Friday, March 11-Part 2--Our world has been rocked

Soon after returning to our Hong Kong hotel room, I logged on to check my email and found three messages of increasing urgency from the Yokosuka City Disaster Prevention Information Email Service sent at 3:01, 3:37, and 4:15 p.m. JST. The last one, whose subject line was “Large-scale tidal wave warning,” ordered anyone near the coast to evacuate to higher ground immediately. This is not the first time I’ve received a tidal wave warning—one was issued in February of last year when Chile was rocked by a M8.8 earthquake. The resulting tsunami, by the time it finally reached Japan, was only 20 cm (7.87 in) high, and probably would not have been noticed by the average Joe had it not been so widely publicized. So my mind was weighing that fact against the urgent tone of the city’s last email when I turned on the TV to find out what Pacific country had experienced an earthquake today large enough to trigger a tsunami.

Oh sh*t.

The earthquake was in Japan.

And it was a huge one--M8.9.

Looks like the epicenter was well north of Yokosuka, yet the news is showing buildings on fire in Tokyo, which is only an hour away from our house. I am scared…Alina is home alone. Did anything fall on her? Is the house okay? Is the power on? Was there a tsunami in our area (our house is on a hill so should be safe, but the base could be very vulnerable)? What about Jim’s coworkers, my students, our friends…. I have sent an email to my friend Yumiko on her cell phone. If there is cell phone service, she will reply quickly and let us know what is really going on around home.

Friday, March 11-Part 1--Don't puke on the poker chips

Hee hee hee! Another stamp in my passport today, thanks to a one-hour ferry ride over to Macau. I thought, since they were stamping my passport, that Macau was its own country, but really it’s not. It is a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hong Kong (which I also thought was its own country until I looked it up online). Originally a Portuguese colony, Macau was handed over to China in 1999, and will enjoy being essentially autonomous until 2049. China is responsible for Macau’s defense and foreign affairs, but the territory is free of the socialist reign of the mainland, maintaining its own legal system, police force, monetary system, and immigration policy. According to our tour guide, although 94% of the population is ethnically Chinese, they do not want to be called Chinese—they prefer to be called Macanese. It sounded like less a matter of national pride than a desire to distance themselves from stigma, real or perceived.

Macau is probably best known for being the Las Vegas of Asia—there are more than 30 casinos on the island. We weren’t necessarily there to donate money to the casinos, although Jim had been hoping to play some poker, so we opted instead to bow to the pressure of a tour operator who stopped us as we came through immigration at the ferry terminal. He was offering a van tour of the key cultural, historical, and touristy sites, as well as a final stop at the casino of our choice--a key selling point for Jim. Since Jim was suffering from some kind of terrible stomach illness and in no condition to strike out on a self-guided walking tour, we negotiated a price and jumped into the van. The driver/guide was of Portuguese descent, and very knowledgeable about the history of the island as well current happenings. Cruising by the casinos, he enlightened us about the feng shui (ancient Chinese practice of balancing the energy of a space to attract good fortune) of each, noting especially the bad karma of the MGM. Entering the casino, with its gigantic lion sculpture out front, is like passing through the mouth of the lion, making the gambler nothing more than dim sum (a popular Chinese snack). We stopped at the ultra-modern Macau tower, where Jim’s illness was a blessing in disguise, saving me from having to make a 233-meter tandem jump off the edge—he’d been gung-ho to take the plunge since seeing the all-stars do it on The Amazing Race in 2007. We drove through parts of town that looked like pictures I’ve seen of Spain—old European-style architecture, Mediterranean color palette, cobblestone streets. Then there’d be dozens of signs in complicated Chinese characters on the next block, advertising restaurants, laundries, and pharmacies. A very strange combination of cultures.

When we finished the sightseeing loop around 5 p.m., Jim's stomach had not improved, so we decided to skip the much-anticipated poker stop and grab the next available ferry so he could get back to the hotel and rest. As it was a bigger boat than the one we’d arrived on, I was expecting a smooth, nap-inducing trip back to Hong Kong. Turns out we had a crazy roller-coaster ride across swells that I couldn’t see in the dark, but felt as big as the Bering Sea waves I’ve seen on Deadliest Catch. Normally a lover of boat rides, I was longing for the seat belt I’d joked about on the morning ferry (strangely absent on this larger boat), and noting the location of both life vests and seasickness bags. Luckily neither were necessary, as things smoothed out and we docked safely in Hong Kong, anxious for a hot shower and the firmly grounded stability of our hotel bed. Who knew that the wild ferry ride was merely a hint of the rocking that was about to hit our world…

