I had just come back from a dentist appointment in Kanda, taking the Tozai subway line to Nishiogikubo Station.  I dropped in at Seiyu to buy some underwear and was carrying it to the check out counter when I noticed that the clothing hanging up on the walls was swaying back and forth.  I froze in the middle of the large open clothing department.  A salesclerk came running through calling out to everyone to take shelter in a safe place.  Like where?  I wondered.  The standard drill is to take cover under a table or desk, or lacking that a doorframe.  But there was nothing like that around me.  Two other shoppers ran behind the counter and crouched down.  I dropped to the floor next to the outside of the counter and started praying loudly.  I felt exposed and vulnerable.

I’ve been in Tokyo during countless earthquakes, including being on the 38th floor of a skyscraper,  and in a swaying elevator,  and I’ve had a couple of photographs in glass frames fall shattering to the floor at midnight, but nothing was ever like this.  I don’t know how long it lasted.  I did not have the presence of mind to time it.  But it felt abnormally long.  An announcement came repeatedly from the store’s PA system telling us that the building was safe, so not to worry.  But it was a recording and failed to reassure me.

When the worst was over, I found myself standing up and actually paying for the undershirts at the cash register.  I think both I and the salesclerk were in a state of shock and weren’t sure how to proceed.  Was the store still open for business?  Maybe we just wanted to do something normal, carry on as usual.  I walked out of the store through the cosmetics department past aisles cluttered with fallen bottles of shampoo and deodorant.

Outside the store is a narrow alleyway lined with tiny drinking and eating facilities where the clientele are usually sitting on stools at a counter right out in the open.  Now the alleyway was crowded with people standing around talking to each other excitedly about the earthquake.  I passed many with cell phones pressed to their ears.  I arrived back at the train station where people were just standing around as if waiting to see what would happen next, looking lost as their plans for the late afternoon had suddenly fallen apart.  Where to go now?  What to do?  A man came along and asked two young women dressed in waitress uniforms if they were all right.

I turned right and went down another narrow alley to Dante coffee shop.  I had no idea if it would still be open for business, but I was shook up and wanted to be in a comforting place.  A customer was just leaving, and two more were standing at the counter, the cups at their seats sitting in saucers of spilled brown liquid.  I asked the master if he were still open, and he said yes, so I went in and sat down.  He explained that the gas had cut off so it would take a few minutes longer than usual to make the coffee.  I told him where I had been and we talked about the experience.  He said it was the strongest quake he had ever felt in his life, and he looks to be in his 50s.  I ordered the coffee featured for the day, Blue Mountain, and he laughed and apologized.  The sign for the coffee of the day had fallen to the floor, and the Blue Mountain under it was for another day.

I figured out that more than the sign had fallen as the master walked about behind his counter, crunching broken glass underfoot.  The two people at the counter left after paying the master the half price he charged them for the coffee that had spilled.  A woman came in, saying she had intended to go shopping at Seiyu  but they weren’t letting anybody in.  Since I was starting to calm down, I felt foolish for having gone through with my shopping.

Dante is illuminated by pendant lamps, and has a small bell attached to the front door which rings whenever someone opens or closes it.  The bell began to “ting ting ting” though no one had opened the door and the pendant lamps began to swing back and forth.  “After shocks,” the master announced, but these after shocks felt as strong as the usual earthquake, and if you’ve just experienced one much stronger, these after shocks can be terrifying.

He brought me my coffee.  I savored it, and savored the vase of yellow tulips on the counter in a glass vase that had not been thrown to the floor.  Bach played softly in the background.  The master swept up spilled coffee beans from the floor.  If this was the end, then Dante seemed a good place to be, a place of mental if not physical safety.

There was no news of where the earthquake had been centered or what was happening elsewhere.  The other customer said that no one could get through on their cell phones.  About 4 o’clock I decided I’d better get on home and inspect the damage.  I opened my door to broken dishes, broken glass scattered everywhere, windows wide open, refrigerator and bookshelves shoved away from the walls.  I haven’t even begun to make a dent in the mess.

And now, four hours after the quake first hit, I am sitting here at my desk, and as I have been typing this post, and even now the room is shaking back and forth.  As computer and TV are fine, I now know that the quake was centered off the coast of Miyagi Prefecture in northeast Japan, and the tsunami warnings are uppermost on everyone’s mind.  I do not yet know what the magnitude was of Tokyo’s share.   I’ve dug my earthquake kit out of the back of the closet, and now must begin cleaning up the mess.


