Somewhere on route 246 towards Tokyo between Atsugi and Machida this unassuming Red Lobster restaurant was both a savior and running gag between friends.
Some snow was falling on the Tomei highway on my drive to Atsugi that morning, but nothing too disconcerting. However, once I arrived at the office, my Japanese colleagues were saying that a blizzard was coming through the Kanto plain and we should prepare to go home early. Looking at some webcam shots from Tokyo there seemed to be an impressive amount of snow falling. I called my wife and she confirmed that it was snowing heavily in Setagaya. She encouraged me to leave soon as well. It would be nice to be home early for a change.
By noon people were starting to leave the office, but apparently all the buses to the train station were full and huge queues were forming. Luckily I had my trusty white Cube to take me home in comfort. “Don’t take the car!” my colleagues warned, but they are always too cautious about driving. I’ve driven in Michigan blizzards before, so a few inches of snow shouldn’t be a big deal. A colleague asked if she could get a ride and I also agreed to take another girl and drop her off at the station. My Mongolian friend also decided to drive home at the same time in his trusty white Cube. He too was no stranger to driving in harsh winter weather. We formed a caravan of sorts, and the snowfall was still quite moderate.
Despite the lack of much actual snow, we saw huge lines of people waiting for the bus. Some people had decided to walk the 2 km to the station. All the trains were packed with people trying to get home before the trains stopped running. The Tomei highway was blocked off due to the weather, so we took route 246 instead. 45km separated us from Tokyo. It would normally take more than an hour due to all the traffic lights, but in these conditions I figured it would take twice as long…
Seven hours later we were still in the car having covered only 12km since leaving the office. The GPS was showing traffic was blocked all around. I had called my friend to see how far ahead he was and to ask if traffic conditions had improved. Since there are no street names, he simply described what he saw. “This is a disaster man! I haven’t even crossed the bridge yet, and am now in the part with the huge concrete walls on both sides. I’m still stuck in traffic.” We kept in touch every ten or fifteen minutes, and slowly I was catching up to him by taking the off ramps and sneaking back on to the main road. I called my wife to let her know I would be very late.
By this time I had run out of things to talk about with my colleague sitting next to me. She was busy exchanging messages on Facebook about the ordeal. Her friend, whom we had dropped off at the station earlier, had arrived in Machida hours ago. When we got to a tunnel, she exited the car and said she would walk to the nearest train station.
This tunnel was only 200 meters long, but I had already spent 45 minutes just trying to get to the other side. Luckily we had stopped for a break an hour before. I had been looking for a Mc Donald’s or Starbucks to use the toilet, but they’re never to be found when you need one or on the wrong side of the road on a divided highway. As a gift from heaven we saw the neon Red Lobster sign from a few hundred meters away. I told my friend that we would stop there. We arrived about 30 minutes later to find the deserted restaurant except for another car trying to get out of the parking lot by spinning his wheels on the ice. “Irasshaimasei!” the hostess called out when we entered the restaurant. “Sumimasen, toirei wa doko deska?” was my sheepish reply, only asking for the toilet.
My colleague didn’t manage to walk to the station because it was much colder and wetter than she had anticipated. Luckily she spotted my other friend in his car only a few meters ahead and decided to take refuge there instead. Out of sheer boredom I started making videos of the gridlock.
It was dark by now, and the snow was turning into ice. Cars were spinning their wheels fruitlessly on the uphills and locking their brakes on the downhills. I agreed with my friend that getting to Tokyo by car was looking hopeless and we managed to exit the main road and park our cars at the fabulously named Grandberry mall. A 45 minute train ride later and I was home…
“Thank you Red Lobster, you saved our lives!” we joked afterwards. Out of gratitude, I returned a few months later when I was stuck in another traffic jam on route 246. This time I stayed for a meal…