Tag Archive: earthquake

Mar 11

Three Years

Three years ago, I was walking out of my Japanese class near Yokohama station and was headed for my bicycle. I had no idea then that just over two hours later, I would be cowering under my kitchen table or standing outside watching the earth roll while people just a few hundred kilometers away were dying terrifying deaths or having their homes destroyed.

After the dust cleared, I did just over a week of volunteering, and it really doesn’t feel like I did enough. I also started a (largely unsuccessful) attempt to call out journalists on their shoddy and sensationalist reporting of the event, particularly the brouhaha surrounded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. I think I made a few people defensive, but I don’t think we really effectively called anyone out on their bullshit. And such reporting continues to this day, largely forgetting about the real victims of the tsunami, many of whom are apparently still homeless.

My wife and son are out for a couple of hours, so I’m using this quiet time to think about all the people that we lost on that day, and those we still haven’t effectively helped; to think about all the stories yet untold, and all those that can never be told.

The plum blossoms are blooming in my yard again, just as they were then.


Mar 16

Japan: I’m A Resident, Not A Tourist

In response to the big Tohoku earthquake, some people are fleeing Tokyo (and Kanto) and some are fleeing Japan.


I am staying put in Yokohama.


A lot of friends have offered me places to stay throughout the world should I elect to leave.  Many have urged me to leave.  This is heart-warming and touching, and I am really grateful for all the truly great, caring, and generous friends I’ve got.


I am staying put in Yokohama.


A quick rundown of the reasons below:


First and foremost, I am not a tourist.  That is to say, when I go to Canada, I visit Canada, I don’t “go home”.  I stand in the “Visitors to Canada” line at immigration.  When I go “home”, I take the train to 上大岡 station, climb over a large hill, and walk to my flimsy wooden house.  When abroad, I get “homesick” for Japan.


I have put down roots.  I have permanent resident status; I own a house; I am married and have an extended family of in-laws here.  How could I leave my mother-in-law and my grandparents-in-law behind?  Grandmother is non-ambulatory and requires around-the-clock care.


I don’t like everything about this country, and I am forever an outsider and often am proud to stand apart.  But home is where you hang your hat, as the cliché goes, and I hung my hat here nearly eight years ago.  The hat may come down one day, but not today.  I will not behave like so many expats who leave when the going gets tough; these “captains of industry” who desert what they perceive as a sinking ship like the rats of industry they are.  In fact, if I am still gainfully unemployed when the call for volunteers goes out, I intend to head up north and help with the clean-up effort.


I’m not suicidal.  If I perceived a real, immediate threat, I would do my best to get myself and my loved ones out, and encourage as many others as possible to do the same.  But the foreign media has exaggerated the risk, particularly relating to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  If you’re watching CNN, STOP NOW!  I’ve seen articles on TIME magazine and on The Toronto Star websites that have scientific errors that even a brief check with an expert or (god forbid) Wikipedia would have caught.  The biggest risk we face is another earthquake in this region of the country as the Tohoku quake seems to have triggered other earthquakes on different fault lines (which makes them not aftershocks, but separate quakes, I am told).  However, this is Japan, and earthquakes are part of the package.


This country has survived so much in just the last 150 years, and come so far in that time.  We will survive this, too.


So thank you all for your concern, and your kind offers, but I need to be here right now.


And now, I leave you with this: a picture of the blossoms on the plum tree in my yard that I took this afternoon during the blackout.  As much as the terrifying power of the earthquake and the tsunami is Japan; so is this.



Mar 14

Quake News – Bits and Bobs

Just some miscellanea regarding my quake experience before I continue with my interview thingy.


  • My mechanical clock is running 20 minutes slow as of this afternoon; must be the continual bumping. I’m planning to leave it for a few more days to see how slow it will get.  It’s losing about 5 minutes per day.
  • During the 8-hour blackout on day of the quake, I spent 5 hours not flushing the toilet until I realized that the water was, in fact, running.
  • The upstairs toilet flooded. Salient points below:
    • This toilet has a small, random leak on the left side, under which I’ve placed a bucket
    • Japanese toilets frequently have a water-fountainy thing at the top (see picture)
    • We have incense cones sitting on the window sill in case of a particularly monstrous odour
    • I used this toilet only twice during the blackout, at which point it was already dark outside
    • I went back in yesterday morning while vacuuming, and discovered water on the floor
    • Inspection revealed that there was now way the normal leak could have missed the bucket
    • Further inspection revealed that an incense cone had fallen (presumably during the quake) near the hole on the top of the toilet where the water ‘fountain’ drains into the tank
    • The cone is smaller than the hole, so it must have originally fallen sideways
    • The water from my first flush must have pushed the cone towards the hole while simultaneously engorging it
    • Thus, said engorged cone blocked the hole
    • Second flush must have flooded the tank top
    • Interesting?  Probably not.
  • Around 12:30 today, two obaasan (Japanese old ladies) rang the doorbell.  They wanted to present me with an impeccably-written note in English informing me about the power outage from 15:20 – 19:00ish.  Of course, my wife is home from work today (trains too unreliable and crowded from here to Tokyo), so it was completely unnecessary, but they were worried that I was home by myself.  The hilarious part to think about is that, knowing how little old ladies do things here, it probably took them 3 – 4 hours from coming up with the idea to executing it, working solidly the whole time, with many discussions.  It gave me a bit of a smile to think about that and about how much my neighbours care about me.

