A week ago tonight I stood at the office computer wishing to finish up quickly and get back to the house. It was late and I looked forward to a hot bath, a cup of tea and sleep. My phone suddenly lit up, screaming “JISHIN DESU, JISHIN DESU.” I picked it up and ran the length of the studio to where Hanako sat at her wheel throwing pots. I looked at her wide-eyed, like a deer in the headlights, and blurted out, “earthquake, it’s an earthquake!” I’ve only had an iPhone a couple of years now and never before had the actual event warranted the heart-stopping siren of its warnings. But in Japan, a country riddled with fault lines, well you just never know. Hanako stood up and rinsed her hands in a nearby bucket of water. The building began to vibrate. It’s an odd feeling. You just wait, wait and see if the shaking stops or if it grows stronger, if you should rescue a few fragile pieces from precarious perches or just get the hell out. But in a pottery studio surrounded by hundreds of fragile pieces balanced on shelves and boards, what do you reach for? The rattling quieted, leaving nothing disturbed.
That first magnitude 6.5 quake originated 150 km (90 miles) away in a town called Mashiki in Kumamoto prefecture. For the next 24 hours aftershocks and fierce winds rattled and battered the walls. Both ceased as evening fell and we went to bed in peace that next night. But at 1:30am my phone screamed again. We had only enough time to launch out of bed and turn on a light before the house started to shake with noticeably greater intensity. An iron bookend fell off the shelf. All I could think to do was reach for a nearby flower vase and set it on the floor. It’s fascinating how time slows in these situations, the mind hyper aware of each passing moment, scanning for signs of immediate danger. At just the moment when it seemed like getting the hell out was a good idea, the undulations quelled. That was definitely bigger, we voiced in unison. Neither one of us slept much the rest of that night.
Infrastructure in the Kumamoto area is disrupted, supply lines broken, but despite our proximity, here in Karatsu daily life quickly resumed in normal fashion. I got swept away over the weekend preparing for a visit from friends and planning the menu for a 10-course meal. On the day of their arrival, I spent the morning gathering ingredients. We would finish the meal with asari-gohan (rice cooked with steamed clams), but there were no clams at the fish market. I stopped by the supermarket. Since the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daichi we have become vigilant about the origin of our food, particularly seafood. Anything purchased at the fish market is guaranteed to be local, but it’s less certain at a supermarket. I found some lovely clams, but I don’t recognize the kanji of all of Japan’s prefectures so I took a quick picture of the package and messaged it to Hanako. “It’s fine,” she wrote back. “It’s from Kumamoto.” Kumamoto is one of several prefectures surrounding the Ariake Sea, a vast shallow-water bay where many shellfish are gathered. But how was it that just days after such a large earthquake there I could find clams from Kumamoto in our supermarket?
Fairly large earthquakes have continued, moving eastward, in a cluster that confounds even the experts. And the aftershocks continue. A sizable one startled our guests from Kobe at dinner that night. Another rolled through earlier this evening. There may be bigger quakes to come. Or there may be nothing. We are aware of the risks and have considered our exit strategy. But in the meantime we are counting our blessings and trying to live each day with a little extra gratitude and grace.