Friday, July 7, 2017

Falling Drops Earth Moves

I recently made a trip to Japan with my wife and grown kids, the first time we have been on holiday together since a trip to Paris in 2010. The “kids”, after all, are all in their twenties, and prone to go off on their own unencumbered by their parents. Traveling as a fully family affair doesn’t often happen anymore.

We were, in fact, visiting one of my sons, who is spending a year in Japan studying folk music. Needless to say, we had an amazing ten days there. We experienced many of those things you would expect to experience in Japan. But not all of them. One experience I was especially hoping for, there on the Pacific Ring of Fire, was a small earthquake. Just a small one, mind you. Just strong enough to know the weird sensation of the ground, solid earth, suddenly moving under my feet without warning. That didn’t happen. Not as I imagined, anyway.

About half through our time in Japan we left the urban whirlwind of Tokyo to see some of the countryside. We departed by bus one night at 11 o’clock to travel overnight through the rainy Japanese Alps. It was a grueling ride, the bus’s seats far too cramped to allow any real sleep. Bleary-eyed and stiff, we were finally deposited at 4:40 A.M. at our destination, the misty town of Takayama.

Temple in Takayama.

We immediately set out in the breaking daylight to explore the town, its streets wet from the overnight rain and deserted at that hour. After a couple of hours strolling through the town, passing a Buddhist temple or two along the way, we found ourselves approaching Shiroyama, a nearly 700-meter-high hill and the site of a heavily forested park surrounding the ruins of a 16th-century castle.

At the base of Shiroyama, we paused as we crossed a stone bridge over a small pond that led to a Shinto shrine. Some of us were watching the fat carp lazily swimming under the bridge. I was checking out one of the blooming Japanese dogwood trees lining the pond. An old woman across the street was doing traditional Japanese exercises in front of her house.

Suddenly, we heard a disembodied voice. At first, I thought it emanated from a loudspeaker at the shrine, making some kind of announcement in Japanese. We quickly realized, however, that the unexpected sound came instead from my son’s and daughter's phones. My son understands Japanese well enough to explain we had just received an earthquake alert. More precisely, a warning that a quake had just occurred somewhere relatively nearby and that aftershocks could be expected.

(A side note: the alarm came automatically only to the iPhones in the family. Not to my blighted Windows phone.)

One of the paths on Shiroyama.

As it turns out, this high-tech warning was not the only indication that a quake had occurred, at least for family members observant enough to notice. As we excitedly discussed the warning, some of us remembered that just moments, literally moments, before the warning was broadcast something else occurred.

The nearby trees had all suddenly shed the rainwater hanging on their leaves. All at once. Instantly. For no apparent reason. There was no wind. The air was dead still. The water just dropped. 

Several of us had noticed the water dropping off the trees so abruptly, but hadn’t thought anything about it. I hadn’t noticed it at all. Clearly, the ground beneath our feet had moved imperceptively, enough to shake water off trees, but not enough for any of us to feel it ourselves. Rainwater dropping from dogwoods from an earthquake seems almost, well, Zen, to me.

Graveyard at the foot of Shiroyama. 
(Photo: Helena Korpelainen)
Watching TV later that evening we saw reports of damage from the quake. Broken roof tiles on a street in the town nearest the epicenter. An elderly woman showing an ornamental clock knocked off her wall. No one seriously hurt. Obviously, not a big quake. 

Googling the quake after returning to Helsinki, I learned that it was measured as a 5.2-magnitude quake according to the US Geological Survey, 5.6 according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. The epicenter was located only about 50 kilometers away from us, as a Japanese crane flies, just on the other side of Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan and the source of a deadly eruption as recently as 2014.

Of course, we didn’t know any of this as we stood in front of the Hidagokoku Shrine in Takayama and wondered at the marvel of a tectonic event that was revealed only through water falling off trees. 

A marvel that I, for one, missed completely. Maybe, that’s also Zen-like. 

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