When I lived in Odawara, Japan, our house was very near the sea, with mountains rising up behind us, scattered with mandarin orange trees; when the fruit ripened, it stood out against the foliage like bright ornaments. I loved my two years in Japan, where the streets were beautiful and safe, and life had an underlying order. Every morning people hung their futons outside to air, and came out to sweep their steps and the streets in front of their houses. We watched a new house being built by neighbors just a few feet away, and a house-blessing ceremony when it was finished. Our landlord, a man named Yoshitaka Aioki, lived at the bottom of the street, and took us once to hike in the Japanese Alps, an extraordinary trip. Another time we climbed Mt. Fuji all night, arriving at the summit at dawn. In between there were shorter hikes, and trips to the hot springs, and stops at the shop which made fresh tofu of every kind, every day.
One of the first things we learned, though, was about the earthquakes, which trembled the ground frequently, especially the first summer we were there, when there was a great deal of seismic activity in the bay. People instructed us, calmly, almost as soon as we met them: we should turn off the gas at the source if we weren’t cooking. We should stand in doorways or dive under tables when the earth began to shake. We learned what the tsunami warning sounded like, and we knew the path to take up to the hills if one was about to strike.
The earthquakes were unnerving, but at least I thought I knew how to respond to them. This practical knowledge made it possible to stay calm when the shelves started swaying. It gave me some sense of control.
A sense, I see now, that was pure illusion.
You could never be prepared for such a quake, and such a wave.
My heart has been with the people of Japan all week.