The Land that Shakes

Running has always been my way of getting to know the world around me. When I find myself in new places, I fall in to a familiar rhythm. I study a digital map, pick out a running route, lace up, and head out the door to see what I can see. Over the years, I’ve passed through much at a seven-to-eight minute clip. Now, at age 41, it’s a bit slower — much slower those first few miles — but slowing down has its perks.

Yesterday morning, I stepped through the doors of the Toyoko Inn Narita not expecting much. My Google Map study wasn’t promising: the Tokyo megalalopolis is about a bajillion square miles of concrete and asphalt. One home is virtually indistinguishable from the next, due I suspect to strict building code. High rises and office buildings: it’s all the same. Not quite the cheerless gray of a former Soviet Bloc nation, but also not much better.

But instead of the concrete jungle I expected, I found myself running through agricultural land butting up against the Narita Airport. One moment surrounded by high barriers in between the runway and me, the next padding along rice paddies and small farms. And in between, tunnels beneath the Narita runways like the one pictured above.

In Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry talks about the grim resignation that comes with living in Japan, and Tokyo particularly. The projected casualty estimates for a Nankai Trough tsunami-producing earthquake are staggering. Biblical. In one passage, Parry writes of a kind of passing curiosity during which he occasionally evaluates the likelihood that the environment he finds himself surrounded by in that moment might kill him in the event of an earthquake or tsunami.

The first time I passed through the tunnel pictures, on my outbound leg, I chalked up the blue lines on the wall as graffiti, or some kind of mural. But on my return, I stopped and inspected them. The lines, in fact, trace cracks in the concrete. They’re marked with Kanji, surely an engineer’s record of old and new cracks as they lengthen and appear after each temblor. At some point, I imagine, a decision will be made as to whether the tunnel remains structurally sound. And it will be the lines on these walls that inform the decision.

Staring down the tunnel, it was hard to avoid what Parry wrote about: I imagined the terror of being halfway through when a an earthquake strikes, the sight of seawater cascading through both ends. It was a frightening specter. And yet somehow a banal reality in this place.