Friday, March 11, 2011

Diversions #2: A very large earthquake

I'm not sure if it's tasteful to write about today's huge earthquake from Tokyo, given that we were spared the brunt here while near the epicentre, Miyagi-ken was hammered. Given that people in Christchurch are still suffering too, my tales of a slightly inconvenienced Tokyo are probably unnecessary. But despite the lack of damage to most of Tokyo, this was a major quake even here.

On the 7th floor of the building where I work, Tokyo locals were saying that it was the largest  earthquake they had ever felt. It was the first time I've felt compelled to slide under my desk during a quake, and also the first time a quake here has been treated with anything other than nonchalance by the Japanese people who I work with.  A few days earlier my boss had assured me that our building was one of the strongest in the university - built with thicker concrete to keep vibrations as low as possible for the experiments, but images of the CTV building in Christchurch played through my mind as the shaking continued to get stronger and books started falling of the shelves.

After the quake stopped, and after the first few big aftershocks, I decided to go home to help I. clean up the house, where plates and glasses had apparently been smashed. (She didn't tell me that a large shelf had toppled over right where my head would have been if the earthquake had have happened while I was sleeping at night).

The phone system was overloaded and useless (still is some 6 hours later), but email was still working a treat. I managed to receive sms's, have gchats with numerous people and write a bunch of emails all in spite of the non-functional cell phone voice network. It sure is nice to be connected when disaster strikes.

The Keio line had stopped running, so to get home I had to trek the 15 kms from Chofu to Koenji - mostly up Koshu-kaido ave. one of the main routes from Shinjuku to West Tokyo. There were no signs of damage anywhere - the worst I saw on my hike up Koshu-kaido was a few broken tiles on an old house, and a single pane of broken glass in an apartment building. Some 40 minutes after the main quake, the security at a Pachinko parlour apologized to their evacuated patrons and started herding them back in to the building. Shops were open, although mostly empty of customers. People whispered that it hadn't been "the big one". Despite this normalcy,
small signs appeared that it was not a normal day. Large queues formed to use the toilets at convenience stores as people walking home got caught short. Chofu's surreal mass communication speaker system came online to convey a message so distant sounding and echo-laden, that I couldn't make out a word.

The effect on Tokyo's rail system was an almost total shutdown. Half way up Koshu-kaido, a trickle of people walking in the opposite direction turned into a torrent worthy of Shinjuku station. Roads that were usually free of pedestrians were clogged with them particularly if they corresponded to train routes  (Koshu-kaido follows the Keio line, Inokashira-dori follows the Keio-inokashira line; both where thronging like Centre-gai on Friday night). Some people wore hard hats which made me feel nervous (and slightly jealous that their companies valued them enough to provide them with protective head-gear!).

After three hours, I finally made it to Meidaimae and picked up my bike, which had a flat tyre. After pumping it up at a police station, it took me another 40 minutes to finally get home.

Apart from a nasty refinery fire and a collapsed roof in a mall, it looks like Tokyo escaped relatively unscathed this time. Tokyo locals fully expect the Kanto region to receive massive damage in an earthquake in the next 30 years though, so the respite  this time is more cause for nervousness than relief. The aftershocks (coming once every 20 minutes at the moment) will probably cause some trouble for the trains over the following weeks. Still, after seeing footage of the Tsunami enveloping broad swathes of land in Miyagi-ken, thinking of the numerous dead in the latest earthquake to hit China, not to mention the unimaginable awfulness of Christchurch, I can't help but feel pretty lucky right now.

Added 3/12: I remembered that one awful part about my walk home was how crazy it seemed to make some people. The worst thing I've seen with my own eyes by far in Tokyo after the quake was a driver speeding through an intersection after the light turned red and nearly ploughing into a woman crossing the road. I've never seen such appalling driving before in Tokyo. I also remember an old man clutching a post on the pavement as a tide of people flowed past. I wondered who would help him. (My own pathetic excuse was that I was going the opposite way, and I doubt an Ojiisan would understand my funny sounding Japanese). A lot of other old people must have been lost and scared in the confusion.

On the bright side, Ganesha curry house is still standing despite being one of the flimsiest looking wooden stalls in Harmonica-street in Kichijoji.

Lastly, please excuse the lack of links; pretty bad form in a blog, but there doesn't seem like much point at the moment. And we've all seen enough tsunami porn already, right?

1 comment:

  1. Mark

    I stumbled upon this online! Good to see you are well and in Japan. I teach at Canadian Academy an international school in Kobe, It would be good to hear from you again.