Friday, March 11, 2011

The Stuff of Childhood Nightmares

When we first moved to Tokyo in 1965, we stayed for months (it seemed) in the Imperial Hotel.  The hotel was designed and built by the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright using revolutionary earthquake-proof methods.  It was built on rollers, in a way, so that during an earthquake it would merely rock back and forth rather than collapse. In fact it survived an 8.3 earthquake in 1923. According to Wikipedia, the hotel had several earthquake-anticipating design features:  

  • The reflecting pool provided a source of water for fire-fighting, saving the building from the post-earthquake firestorm;
  • Cantilevered floors and balconies provided extra support for the floors;
  • A copper roof, which cannot fall on people below the way a tile roof can;
  • Seismic separation joints, located about every 20 m along the building;
  • Tapered walls, thicker on lower floors, increasing their strength;
  • Suspended piping and wiring, instead of being encased in concrete, as well as smooth curves, making them more resistant to fracture."
The hotel was festooned with elements of art-deco, with wrought iron swirls and flowers on the balconies.  For some reason we ate a lot of veal cutlets in the restaurant, using heavy silver flatware.  (What strange details we remember from our childhoods!) There were some pretty racy photos of Japanese pearl divers in the gift shop, bare breasts and all.  Every morning we took a taxi to the Okura Hotel, where the school bus would pick us up for school.  That year I was in kindergarten, and only went three days a week, but I remember those dark, early morning treks to take my sisters to the bus.  (The trek up to the American Club came later, when we moved into an apartment). 

Tragically, the hotel as I knew it is no more.  I don’t know when the old one was torn down, but now it is a nondescript high-rise.  Recently on a trip to Arizona, I visited Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's outpost and architectural school near Scottsdale. It was kind of neat to see pictures of the old hotel and know that I lived there for a time.

As I sit and watch the news from Japan and the horrible earthquake, I am transported back to my early years there.  After what seemed forever in the Imperial Hotel, we moved into an apartment, called Chateau Mita, near the Tokyo Tower.  There was a great playground on the roof and a great Chinese restaurant on the ground floor (Nancy Ma's).  My sisters and I would be playing a board game in the living room when an earthquake would strike.  The pieces on the board would jump and slide, the lampshades would quiver, and the sliding wooden shoji doors would rattle and shake.  For us, it was a fun distraction.  We looked at each other and laughed nervously, acting like it was something fun.  I remember the usual rules: standing underneath the doorjamb or getting under a table.  Sometimes the quakes would be pronounced; other times we would just notice a lampshade vibrating randomly.  My sisters, who enjoyed scaring the bejeebus out of me*, told me stories about giant waves coming.  In the Japanese countryside, on high escarpments near the coast, there were giant brass gongs which were rung, warning the inhabitants to flee.  Whenever I heard a loud gong, I assumed and feared that a tsunami was on its way.  I used to dream of huge waves heading straight for me; the dream would end as it engulfed me, and I would be tossed and turned like a tub toy.  (Maybe this was why I have such a fear of the ocean).  I dreamed of huge cracks opening in the street and swallowing me up. 

My mom had a million issues of National Geographic, which we moved from place to place for years before they were finally tossed.  As a child, I marveled at the pictures of the 1964 Alaskan earthquake.  It was ironic that I had so much fear of earthquakes and tsunamis, but I couldn’t help looking at the pictures and shivering.

My heart goes out to the people in Japan.  How many children had lived with the fears that I had, and have now seen their nightmares come to life?  There are no words.  

*When I was three or four, I would ride my tricycle on our driveway in Shreveport, LA.  One time a thunderstorm was coming, and my sisters called me inside.  They yelled that a tornado was right behind me, hurry! Hurry!  Watch out, it's going to get you!  It's right behind you! 

No comments: