We are on the 49th floor. Tokyo spreads out in front of us, buildings rising and falling as far as you can see, to the mountains to the West, Mount Fuji in the distance where the sun goes down behind it.
Last month, at home in Cambridge, we felt an earthquake that took place in Maine. A little jostle, a novelty, the tinkling sound of glasses rattling. What happened here was not that.
I’m in Tokyo right now because my partner Jonah is a soccer journalist and is covering the Club World Cup taking place here, and because staying ten days for free at a beautiful hotel in a city I’ve never been seemed an opportunity not to pass up.
I arrived three nights ago. I spent my first day wandering around the city by myself. On busy roads gates lead to gardens and shrines that instantly, upon entering, transport you to somewhere not a city. Remarkable, the calm, the way that stones arranged just so, haphazard and controlled at once, and the angles of branches and shapes of leaves and walkways and little bridges over small streams, have the power to shift moods. At a cemetery, the first public one built in Japan, incense smells drifted through the air. It was a pleasure walking around.
Jonah and I met for lunch and went to a place with plastic walls and seats that were plastic crates with worn cushions ontop and low worn wooden tables. Two options for lunch as shown on photographs behind the counter. One, a bowl of chunks. Two, a bowl with a raw egg and a tuna-colored mixture. We opted for the latter. Two bowls were filled with rice, a half-moon smear of pink chopped tuna, another smear of bright white goo which we haven’t yet identified, it was gentle flavored with a whisper of sweetness. After that, wasabi, ginger, flecks of dried seaweed, and a tiny egg. The man making the meal took the top off the shell of the egg with a sharp tool and said something each time. He poured it into the bowl, and handed us our trays. It was delicious. The self-serve miso soup was the best miso soup I have ever had by far.
As we ate, a man pulled a monster from an ice chest nearby. A giant gaping mouthed fish, hideous and slimified, tiny sharp teeth, gross-eyed, such an ugly sea beast! The man heaved it into a big blue bucket and we went over to get a closer look, and both jumped back when the fish — an Anko, deep sea dweller — gasped and lurched, life still in it.
We walked after lunch and and found another shrine. A man dressed in all white, white gloves, broomed leaves of the tiled roof of the temple. The switch-switch sound could be heard as we walked around. Tiers with little altars, stone sculptures, pathways and platforms. The leaves were bright reds and yellows. The place was hushed. Jonah and I whispered.
We walked back to the hotel, happy and excited about our afternoon, about being here, feeling lucky, up of spirit, and calm. Something forgotten, taken for granted, our affinity for the same sorts of places and things, that we both enjoy, for example, sitting on crates with worn cushions in a place with plastic curtain walls, was made apparent again, and we felt that flush.
Two hours later, I was in the hotel pool. As I slid into the water, the only person there, in dim light with calming music playing, I laughed out loud at how wonderful it all was, how absurdly wonderful, and at how lucky I felt. I grinned like a maniac and thought, this is paradise, this is paradise. The city had struck some big deep calm in me and I felt so happy. I swam and swam.
The quiet music stopped and the water suddenly was sloshing, making big noise like ocean waves. It crossed my mind that perhaps this was some Japanese pool technology, simulating the ocean, with a recording of waves playing and motion brought to the water, rising up over the edges, a current to challenge the swimmer. What a thing, it flashed across my mind, as the water sloshed and lapped. A small wave hit me in the face, water in my nose. A lady in a black uniform rushed over to the side and leaned down and said, smiling so kindly and so calm, please, you have to leave the pool because of an earthquake. I climbed out and dripped across the room and fumbled with my robe. Please don’t worry, just a precaution. And I thought, this must happen all the time, how strange. And I went back to my room.
When I got there, dripping, heart pounding from the laps, a little flushed post-swim, there were noises that were horrible to hear. A grinding creaking, loud and steady. My heart pounded harder. All moisture evaporated from my mouth. Am I dizzy? Am I about to fall over? Did the swim throw me off balance? A wobbling, a moving and a shifting, I was unsteady. But it was not my muscles. The room was moving. I could feel the room moving. It was an awful thing to feel. I tapped in with Jonah, at his office on the floor above, told him about my pool evacuation and the earthquake.
I hoped that he didn’t know about it, that maybe the swaying was my own imagination and the creaking and grinding was somehow otherwise explainable.
But the noise and the swaying continued. I have never been so scared before that I thought I might throw up. I know how that feels now. My hands were shaking and I was concentrating hard on keeping slow and steady breath. Jonah returned and I saw that he was scared and he saw that I was scared and this was bad for both of us. The grinding and swaying stopped, finally it stopped, and we put on CNN, breaking news, massive earthquake hits coast of Japan, and hands continued to shake. I am most afraid of tsunamis, Jonah is most afraid of the building collapsing.
No risk of widespread tsunami, reported CNN, some small nugget of calm. But so scared, still. Scariest: no idea what to do. Do we leave this giant building? Do we stay? Do we climb under the desk with pillows on our heads? A helpless feeling in a faraway place at the mercy of seismic forces thirty-six kilometres below the surface of the sea.
I went down to reception, asked them about what to do. This is the safest building in Tokyo, they said. If there is an emergency, take the stairs. This is the safest building in Tokyo. It was built five years ago with all the earthquake technology. This is the safest building in Tokyo. They said it again and again. I found an article in the LA Times about high-rises “indisputably” being the safest places to ride out earthquakes. That word, indisputably, repeated itself in my brain, token of comfort. But in being reassured by many staffmembers, all kind and calm, all I could think of was the Titantic.
Some hours later, the initial hot fear having given way to a lower-level shakiness and dread, we decided to go out. Out in the world, it was Friday night hustle-bustle, everyone moving about as though nothing had happened. Were we the only nervous, rattled souls? We found a small place on crooked side street and drank beers and got calmer and laughed a little wildly. We ate small plates of food, slowly. Barely cooked chicken, grilled pork, amazing almost raw beef. Things felt better.
This morning Jonah noticed a long crack in the wall of our room that runs from the ceiling to the headboard. Had it been there before? Please say it had. Please say it had.