Despite being caught up in the March 11 quake and nearly drowning in the ensuing tsunami, a vacationing elderly German couple hopes to return to Japan someday and repay the kindness shown to them by their rescuers and fellow survivors.
Juergen Spielberg, 73, and his wife, Angela, 68, of Dusseldorf, embarked on a four-week vacation to Japan in March to celebrate their daughter's graduation. It quickly turned into the trip they'll never forget.
The couple arrived in Tokyo on March 6, along with Johanna, 33, who had received her master's degree in Japanese studies from a German university.
On March 10, the three stayed at a Japanese style inn in Matsushima, a famed tourist destination known for hundreds of islets dotting Matsushima Bay in Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan.
They were on their way to Sendai, the prefectural capital, on a train when the magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck on the afternoon of March 11.
The Spielbergs say they have never experienced such an intensive shaking. They could tell, from the reactions of the other passengers, the temblor was of an extraordinary scale even to Japanese, who are accustomed to tremors in their quake-prone country.
After the shaking stopped and the Spielbergs could get off the train, they headed for Sendai by taxi instead.
Angela recalled she had a "bad hunch" when she saw the water receding in a river along the road through the car window.
Then they saw the massive waves of a tsunami approaching.
The family was near Tagajo, a city near the coast, when the tsunami struck. Waves swept at their taxi, leaving the three up to their chests in water.
The driver shouted for them to get out of the car.
Thankfully, the vehicle was an older model and not a modern taxi with power windows. They could escape by cranking a handle to lower the window.
The Spielbergs managed to swim to the balcony of a home amid a flood of water. A man who happened to be there plucked Angela out of the water, who by then was too exhausted to lift herself out.
Waiting for rescue, the Spielbergs spent "the most freezing night in their lives" in the pitch-black darkness due to a blackout, wrapped in blankets provided by the elderly couple, who appeared to be living in the home.
About 12 hours later, a rescue team finally came to their aide.
One of the rescue members asked if they wouldn't mind walking in the water for a while.
The family recalled that they were impressed by the polite manner of the man, even during an emergency.
The Spielbergs appeared to be the only foreigners in an evacuation center set up in a chapel on the campus of Tohoku Gakuin University in Tagajo. About 600 people took refuge there.
A young woman lent them a cellphone so that the couple could call their son in Germany to tell him that they were safe.
Tadashi Kominato, 56, a Tagajo city official managing the evacuation center, remembered the Spielbergs. He said they looked despondent.
When he learned that Johanna speaks Japanese, he asked her what her family wanted the most. She told him they just wanted to return to Germany.
Kominato stood near the road in front of the city hall on March 15 to ask drivers waiting at the traffic signal if they could take the tired foreigners to the Sendai International Center in Sendai.
After about 30 cars passed through, a female motorist in her 40s agreed to take them to Sendai.
Kominato told the Spielbergs that a car was arranged for them. On the way, they opened an envelope evacuees had slipped to them before they left. They could not believe their eyes.
There was cash and a note that said they should use this money to help pay for the gas to take them to Sendai.
At the center, Tomonobu Haga, 61, who is from Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, was assisting foreign victims just as he did in the 2004 Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake, which killed 46 people.
With Johanna trembling and sobbing and the couple looking to be worn out by their ordeal, Haga decided instantly that the family should be taken by car to Niigata city, where they could catch a bullet train to Tokyo.
Haga called Kota Matsumoto, his 28-year-old acquaintance in Murakami, Niigata Prefecture, to ask him to prepare a hot bath for them, as the Spielbergs would be arriving there around midnight.
The three appeared relaxed for the first time after several days of their ordeal when Haga told them of his plan to help them get home.
On March 16, the Spielbergs left Niigata for Tokyo. On the following day, they were aboard a plane back to Germany.
After their return home, the family has been working to repay the kindness shown to them by their Japanese rescuers and hosts amid harsh circumstances.
They sent the stricken region 20,000 euros (about 2.3 million yen, or $30,000) they raised through their Rotary Club.
They are also involved in a project to help children who lost their parents in the Great East Japan Earthquake. They have already raised 100,000 euros in the effort.
When they found out the whereabouts of the man who had lifted Angela from the water and others who had helped them, they sent them gifts of German confectioneries and books.
Despite the life-threatening experience, the couple vow to return to Japan someday.
That is because every Japanese told them to just visit their country again, when they asked how they could repay their kindness.
(This article was written by Ken Matsui in Dusseldorf, Germany and Yasushi Sato.)
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