Speaking of Japan...

2003 Hokkaido Earthquake - Log 1 of 2 >>

After living in Hokkaido for over three years, I finally got my first major earthquake. At 5:55 am today, I was jolted awake as tremors from a Richter Scale magnitude 8.0 quake 80km off Cape Erimo travelled 220 km to Furano, somehow found my house in the midst of the onion farm, and came up to visit my room in the shoddily-built second floor of my girlfriend's parents' house.

The whole second floor is basically two tiny square rooms bolted onto the top of the house. Ordinarily, the room will shake in a 30-40 km/h wind. The effect of the JMA 5.2 tremors was not really much worse than a major windstorm, but the sudden intensity of it was shocking.

My mom always tells me that I was in a major California earthquake when I was one year old. I guess that might be one reason why I'm so sensitive. I immediately sprang awake and attempted to rouse my girlfriend, who was sound asleep on the futon next to the bed. (The bed is too small for two people to sleep in, so we normally janken for it.) The conversation went something like this:

Me: There's an earthquake!
She: zzznngngghhh...
Me: (shaking her shoulder) Hey, wake up! There's an earthquake!!
She: znngf.. Hm? Really? zzz...
Me: (shaking harder) Should we get in the doorway or something?
She: (very sleepy but annoyed) I heard that the safest place to be in an earthquake is in bed... (rolls over)

The tremors lasted about a minute. Eventually, most of the noise subsided. I heard no sirens or other signs of alarm, aside from a slow, regular, clank-clank-clank sound. Flipping on the TV, I decided to get up and investigate.

Disturbed by my turning on the TV, my girlfriend got up and went to the bathroom. After checking the room, I realized that the clanking noise was coming from the microscopic hallway outside. In the dimness, my eyes located the culprit -- an 80 L kerosene tank used to fuel the heater in our room.

Putting my hand on the lid, I felt something banging as if to get out. In my sleep-addled state, I thought that some sort of animal had gotten in between the cover and the top of the tank. Taking off the cover, I realized what was causing the clanking noise -- about 75 L of kerosene still moving to the beat of the wave motion it had absorbed from the tremors, causing the lid to rattle rhythmically.

I reached for my cell phone to e-mail home and let them know I was OK. I was greeted by the "shibaraku omachi kudasai" message -- all of the network connections were full. From what seemed to be such a minor earthquake?

Hokkaido is about the least densely populated area imaginable in Japan. If this had happened a month later, when everyone sets their heaters to turn on at 5:00 am, and been a little stronger... I tried to calculate the amount of chemical energy stored in that kerosene tank, and quickly realized how Japanese earthquakes can quickly become catastrophic. I returned to find that my hard-won bed had been appropriated by a sleepy girlfriend.

The south coast was much harder hit, with seismic activity in the low sixes.

  • A fire broke out at an oil refinery in Tomakomai City, and was quickly extinguished.
  • The Geothermal Power Station in Atsuma automatically shut down because of the tremors.
  • 41,000 people in the town of Erimo and other coastal areas were evacuated due to tidal wave activity reaching 1.6 metres in some areas.
  • 24,300 homes in Kushiro City and six surrounding towns were without power for several hours as a major power exchange went down.
  • A JR early-morning express train derailed in Onbetsu with no serious injuries.
  • The ceiling at the Air Traffic Control Tower at Kushiro Airport collapsed, shutting down the airport.

At the time of this writing, NHK reports 243 confirmed injured, two seriously, and one death related to the earthquake. A lot of the injuries were caused by people getting cut on broken glass long after the earthquake, and the death was also related to broken glass. An elderly garbage collector was struck and killed by a car while trying to clear broken glass from the road surface shortly after the quake.

The news overseas was much more alarming -- headlines like Giant Quake Rocks Japan (guess where that one came from) and vague statements about the Tomari Nuclear Power Station, which was about the furthest point on Hokkaido from the epicenter and was completely undamaged, led to a lot of fear among overseas family members of Hokkaido residents.

Update: Looks like the news works within Japan as well. "8.0" was all over the morning papers. I work at a tourist office and we've been taking continuous calls from anxious Honshuu tourists wondering if the place is a flaming shambles. I guess they hear 8.0 and they picture apocalypse, understandably.