Monday, 14 March 2011


And so Tokyo shakily gets back to its feet, grabbing greedily at the shelves.

Things that have sold out: bottled water, tofu, noodles, bread, candles, batteries, rice, torches, and petrol is running low.

Things we are being told to do: stock up on bottled water, non-perishable food, and non-electric sources of light in anticipation of regular blackouts, fill our baths with water in case the water supply is shut off, switch off all electrics at the allotted times.

Things we are being told not to do: not to worry about impending nuclear doom, not to go to Sendai, not to go to work by train if we can help it (which we are being asked to do anyway, by our bosses), and not to leave the house without a bottle of water and a phone (regardless of whether you are able to use it).

There is a very eerie atmosphere hanging over this otherwise functioning metropolis, interrupted by rolling aftershocks and the official warnings which blast out of little vans and clatter around the walls like gunfire. Trains are running, and then they're not again, and when they're not it means a long walk home (or an all-nighter at the office). Tonight I spent three hours in the dark just waiting for a powercut, which had been announced by loudspeaker from the street but never came, and in the end I gave up and resumed fanatically scrolling through several different news sources at once, each with a different story.

The aftershocks are slowing down, despite a big one this morning of six point something that had me sitting bolt upright in bed and putting on a cardigan, ready to run into the street in my pyjamas. But even when the ground isn't shaking it feels as if it is, and I have taken to glancing at a half-empty glass of water on my coffee table to verify the ripples I'm feeling. Big ones that make the lamp swing are often followed by sirens outside.

It's easy to go a little stir-crazy, staying cooped up at home because it is the right thing to do, pretending you have a clue what a nuclear meltdown even means. I'm torn between rushing up north to be useful (and stop pretending that the earthquake has had any real impact on our lives in Tokyo) and getting as far away from Fukushima as possible. Pride shouldn't have anything to do with this, nor duty, and I am attempting to remove both from the equation.

I tried to relax by re-filling my tub with hot water and sitting in it for a change, but my rubber ducks floated with their heads half-submerged in the water as if they were drowning.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

a state of non-emergency

I was teaching when the earthquake started. Immediately before I had felt intensely nauseous, but then I saw the look of recognition in my student's face and I realised what it was. Earthquakes regularly interrupt my classes, so we waited quietly for the gentle motion to pass. The earthquake continued for some time, and I busied myself putting pencil-pots and plants back in their upright positions until the building was swaying so dramatically I had to forget the books and CDs that were flying from the shelves and back up against the wall to slowly slide into a sitting position on the floor. I thought to myself, when are you supposed to start thinking 'oh shit'?

I was just starting to think 'oh shit', and wondering where the emergency exits were, and what you're supposed to do in an earthquake, and how would I get the 91-year-old woman taking my class out of the building if the walls started caving in, when the motion subsided. At its most violent, the earthquake was rocking the old lady's chair back and forth, back and forth, repeatedly knocking it into the wall behind her. She smiled the entire time.

During the earthquake my overwhelming instinct was to be outside, which it transpires is the logical thing to do. For a time afterwards people gathered in the square in front of the station, watching the lampposts shaking in the tremors. It wasn't long before shops and restaurants were back open, and they quickly became full.

The school's entire contents had been emptied onto the floor, and our efforts to clear them away were hindered by frequent and significant aftershocks which, 36 hours later, I'm still experiencing as I type. Too sea-sick to help, and finally permitted to go home early, we attempted to make our way home. Trains were suspended, taxis scarce and inevitably occupied, and in the two hours we stood at the bus stop three packed buses passed us in line without stopping. We had just resolved to join the hoards of people marching by and walk along the train-line towards home, when I bumped into a friend I hadn't been able to call with the phone services down and, luckily, was offered a place to stay.

Sleep was uneasy, and we were frequently rocked awake by aftershocks or startled by the megaphone vans barking out unintelligible warnings outside.

There is no doubt in the news as to the scale of this disaster, and the risks still posed. Yet Tokyo appears to be continuing regardless. The shops have sold out of bread and tofu, anything that doesn't require electricity to prepare, and the the comforting drone of radio news broadcasts can be heard drifting out of most cafes and bars, but young Tokyoites are still stumbling out of izakayas and browsing through vintage clothing shops as usual. 14,000 supposed dead, and you wouldn't know it to look around town. What's the protocol here? Shouldn't Tokyo be a little more worried? For a country in red-alert, people seem remarkably inert, going about their day-to-day business in a state of distinct non-emergency.

In one of the aftershocks yesterday my manager shot out of the door while one of our students dashed under a table, leaving my colleague and I standing there wondering what on earth to do. That feeling still hasn't left me.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

now we know what bodies are made from

There is nothing so dissatisfying as total, nihilistic freedom.

It transpires that carelessly indulging yourself (if getting battered counts as indulging yourself) with no thought to tomorrow just leads to a string of long, sad tomorrows and an unfailing preoccupation with how best to fill the gaps. Apparently time won't stop passing no matter what you tell it to do. The question is, why was reckless abandon so much more fun the first time around? Age seems too pedestrian an answer.

I've met some amazing people out here (and I've long since ceased to be amazed by people easily), but I almost feel as if our time together is cheapened by how much fun we're having.

Perhaps I'm just frustrated because I'm reluctantly coming to the realisation that there is nothing stopping me anymore. Apart from me, of course.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


Today I will make an attempt to move into the less-pretentious. I've always been embarrassingly wordy, and I have no intention of curbing my verbal instincts, but I have human instincts too so I'm going to try to let them take centre stage a bit more often.

So I'm currently living in Japan, losing my idioms to the world of eikaiwa, and spring is coming. Some aspects of this I recognise: more daylight in the evenings, bi-weekly glimpses of a future summer (interspersed with cold, sharp reminders that winter hasn't left us yet) and a sometimes overwhelming sense of possibility. In Japan this is accompanied by fanatic anticipation of the coming cherry blossom, a wealth of advertisements beckoning you to invest in the new you before it's too late, and a national hay-fever epidemic.

I didn't know hay-fever until I was seventeen, when suddenly my body decided to be intolerant to everything and the pollen of Crete was no exception. Plenty of people I know suffer from seasonal sniffles, but I guess in England we accept that there is a price to pay for a bit of good weather. The entire population of Tokyo, however, seems to be disproportionately overwhelmed by this minor ailment, to the extent that hay-fever now tops the weather in the small-talk ranks. This is particularly notable in a nation so schooled in endurance that they have a one-word reference for the phenomenon of 'working-oneself-to-death', and I can't help but wonder if it's all a subconscious extension of the national preoccupation with 'the seasons'.

I recently discovered that when a bug is going around, in Japanese you say it's 'popular' or 'in fashion' (流行っている).

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

timespace and the me continuum

I begrudge constantly how little time I have on my hands, but the truth is that the empty hours are most daunting. I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I'm not relishing the opportunity to get to know myself. While we all want to be socially adept, there is this pressure to embrace solitude (for it is sacred), this common philosophy that we somehow owe it to ourselves to seek out our own company and prove that we don't need anyone else to exist. Strange behaviour for a pack animal.

But doesn't solitary just mean lonely? And without the right people there to reflect us, don't we start to lose shape? There's no nicer feeling in the world than spending time with the people you love, reminding each other of who you are.

I am in a very lucky position. Like a modern-day monk, I've been afforded the chance to live out a life in a new landscape. With all of the landmarks of my old life (or lives) gone the only constant now is me, and 'me' is subject to change. I'm free to tailor all of my tastes, habits and ticks, which is an extraordinary privilege. But I've never spent so much time with myself, and I'm concerned we are becoming shadows.