The day after we arrived in Tokyo we were sitting around with Amit in the evening and he asked us if we had felt the earthquake earlier that day. He said it was quite mild but that there is sometimes a sensation that he feels in his ears and he has learned to recognize it as a tremor. Audrey mentioned that she too had felt something strange in her ears but didn’t know what it was.
Amit pointed out that all the bookshelves were anchored to the walls to prevent them from toppling over and that he had emergency lights and a hard hat that were provided by the embassy. I hadn’t really thought much about the fact that we were in an earthquake prone area although I did remember that my brother Doug was in Japan teaching English when the major quake hit Kobe and killed thousands of people. After that conversation, I was more on the watch for tremors than I had been before.
Three days later, we were awakened in the night around 1:30am by a strong tremor that shook the house and I called out to Audrey in the next room “Did you feel that?” She called back that she did and I lay there feeling a little uneasy. I think I drifted off to sleep when suddenly it felt like our whole bed was being lifted in the air and shaken violently from side to side. This quake was no laughing matter and very frightened, I called out to Audrey again “Are you okay?” She shouted back immediately that she was but you could hear the fear in her voice. Then things settled down and there were a few more rolling tremors but the worst seemed to be over. I kept thinking that if it was really bad and we should leave the house, that Amit would come tearing down the stairs to warn us. I heard nothing from his room so we lay still and eventually went back to sleep.
The next morning we asked Amit about the earthquake and he said it was just a minor one and we were surprised because it felt pretty big to us. I kept thinking about the earthquake we had experienced in 1999 in Delhi and how it had violently shook the six-storey concrete building where Anil’s brother Ajay was living with his family. It had been 6.8 on the Richter scale but the epicenter was in the Himalayas far to the north and there was no reported damage in Delhi although lives were lost in the immediate vicinity of the quake.
There were a few small aftershocks during the day and when Amit returned in the evening he told us that the quake had indeed been a large one, a 6.7 on the Richter scale. He apologized to us for claiming it was nothing, he was sure that he had slept through most of it and only awakened when it was almost over. Everyone at the Embassy was talking about it and those with children said that they were terrified and had been screaming for comfort from their parents. In some ways I felt better that we hadn’t imagined it to be serious, but on the other hand it made me nervous to be in such a dangerous earthquake region. I only hoped that the quake had served to release the built up pressure and that it wasn’t just a prelude to ‘the big one’.
Then of course, four days later we learned of the massive earthquake in Sichuan, China (7.9). The news has been particularly distressing to us because we visited Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, in October last year and even made a day trip to Dujiangyan, the city 60km north of Chengdu which was very near the epicenter and suffered severe damage and major loss of life. This is the city where a major irrigation project was built in 256 BC in order to tame the flooding of the Min River. I remember standing along the banks of the river and looking at the mountains in the distance. These are the same mountains where the epicenter was located and where tens of thousands of people have died and millions have been made homeless.
It makes it all the more poignant to have visited the region so recently. It also made us feel particularly lucky that the quake in Tokyo had not been more severe. As we were flying home to Canada on May 15th, there was a news report on the onboard screen about the rescue efforts ongoing in China. Anil turned to me and asked me if I knew the safest place to be during an earthquake. I made a feeble guess and then he smiled and said “In an airplane!” Funny, I had never thought of that before.