Mar 13

Quake News – Interview PT I

As you may have heard, the largest earthquake in its 140 years of recorded earthquakes has struck the north eastern part of the main island of Honshu.


Since the quake struck at 14:46 yesterday afternoon, I’ve been posting my reactions and any updates I can think of on Twitter and Facebook, which for many hours after the quake, were the only reliable means of communication.


You can follow my trains of thought there: http://twitter.com/#!/StageRabbit and http://www.facebook.com/Woolner


japan-earthquakeOne of the more dramatic photos from the tsunami that followed the quake. [Not my house]












There was a false alarm that I might be interviewed by the cbc, but once I informed them that the most trying part of the experience was going eight hours without a heated toilet seat, they smiled politely and backed away.  So I thought I’d do the interview myself:




Q. Where were you and what were you doing when the quake occurred?

A. I was at the kitchen table, eating half of my lunch.  The other half was in the toaster oven.  The house started rocking, and I froze.  Imagine a rabbit raising his head and cocking his ears.  That was me gauging the seriousness of the tremor, as I think all of us here have learned to do.  After about 10 seconds of rocking (the house felt like it was rocking back and forth, south to north), it seemed to be intensifying, so I pushed out my chair and ducked under the table.  My back was to the south wall of the house, which, as the quake went on, I could feel thumping into my back.

I felt like I was on a boat, not in a house, and the shaking seemed to go on forever.  I’d left my laptop sitting on the table, and I tried to make a grab for it, but couldn’t get a good angle.

I heard something fall and smash in the living room.

The shaking subsided, and I grabbed my laptop and went to check the living room.  While doing so, a light shaking started, so I moved on to the genkan, put on my shoes and got out of the house, where I met up with my neighbours.

I had only been wearing a T-shirt when the quake hit, so it was a little cold, but I didn’t take the time to grab my jacket.

Q. Is that what you should do?  Run out into the street?

A. No, probably not.  But after riding the rough seas in my house, my instincts were screaming at me to get out.  However, I was probably more likely to get hurt by falling debris (ceramic roof tiles, etc.) out there than I was to be hurt under my kitchen table.  However, at this time, no one had any idea what was happening, and I didn’t trust my house not to come down around my ears.

Q. What did your neighbours think of the situation?

A. They’re all old Japanese men, so very hard to fluster.  We discovered quickly that power in the whole area was out.  I was actually the news source for the first 15 minutes or so.  I’d tethered my laptop to my phone and was able to check the news while everyone else was still looking for his battery-powered radio.  I felt inordinately proud to be the one to break the news that the quake was in the northeast and measured 8.9 [note: since upgraded to 9.0].

Q. Did you eventually go back into the house?

A. Eventually.  I had to: it was getting insanely windy.  But I rode out the second aftershock (biiiig one) on the steps outside my house, crouched down and chatting with a neighbour.  The aftershocks were reasonably strong and coming so frequently, that every time I went back into the house, I got scared out of it again.

Jul 04

The Decision

So, I’m back from the first leg of my tour to Canada, and my wife has been busy while I’ve been gone. She’s hired SANWA to build the window grille to keep any kids from dropping out of our second floor window.  She’s hired a landscaping company to turn the garden at the Kamiooka Tea House into something manageable.  And she’s pretty much narrowed down the choices for renovators to two.


We dropped SANWA (except for that window thing) because we didn’t feel they understood our design ethic.  We dropped Sumitomo because their it-will-never-change-from-the-estimate fee was not negotiable (there were no details in the estimate that were changeable—not the type of doors, not the bath unit, etc.).


So we had a meeting today with the two remaining.


We met with CONCEPT at 13:30.  We’d actually tried to cancel them, but they were very keen on showing us what they had planned for us.  However, their price was steep, and while they managed to drop it by about 800,000 Yen, it was going to increase again with the structural changes they were suggesting.

Despite all we’d heard from Yokohama city and Sumitomo about balance being important, CONCEPT didn’t change their idea of reinforcing walls, seemingly willy-nilly.  The new plan was to tie the second floor and first floor together more strongly.  This wasn’t included in the quotation they gave us.


The thing about CONCEPT is this: if we didn’t have such an old crap house, we would totally go for them.  They understand us, plus they have a vision for each room, plus they think of stuff the other companies don’t (i.e. running conduit between the office and the second floor).  After he left, I’d pretty much decided that if URBAN didn’t have any significant improvements to their initial offering, that CONCEPT would be the way to go.


Unfortunately for CONCEPT, URBAN did.  While I’d been gone, they’d submitted a lowball quotation to my wife.  URBAN have expertise in Earthquake-related structural improvements, but the changes they’d suggested would not have significantly increased our survival chances, even by their own reckoning.


