In Japan During the Earthquake: Is this Guy the Unluckiest Traveler?

japan earthquake justin gordon

Justin Gordon (2nd from right)

As a traveler, Justin Gordon seems to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 24-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif. was not only in Japan when the deadly 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck, but has also managed to be in other less devastating, but uncomfortable, travel circumstances.

Last March, Gordon, a second year law student at Temple University in Philadelphia, spent a total of 16 hours on a Virgin America plane as he was trying to fly from Los Angeles to New York's JFK. The plane circled New York for hours, diverted, sat on a runway for several more hours, and ran out of food. It wasn't a fun flight.

After heading to Washington D.C. for a job interview in December, Gordon also found himself on a stalled Amtrak train for eight hours, between Baltimore and Philadelphia, he tells AOL Travel News.

And then he found himself in Tokyo, doing a semester at Temple U's international campus there. The trifecta – plane, train and earthquake – has earned him the "unluckiest traveler" moniker from the New York Post.

Gordon, now back in California, says the other experiences probably helped him in Tokyo, where he was able to keep his calm as he sat in a restaurant as the earthquake struck.

"Around 2:45 p.m. the ground began to shake, slowly at first, and then progressively stronger. Joey, (my friend visiting on his spring break), ran outside and across the street, chopsticks in hand. The waitress unplugged some electronics in the restaurant and tried to hold on to shelves containing glasses. Many people from surrounding buildings also evacuated and congregated outside. As I went outside I could see debris falling from the roofs of buildings, with dirt falling near Joey," Gordon writes in a journal shared with AOL Travel News.

"The ground did not stop shaking for at least 3-4 minutes. The quake was likely not as strong as the Northridge (California) one, but it felt like it would never end. I called my parents and told them about the earthquake, assuring them that we were OK and not to worry. The quake's epicenter appeared to be quite far up north. Soon after our phone and internet service was gone."

Justin Gordon (r) and friends

Gordon and Joey decided to leave Tokyo the next day when it first became clear nuclear power plants had been damaged in the earthquake. The two took a bullet train to Osaka.

"At first I didn't actually anticipate leaving Japan completely," Gordon says. "I just figured it was a good idea to get out of Tokyo."

In Osaka, the pair ended up meeting a 26-year-old Japanese man. He helped them find a room at a capsule hotel, where rooms are tight, almost coffin-like spaces, and cheap.

Gordon writes, "Joey and I finally decided to take the 8:30 p.m. train to Osaka. We got there at 10:45 p.m. Joey asked a guy, Taku, where a good place to stay would be. He spoke a decent amount of English and looked on his iPhone for 20 minutes, calling several places, but couldn't find anything. I asked Taku if he wanted to come to a bar with us and he agreed. He finally found a capsule hotel in an area called Namba in Osaka."

Justin Gordon (l) and friends

Taku then invited the Americans to spend a little time touring including visiting Kyoto, a city about 45 minutes from Osaka, famous for its historic palaces and temples. He called a pal who teaches English to join the Americans.

So in the midst of chaos in Japan, the Americans were shown the sights of Kyoto.

"Only in Japan can you find such kind and generous people such as Taku and Mitsuyo (his friend). He and Mitsuyo showed us around the whole next day, found us a ryokan (guest house) to stay in, and even bought us dinner against our attempts to buy theirs. Their kindness was very refreshing after all the anxiety we had experienced over the past couple days. We were Taku's first American friends and he plans on coming to visit us soon," Gordon writes.

"It was one of the most amazing experiences of hospitality. It was what the Japanese are all about," he adds.

Still, as the impact of the earthquake on the nuclear power plants became clear, Gordon says his parents became concerned about radiation and "strongly encouraged" him to leave the country.

Joey had a ticket for an American Airlines flight so returned to Tokyo to catch the plane. Gordon was able to get on a United Airlines flight from Osaka to San Francisco.

"I booked that morning. I got lucky," he says.

Back home, Gordon says he feels terrible for the people of Japan, who he says are "the most generous and kind people I have met in my travels." He says he would encourage Americans to donate even $10 to the Red Cross of Japan or other charity to help out.

As for his unlucky traveler streak, Gordon says, "The last year has been like a roller coaster. It's kind of made me numb to bad experiences. But I feel worse for the people of Japan than anything I went through."

Gordon says he still plans to travel. His next big trip is to Washington D.C. He got the job (after the interview that involved the Amtrak train) and will be working at a law firm this summer.
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