Tuesday, February 15--Prepared for anything

Ahh, the sun did come out today!  Good thing, since I saw neither hide nor hair of a snow plow.  I did see my neighbors, though, early this morning, dutifully shoveling snow and slush from the section of the roadway directly in front of their houses, and piling it at their curbs.  I was not so amazed at this organized community response to Mother Nature.  The biannual neighborhood leaf cleanup has demonstrated just how willing individuals are to work together for the common good.  No, what truly surprised me was how many people own a shovel!  Why in the world do my Japanese neighbors need shovels?  Not one of them has a yard more than 24 inches wide.  They aren’t using shovels to relocate dumptruck loads of landscaping materials from the driveway out front to flowerbeds in the back forty, because there are neither flowerbeds nor a back forty.  Any planting they do is generally in a flower box and can be accomplished with a garden trowel, or probably an old tablespoon.  They have no room to dig a grave for the beloved family pet, or any need to dig holes for fences or mailbox posts.  They can’t be using them to whack vermin—if they tried to swing a shovel overhead, they’d put it through the neighbor’s window.  And despite the evidence on the street this morning, this area does not normally accumulating snowfalls.  So why all the shovels?

Alas, all of our shovels are in storage somewhere in Virginia, so my section of street remained a slushy mess for the junior high students trekking to school and the housewives schlepping non-burnables and PET bottles to the gomi pile.  Luckily the sun quickly removed all indications of my inability to be a team player—by noon the only snow left on the whole block was what my industrious neighbors had piled up with their shovels this morning.

Monday, February 14--Valentine surprise

Today’s forecast was for a 40% chance of rain.  Temperatures were supposed to go no lower than 39ºF, although the wind chill would make it feel like 28ºF.  So what exactly is going on here?  It is 11:00 p.m., and it has been snowing to beat the band for the past four hours.  For the second time in four days, in an area of Japan that is not supposed to get any measurable snow, the roads are covered in white stuff--about 2 1/2 inches at the moment.  Does the town of Zushi even own a snow plow?  I am certainly not equipped for this mess—I have an ice scraper and a dust pan in my snow removal arsenal.  No shovel, no snow tires, no tire chains, no salt, no sand.  Hope the sun is gonna come out tomorrow!  

Wednesday, November 3--Tenderfoot

Do you think feet can suffer from PTSD?  Today I laced up my hiking shoes, the same ones I wore on my Mt. Fuji trek, for a casual four-hour tour around Kamakura.  There was a fair amount of street walking, some steep but easy hiking up and down wooded trails, and plenty of stair climbing, because everything in Kamakura is on a hill.  By the time I got on the train to come home, my feet were screaming.  I’m talking pain in every joint between my tarsals, metatarsals, and phalanges, pre-blisters between my toes and all along my soles, and bone-deep bruises on my Fuji toes (second toe on each foot).  This pain is totally out of proportion with the amount of walking I did.  I’ve comfortably worn these hiking shoes on several occasions since climbing Mt. Fuji, so I can’t believe that my Merrells are suddenly devices of torture.  However, it is the first time I’ve worn them for anything other than pavement pounding since sliding, stumbling, and limping down the mountain, and I’m really wondering if today’s rocky trails and numerous steps triggered podiatric flashbacks of giant blisters and dead toenails.  So now I’ve got a dilemma.  I’m supposed to go on a walking tour around Tokyo on Friday, and I was planning to wear these same hiking shoes, because frankly most of the shoes I own weren’t made for walkin’.  There shouldn’t be any off-roading, and I expect the terrain to be relatively flat, so theoretically, my feet won’t be exposed to any reminders of past trauma.  Maybe I can further insulate them from emotional distress with a pair of Dr. Scholls’ inserts.

Sunday, October 31, 2010--Pardon the interruption

Okay, this is ridiculous.  I am behind on my blog entries.  I am way behind on my blog entries.  I have been behind for about 18 months.  It’s not because Japan suddenly became uninteresting.  Just the opposite.  I’ve been too involved in day-to-day life and Japanese adventures to sit down regularly to write.  Once I got behind, I started putting off posting new entries until I’d filled in the old entries, because I wanted to keep everything in time order.  But I have recently figured out how to post-date entries (technological genius that I am), in order to insert them in the correct place on the timeline, regardless of when I write them.  So, I’m going to jump in with current entries, and will fill in the gaps from the past year as I get around to them (I have lots of notes and promise not to leave this project unfinished).  For anyone who hasn’t completely given up on me, and cares enough to go back to old entries, make a note of October 24, 2009.  Everything up to that point is complete, so new entries will periodically appear between that date and the present.  Sorry to make life difficult, and thanks to anyone who is still reading!