Humour might not be appropriate right now, but sometimes it is all you’ve got. As I type this, another aftershock reverberates through the house, smaller that the 30 or so full-sized earthquake ones that continued yesterday afternoon and evening in the wake of the 8.9 epic earthquake off the coast of Sendai. I feel like I am in limbo. All here in Tokyo is well with my family and friends, but not so up along the north coast of Japan.

My personal experience was terrifying.  When you have lived here as long as I have (almost 7 years now), you have experienced many earthquakes. They are always scary, but this one was different.  All of my family was scattered, fairly far and wide. I had made a spur of the moment decision, about 40 minutes before the quake, to drive to the mall at Odaiba, an American style mall with a Toy “R” Us built on a small landfill island in Tokyo Bay. My cellphone battery was low so I didn’t call to tell anyone where I was going. I parked up on the 5th floor of the parking structure and went inside. Just as I got there, people began streaming out of the store, clutching their children. At first I thought something crazy was happening inside, but then quickly realized my mistake.  We all fled from the building out to the roadway along the small beach while the quake finished. The ground shook so I could barely stand up or keep my balance. I felt that the sidewalk beneath my feet was made of shifting sand. As the daughter of a water/ground systems/structural engineer and I know that man-made land can basically liquefy in an earthquake.  During the great Kobe earthquake of 1995, the landfill islands around Kobe sunk. And the noise! Everything even sightly unsecured joined in the cacaphony…

After the first earthquake, waves of others began coming. And then the tsunami alarms went off, advising people to seek higher ground. Well, there simply is no higher ground in Obaiba – it is about a mile square – surrounded by water on all sides. I did not know yet that the epicenter was in Sendai, I just knew that I was on the flattest, most vulnerable piece of land in all of Tokyo and that nobody knew I was there! I don’t know why dying alone seems so much scarier than dying with the people you love around you, but it does. Odaiba is linked by a giant suspension bridge (think Verrazano or Golden Gate) to the mainland and I could see that cars were still moving briskly across it. I couldn’t bear to stay where I was. They were not prohibiting people from re-entering the building, simply from using the elevators, so I ran up the five flights of stairs and tore down the ramp of the garage. I had met a Canadian man and his Japanese girlfriend while waiting and they wanted to go with me, so they jumped in the car and we drove across the bridge. Once we were on the other side, it was not even 10 minutes to home and I could have walked if necessary. I think if I had not left so quickly, I would have been stuck there all night!

Gathering my chicks was the next step, although I had been sustained through my ordeal by knowing they were in safer places than I. While cell phones were not working at all, the land lines at home were and I was finally able to speak with my husband, safe on the still swaying 25th floor of the brand new Marunouchi Trust Building. All new construction in Tokyo is built on rollers so that the buildings can move with an earthquake. My husband said looking out the window he could see all the buildings swaying, like trees in the wind. My younger daughter was on a playdate with a friend in the park when it happened and they quickly went home. But my older daughter was out at school, normally a 45 minute ride on the school bus. The quake had hit about 15 minutes before dismissal, and the school’s excellent emergency procedures clicked quickly into place. Around 4:30 they sent the buses out, driving on local roads, as the highways were all closed. The traffic was basically at a standstill and she did not get home until after 12:30, exhausted, but in good spirits.

Our damage at home was minimal. The fish tank overflowed everywhere, trashing my new Mac laptop, but worse (in the eyes of the children at least), sweeping our newest family member, the rainbow guppie named WW by our guests last week, to an early demise. Things were thrown around the house and quite a few regular dishes and glasses broke in the cupboards, but not a single piece of antique porcelain was broken. My beloved blanc de chine was toppled and tossed about, but is all intact.

Blue and white porcelain rattled to the edge, but did not go over…

For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, you know it is a blog about stuff, and while it may seem silly to write about material goods which are not intrinsically important, they do bind us to our own histories and lives. I would have been crushed had the porcelain all been broken instead of the computer, although that having been said, a computer can contain an irreplaceable history of photographs and correspondence. In my case, it was new and relatively unused. For those most affected by the quake and tsunami, the loss of their belongings and connections must be devastating, even while they are grateful for their lives, as not all were so lucky. In that spirit, I encourage everyone to make a donation towards rebuilding. An easy way is to go online to the Red Cross and donate directly to the International Disaster Relief Fund. Personally, I am so thankful for the wishes and prayers that have poured in from friends, family and readers all over.

Ironically, devastation is not limited to big events like these.  While we are fine here, the very same day there was a huge fire up the street from us in our beloved beach town Ocean Grove, where we have been renovating and furnishing an 1880s Victorian that I have been chronicling on the blog. Our dearest friends there have lost their home, as have numerous others.

So my rebuilding efforts and my heart are split in two directions…

Photo of fire in Ocean Grove from Asbury Park Press, photo credit: James J. Connolly.