back now," said Fukuchi, who declined to have this photo taken.
Fukuchi arrived in Hawaii on March 14 and spent some time on Oahu before coming back to Maui.
He is the son of Arlynn Char, of Kahului, and Dennis Fukuchi, of the Big Island.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.