Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Category: Update


(This image is from the Japan Metereological Agency, which updates their site within seconds of a quake. This is where I got immediate information as I sat cowering under my desk and my whole apartment twisted and shook around me during the big one.)

There was an aftershock just now that measured a magnitude of 5.3 up north. . . There haven’t been many shocks since I got back to my apartment in Yokohama, so I’m a little nervous tonight. The shoes are going beside my bed again. Passports, bottled water, camera, check, check, check.

Who named these things “aftershocks?” I find the name very appropriate.

Update: I just wanted to note that the dots indicate the amount of shaking on a Japanese scale called “shindo.” The shindo for Yokohama was a 1 (white dot) in this aftershock. (Yokohama and Tokyo are at the very bottom edge of the map.) I probably noticed it only because I was sitting still in my armchair at home. Here you’ll find some information about sindo vs. magnitude.

Kyoto after the 3/11 Quake/Tsunami/Nuclear Power Plant Failure

(Elderly people viewing the plum blossoms in the imperial palace park, Gosho.)

Again, there is so much to write about. I discovered yesterday that these emotions I’m feeling in relation to the quake and other events in my life right now is plainly grief. Why? Because I’m learning how to live in the world with death and uncertainty. I don’t think I’ve ever really worked through grief like this before in my life. But realizing this is what my problem is has been a huge relief, because in working through grief, new possibilities for life open up and life becomes fuller. I can see it happening before me and within me now. . .

But first, back to the story. So, I eventually made it to Kyoto by shinkansen. What was strange was that the train wasn’t any more crowded than usual, the atmosphere at the station and in the cars was no different than I had experienced it many times before. Sure, I was initially surprised by the large number of young families with small children, but it was Sunday, so they were probably going to see the grandparents naturally enough. Who knows if they were trying to flee the aftershocks or nuclear threat?

The shinkansen was, of course, incredibly fast. Within no time I was in Kyoto Station. The people, the air, the trains, everything was normal there, but I was still hyper-attentive. My nerves would not relax and didn’t for a few days. At the hostel where I stayed, I even based my choice of the top bunch on a quick evaluation of the seismic possibilities, a crazy evaluation considering the sturdy, perfectly solid beams used in the beds’ construction. Of course, the whole week that I stayed there, I only felt tiny tremors, which just might have been my own imagination. It was hard to tell, but Kyoto is far far away from the afflicted area and only shuddered as the East was flattened.

(The view from a bench in the Gosho park. I spent a good part of an afternoon there, not wanting to sightsee anymore.)

In the meantime, I put up a mask of confidence and control whenever I met people. I tried to be my usual smilely self. I met with the director of the study abroad program at Doshisha University, the program with which I came to Japan for the very first time eight years ago. The director was also my very first Japanese professor in college ten years ago. We had planned a meeting with students to talk about living in Japan after graduating from college, but the meeting began with a run down of the news and analysis. Unsurprisingly, students’ parents were reacting strongly to the disaster and some wanted their children to come home. The program responded rationally with the facts: Kyoto was completely unaffected and was too far away from eastern Japan to be affected by the aftermath. The students’ studies should not be interrupted.

Thereafter, I had a wonderful evening with the director and her husband, a religion professor, at an izakaya near the university. With that, I finally let my control down enough to allow myself a glass of beer. As of the earthquake, I had been completely incapable of drinking for fear of losing the fragile grasp I had on the world around me.

At the hostel where I stayed, there were people from all over the world, but when I arrived many were from Europe. A few young French and German women frantically tried to find earlier flights to their home countries. As the week progressed, Europeans were replaced by tourists from various Asian countries, and finally by Japanese trying to find respite from the affected areas in the East. A woman from Ibaraki showed up with her son. Her husband is French, and they were looking for flights to France.

(A girl celebrating Shichi-go-san playing in front of the main sanctuary at Kitano Tenmangu.)

