The Earth Trembles

I wrote this post in March 2011, after witnessing the Great Sendai earthquake. A longer version in Italian is available here.

I get off at Meiji-Jungumae, one of the hundreds of access points to Tokyo’s massive public transport network. The subway station lies at the intersection between two wide busy avenues, surrounded by ample pavement and the shiny shop windows that characterise the overcrowded district of Shibuya. I step into a souvenir shop, and while I browse a grid full of hanging Hello Kitty key rings, I sense a long vibration through the floor, like that you normally feel above an underground train in big cities.

The phenomenon lasts a bit too long, and I say to myself that it must be a very long train passing at full speed a few meters under my feet. The vibration intensifies, and the key rings start swaying. The other customers exchange quick gazes and say something in Japanese. We all head for the exit, while the vibration starts shaking the floor. Out, I get the feeling that events unfold in slow-motion. The traffic freezes in a few moments, and hundreds of people falter towards the middle of the road, looking upwards as if they are waiting for an air strike. 

Tokyo’s density

The shocks intensify all of a sudden. The asphalt moves horizontally, in powerful and rapid elliptical trajectories, taking us by surprise. Some people fall down, others scream, while most of us manage to stand and struggle to keep our balance, looking up at the tops of the buildings. The vibration takes over all visible objects, including 6-story office blocks, condominiums, blue road signs, traffic lights, double-glazed windows, well looked-after bushes, clean pavements and fences. The urban furniture gets shaken by an invisible energy storm, generating a loud and disquieting rattling noise.

The shocks reach the chest, arms and head through the legs. A stream of adrenaline kicks in, my heart beat soars and my chest feels inflated like a balloon about to burst. My heart beat rumbles in my skull. I give quick glances to the others, spotting nothing but sheer terror. I’m suspended with a powerless and defenceless humanity, which hundreds of drills since the creche has not better prepared to the possible death that lurks in the tremor.

Around Meiji-Jungumae there are no skyscrapers, suspended motorways, railways and electric wires that dominate other areas of the metropolis. From where I stand, I can’t see buildings taller than 5-6 stories. They all tremble and rattle. I look at them working out imaginary exit strategies in case they start crumbling. Some windows break, with some discretion, without exploding on us. A bookcase at the fifth floor gets thrown against a window, knocks it down and gets stuck, while some books fly towards the pavement, tracked by hundreds of eyes.  

As the shocks don’t fade off, I observe the asphalt moving quickly. I suddenly remember that I’m standing on a multi-layer city, which hides deep underground structures hosting train stations, offices, restaurants and supermarkets. While the buildings tremble like jelly bricks, images of tunnels collapsing under thousands of tons of concrete and steel crowd into my mind. I think of abysses swallowing all that exists in the depths of the Earth.

After an infinite amount of time – which amounts to 2 minutes, I’ll later realise – the rapid sequence of pre-mortem thoughts blunts and I perceive that the shocks are losing strength. Some people talk, and I don’t need to speak Japanese to understand that they’re saying that the worst must be over.

I notice a smartly-dressed man with Northern European features, standing next to a flower bed. I move some unsteady steps towards his direction, and I ask him whether he speaks English. “I am English”, he replies. I ask him what’s going on. “I don’t know. I’ve been working here as an architect for years and I’d never seen anything like that.” Then he points his finger at the glass-and-steel building before which we are standing. “I designed that. If it fell on me, at least I knew who was to be blamed”. I laugh out loud, refraining from hugging him. It’s hard to believe, but we are all alive.