July 31, 2011

Another day, another earthquake

Copyright Universal Pictures, 1974

At around 0400 this morning my eyes popped open because the room was shuddering, and our house was lurching slightly, groaning. It was yet another earthquake tremor shaking the greater Tokyo area—and with it, my sleeping family. After an internal debate on whether I should get up and do something or not, I grew bored by the jostling and, as it tailed off, went back to sleep. The kids dozed right through it. This was yet another tremor that teased us about The Big One to come: ZZZZZzzzzz.

I never thought I would write this, but it rings true: like bad weather, crime, taxes, or other unpalatable facts of life beyond our individual control, earthquakes are something you get used to, and quickly get over, as you carry on with your day (or night). In other words, we do not negotiate with the terror tremors of Mother Nature.

I have not forgotten about the 20,000 people who lost their lives or are missing due to the horrible earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11. That event has had such a tremendous impact on all residents of Japan that one can never forget it. Nevertheless, as a Canadian I had not experienced any major quakes while growing up in the Great White North. Even after moving to Hiroshima, because it is not situated on a major fault line, I rarely experienced any major tremors.

Yokohama, though, is located right where several tectonic plates meet (thank you, high school geography class). The Great Kanto earthquake hit the Kanto plain around Tokyo – including Yokohama – in 1923, and killed over 100,000 people. I knew that and all sorts of other empirical facts when we were considering moving here. Yet about 35 million people choose to live in this region, despite the threat of the Big One coming at any time. Do we have a death wish?

No, we do not. When I first arrived in May, with people still leaving the area fearful of either a major aftershock or radiation contamination due to the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident, I asked one of my co-workers, a native Yokohamian, about the threat of a major earthquake, and he replied: “It is what it is. You get used to them. I don’t even notice much anymore. So will you.”

Source: CNN
I work through tremors at the office. I sleep through tremors at night. After only a few months living here, I have gotten used to these seismic serenades. So even when a major earthquake happens nearby, like today’s 6.4 magnitude quake that struck about 185 km north of Tokyo and which we certainly felt down in Yokohama, there is a certain cavalier “whatever” attitude of normalcy to it. My only wish is that Mother Nature would have the courtesy not to have the next big one occur in the middle of the night. There is a limit to what I can tolerate.

July 21, 2011

House of the Moaning Sun

I live in an average borough smack-dab in the middle of Yokohama. These days my eyes pop open around 0500. There are two reasons for this. One is that my neighbors have embraced rural folks' tendency to retire to bed early and get a fresh start to the next day. And I do mean a REALLY fresh start. The second is there is no snooze button on my two Rising Daughters.
Since I graduated from high school, I’ve tended to be an early worm. I’m the hyperactive, annoyingly cheerful guy you encounter in the morning whose eyes you want to claw out when I whistle and lay out a hearty “good morning.” The karma has followed me here. The neighborhood we live in is a concentration of houses that are about ten years old. The residents are friendly and many have children just a few years older than Elena. It’s best described as a kid-friendly neighborhood with little vehicle traffic. That’s a major plus for us.
Nevertheless, the urban planning is less-than-a-plus. All these beautiful, modern homes have about four meters space between them. This is the reality of a densely packed city in the Tokyo-Yokohama region—I’m about to whine about that because it literally comes with the territory. One difference between Hiroshima and Yokohama is that here, houses and businesses have window shutters. What is unique about my neighborhood is that more than a few neighbors are brazen early risers. It’s very warm now, even overnight (averaging mid-70s F/ high-20s C) so the Rising Family sleeps with our windows open. This is to our peril, because around 0515 or so, the rackety clack clack clack of adjacent houses' shutters never fails to wake us up. So now I’m living the life of a farmer in metropolis.
Fait accompli: it’s time for me to rise from the futon. Problem is, Marina soon follows, and somewhat later, her slacker older sister emerges from her slumber and we therefore kickoff the day. One bonus of living here is that I can get US Armed Forces Network (the ever-chipper Eagle 810 AM) radio to jolt the morning forward with English news and music, an amenity I never bothered with in Hiroshima even though radio stations are widely available online.

The bookend to this morning protocol is the evening’s “closing of the shutters” ritual, which tends to happen after sundown. This is the signal for everyone to be quiet. It's another cue of conformity that enables this small part of the community -- and the 3.6 million souls that make up this city -- to live in harmony despite a densely packed urban space.

One of my co-workers told me this shutter phenomenon is a local habit which has been carried over from decades past--an architectural legacy with the added value of hedging against the rare case of burglary. There really is no pressing need for the shutters, in my opinion, but like a lot things we humans do, rituals become habits, and habits frame the day. That’s why I frequently see many sunrises of late. At least there are no cows to milk.