On the Road to Chaotic Kobe

Volunteers bearing food, water, and stoves try to make their way into the earthquake-ravaged city

IN most disaster zones, people head in only one direction -- out. But not in Japan. Japan's most lethal earthquake in 70 years has created a two-way traffic flow.

People, including reporters, struggling to get to Kobe compete with a mass of citizens bringing food, portable stoves, and plastic containers of water and kerosene into the city. Some have families in Kobe and its devastated suburbs. Many more just want to help. Since the relief effort has become snarled in bureaucratic red tape, the volunteers are welcome. Their offerings are not all practical. One man has a stack of elegantly packaged cakes. Others are heading in with tents and backpacks, planning to pitch in with the huge job of cleaning up.

Over the weekend, some 250,000 people jammed trains to Nishinomiya, an eastern suburb of Kobe. People lined up for hours to board trains on a second roundabout route from Osaka to Shin Kobe Station, in downtown Kobe. At the Osaka port, more people lined up for seats on water shuttles that crossed Osaka Bay to Kobe's waterfront, which was one of the region's major tourist attractions.

Inside the Tempozan terminal building, would-be passengers had to queue up twice -- once to collect pre-tickets, which guaranteed the right to line up a second time several hours later to make the purchase. Even the normally ultrapolite Japanese were pushing and throwing the occasional temper tantrum as the wait stretched into half-a-day or more.

Oddly, but admirably, those streaming into the city assume that residents are just gathering their strength to make their city over again from scratch. Japanese do not believe in the permanence of cities. There are people in Tokyo, born early in the century, who remember that their city has been devastated twice -- once by the Great Kanto Earthquake, in 1923, once by war.

Piles of broken window glass in downtown Kobe are cordoned off behind ropes with neat, handwritten signs: ''In the process of being cleaned up.''

Getting into Kobe was nothing compared with getting out. From downtown Kobe, it's a five-hour walk to Nishinomiya, and the route from Shin Kobe Station is a patchwork of local train lines with infrequent schedules that open up the possibility of being stranded in a mountain town at night with nowhere to go. The overcrowded refugee centers do not lay out a welcome mat for foreign reporters. I ended up hitching a ride to Osaka on the back of a motorcycle.

The driver, Shuji Takahashi, a self-described war buff and kamikaze-style motorcyclist, got us to Osaka in less than three freezing hours by flipping his vehicle up and over highway dividers, squeezing between the wrecks of buildings, and making L-turns around the gridlocked convoy of vehicles that stretched from Osaka to Nishinomiya, about 13 miles away. ''This is not my ordinary personality,'' the genial Mr. Takahashi yelled into the wind.

Nightmares are tamer by far than the ride from Kobe to Osaka, post-earthquake. In downtown Kobe, the quake's peculiar frequency sheared the fifth stories of buildings. Above and below, the buildings are intact. On the way out of the city, we pass a stone-sculpture shop. A life-size plaster statue of a woman lies on its back, arm outstretched as though calling for help. Stone lions are tumbled about like kittens at play.

A few blocks later, the lintels have fallen from the torii or gates in front of a Japanese Shinto shrine leaving headless columns. The road itself has buckled from the quake. The low houses and shops typical of Japanese neighborhoods spill, broken, into the streets. In the glare of headlights, midnight refugees could be seen picking their way slowly by foot and by bicycle eastward, away from the chaos of Kobe.

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