Charles Harries

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Week 26

In Iwamizawa, I experience my first (and thus far only) earthquake, and we drive home through thick snow.

Fifty-two divided in two is twenty-six, which means that we are halfway through the year. The sun is shining, the air is sweet, spring is just over the horizon, just out of sight, but we've crossed over Groundhog Day and you know the Big Melt is coming soon. So welcome, have fun, make the most of the last of winter, or whatever.

We arrive in Iwamizawa sometime around 8 o'clock in the evening, maybe a bit earlier. The roads don't seem to follow any logical arrangement here. There are hills and parks and a lot of bare trees and empty air, a couple of cars disturbing the wind all around them as they pass. I'm standing in the parking lot of a heavy metropolitan library, all angular and spired and 1970s-ly red brick, probably smoked glass and tall skeletal off-white metal shelving units but in the dark I can't actually see inside. I'm carrying a thick wool duvet and a duffel bag's worth of ski gear and toothpaste, trying to navigate the manual riddle of how to bring my brownies with me. It occurs to me in a very self-conscious (blog-conscious?) way that for a person stumbling onto my present predicament, this whole scene might be a little strange. If only a little.

We wander through Iwamizawa for seven or eight minutes before we find the house we're looking for. It's also pretty tall and angular, concrete, warm colors that the Japanese seem to use for a lot of houses here. We open a red aluminum door and familiar Anglo-Norman sounds breeze out to us, we move into the dark foyer and drop bedding and remove snow-caked boots and wander inside.

We've been here for maybe two hours, two and a half, talking & laughing, standing & sitting, drinking & eating, discussing planes and good airports, male vs. female sex-perception, the quality of brownies and meatballs and cheese, really good cheese which might be a rarity here but I'm not sure because dairy production is actually through the roof. So yeah, about two and a half hours into this conversational smorgasbord, everyone's phone buzzes simultaneously, a collective text dropping from the sky into our pockets. I can't read it because it's in Japanese, but there's a good deal of exclamation marks and esoteric unicode symbols. It's looks urgent, but only by Western standards; I get monthly texts with the same amount of digital fanfare and typographic cacophony advertising reduced rates on insurance, advertising sales on cross-corporation, transmedia gadgetry (e.g. 15% off your next purchase of car-based audio systems, excluding Bose and Pioneer & excluding purchases under $1500 with any purchase of Everlast-brand gym equipment -- really weird stuff like that). I can make out a couple of words, some numbers and Latin alphabetical characters, but I'm distracted by one of the Japanese people in the room saying, "Ass-quake." I figure it out at about the same time as someone says, surprised-ish but not alarmed in the slightest, like hearing that there's a new episode of some television show that she'd watch when she has the time, but wouldn't like actually make time to watch -- in this half-surprised, tone, she says, "Oh, there's an earthquake," and then the shaking starts.

In the first couple of seconds I'm not even paying attention to the fact that the Earth, which has proven itself to be in my experience a solid, and a pretty solid solid at that, is now displaying many of the properties high school science textbooks attribute to liquids. Right now I'm just surprised that the earthquake, which originated some 75 kilometers beneath some point off to the west of the city of Kushiro (I puzzle this out during the first couple of quake-seconds, still looking dumbly at my phone), which point itself is maybe 150, maybe 200 kilometers away from where we are in Iwamizawa -- I'm a little taken aback by how long it took the earthquake to get here. I don't pretend to know anything about earthquake detection systems, but it seems to me that even the simplest one would have to detect the earthquake, send a signal from the detectors to the broadcast machine, parse a message out from the data, send this data to a satellite, beam it back down to our phones, which would then receive it and display it -- all of which took less time than it took for the ripples of the earthquake to travel the 150 kilometers between the epicenter and our bodies. Humans are a pretty clever group of people, to have built a warning system like this.

The quake itself is slow and quiet. Nothing like you see in the movies, as it turns out. Disaster-film cinematographers seem to like shaking the camera around like a found-footage horror movie. But the only way to detect visually that there's an earthquake at all is in the shaking of the lights above, in the little waving of the fabric on the tall cabinet, in the rocking motions of the bodies of those sitting on the floor. We all go a slightly quieter but by no means really quiet, we bump our shoulders against those beside us, feel the soft warmth of their arms against ours. It's like sitting in a bouncehouse with a bunch of lethargic children, worn out and only really giving a couple of token bounces here and there as if it's expected of them. I almost felt cheated -- I had been taught that earthquakes were tremendous earth-shaking things (both literally and metaphorically) and here was something that felt, come to think of it, almost exactly the same as the last lift on the Big Thunder Mountain Railway at Walt Disney World, that part where the track oscillates hydraulically and the rocks look as though they're about to fall down on you. It felt like a theme park ride. Not to take away from serious, legitimate earthquakes -- the kind that does terrible things to innocent people -- but for the big warning they send out, for all of the ensuing Facebook statuses that clogged my News Feed until 2 in the afternoon the following day, it felt unreal, manufactured; it felt fake.

Of course it wasn't, and of course the house wasn't sitting on a hydraulic platform. The reality was that all of Hokkaido was shaking, that the earth had let out a tremendous amount of energy, and in the back of my mind the notion that there was nowhere I could immediately go to stop it, there was no way out, was the worst part. Growing up as I did, I've always been able to yell "Stop," loud enough that I can get just about anything to actually stop; whenever the going has gotten really tough I've been able to give up and, at some expense, put an end to the experience.

But Hokkaido doesn't let that happen, because Nature refuses to let humans step in and stop her, Nature refuses to let humans get in the way and cut off whatever experience she's imposing. Nature isn't a ride at a theme park, nature isn't something you can get away from by closing your eyes or refusing to play. Like for example when we were stuck on the side of Mt. Shari back in October, with an hour and a half of sunlight left in the day and the temperature dropping pretty steadily, there was always a part of our subconscious experience that understood we would hit a point where our spirits failed, and we'd give up, and while it would be maybe humiliating, we'd be done with the experience. There's a part of us that believes that we as individuals have enough control over our personal situations that we can stop them when we need to. But when having an out has always been a part of our experience, realizing at 3:30 in the afternoon that it's time to get the hell out of Dodge or we'll be stuck on the side of a mountain overnight, maybe a kilometer away and above the trail and like ten kilometers outside of town -- in short, realizing that we don't actually have an out really gets to us, mentally, completely interrupts the clockwork of our minds, forces us to rethink our relationships with the situations we get ourselves into, right in the middle of one of these very situations.

So Hokkaido throws more snow than I have ever seen in one place at us this past Sunday, and we can't see the car ahead of us even though in normal weather I could probably see the driver's eyes in the rear-view mirror, and it's not a question of throwing in the towel because that means being stranded hundred of kilometers from home in the parking lot of a rural 7-11, missing work and sleep and the rest. So we have to push on into the blindness, push on into the white and the non-reality because the world has been erased and all we've got left is the dim hazard lights of the car ahead, which is incidentally the same situation that every car is in, all of us in a big Manifest-Destinean column all the way up to the front & God knows how the first guy up there is navigating.

and that was the last anyone saw of us
and that was the last anyone saw of us

This happens every couple of weeks. Foolhardy humans, we throw ourselves forward into Nature, over the brink, and too far gone, with nothing about us but empty air, falling fast, Hokkaido says, "Grow a pair. Time to fly," or something similarly blunt and old-time fatherly, and we have no choice but to fly, but to drive through a blizzard or leap down a cliff, climb down through trees to get back to the path, bike on in the pitch dark, whatever. We just don't have the option not to.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme