Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Shake, Rattle, and Roll!

There’s nothing quite like the exhilarating feeling of being woken up in the morning by an earthquake.

I had the good fortune of waking up to one today.

Which, considering how late I was up last night working on this thing, may have been a good thing.

I live on the second floor of an apartment building.

I sleep in a loft which is right up near the ceiling.

I feel every little rumble from up there.

Actually, before I went to bed last night, there was a small tremor centered off the southern coast of Hokkaido. Makes me wonder…two quakes in the same general area within about five hours of each other. Not a good sign…

My first experience with an earthquake came back in October of 2000. I had just come back to Japan after graduating from CWU. While I was a college student, I came over to study at Shimane University for a year as part of the requirements to complete my Japanese major. I had such a good time that year that I wanted to come back. When I applied for the JET Program to come back and teach English, I specifically requested Shimane Prefecture.

I may be the first person in the history of the JET Program to have actually requested Shimane.

I think the sheer outrageousness of it all helped me get the job. Let me put it this way: I came back on the JET Program, and at the prefectural orientation meeting after all the newbies arrived in Shimane, the prefectural advisor came up and chatted with me for a minute. "I hear you've been here before."
"Yep."
"You knew what it was like here, and you chose to come back?"

I was not particularly motivated to talk with that prefectural advisor ever again.

One thing my friends would ask me about life in Japan was, "Don't you get a lot of earthquakes over there?"

My reply was, "Not in Shimane," which I always said with a self-satisfied look on my face.

I was placed in a very small town right on the border with Tottori Prefecture called Hakuta (pop. 5,500). Nice place, but very small.

So, it's October 6th, 2000. I've been teaching for all of one month. I am right in the middle of not knowing what the hell I'm doing. I'm still getting readjusted to life back in Japan.

That morning, we had a road race for the junior high school in town. My knee was bothering me, so I didn't run myself, but I did stand on the side of the road and cheer on the students.

Because of the road race, we had a shortened class schedule that day. After lunch, I was team-teaching a second-year English class with Hozumi, the craziest Japanese man alive. (I'm sure I'll get around to telling you more about him someday.) The second-years were hellions, and I always hated teaching in those classes. But there I was, standing in the back of the classroom and having the students repeat vocabulary words after me.

Me: "Restaurant."
Class: "Restaurant."
Me: "Marriage."
Class: "Marriage."
Me: "Get married."
Class: "Get married."

Then, I heard an odd sound, like a student running down the hall. But it was class time, and our students didn't run around in the halls during class...

The sound got louder. Now it sounded like an elephant was running down the hall.

Me: "What the..."
Class: "What the..."

Then, the firmament betrayed me. The one thing that I have always counted on is that the ground that I walk on will always remain firmly unmoving beneath my feet.

Not this time. The floor went left, and then shook back to the right, then back to the left again, at which point I fell over.

Everything went blank. Some part of my consciousness was taking in information, but I wasn't able to make any sense of it.

The students shot under their desks with a speed that would have impressed me more if I had actually been able to understand that what I had just experienced was an earthquake.

An announcement came over the speakers to evacuate the school and head out to the baseball field, an open area far away from tall structures that could fall over or break apart. I might have been able to understand this had my brain been functioning correctly. All of the students, and Hozumi, flew out of that classroom and were outside before I even realized that people had left.

I was alone inside my school, with no idea of what to do.

It still hadn't quite sunk in that I had just been in an earthquake.

Not just any earthquake. It was a 6.8 on the Richter Scale, and was officially named the Western Tottori Earthquake, as the epicenter was in Saihaku Town, the town right next to where I lived.

Gradually I grasped the idea that maybe I should get outside. As I had only been at the school for a month, I had no idea of the evacuation route or evacuation procedure. There hadn't been any emergency drills since I'd arrived.

So, I did the only thing I could think of: I headed down the stairs and out the main entrance.

On the way down those stairs, the first aftershock hit. This was a big one as well. I sat down on the stairs and waited for the stairs above me to come crashing down and crush me beneath their weight. When that didn't happen, I stood up and continued hobbling down the stairs. (Bad knee.)

When I got to the entrance, I took off my indoor shoes and put on my outdoor shoes, then headed outside. I assumed that this was standard procedure, because that's what I always had to do whenever I went out of the school building.

Apparently, in emergency situations, it's actually okay to go outside with your indoor shoes on. As long as you wash them off before you go back inside.

I hobble out to the baseball field, where the girls are all huddled around crying, and the guys are trying to time jumps with the next aftershock. "Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes...NOW!" Jump. Apparently this was entertaining.

Water was bubbling up from under the field. I found out later that when the junior high had been built, they filled in a river to make the baseball field. The river was still flowing underground.

So, I finally made it outside, where everybody else was. Students came up to me and said, "Your face looks dead." Which pretty much described how I felt. I walked across the grounds to the elementary school and said hi to some of the students there. They said, "Your face looks dead." I actually started to get concerned. Maybe those stairs had collapsed on me back there, and I was imagining out my life like a bizarre episode of The Twilight Zone (then again, was there any other kind?).

I had gone in to the staff room a grabbed my cell phone before I went outside. The staff room looked like it had been shelled. Papers and books all over the place, computers on the ground, chairs overturned...very otherworldly. With my trusty cell phone in hand, I tried to get a hold of people, but as luck would have it, so was every other schmuck with a cell phone in a thirty-six mile radius. So, no luck getting through to anybody.

After the aftershocks had calmed down a bit, the principal let us back in to the school to grab what we needed and then boogie on home. I hopped in my car and drove back to my apartment. I was not looking forward to seeing what had happened inside. After I opened the door and stepped in, I realized that the damage was not as bad as I had imagined. I suppose that the fact that my apartment was an absolute mess before the quake hit helped. Some stuff had fallen out of cupboards, but that was the main extent of it.

I spent the rest of the day at home, alternating between cleaning, spacing out, and trying to call my parents. I did a real good job of spacing out, but was not so successful at the other two goals. I don't remember when I finally got through, but the message I left on my folks' answering machine was apparently so funny that they saved it until a power outage wiped out their answering machine's memory three years later.

The next month and a half exists only as vague memories. I remember waking up one day in mid-November and thinking, "Whoa...it's November. How'd that happen?" That's how out of it I was after the earthquake. Late night aftershocks that send you bolting for a doorway will have that effect on you.

The Western Tottori Earthquake of 2000 was a big one, but there were no deaths, and not that much property damage, relatively speaking. This is because there aren't any buildings and hardly any people living where the earthquake happened. Taught me not to brag about an absence of earthquakes, though.

A funny side note: I actually got used to the quakes after a while. I remember one morning where we had a 3 quake hit twice in a row, and the only thing I did was lift my arm out of bed to keep my radio from falling over. Then I went right back to sleep.

It just makes me laugh that the first, and biggest, earthquake I ever experienced came right after I said, "Get married." I keep wondering if somebody was trying to tell me something.

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