Learning to Shake with the Quakes


Early this morning, I woke up to my apartment shaking a little bit. I didn’t bother to get up for this one. I was comfy in my nice warm bed and it was way-too-early-something a.m. I rolled over as something clinked and fell somewhere in my kitchen. I made a grumbling noise as I pulled the blankets over my head to go back to sleep.

I started drifting off, feeling the earthquake kind of rocking me back to sleep. Strangely, I thought to myself, “This one is actually kind of enjoyable.”

Now that I’m awake I felt a bit puzzled over that reaction. Two years have passed since the big 3/11 earthquake here in Japan. Still, I get people asking me how safe I feel in Japan with all the earthquakes. The answer is actually a little complicated. I’ve come a long way from my first encounter with earthquakes about a year and a half ago. The first big one I ever encountered I was staying with my predecessor, Lauren. We were roomies for a couple of weeks before she headed back to the good ol’ USA.

Maybe the third or fourth night I woke up to the entire apartment swaying and rocking. The dangling light fixture in our room violently swayed back and forth. Stuff on the desk fell off. Lauren told me to just hand on, this one wasn’t so bad. I remembered thinking, “What the #$%@ does BAD feel like?” My mind couldn’t help but recall the news footage from the big earthquake that only happened few months before I arrived. I shuddered a little at the thought, but suppressed the fear.

Steadily, the earth settled down. The swaying stopped. Lauren got up and I followed her outside. Neighbors across the way were outside. Lauren and I said we were okay and we asked if they were, too. When we were sure everyone was alright, we headed back inside. Lauren smiled at me as we climbed back into bed (well, futon for me), “Congratulations! You just experienced your first earthquake!”

I laughed at that and we talked a bit. It took me awhile to settle down from the excitement, but I went back to sleep a little while later with no problems. I wasn’t afraid of another 3/11. I knew that the odds of another one happening in my lifetime were slim, not to mention that most of the injuries and deaths occurred due to the tsunami that followed the earthquake and not the quake itself. Also, I suppose it helped that I loved Japan more than enough to put up with a few odd quirks. Kentucky has tornadoes. Japan has earthquakes. I could deal.

My first “bad” earthquake happened in September of 2011. I can recall this day with clarity because there was double the trouble. A huge typhoon came bashing its way over Itako. The winds were so damn strong I thought they were going to break my kitchen window. On top of that, my phone’s earthquake alarm went off. I shouted at it, “Really?!” just before the biggest shift happened under my feet. The electricity flickered on and off a couple of times before it went out completely. I stumbled my way into a doorway and held onto the frame for dear life. For all of maybe a minute, my apartment shook so hard from the wind and the quake that I seriously wondered if it would break. Luckily, it passed without any harm done, but the electricity was off for most of the night. Dark and stormy, indeed.

And with that, I discovered what “bad” meant. I was oddly thankful for the rather early terrifying experience. I followed the wise advise from the senior members of our JET collective in Ibaraki and made myself an emergency kit. Water, food bars, copies of passport, and much more got put into a backpack that I put away in my closet. It’s still there, waiting to be used, even though I’ve totally stolen some of those bars for breakfast every so often. I adopted the stance that I wasn’t going to live my life in fear of the next “big one” but I’d be prepared for one just in case.

Since then, I didn’t really consider most of the others that shortly followed to be nearly as awful. I didn’t even blink an eye when the small tremors come and go in a matter of seconds. More than once, I slept right through a medium level quake, only to discover from my co-workers in the morning. Oops! For quite some time, I got into this false sense of security.

My complacency ended when another “bad” one happened. In January of 2012, I was working out with my friend Ai at the gym. We were on the exercise bikes, talking about this and that and the other. Suddenly, everything abruptly shifted so hard I stumbled off my bike. The gym is located under Kashima Soccer Stadium, so I felt tons of concrete and steel jerking back and forth right above my head and wondered for a brief, horror filled moment if it could come down on top of me.  Of course, it didn’t, and steadily everything settled right back down. Ai and I checked each other out and everyone around us went into a flurry of checking their phones and the news for reports. Gym attendants came in to tell everyone the gym was closing up just in case of aftershocks.

When big ones hit usually all the people in my area will feel it as well. I’ve called people to check on them and used Facebook to message some people when I can’t get a hold of them. I’ve now made it a regular habit to post a quick status update about the earthquake after it happens so everyone knows I’m alive. I stay on top of the news and ask people what’s up right after it happens. Since I was doing it anyway, I went ahead and volunteered to be a block member for my area. That basically means that I keep track of the JET ALTs in my little southern block of Ibaraki. It’s all of four people and myself, so the job is far from daunting.

In the end, I suppose the best answer I can give to how I feel about earthquakes is that I’m staying on alert all the time in the back of my mind.  I don’t think about it consciously, but I’m as prepared for one as I’m going to be. With some experience under my belt, I take each quake as it comes and react as is necessary. As I mentioned before, the the small bits of fear I feel are kind of thrilling for me. And I got to admit, getting rocked to sleep by mother nature was freaking awesome.

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