My first earthquake

Last night I experienced an earthquake for the first time. It was a small one, only 2 on the Shindo scale. ‘The what-scale’ you say? Don’t I mean Richter scale? After some research I found out that the Richter scale measures the energy released at the focus of the earthquake. The Shindo scale measures the intensity of shaking at any given location affected by the quake. For the geologists among you – I know there is at least one – the Shindo scale is similar to the Mercalli scale.

Image from the Japan Meteorological Agency showing the extent and intensity of the earthquake (click the image to go to their site)

So, having put that straight, back to the story about the earthquake. As I said it was a small one but it was still impressive. I had heard descriptions of what an earthquake feels like but despite that, it was different from what I had imagined. How did it feel? For this I will have to refer back to those same descriptions for lack of better words: it felt like a gentle swinging from left to right, but not in a pleasant way. Or perhaps it felt like being at sea or the feeling you have when you’re lying in bed after having been in a swimming pool for the better part of a day.

In any case it made a big impression on me. I was also a bit scared. As the quake is going on, you have no idea whether it will get stronger or if this is it. It’s very unnerving to feel the earth and the building you live in move. For Europeans at least (and definitely Belgians), the earth is a source of stability. While rivers may overflow and fires may rage, the earth pretty much remains where it is. Somehow it offers a kind of security.

There is a big earthquake expected for this area (Nagoya area) in the not too distant future. The quake already has a name: the Tokai Earthquake. I hope it will not happen while we are here.

This article was featured on Freshly Pressed.

This article was submitted to J-festa, a blogging festival about Japan. Go to their site to read the other entries:


73 thoughts on “My first earthquake

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  1. Yeah, I still remember my first earthquake in Japan. I was teaching a class at the time, and wasn’t sure at the time what was happening, but the whole room was shaking. You tend to get used to them after a while, especially when they seem to be happening every other day.

    1. Actually (or rather fortunatley) we don’t have so many earthquakes in Toyota City. As far as we know there have been only 3 or 4 in the six months that we’ve been here. And of those I could only perceive two so they weren’t very strong.

      1. We tend to get quite a lot in Gifu and we are expecting the next big one shortly. There was a colossal earthquake, which destroyed Gifu City in 1891 and they have been predicting the next massive one will occur soon. Hope I’m not in town when it arrives.

  2. I know that feeling. in March 11th i’m still in Kumamoto Perfecture, Kyushu Island. Well, actually at Kyushu Island the impact of earthquake not so big, but two days after i feel my first earthquake.

  3. Wauw, das straf! Hier in België zijn gisteren ook twee aardbevingen gevoeld, ééntje in West-Vlaanderen en eentje in Waals-Brabant, dat ook nu weer even voelbaar was…hier beweegt kennlijk ook iets onder onze voeten 😉 Dit zal wel niet jullie laatste aarbeving in Japan zijn…geloof ik 😉 Toch wel heel bijzonder en spannend, mits goede afloop! Nee,nee, wil jullie vooral niet bang maken 🙂
    Wij genieten mee van jullie ervaringen!

    1. Ja ik had het gelezen op internet. Heel straf dat er net op dat moment ook in België bevingen zijn. De geoloog die ik bedoelde in de post, dat was jij natuurlijk 🙂 Ik hoop dat alles klopte wat ik zei. Blij dat je geniet van de blog!

  4. I lived in Toyonaka City (a hop skip and a jump from Kobe), a suburb of Osaka from 1990 – 95. We had numerous small earthquakes on a regular basis. The area was supposed to be the safest place in Japan for quakes. low and behold, here comes the big one – The Kobe/Kansai Earthquake of 1995! I woke up from the first shakes but what really woke me was the noise of the earth moving. There are few words to describe it but once you hear it, you will always know it. I scrambled under my tall bed and I remember being literally thrown into the air. At that split moment, I looked up and saw the appliances and kitchen table suspended in mid-air. And just like a trampoline or a roller coaster, you were slammed back down before being thrown back up again. No time or place to think or move or act.

    I was so lucky that day! I was safe, my apartment building was safe and some how, I made a phone call home almost immediately and it went through to my family. Within a few minutes after that, the phone lines went down. I will never forget that experience nor will I forget how much it destroyed an amazing city to almost nothing. A few us teachers rode into Kobe with aid supplies 4 days later. Amidst all that destruction, there was one thing that stood out even more – people helping people.

    Okay so that reminds me, I need to start getting a disaster kit ready for our home and to strap down the bookcases.

  5. Hello,

    Indeed your first earthquake is something you don’t quite forget – no matter how small it is, because the core point is *the planet is moving and it shouldn’t!*.

    I’ve lived here in Japan for 12 years and was here throughout our 2011 earthquake campaign, and it is, if only at a much less intense scale, still going on, as is Christchurch’s in NZ.

    March 11th was something just beyond anything I’d been through before and since, and on the 22nd floor in a Tokyo building, was some of the scariest hours of my life, and the ongoing rolling we had for months afterwards.

    To put it into perspective though, in June I was in tsunami hit Iwate prefecture to help with the clean up, and that is just truly a humbling experience, the people’s stories terrifying, the eye witness accounts of loss just tragic, and yet these people move on and keep going.

    Japan is more than a quake though, so enjoy your time in Japan, get out and meet the people, have some beers in this summer humidity, and try something new on the menu every day!

  6. Well written, congrats for being freshly press, I experience Haiti earthquake being in santiago, Dom. Rep. and it was not funny. it was really scary–not much damage thanks G-d in DR side as electricity goes off all the freaking time, i knew something really bad happened somewhere as i heard helicopters one after another then hear “news” that Haiti has been hit with a massive one. It felt like a train moving under the floor. Everybody in our second floor apt made outside in less than 20 seconds i even saw a pregnang women running! it was terrible scary. I hope that you will never have to experience another one again as it is such a horrible experience. Thanks for sharing! greetings from Canada

  7. Being in noticeable earthquake would be really scary. I have been in one but it was so small I didn’t even notice. Found out later when it was on the news. I am from Colorado and I feel the same way about having the security of the earth not moving. Great post!

  8. In Singapore, we are blessed to not have such earthquakes, even if we do feel slight tremors, it’s because Indo have them. My first time feeling the tremors in Tokyo just weeks ago when I was there for Project YUME ( and I thought it was my fellow friend whom was shaking me to wake up but nevertheless, on that last day of our trip, it was how Japan wanted us to remember it. I hope things will be alright this time round, no earthquakes for Japan please!

  9. I tell you, living in NZ – with Wellington on a fault line, and Christchurch getting shaken every day…. you never completely get used to it….

  10. If there is an earthquake predicted rest assured that you are probably in one of the best countries equipped to handle it.

    But I understand. Having been in the Tohoku earthquake in March it’s really weird to just be standing there feeling the rhythms and trying to gauge if they are getting stronger or smaller.

  11. That had to be scary to feel the earth tremble. it’s definitely an experience that can make anyone feel vulnerable.

    Being from New York, I never have experienced an earthquake, but now I am in Oregon and until now we have not experienced an earthquake and I suspect I probably won’t do to well. Read your reader’s comments, and I cannot imagine being in the midst of a 9.0 quake makes my eyes wet every time I think of the suffering and devastation Japan experienced, and what graceful people!

  12. I’m sorry to hear that you experienced an earthquake. I was in Japan on 11 March and experienced the big 9.0 earthquake and have since left Japan because of my new found fear of earthquakes – I started to have nightmares. I hope that you will never have to experience another one again as it is such a horrible experience.

    1. Wow, that sounds intense indeed. I can only imagine what a 9.0 quake must be like. Here’s hoping it will take a very long time before Japan experiences anything like that again.

      1. I pray that too and that you will both be safe. Remember to always have an emergency pack with you at home and have your shoes by your bed at night. When the earthquake came it jammed all our doors and windows so we were trapped. My friends taught me to run to open an emergency escape. My thoughts and prayers go to all the people in Japan.

