I thought it was all just superstition, but yakudoshi really are the “years of calamity”. This is a Japanese belief that people who are at the “age of yakudoshi” are likely to experience some kind of catastrophe or illness. If you believe that new-borns start at one year old (kazoedoshi), yakudoshi for men is generally believed to be the ages 25, 42 and 61, and for women 19, 33 and 37. One’s yakudoshi is measured by adding one to your actual age, and as I was born in 1970, I fall plum into the 42 category.
The year did get off to a bad start. Our dog died. May father-in-law passed away suddenly a month later. And then, on a trip from Japan back to New Zealand for the national kendo squad training camp, the quake hit. I had just arrived back in Christchurch the day before.
I woke up in the morning of February 22 quite jet-lagged and grumpy. A neighbourhood dog had been howling like a wolf on heat for hours. After forcing myself out of bed bleary-eyed, I started to get ready to head into town and meet my old kendo buddy Karl for our traditional “liquid lunch” down the strip. However, due to a pending doctor’s appointment, we offhandedly agreed over the phone to hook up the next day instead ‒ a seemingly insignificant decision that, in retrospect, may have saved our lives, or at least our limbs. Everybody who came out of the quake uninjured in Christchurch has a similar story. “I was supposed to be at…” Or, “If it wasn’t for… I’d have been…” Of course, that logic can work the other way as well as many unfortunate souls unwittingly found out.
Forgoing lunch in town, I decided to spend some more time with my mother. We sat down in the lounge catching up, and enjoying a nice cup of tea. We talked about that bloody dog.
“Did you hear that dog this morning Alex?”
“How could I not hear it! The noisy bugger woke me up…Repeatedly.”
“You know that dogs are supposed to be able to sense earthquakes.”
“Yeah, something about electromagnetic waves emitted from the plates or something… Do you reckon there might be an earthquake?”
Despite all that has happened in the last couple of months, I am still not a superstitious person, at least I don’t think I am, but another odd thing did happen. I asked if many waxeyes (a small native bird) had been poking around the bird house of late. “No, haven’t seen any for quite a while.” Ten minutes later, just as I was finishing my cuppa, I saw something flitting around the window in the next room. It looked to be outside, but upon closer inspection I realised it was a small bird actually trapped inside the room, and was none other than a lovely little waxeye. The poor thing was very stressed, but mum nabbed it with a handkerchief, and we set him free outside. I didn’t think of it at the time, but many cultures believe a bird who comes inside the house is a harbinger of tragedy or bad luck… It all seems so bizarre now.
That’s about all I remember of the morning of the 22nd. I was sitting on my bed about to get changed, and then it struck at precisely 12:51pm. The intensity of the jolt was so inconceivably violent and sudden, that I was stunned on my arse for a moment before realising what was happening. I jumped up to stand under the door, but could hear mum screaming outside. Running through the house trying to keep my footing, I made it to the yard and tried to calm her down.
The citizens of Christchurch had been through literally thousands of aftershocks since the first big quake struck (7.1) in on September 4 last year, but this was something else. In the first quake, miraculously, there were no casualties. Buildings were lost, but lives weren’t. My gut feeling was that Christchurch was not going to be so lucky this time.
Still, we were all too flummoxed to realise the true destructiveness of the quake, and as we were completely cut off from the rest of the world (no electricity), we had no information of what was happening around the rest of the city. We only found out the extent of the damage in the coming week. Ironically, although we were situated smack bang in the middle of the disaster zone, the rest of the world knew more about what was going on than we did.
We had to make do without electricity, phone contact, running water, toilets etc. for days. What water we did have, we used very sparingly, and we started to wreak something awful, as did the city itself with all the crap spewing out of the earth. Our neighbourhood was pretty devastated by the liquefaction, but we got off comparatively lightly. Many people lost their houses, and the tragic injuries and deaths in the CBD are being covered extensively by the international media, as are individual exploits of heroism in extreme adversity.
Still, it is far from over. The immediate aftershocks were regular and big, and the nervous tension remains in the city and the hearts of its people as I write this blog. I am back in Japan now, but am heading back to NZ again next week. There is not much I can realistically do, but like any one-eyed Cantabrian, I want to do all I can to get the city of Christchurch back on its feet, even if it feels in vain at the moment.
The attached video is some of the footage I took with my little stills camera that comes equipped with a basic video setting. I only recorded images immediately after the quake, and out of respect, I didn’t film the carnage I saw in my short journey traversing the city in search of a couple of people. The images will give you an idea of the damage in the suburbs. All they seem to show on TV is the utter obliteration in the CBD, with little coverage of the damage elsewhere. The eastern suburbs in particular suffered a different kind of destruction, and many have lost their homes forever.
A final note for the moment, I feel I should acknowledge SOFTBANK, the cellular phone company I use in Japan. I always take my phone with me when travelling overseas, but use it prudently because of the astronomical international roaming charges. As you can probably imagine, with all the calls that started coming through from Japan (which I have to foot the international charges for), and the calls I had to make, my phone bill went through the roof. When I got back to Japan on February 27, SOFTBANK sent me a text message informing me that my phone bill was in excess of 180,000 yen (approx. US$2000). I rang them up and explained the situation to see if I couldn’t get a reduction on the international charges, or at least if I could pay the bill off in instalments. They kindly decided to remove ALL phone charges accumulated during the period I was in New Zealand given the circumstances.
I was greatly impressed by this gesture, and have been amazed to see so many acts of kindness by people from all over the world who want to help in some way. As Natalia Ginzbur once said, “Today, as never before, the fates of men are so intimately linked to one another that a disaster for one is a disaster for everybody.” I think this certainly rings true for the recent disaster in Christchurch, especially considering the many foreign visitors who lost their lives. There is still much tragedy to be uncovered from the dust and rubble, and I for one nervously check the trickle of names of the confirmed deceased being released by the police, hoping that there is nobody I know, but also knowing that it could so easily have been any one of us.
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