So they came in today with a quotation 1.2 million yen higher, but with changes that might actually save our asses in the event of a large Earthquake.

Earthquake_Fix_ZoomThe image on the left shows our unmodified house in a computer simulation of a quake.  The right hand side of the house basically folds up.  The new version, taking into account the improvements URBAN pitched us, is on the right.  As you can see, only the right-hand side of the second floor collapses in this version, BUT it doesn’t collapse completely and leaves some void space.  These changes have to do as much with balance as they do with strengthening walls.


Of course, these are computer simulations and can’t really do more than guess at what would happen during a real quake, since actual damage all depends on intensity, direction of shaking, and duration, but this is the closest anyone has come to giving us something concrete we can do to increase survivability.  All bets are off if the earth under the house gives way as well, but, as I say, we’ll take what steps we can to prevent things we can actually control.


So we’ve essentially made the decision to go with URBAN.  It’s a shame, because I’m not sure we’ll be able to get the extra little touches that CONCEPT had pitched:


– Conduit for LAN cable

– Little bedside lights build into the wall of the cubby we created for the head of the bed

– Custom bookshelf for the library room

– Ranma between the library and genkan


I’m still holding out hope that maybe we can convince them to do these little jobs.  But I’m not holding my breath.  There’s not a lot of money in it for them.

Jun 06

Kamiooka Death Trap

I’m sitting in the new house with my wife and a rep from Yokohama city, who is just completing his inspection of the house for an earthquake evaluation.


I am changing the name of this house from the Kamiooka Tea House to the Kamiooka Death Trap.  We didn’t pass a single part of the inspection.  The inspector suggested that if we were hit by an Earthquake the size of Kobe’s in 1995, the house would come down in about seven seconds.


On the plus side, we could collect the insurance.


On the minus side, there’s a good chance we’d be dead.


I think we’re going to re-prioritize what we’re spending our limited renovation money on.


As a side note: yes, you can get an inspection before you buy a house, but the owners need to sign off on it… and they never do.  I wonder why.

May 29

Sunday last

Wow, I’ve already got another episode to write about from today, and I still haven’t written up Sunday from last week.


Sunday of last week we were supposed to be having two preliminary meetings at the Kamiooka Tea House with two new renovation companies.


We met the rep of the first company, SXL (‘S’ by ‘L’) at 10:30.  He walked in, took one look at the place, and said it would cost at least 6 million yen to fix, probably closer to 8, and then essentially walked out.  We were all very polite, but I was really pissed that he’d wasted our time.  We had three hours until the next company showed up.


When sending out the bid, my wife had specified that we were looking at spending around 3.5 million Yen and had given a fairly detailed description of the house.


We know that 3.5 million is unrealistic, considering all the extra work that’s been added to the job since the first quotation, but the other companies have all come in and given it their best shot.  If this twit knew he wasn’t going to be able to do this for even close to the amount we specified, he shouldn’t have even made the appointment.  (And no, there’s no way you can tell what structural things need to be done to the house just by looking at it.)


So, after that disappointment, we walked around the house, talking about what we’d like to do for 45 minutes or so, and then took off to try the nearby Chinese restaurant (the large, vertical sign of which is the closest we get to a view from the Tea House).  You can see just to the left of center in the photo below:


After eating lunch at the Chinese restaurant, and a pitstop at McDonald’s for my wife to get coffee, we headed back to the house to meet our second renovation company for the day.


This company was called CONCEPT, and two men showed up.  The first was a shaved-head unprepossessing sales guy/designer (Yamazaki-san).  The second was a short man in coveralls, the workman, who was crawling under the floor and inspecting things.  We later found out that this second man is actually the president of the the company!  (CONCEPT only has 15 employees)


The experience with CONCEPT was the opposite of what we’d had in the morning.  Yamazaki-san seemed genuinely interested in the house and our ideas for it, and was always prepared to jump in with ideas of his own.  Unlike all the other renovators we saw, he understood instantly that we didn’t want to turn the place into a new house and wanted to keep the character of the house.  He was also excited by the house, particularly the second floor (and my toaster and shaved ice machine that I’d rescued).  He made lots of really good suggestions that enhanced the ideas we’d had rather than compromising them.


Meanwhile, the company president was crawling around under the floor and checking the walls and posts with his lasers and such.  At one point he popped up from under the bedroom floor and said something to the effect of: “The foundations are surprisingly weak!”  On the plus side, we discovered that all the posts in the house are still straight, despite being originally designed to support only one floor.


Speaking of the posts, the president also told us that none of our internal walls are load bearing.  That sounds great: we can move them around however we want… until you realize that that means that only the corners of the house are supported by the posts.  In the event of a big earthquake: wobble, wobble, wobble, rock, rock, CRASH!  (Particularly since this house has the traditional heavy Japanese ceramic tile roof.)


But the experience of dealing with CONCEPT was the best so far.  It was really nice to talk to someone who actually approached the house like a designer, asking about a given room’s feeling and function rather than just what we wanted it to look like.  And, as I said before, he seemed really taken with the house and excited about working on it, which made us feel really good.

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