  13. I like the Shindo scale a lot, because it is based on the principle of accelerographs, which will give you the intensity of the seismic waves rather than the magnitude of the event, which considers many more factors, mainly in the epicenter area as you pointed out. The one advantage of the Shindo scale is the fact that it gives you an intensity reading in a particular place. I live in Mexico City, where we usually get at least two magnitude 5.8 or higher events, every year, and not all the quakes feel the same, even if they share the same Momentum Magnitude. There is even a home accelerograph for sale in Japan, called the Gragraph, which will give you a Shindo scale reading (and many voice directions in Japanese when an earthquake is detected). Since I bought mine, 3 months ago, we haven’t had an earthquake, but I’m eager to see it in action. I certainly do agree with you that the most overwhelming thing about a quake is the fact that the one thing that is supposed to be steady and stable, the ground, will move under our feet. I have been through dozens of earthquakes in the course of my life, and I can’t get used to them yet, mainly because of the scary experience we had 25 years ago, when an 8,1 earthquake shook us to our very roots. By the way, in Mexico City they do feel pretty much like what you described as standing on water or being at sea. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I get what you mean but I’m afraid the Tokai quake is inevitable. So whishing it won’t happen doesn’t make much sense. But I do hope that when it hits, it will not have such disastrous effects as the Tōhoku quake of March 11th.

      Actually on that note ‘7oart’ commented that ‘Do note that there is no way to accurately predict the occurrence of an earthquake. We can tell if there is pressure in the crust, but there is no rhyme or reason as to what sets it off. I live in an area that could have a “big one” any day now, but they’ve been saying that since before I was born.’

      1. Would you tell me the city. We’re planning to move to CA and my wife read the area we are looking at is also potentially ripe for a quake. The quakes in Japan have gone away for now, the seem most frequent 2 weeks before and after a full moon. This is what I noticed, but not sure why.

  14. I live in Tokyo and I thought I was used to earthquakes and even at shindo 4, it didn’t used to be a big deal. March 11 changed all that, not just for me but everyone around, and now we tend to jump at the smallest tremor.

    Hope you enjoy your stay in Nagoya and other places you may visit despite the shaking earth! 😉

  15. Very well written. I’ve experienced earthquake aquite a few times in Bangladesh which was about 5-6 richter scale, so I know how an earthquake feel like.

    Keep up your great work!

  16. I live in California in the U.S. and have experienced two major earthquakes and numerous smaller ones. The little ones I got used to. I hope I never experience another big one ever; however, I’m still here. The community really comes together during those times to comfort, rebuild, and continue on. Just be prepared and try to not think about it after that. Best greetings from Los Angeles!

  17. You are brave to still be there!! I live in Florida, US home of the Hurricanes and before that I lived in the mid-west of the US – tornado alley, where in one day Illinois had 101 tornadoes touch down! However I would be terrified of a Quake!! You see with a Hurricane you have advanced warning that its coming and can prepare for it, or leave and go to a safer place. With a tornado you have a wrning and can prepare. how do you prepare for a Quake??
    very scary!!

    1. Actually Japanese media do send out warnings for a quake, but it’s only about 30 seconds prior to the quake. When the measuring equipment picks up the first vibrations, radio and tv immediately warn for the quake. Still, there isn’t much you can do in 30 seconds except brace yourself.

  18. Really interesting post. Living on the east coast in America, I’ve never experienced what it’s like to be in an earthquake. I suppose it’s not too enjoyable. I will be back to read more.

  19. I live in northern Ibaraki. You are fortunate you were not in this region in March….there’s been over 1500 aftershocks since then. Do not be complacent. Get out to safe ground…seconds count…
    welcome to Japan btw – a fascinating place

  20. I left Japan recently and got facebook updates from friends in Yamanashi and Shizuoka all talking about this earthquake. I just want to thank you for posting as although it’s been 4 months since I left Japan, you brought back to me the concern I should never have forgotten for them in what feels like a lifetime ago. Thank you and good luck.

  21. I’m from Japan, I know how you feel… 😦 well I haven’t experienced that huge one either but even the tiny little ones are like WOW!
    I know what you mean by the earth is the source of stability… hope Japan will be stable again

    1. Yes, everyone was ok, thx for your concern. An earthquake of 2 on the shindo scale is really very minor and generally does not cause damage. On wikipedia you can find an overview of what each degree means in terms of what people experience. Actually a 2 is not even enough to wake people up who are fast asleep. It might make a lamp swing slightly.

  22. I like how you said it was similar to laying down after swimming all day; that is such a strange feeling, and that’s how I imagine an earthquake to feel as well. It’s cool you got to experience one, and a mild one at that!

  23. I was there during the March 11th earthquake. It is such a surreal experience. When you’ve felt it once, you don’t really want to feel it again. I just wrote a post today about it.

  24. Nice post! Do note that there is no way to accurately predict the occurrence of an earthquake. We can tell if there is pressure in the crust, but there is no rhyme or reason as to what sets it off.

    I live in an area that could have a “big one” any day now, but they’ve been saying that since before I was born. I live a few hours away from the New Madrid seismic zone in the middle of the United States, thus we tend to feel earthquakes relatively rarely. When we do, it’s usually weak (like the one you felt)…just enough to jolt us a little bit.

    I know what you mean by the earth providing a sense of security. I felt my first earthquake back in February (I’ve seriously slept through all the others we’ve had) and it was one of the scariest feelings I’ve had.

  25. This was the same unnerving feeling I recall when I went through my first here in southern California after moving to the area from the US east coast, which gets very, very few quakes if any.

    I remember sitting in a restaurant watching the light fixtures sway and grabbing at the edges of the table, wondering if I should run under a doorway, while all of the native Californians were rocking from side to side and calling out bets on where the epicenter was and how strong.

    Me: *scared and gripping table edge*

    Person at next table: “5! Big Bear?”

    Person at next table from them: “Naah, 4.5, probably Twentynine Palms … ”

    Me: *can’t believe what I’m hearing, continues to grip table edge*

  26. glad you are alright. I never experience 1 so far… So there’s1 coming in the near futuree?… gee… how’d they’d know it so well n so sure bout it. I hope it’s not a created one….

    1. See the comment by 7oart. They can meausure the pressure building up in the earth’s crust at a given location. They know it will release some day but nobody knows exactly when.

  27. oh gosh my heart goes out to you, earthquakes are horrible and never a fun experience. But you made it through your first one and hopefully your last as well!

  28. Hopefully the earthquake does not occur, but if it does I hope everyone will be fine! There is supposed to be an earthquake in Vancouver sometime in the future, it’s quite scary because it’s said to be high on the richter scale.
    By the way, does Tokai have a meaning in Japanese or is it just a name?

    1. Tōkai is the name of the region in Japan where the quake is expected to hit (it’s the region around Nagoya). Likewise, the Japanese refer to the Fukushima quake of March 11th as the Tōhoku quake.

  29. I’ve never been so scared in my life as I was during a 5.0 (Richter scale) earthquake…I know I have absolutely nothing to say in comparison to the FAR BIGGER earthquakes others have experienced, but it was huge to me!

    The scariest part: children upstairs, me downstairs. UGH!

    Glad you’re ok… 🙂

  30. Oh wow Nagoya never had an earthquake when I studied there. I’m near were the BIG quake happened and we have quakes all the time. I arrived after it though. It’s honestly the first time I’ve ever felt one before too. The smaller after shocks that is. It isn’t strange or anything though like you seem to think it is.

    Maybe you’re just too western?

  31. The first, and only earthquake I have experienced was in Ottawa, Ontario. I was on my lunch break with fellow co-workers at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada – sounds fancy, but we were the servers not office workers – and so we were all sitting down.

    All of a sudden we felt the floor move. I had thought it was someone jumping up & down behind us, and I turned around to see. To our surprise no one was there. I got up to use the phone, and as I peered down the hall I saw Chris who immediately told us it was a quake and to get in between the door frames. WE DID. It began to get worse and worse. Our phones lost reception. All of a suddent it was over, and about 20 mins later I had msg after msg from my family in Toronto asking if I was okay. They hadn’t felt a thing.

    ha ha – what an experience.

  32. I’ve never experienced earthquakes in California but I’ve experienced over 4 in Japan- pretty common there, be safe!

    I love Japan and miss it so. Do eat my share of ramen for me.

  33. I understand completely! I experienced similar feelings when coming from the UK and central US to live in Chile. And yes its the waiting…holding your breath…is it going to get stronger? Do we need to get out of bed…do I need to rush to my daughters’ room?

    Where I live we tend to hear them before we feel them, like a train coming, then the shaking.

    I hope you don’t have to experience the Tokai Earthquake.

  34. Living in New York City, I’ve never had an earthquake experience. i can imagine it’s probably one of the most terrifying things that can happen.

    I know Japan has been going through a lot in the last few months and the aftershocks haven’t been letting up either. Stay safe.

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