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  1. Pam Says:

    Wow, Ellie!!! Very scary. We’re glued to the TV. The tsunami (30′) footage is jaw-dropping. Your nerves must be frazzled. I was in an earthquake once, and the aftershocks for the next week were nerve-wracking. Thanks for the update via Tokyo Tree.

    • tokyotree Says:

      Not only after shocks. Last night there was another earthquake southwest of here (near Mt. Fuji) that shook the house hard enough for me to leap out of bed and head for shelter under my desk. Nothing broke though, and according to what I can glean from TV reports so far, the earthquake caused no damage or tsunami. Yikes! And now as I write this, the house begins to shake again…

  2. David Dyer Says:

    Ellie, when I woke up and checked out thr NYT’s website addition I was amazed at the pictures and video’s of the earthquake and tsunami. I am so happy to hear that you are alive and well. Thank you for your Tokyo Tree update. Love David

  3. Kirsti Kaldro Says:

    I will be praying for you and all of Japan! I watched footage of the Tsunami. I don’t know what to write in the face of such destruction. It reminded me of watching the Twin Towers burn. Nadia had a dream of an earthquake a night or two ago. I had one a few weeks ago. I guess now we know why. Love, Kirsti

  4. deborah Says:

    Wow, Ellie! Some salesperson thinking I was still on the east coast called me early this a.m. and when I explained where I was, Pasadena, she told be about the quake in Japan. I’m so glad you wrote your blog because now I know you’re all right. Incredible that your place was in such shambles so far from the epicenter. Still haven’t seen all the pictures from Japan. they’ve closed down all the Southern California beaches: Santa Monica, etc. in anticipation of huge waves.
    So glad you’re OK. I wish I could be there to help you clean up!

    • tokyotree Says:

      Thanks, Deborah! The clean up didn’t take more than a few hours. The worst of it was a lot of broken glass in tiny splinters. A neighbor spent hours cleaning up her potted plants that fell from her windowsills and said to me that she was planning to get rid of most of them now. I know how she feels. “Why do I have all this STUFF? Why am I keeping these glass bottles?” I kept asking myself. The experience really gives you a new perspective on our “consuming” lifestyle. I appreciated seeing your recent post about the Red Cross raising funds for Japan in California.

  5. Paavo Kaldro Bridge Says:

    In Earth Science Class today, my teacher began to talk about a earth quake that hit Japan that measured 8.8 on the Richter Scale and she mentioned that it was the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded. Then she continued to explain that there are a bunch of tsunami wave warnings on every coast from Alaska to Australia. Hours later on the bus home I realized, “Oh no, Grandma Ellie lives in Japan!” That was a pretty delayed reaction. But I’m thankful that you’re okay.

    • tokyotree Says:

      The earthquake got “upgraded” to 9.0, as your teacher may have explained by now. I’m fine, but every day is like a question mark. So far, I have not been affected by power cuts, which the electric power company is carrying out in a controlled fashion to make sure everyone has enough most of the time. My school cancelled classes for the week, and may even do so for the rest of the term (end of March), so we teachers are being challenged to find ways of teaching our classes via email to the students. Love and hugs to you!

  6. Muriel Merchant Says:

    All of Japan and each individual therein are in our prayers and good thoughts at this time. May God bless as you rise to the challenge presented here. All loving and grace to you and yours.

    • tokyotree Says:

      Thank you so much, Muriel. It feels like an invisible tsunami of prayers and good thoughts from so many people is washing over the shores of Japan just now.

  7. Deb Rasmussen Says:

    My cousin Jerry Fredendall his wife and I believe their little child are in Tokyo, his sister has not heard from them yet. We are praying they are ok.

    • tokyotree Says:

      I do not know them, but I have heard of no casualties in Tokyo. There is a lot of inconvenience but the worst happened far north of here. Although phones are working, the lines (or air waves?) are very crowded and I have found it hard to get through to some numbers. This may be why your cousin’s sister hasn’t heard from him yet. Possibly some areas are without electricity, too. I hope you hear good news soon.

  8. connie villegas Says:

    Ellie, I am greatful you are safe and could find comfort when you needed it. (Finding comfort in a warm cup of coffee makes perfest sence to me.) God be with you and all of Japan. I just can not imagine anything so frightful as the tsunami. Japan is in Willie’s and my prayers.

    Connie Villegas

    • tokyotree Says:

      Thank you, Connie! Your and Willie’s concern and prayers are much appreciated! I’m grateful for many things, too. I was lucky to be near home when the quake hit, not stranded somewhere in downtown Tokyo. In my neighborhood we still have power, enough food, and homes, unlike so many survivors up north who have none of those things. Imagining their plight, I do not want to complain.

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