I spent my first day in Kyoto dutifully going to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine to pray to the god there, a god of study and, conveniently enough, originally a god of bad weather. However, my previous plans to sightsee places in Kyoto and in the greater Kansai area that are related to my research fell apart as I was more interested in the news, spending hours each morning and evening taking in as much news as I could, so I could purvey the situation rationally to my family and friends overseas. Rational news was the only anti-dote to completely flipping out, the only way to stay sane within the fierce storm of emotional reactions.

But not all news was rational. The night after the earthquake, I watched a podcast of the NBC Nightly News as I often do, and the quick succession of images accompanied by an uncorrelated narrative was misleading and purely sensational. (Shockingly enough, in one image a burning oil refinery was shown at the exact same moment the narrative mentioned problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant.) The only benefit I could see from that kind of reporting was collecting donations, since charity information was displayed right after the barrage of overwhelming images and information (the sound design and background design didn’t help much either). CNN wasn’t much different. I preferred the NHK news, which gave the most information anyway, albeit in Japanese, and more rationally than any foreign news service I was checking on both in Europe and North America.

Towards the end of the first week in Kyoto, more young Japanese people were coming to Kyoto for the long weekend or for a short period of time to regain some composure, it was hard to tell the difference, but most likely a bit of both. A few friends of mine who came from Tokyo had become completely overloaded with the emotional stress there. The lights were going out in rolling blackouts, trains functioned on reduced schedules, and radioactivity scares rose in waves through the city, particularly when it rained. Tokyo’s normally perfect clockwork permits a person to find a train itinerary on their cell phone that is aligned down to within seconds with the actual trains. That clockwork was seriously disrupted and it showed on the tense faces of friends visiting Kyoto for a few days when they didn’t have work. Those I met came, though, not as evacuees, but as tourists, visiting sights and meeting with friends. But work drew them back to Tokyo very soon after a few days.

In the meantime, life in Kyoto was surreally normal. Sure, the most commonly overheard conversation in restaurants and cafes throughout the city were about the disaster, but these happened in the most normal circumstances. If I hadn’t known Japanese, I would have thought the people completely indifferent, a fallacy that the philosopher Mishima Kenichi pointed out in an opinion piece for the Frankfurter Allgemenine. The Japanese response to the disaster isn’t any more or less dramatic than that of any other culture, it is just different. Although Mishima doesn’t mention the aftermath of Katrina, the levels of emotional frustration that led to plundering and violence there are not so different from the frustration and stress here. The difference is in how that frustration is dealt with, which might realate to the cultural (and economic) differences between the two places. . .

And just as in any other culture, the desire to help is strong. But in this case, there is very little to do even now. Because of food and fuel shortages in the northeast, volunteers are discouraged from going. Shortly after going to Kyoto, I wanted to reply to a call for help interpreting for international rescue teams, but since information on the need and situation was seriously lacking, I did not go. As a result, I regret that I haven’t been able to do much of anything to help yet. I feel powerless still, but I hope in the months and years to come to be able to volunteer in rebuilding.

(More to come. . .)

Post-Earthquake Part III

(See Part I and Part II)

So much has been happening lately. I would love to just forget chronology and tell you about Sunday at a workshop about pranks by novelist Kuroda Akira in a Shinjuku anarchist cafe, but that won’t do, because it would confuse me as much as it would confuse you. And no worries, I’m taking notes as things happen. It should all make it up here eventually.

The day after the earthquake, I stubbornly wanted to continue with my planned trip to Kyoto as I had planned it, taking the local trains on a Seishun 18 Kippu. I think I was in so much shock, I didn’t have the mental capacity to rethink my plans logically and carefully enough to work around the newly arisen obstacles. I knew that trains weren’t running as regularly as before the quake, so I headed out extra early and was expecting to be on trains until late at night.

The trip from Yokohama (Myorenji, my station) to Kyoto by shinkansen (bullet train) would have taken approximately 2 hours 16 minutes, leaving shortly after noon on March 12. Driving from here to Kyoto on the Tomei Expressway takes about 6 hours 10 minutes (according to Google, because I don’t drive). On local trains, the ride should have taken 8 hours 36 minutes and 8 transfers had they been running normally.

