Saturday 8 December 2012

Reality Check

It is about a quarter past five in the evening, I kneel in the entry hall in front of the bath furnace setting kindling on top of sakura bark. Mika is at the desk in the main room, finishing up some correspondence, while Sora, Rohan and Sean do their homework at the kitchen table. A few flakes of snow are blowing across the front yard, caught against the darkness by the light spilling from the front windows. Canaan is still not home, yet. We received a mail earlier in the afternoon telling us that the after school basketball had been cancelled due to influenza and that students would be returning home as normal. The plan had been for the boys basketball team to catch the school bus to a gymnasium in Sarugakyou, just the other side of Lake Akaya from here, to prepare for a tournament over the weekend, but the email said that there would "no longer be a need to go and pick him up at half past five". We expect him home any time.

As I reach up for the box of matches the windows begin to rattle and the floor moves sickeningly beneath my feet. I slide open the front door and the kitchen shoji screen, the children are already diving under the kitchen table, Mika is standing in the loungeroom doorway with her hand braced on the doorframe. Our eyes meet. The house and the floor begin moving more violently.

"Outside, now." I say in as calm a voice as I can.

The children quickly move to me, putting on sandals as they go past me through the front door, Mika follows and I go out last, taking Sean's shoes with me, as he has forgotten them in his haste.
I give Sean his shoes as we stand together on the cobbled causeway in front of the house, the rocks moving beneath our feet, and watch the house swaying and shaking. Above the rattling of the windows I hear the hissing sound of water splashing from the large cauldron on the hot wood stove in the lounge room. Walking across the moving ground, I open the shutters and window near the stove from the outside, just in case I need to deal with a fire. There is a large fire extinguisher close at hand if we need it. I go back to Mika and the kids and put my arms around them as the tremors continue, peak and subside. We wait in the dark for a few minutes more, a few flakes of snow resting briefly on the children's hair before melting into nothing. 

Satisfied that the quake is over, we take the kids back into the house, close up the doors, and double check the wood stove and chimney. It was the strongest quake we have had since we came to Minakami, since we moved into this house. 

"What time is Canaan supposed to be home?" I ask Mika.

"The mail said 'normal home time', so he should here by now..." There is a tone of trepidation in her voice.

"He's probably on his bike on the way home right now, I'll just drive down in the truck and pick him up." I say. I grab the car keys and start the cold engine. The little truck bounces over the cobble stones as I drive into the darkness. Snow blows across the road as I drive through the village, searching the empty footpaths on either side as I go. At the edge of the plateau is the bike shed, where the school kids leave their bikes and walk the last steep hill, through the snow shed, to the main highway and across to the school. I note that there is one bike in the rack as I drive past.

There is no sign of Canaan on the road to the school; there is nobody at the school. I phone Mika from the public telephone on the corner, he isn't home yet. Perhaps I missed him on the road? Or maybe they have gone to the gymnasium in Sarugakyou, despite the email? I drive back home by the normal route, stopping at the bike rack on the way. I check the name on the helmet; Canaan Craig. Where is he?

I arrive home, Mika is waiting in the doorway. No sign of Canaan.

"They must have gone to Sarugakyou," I say. "I'll go to the Gym and check."

I give Mika the truck keys and climb into the station wagon, it has four wheel drive and there is always more snow in Sarugakyou. Back across the cobblestones and onto the main road. As I approach the corner I see a car pulling away from the bus stop. A figure in dark clothes is walking towards me on the side of the road. As my headlights illuminate Canaan I feel relief flood over me. I stop beside him and he climbs into the car.

"Sensei dropped us all off himself." he says as he fastens his seat belt. "We had to prepare the gym for the other teams tomorrow."

"We had an email telling us you were coming home at normal time." I said. "We were a bit worried because of the earthquake."

"What earthquake?" he says.

I tell him about our evening as I pull into the front yard. 

"We must have been in the car," he says. "We didn't feel a thing."

Mika is relieved to see us. She has checked the net, the earthquake was 7.3 magnitude, just off the coast of Tohoku; not as large as last years great earthquake, which was 9. We listen to the emergency radio, there is a tsunami warning for Tohoku. 

I give everyone a hug, each in turn. We're OK. We pray quietly that everyone else is, too. There seems to be no damage, we are all home safe. It is not six O'clock yet.

I go back out to the entry hall, pick up the box of matches and light the bath stove. Time to cook dinner.  

We listen to the radio during the evening, to the tsunami warnings, to the safety reports from the nuclear power stations. After each report, we turn it off, so that the children do not have to fear. It is only recently that they have stopped having nightmares or calling out in their sleep. Sometimes these days they even laugh in their dreams, and that is the most wonderful sound of all. 

Mika and I go to bed after the tsunami warning is lifted, when we are sure there will be no further disaster. We are as safe as we can make ourselves.


I rise at first light this morning, and go out to check the kiln. No cracks, no movement whatsoever. I pat it gently on the side. "Well done." I say to it. "You can stay."

Coming back into the house, I light the stove, then go out to the studio and check the pottery. All of the work for next weeks exhibition is lined up on the throwing bench, just as I left it. Nothing has fallen over, nothing is broken.

Japan is a land of earthquakes. There will be more. Nobody can ever guess when or where or how big they will be. We cannot live in constant fear, so we must be constantly prepared. When I rebuilt the kiln, it was in the knowledge that there would be more earthquakes, so I built it stronger. When we moved into this house, I knew that it was built to flex in an earthquake. We have wood stoves, a wood heated bath, our own well water. We have a stock of emergency food and we are as prepared as we can be.

There is great deal that we have learnt from our experiences, and it is important to practice risk management. There will be earthquakes, and typhoons, and tsunami and blizzards. We must prepare for them as best we can, deal with them as calmly as possible, and care for the victims afterwards, learning lessons to prepare us for next time.


  1. so glad you are all OK - it seems a tough way to live coming from staid old Australia

  2. Thank you for thinking of all your readers and keeping us updated. You and your family were my first thoughts when I heard of the quake.
    I understand about being prepared for what comes as we live in an area of southern New England that often gets hurricanes and nor'easters. This last time we were ready and survived five days of no power quite nicely. The silence of no trains and planes was a gift.
    So very happy that all is well with you and yours.

  3. i am so glad that you and your family are okay and that your new kiln is fine. i hope that there will not be many aftershocks and that your house and studio will continue to stand strong.

  4. Good to hear that all is well. We keep all our friends in japan in our thoughts and prayers.

  5. Thought of you this week, with the news. I am so glad you are well.

  6. Stay safe....and may your children continue to laugh in their sleep.

  7. Although, I've never met you...I have been reading your blogs since the earthquake and you have brought tears to my eyes more than once - including this post. I am so very glad that your family is together and whole as well as your home, studio and kiln. I wish this to be true for all time...Hopefully, one day, I will hold one of your pots in my hands - that would be nice.