Friday, 5 March 2010

Shizuoka Anti-Climaxes part 2

The largest earthquake of the 20th century, which happened off the coast of Chile in 1960, caused tsunami waves as high as 10.7 metres (35 ft). These were recorded 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) from the epicentre, as far away as Japan and the Phillipines.

I don't know this when, on the morning of Sunday 28th February, in Shizuoka, I see the news images of Saturday’s 8.8 magnitude Chilean quake.

For the next couple of hours, the house is quiet and I study. Then, Snow’s father returns for lunch and switches the TV on again. No food and travel shows now. Normal viewing schedules have been suspended. Instead, the presenters are repeating urgent warnings. Graphics display anticipated wave heights the length of the Japanese coast, colour-coded by size, and experts are discussing their predictions. The first waves are expected around 2.30 pm.

Snow’s house is relatively far from the sea, and well away from any danger, but the neighbourhood PA system kicks in at around 1.00 pm to broadcast a ‘don’t go down to the sea today’ message. The family dog howls. And at around 2.00 pm, a stony-faced Prime Minister addresses the nation and outlines the potential gravity of the situation.

This being a tsunami that we have the welcome luxury of being able to wait for (Japan’s own tectonic faults are close enough to the coast for tsunamis triggered by earthquakes to reach land within minutes), I am keen to climb the yama behind the house and keep an eye on the sea. Snow’s father doubts that we’ll be able to see anything – he thinks the waterfront is too far away – but lends me his binoculars all the same. (Having seen migrating whales off the coast through a telescope from a much greater distance, I am happy to take the chance of wasting my time.) Besides, I appreciate the peace and quiet, as well as the view, here.

(For the record, given that we had plenty of advance warning, I don’t consider my curiosity in this instance any more voyeuristic than that, for example, of tourists visiting potentially destructive volcanoes, which could erupt at any time - isn’t that part of the thrill? - even if the anticipated spectacle has since turned out to be – literally - the ripple of a humanitarian disaster. The wave may come; it may not; and my watching makes little difference. The television coverage is dramatic, so what should one expect? We all agree that it made for compelling viewing.)

We take the slippery path up and are in position by around 2.30. Through the binoculars, my view of the waterfront is clear. The occasional jogger or hiker crosses in front of us, probably wondering what the big deal is. No Japanese would sit here watching the sea through binoculars. Politely we exchange hellos.

Snow follows the TV news on her mobile phone. Many roads are closed. 400,000 people have been evacuated from their homes. The trains beneath us are moving slowly, and only the shinkansen – which run well above street level - are still running without line closures. The strawberry farms, just across from the sea, are no doubt shut. A couple of helicopters are circling above the bay. And through the binoculars, I can still see vehicles surprisingly close to the sea.

The first reports of waves come in around 3.00 pm; they are highest in Hokkaido as expected but no more than 20 or 30 cm. The TV experts explain that tsunamis come – excuse unintended pun - in waves which are typically around an hour or so apart, and often it’s not until the third or fourth that they reach their peak. There is no change in the experts' commentary, and we continue to wait.

By 4.00, it’s getting a little cold. Having forgotten to bring paper, I have been writing down tsunami and natural disaster-related Japanese vocabulary on leaves, for inclusion in this week’s ‘chirruped forest’ diary. As Sunday afternoon experience, it sure beats hanging out at Starbucks but, through the binoculars, we – but really, I mean ‘I’ - have seen nothing, and the wind is picking up. The ever-patient Snow suggests we go back to the house, which means that she wants to. So we do, via a peaceful spot with fountains and a shelter named after Kyoto’s Kiyomizu temple.

Back home, it’s business as usual. Cooking and travel programmes. We change channels and the bar chart graphics are still there. Still red. By around 4.20, the highest wave yet recorded, in Hokkaido unsurprisingly, is 1.20 cm. The highest wave recorded near Shizuoka, however, is about 20 cm. (“That’s still pretty big” Snow says, but, to a teacher, these sound like words of consolation.)

The news shows aerial footage of a powerful wave moving down a river, but we also see cars crossing the bridges above. It doesn’t look especially threatening. The same channel repeats pictures of a flooded wharf area. Again, it’s not particularly violent and the water levels fall fairly quickly. But more waves are expected. The Director-General of the Meteorological Agency (whom I should imagine is a household name in Japan, such is the importance of his post) is interviewed and confirms that the alert remains in place. He would say that, wouldn’t he? (No Michael Fish-ish infamy for him.)

Beyond this, there are no newsworthy developments. The waves don’t get higher. Viewers lose interest. Normal service and normal schedules are resumed. Our thoughts return to our stomachs. Still, the warning is not lifted and the Tokkaido line, which I take between Shizuoka and Okazaki when I come here, remains closed for a large section. (As a result, I have to travel back the next morning, which is fine by me.) By late evening, it is clear that nothing has happened. We don't even discuss it at dinner and by bedtime it's forgotten.

The following day’s headlines report that “small tsunami hits Japan”. You shouldn’t be surprised. This is, after all, a blog that focuses on the little things.

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