Life In Japan

Earthquakes in Japan and what I feel experiencing them as a foreigner

The first earthquake I have ever experienced wasn’t in Tokyo or in Japan at all. It was actually in the UK. It was roughly eleven years ago and to be honest it just kind of shook my room a little bit. If you had said to me that a really big truck had just driven past I would have believed you. It wasn’t until a few friends texted me asking “did I feel it”, that I actually believed it was a real earthquake.

Fast forward to living in Japan. It was about the fourth or fifth day still suffering from jet-lag that can only be described as terminal. I was lying in bed just waking up at about 3pm and felt the bed suddenly moving beneath me! The fridge knocked against the wall, the door to the room kept banging and a few of my things fell off my desk. I thought, “Wow, that was a real earthquake!” Still, nothing I couldn’t handle. I’ll get used to it.

I felt several more over the next few months and, sounds weird to say, but I loved it! It’s so strange having the earth shake underneath you and feeling powerless to your surroundings. I have always been fascinated by extreme weather and natural disasters, and being part of a natural occurrence that could very easily become a natural disaster is really scary but really interesting at the same time. I used to snowboard and rock climb and would love to base jump or parachute one day but I never really considered myself an “adrenaline junkie”. I thought “If I lived in Dallas or Oklahoma I would probably be a tornado chaser”. That was until…

I was in a bar called Amber9. It’s a cool, moody kind of bar/grill. It’s located at the top of a narrow building on the 9th floor in Shinjuku. I was telling a story to a group of Japanese colleagues when suddenly the lady sat to my right grabbed my leg with a slap and squeezed. Hard.

Totally taken aback with what’s just happened I stopped what I was talking about and turned to her, and just before I could say “what?” I felt it. The biggest earthquake I had felt so far and it was only just getting started! At its maximum bottles were clanging together, plates were falling on the floor and smashing, it really did feel like the building was going to come down! I noticed a giant air conditioning unit above one of the crew and it looked like it was going to fall I immediately pulled her seat from underneath the giant industrial-sized unit. The fight or flight part of my brain was working overtime! Under a table? Under a door frame? Who do I save first!? Then after a few seconds, it subsided.

Things just went on as normal. Waiters continued serving drinks, restaurant staff handed food out, (food that they were holding throughout the quake). Everyone just looked at each other and shrugged and then looked at me as if to say, “Sorry about that, what were you saying?” I was still clutching the table! Heart going 100mph! Apparently, my Japanese friends could tell that the inexperienced foreigner in me was a little bit unnerved. Probably the look of horror on my face. “Don’t worry that was just a little one.”

“A LITTLE ONE!?” The thing is, Japanese people experience it all the time and everyone remembers “the big one.”

They all took turns to explain to me what they were doing on the 11th of March 2011. Some were at work and had to walk home for hours because trains and taxis weren’t running for the rest of the day. Some were driving when the roads opened up in front of them, leaving them to abandon their cars. They told me that with no way to get home they had to either rent or buy a bike and apparently there were no bikes left to buy for weeks after. My favorite story, however, was that (at the time) one of my colleagues was only 13 years old and he was having lunch in school. When the earthquake hit, he grabbed his freshly made bowl of ramen and ran outside protecting it at all costs! When the earthquake subsided he returned to the chaos of the cafeteria and just sat there quietly eating.

Needless to say, since this ordeal, I have spent the majority of my time in Japan on the ground floor or close to. Maybe I’ll put my Tornado Chasing career on hold for a little while longer!

Are you earthquake ready? Here’s the definitive guide to earthquake preparation.

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