I hope these numbers help paint a picture of how crazy I was to think I could still make it. Before I left, I did my best to check the JR lines I would be taking were running. Of course, they were not running at full capacity. Although I set out at 7 am, I was expecting the ride to continue until late in the night.

But I headed out anyway, thinking if worst came to worst, I could turn around and come back. I made it without a hitch as far as . . . Yokohama Station. The platforms there were packed with people heading away from Tokyo. Sure it was a Saturday, but they didn’t look like they had partied through the night. They looked like they were just now finally making their way home after the earthquake. Most were in business suits and despite the circumstances, almost all were careful about their appearance, but they looked very tired.

Although usually trains come every few minutes, we waited there in well-ordered lines that stretched across the platform for well over a half hour. There were so many of us that when the train finally did come, we barely fit in. It was the classic Japanese train version of a clown car. We pushed ourselves in. I knew at that moment that I should have stayed home that morning, but in the crowd, I had no other choice but to let myself be pushed into the train.

The train moved at a snail’s pace, stopping at every level crossing, because the gates weren’t checked yet. The woman I was pushed up against (against my own will) was writing E-mails on her cell to friends. I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of her screen. She asked them first how everyone was doing, then said she was on her way to her parents’ house.

I too had been in constant contact with my friends throughout Tokyo and Japan since the quake. By the second day, I was checking up on past dates. Thankfully, no one had been injured too badly (except for a friend of a friend breaking her leg during an aftershock), but a number had fascinating stories to tell. (Here just a couple: Prof. Angles, Pt 1 and Pt 2, and Akira, Pt 1, Pt 2Pt 3 and Pt 4, plus lots more including pictures if you visit the archives of her tumblr) One friend told me they were fearing blackouts and were cooking dinner early to avoid using the rice cooker at peak electricity use hours. I was confident since I had a loaf of bread, chocolate, and granola bars in my bag.

A few stations past Yokohama, the train speed up to normal speeds, and continued through to Hirazuka. From there, I took the Gotenba Line. This line was running perfectly normally, or at least according to the times given on the display at the station. The Gotenba line passes just south of Mt. Fuji, and the day was absolutely beautiful. I took a few pictures from the window of the scenery, which looked like it might have on any other day. The people on the trains looked like they were going about their normal life, and outside the window on a playground, kids were playing whole heartedly.  The normality was surreal.

But I didn’t make it any further than the last station on the Gotenba line, Nezu. Not a single local train had run through Shizuoka that day, the station attendant told me. It was already early afternoon, and I was exhausted, and unwilling to shell out money for a bus that might be able to take me further, so I turned around and headed back home. I arrived at my apartment again at 4:30, ate some of my bread with a piece of blue cheese and my Mama’s marionberry jam from the fridge, and sat in front of NHK as it streamed from my computer the rest of the evening.

The next day, I went to Kyoto on the shinkansen, which had been running all along, and which I should have probably taken in the first place if I had had my wits about me.

(To be continued. . .)

(Sorry no picture of Mt. Fuji, because by the time I thought of taking pictures on the way home again, clouds had come in to cover it.)

Post-Earthquake Part II

(My hideout.)

(Continued from Part I)

I’m now back in my apartment Yokohama, but after the earthquake, I continued with my plans for a trip to Kyoto. When the earthquake hit, I was packing, cleaning, planning, and getting ready to go. Of course, it wasn’t easy to continue as planned.

My plan was to take a special discount ticket (Seishun 18 Kippu) that allows for unlimited rides on local trains for five days during spring vacation. My first challenge was buying the ticket. Right after the quake, I walked all the way to the nearest JR station at Kikuna, about a half hour away, only to find crowds of people outside the station, the shutter lowered, and no way in to the ticket office.

In retrospect, knowing that trains stopped for hours in Tokyo as the lines were checked causing people to set out on foot for hours to walk home, my desire for normality was a little crazy. I even knew it at the time, but unable to think of anything better to do, I went anyway, and walked back again empty-handed.

