I know what a 9.0 earthquake feels like.

Well, close to 9.0 anyway. I was walking into my apartment in the Yokohama area of Japan when the massive earthquake of March 11, 2011 hit. That’s about 250 kilometers/150 miles from the epicenter, and yet the shaking was unbelievable.

Soon after the initial shock, my family, a friend and I joined many people outside in a nearby open area. The power was out, so someone had a bright pink battery-powered radio and we were all trying to find out what was happening.

“Uh, there’s a ship in the street.”

The voice on the pink radio was of a panicked Japanese guy speaking very quickly. I did my best to understand, but after many minutes of town and area names of Japan I’d never heard of, the only things I could gather was this certainly was very bad, and that there wasn’t just a tsunami warning, but tsunamis were actually hitting land.

We’ve heard this before though, and they end up being a height of 10 centimeters or something. Fortunately a Japanese woman who lives nearby works as a translator, and she told me, “He said, uh, there’s a ship in the street.” Ha, ha, very funny said I. Surely they meant a “dinghy” or maybe a few fish nets fell onto the sidewalks? Much later I knew how right she was.

This country is ORGANIZED.

Just minutes after the massive quake, I’ll never forget the nervous walk to a convenience store with my Japanese friend to see if we could buy water and food just in case. When I got there, even though I’m so used to Japanese culture now, what I saw blew my mind.

The power was out, so the stores were dark. People were lined up inside the store, completely filling the outside aisles. They were all patiently waiting in line while the guy at the register had to do everything by hand, and he was doing so in the typical polite fashion they always do, except he was apologizing to everyone for the ‘inconvenience.’ Anyone could have walked in, taken whatever they wanted and left. But no one did. We took off; the thought of standing in a long line inside of a building seemed so wrong.

But there was more: outside of the store there was a busy intersection, but since the power was out, there were no traffic lights. Instead, there were 2 guys, just regular dudes, with reflective jackets directing traffic. Where did they come from? How did they know to be here? Was Japan organized so much that they planned for THIS? I was with my Japanese friend, and even he was at a loss. Absolutely amazing. In any other country I imagine it wouldn’t play out like this.

No power, no water, no gas.

Our area seemed relatively safe, so after about 2 hours we went back to our place, and I dug out our emergency kit and candles. I bought the kit at Costco in Japan as a matter of fact.

It was then I realized there was an item in there that, if you don’t have one, go right now and get one. It’s a little device that has a light, a siren, a radio, and can charge your cell phone, and it’s all powered by winding it by hand. We had no power, no water, and no idea what was going on. We were using our cell phones to try to get through to many, many people, but most things didn’t get through. With that device, we could hear news, see in the dark, and make sure our phones kept working. Genius little thing. Get one now.  Here’s one I found online, it looks much nicer than mine.

We’re outta here.

In the days and weeks that followed, the craziness ensued. There were aftershocks constantly (around 600!), and oh yeah, a nuclear power plant was exploding.

Not only was there fear of radiation and more earthquakes, but you couldn’t even buy bread or water in Tokyo. People would rush the stores when they opened and grab what they could.

Can you imagine having a tiny baby and dealing with all of this?

So we got out of Dodge via bullet train to my wife’s place in Okayama, nice and far away. But even there it was hard to buy bottled water! Damn, why didn’t I buy stock in water?

Back to a tense school

Imagine you’re teaching a class, and suddenly an awful, high-pitched alarm pierces through the school followed by a automated woman’s voice. Translated into English, she says something like,

Magnitude 6.7 earthquake coming in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0.

This was my life for many, many days at school. I can finally say that I’m used to earthquakes, it’s all part of the ‘turning Japanese’ plan.


There are no more earthquakes now, but I always have my eyes on that Fukushima nuclear plant. I check these two sites daily:

atomic power review

geiger counter in Tokyo

The hardest thing is watching what we eat. But for us, things could be much worse.

Meanwhile, it’s a beautiful spring day in Japan and life goes on.


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