While growing up, one of my best buddies would travel to California each year to visit relatives. Each year he would return from his vacation with fascinating stories of all the wonderful things he did. California. Dang how I was so jealous of him for those vacations of his. I had never even been on an airplane let alone traveled all the way across the country to such an exotic place like the West Coast.
Compared to the California that I was imagining in my mind at the time, my home town had nothing. No Hollywood. No movie stars. No palm trees. No ocean (Never mind that I lived right on the grand shores of Lake Erie—America’s North Coast—overlooked and neglected by most Americans but beautiful in its own right, nonetheless. But I was just a kid who didn’t have the capacity to appreciate such grand things.) And certainly my home town never had to worry about anything as exciting as an earthquake.
Yes, as macabre as it may be, I have to admit that as a child, much of California’s allure to me was the constant earthquake threat that it faced and the fact that at any given moment it could break off from the rest of the country and sink into the ocean. At least that’s how my buddy had always framed his exciting tales when he told them to me every time he returned from his travels out West.
And then there was Charlton Heston egging on my fascination for impending doom with his 1974 classic disaster movie “Earthquake.” God, how cool was that flick! Of course, if we are talking classic 1974 disaster movies, we must include in the discussion the one with one of the best disaster movie casts—Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway—and THE BEST disaster movie title ever: “Towering Inferno.”
1974. What a wonderfully disastrous year.
But, time moved on and it wasn’t until I was eighteen and on my way to navy boot camp before I finally got to fly in an airplane for the first time.
And it wasn’t until I was twenty-seven before I finally got to California for the first time. Unfortunately though, I only was able to visit Los Angeles. Let’s just say I wasn’t overwhelmed with what I saw of California. Of course, there was no way the California of real could ever compete with the California of a childhood imagination.
But long before my first trip to California, I did get to experience my first earthquake…and many more thereafter.
My love affair with Japan began at age sixteen when my family hosted a foreign exchange student from Kumamoto Japan. Thirty years later, I still and always will regard him as my brother. And although I probably didn’t think my reasons through very well when making my decision to join the navy, I would have to say, he was one of the primary reasons that I did join because he inspired me to want to travel the world in general and to travel to Japan in particular.
I had just turned nineteen when I was stationed in Japan for the first time in 1985. I don’t remember if I knew that Japan was earthquake prone at the time—I probably maybe did…not sure—but I am pretty sure by that time in my life I was smart enough to no longer want to travel to a place just because it had a tendency to shake a lot, like I had wanted to travel to California when I was a child.
So when I got to Japan in at the end of 1985, I think it is safe to say earthquakes were not on my mind.
Earthquakes were not on my mind, but so many other things about Japan were. For at least the first six months I was there, I was in a constant state of awe and wonder. The country captivated my imagination and captured my heart and compelled me to want to learn as much as I could about this crazy, fantastic, confusing, irrational planet we live on…and it continues to do so to this day. Everything was so new and different to me then. Ah…youth! I could literally feel myself changing from within because of what Japan was doing to me.
That was a wonderful time in my life, a time which has borne me many wonderful rewards…and continues to do so.
But, in addition to all the happy wonder and excitement, I was also completely afraid to drive for the first six months I was there.
Like the Brits, the Japanese do not drive on the RIGHT side of the road like just about ever other country on the planet does. Nope, they do not drive RIGHT side or the right side, they drive on WRONG, left side of the road!
I didn’t even like to be a passenger in a car because, since the Japanese drive on the WRONG side of the road, their cars have to be configured to accommodate for the wrongness. Consequently, the driver’s seat is also on the WRONG side of the car!
Very stressful for an ignorant kid who thought at the time that just because something was DIFFERENT from what he was used to, it automatically meant that it was WRONG.
Of course, as a wizened (well ripened?) old fart, I now know how WRONG many of my supposed RIGHTS were back then.
But regardless of my ignorance, it still took me quite a while before I finally got up enough courage to get a car and drive in Japan on my own.
For foreigners who cannot read Japanese, ala moi, just about the only way to get to Point B from Point A in Japan is by following landmark directions. Sounds easy enough; but when you’re new to the country and you’re still getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road, and when all the buildings seem to be so crowded together that they appear as if they’re on top of one another, and when all the cars seem to be painted white, and when people are walking everywhere and biking everywhere, and when motor scooters and motorcycles are zipping in and out of traffic everywhere, it is hard to follow even the best landmark directions.
But, eventually I got tired of driving around in circles on the tiny navy base I was assigned to and I mustered up the courage to drive all the way across town to the larger base.
I was more than a little nervous as I exited my secure and safe little base and dove into that rapid and dangerous stream of real life Japanese traffic.
From the moment I stepped foot on Japan for the first time, I felt like Gulliver, or, better yet, Godzilla. Everything seemed to have been miniaturized, especially the cars and the roads, the very narrow roads. Because the roads are so narrow and crowed, the speed limits are very low. I believe that 40 kilometers per hour is about the normal speed for a major city street. Pretty slow. It is even slower for the more narrow side streets. Fortunately, most Japanese follow the speed limit pretty closely so the traffic doesn’t move too fast to begin with.
But I am quite certain that I was going even slower than that when I finally was able to break out into the traffic.
Try to imagine a big ol’ 6’5” Godzilla-looking creature all crammed into a tiny car put-puttin’ nervously along at about 10 KPH. Pretty ridiculous visual, right?
And I’m sure I must have gotten lost once or twice along the way, too.
But when I finally made it downtown, not too far from the base, and when I was sitting first in line at a red light with what seemed to be a kilometer or so of traffic behind me, the old clunker that I had just bought (most cars that military types tend to buy overseas tend to be clunkers that are sold and resold from departing service members to newly arriving service members at prices underpaid service members can afford) began to shake like crazy.
My car felt like it was breaking down on me.
I had no idea what to do with a broken down car in the middle of an unfamiliar, crowded Japanese city.
I waited a few seconds, hoping that the car would stop shaking and would not break down on me and I would be able to finally make it to the base without making a fool of myself.
But the shaking got worse and I got really scared.
It was shaking so badly I thought it was going to blow up.
I did the only thing I could think of to do.
I got out and ran far away from the car.
I’m pretty sure you all ready know where this is going.
I think a conservative estimate of 30 seconds is about right for how long it took me to realize that I was experiencing, not a car that was about to blow up, but my first earthquake. And a really big one, at that.
Yes, it was rather embarrassing to realize from about thirty feet away that not only was my car shaking, so was every single car in that long line of traffic now stuck behind me.
In addition to experiencing my first earthquake and my first major international embarrassment (but certainly not my last), I also experienced just how polite and courteous the Japanese are. Not one person got mad or honked their horn at me. They all just patiently waited (and I’m sure had a good laugh) until the dumb gaijin realized what was really going on and got back in his car and quickly drove away.
God I love Japan.
But I sure do love Japan.
Note – I originally wrote this article immediately after the disastrous Japanese earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. I have not felt comfortable sharing it until today, when the area where I live experienced a pretty significantly sized and rare earthquake of its own. I hope today’s earthquake reminds us all of how sudden, unpredictable, and dangerous earthquakes can be. And I especially hope it reminds us how we need to remember that Japan is still trying to recover and still needs, maybe not so much our direct help anymore, but certainly our prayers and support.