I just lived through an earthquake!!

A piece of life advice: never start an instant message conversation with that. Even worse, don’t start an IM conversation with that on someone else’s laptop, and then let them check their e-mail. What will happen is that your girlfriend, on the other side of the World, will surmise that an aftershock has destroyed your hotel and send a volley of increasingly panicked messages begging for a reply. Please???

Indeed, ‘I just lived through an earthquake!!’ is a pretty poor opener even if you don’t then vanish suspiciously for several minutes, because it implies that you survived—obviously a good thing—but it doesn’t make out that you did especially well out of the experience. Someone who ‘lived through’ an earthquake is probably crushed under forty tonnes of rubble, using one of his two working limbs to send distress-message–cum–last-words via Google Talk before the laptop battery dies, and the other to get his knob out and gouge a channel in the dust to his mouth in order that he can drink his own urine.

As it happened, that was a slightly inaccurate extrapolation of my predicament. I found myself hunched over the computer in the corner of a comfortable, air conditioned hotel room, chatting to my co-survivor, whose computer it was I was borrowing to frighten my girlfriend.

The earthquake I lived through was a magnitude 6.8…at the epicentre, some three hundred miles away. By the time it has made it to Tsukuba, a small, new town (the Milton Keynes of Japan) just outside Tokyo and venue for the µSR08 conference which I was attending, it was a gentle magnitude three. According to Richter and his scale, threes are ‘often felt, but rarely cause damage.’ The best kind.

The ’quake struck at 00:26 local time, whilst we were in a lift on the 6½th floor. The lift shuddered, the lights flickered, and the doors opened slightly lower than the seventh floor. We stumbled out to discover that it wasn’t just the lift: the whole hotel was gently oscillating, magnifying the naff quake at ground level into a respectable list. Being British, sensible, slightly nervous and slightly drunk, we made our way briskly under doorframes to protect us from falling debris. More wobbling. A blasé Portuguese chap, clearly begging for self-obliteration by his careless actions, rushed into the corridor and mocked our earthquake safety drill. More wobbling, with a surprisingly constant frequency, and surprisingly little decay with time; no debris as of yet. A minute and a half later, we’d lived through an earthquake.

Keeping up the British paranoia, we decided to ascend to our floor using the stairs. This did little to allay our fears of death in a cataclysmic aftershock. The Japanese have a lackadaisical attitude to stairs, assuming that they are the last resort of idiots, and tend to put them in buildings as an afterthought, un-air-conditioned and unloved. Anyone with even a hint of culture, style or laziness would use the lift to make their way up the absurdly high-rise buildings which dominate Japanese cities even quite a long way from the centre. The baking heat in a typical stairwell during Japanese summer is testament to the disrespect this mode of ascension is afforded: being not air conditioned is the interior design equivalent of taking away an American cop’s badge and gun. You’ve been taken off active duty, smart-ass, and you’re not going to get any respect until you solve the case via an illegal trail of unconventional, off-duty policing and we realise that you’re the best guy on the force. But stairwells can’t solve crimes, the analogy breaks down and they remain the poor relation in Japanese architecture. These stairs were no exception, and looked entirely unfinished: metal stairs enclosed by un-plastered, unadulterated fabric of building. Here’s the paranoia: the fabric of the building looked to be metal girders—all to the good in earthquake survival—but stuck together with grey polystyrene. It didn’t look, uh, very strong. Well, at least we’d die well-packaged. Perhaps if there was a layer of bubble-wrap inside we’d have something to pass the time whilst we waited for the rescue team brandishing TV cameras, and the heroes’ welcome and the interview on national telly where we got to describe how we were actually forced to drink each-other’s urine because of the unfortunate position we’d been crushed in.

I wish I’d left the bar ten minutes later: we were drinking outside, opposite a multi-storey car park, and the people who did have the wisdom to remain said that as the ground shook under their feet, the car park flapped like a leaf in the breeze as the might of Mother Earth rumbled beneath.

It was still brilliant, mind. I think I’m about ready for a magnitude four (noticeable shaking of indoor items, rattling noises; significant damage unlikely). My ideal earthquake would be a magnitude four, in daylight, whilst I was outside, two building heights away from the nearest dramatically-swaying tall building. Preferably with some kind of doorframe to cower under.

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