The city appeared undamaged. There were no cracks in the sidewalks, no fallen buildings, no disorder even. When I stopped in the grocery store for a loaf of bread, the shelves were full and carefully organized, and the only indication that there had been damage was a strong smell of alcohol in the liquor aisle.

Stopping by at another small shop closer to home, I saw the tsunami sweep across Tohoku in live images on a large screen TV and met a neighbor, who expressed her concern for me. I mentioned my plans to go to Kyoto, and she thought it was a good idea. Our short conversation made me realize I had yet to contact my parents and I hurried off back home.

That night and the next day, aftershocks continuously rocked the city. At some point, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me, because the shaking didn’t seem to stop.

Since I spent a good deal of time under my desk, I lay a large cushion on the floor to make it more comfortable and kept my computer there to keep it safe from the possibility of falling books. The computer was also my best source of information. NHK, Japanese public broadcasting, began an online news stream, which I kept on, the beginning of a desperate need for information to gain peace of mind.

At night, I slept in my clothes, with my packed suitcase and bottles of water near the front door, shoes on a piece of newspaper by my futon. The next morning, I got up early eager to leave the aftershocks behind, and set out towards Kyoto on the local trains. . . another outrageous expression of my strong desire to go on with life as usual.

(To be continued. . .)


It’s more than two weeks since the Tohoku earthquake and the news of its effects continue to drive fear through people. But I would like to go back two weeks ago to the day of the quake. As I said in my last post, which I wrote that very evening, the five minutes of shaking that seemed to go on forever with no end in sight I spent with my computer under my desk, twittering and on Facebook with friends, trying to gain some comfort and information when everything all around me seemed about to collapse. Here are a few of my Fb posts as it shook:

Hanna McGaughey is currently under her desk with her computer. . . I haven’t experienced a book falling earthquake until now. . . (March 11 at 1:57pm)

‎. . . and I just cleaned my room! I’ll have to clean it again! (March 11 at 1:58pm)

‎. . . still a slight shake going on, but nothing’s falling anymore. I think I’m going to go outside. . . (March 11 at 2:00pm)

‎. . . to check if my laundry is done. (March 11 at 2:00pm)

When I wrote that I felt like I would never actually be able to leave my little safe space under the desk. I was in complete shock and afraid it might start shaking again at any moment. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I tore together enough courage to crawl out, cover the distance to the front door, and go outside.

I quickly moved my laundry into one of the driers and returned to my apartment. When the earthquake started, I had been cleaning and packing to go to Kyoto, and still in cleaning mode, I quickly picked up everything that had fallen down, laying two vases and some framed family photos down so that they might not fall again. I was lucky that nothing was broken.

(It wasn’t until I had everything put away again that I realized I could have taken a picture of it for the blog, but it wouldn’t have been much to look at. Some of my friends’ apartments were hit harder. One found a lot of things in her apartment smashed, another said her refrigerator moved about 20 centimeters “like it was walking.”)

An aftershock sent me under my desk again, but eventually, with my little red suitcase packed and thinking I should get my ticket for the trip to Kyoto the next day, I packed up by backpack with my computer and camera and headed outside. The owner of the laundromat and a neighbor were talking in the street. The owner explained that he had come to check on the large metal natural gas containers used for the driers. It took me a moment to realize the danger of having a laundromat right next door. Under slightly different circumstances, it just might have blown up right next to me.

My state of shock now deeply entrenched, I continued to the train station, where people were loitering outside, which was strange, because they didn’t look like they were waiting for anyone. The train station was closed. I began walking to the next train station, where I could buy my ticket for the trip to Kyoto, still preferring to go about my life as previously planned instead of dissolving into a state of pure emotional fear.

On my way, I passed a small pharmacy with a large screen TV suspended on one of the walls. Through the glass doors of the shop, I saw all of the pharmacists clustered around the TV, watching live as the tsunami rolled over the Tohoku region. That image is deeply impressed in my memory.

(To be continued. . .)


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