Experiencing Japan’s worst earthquake

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

Experiencing Japan’s worst earthquake


The Great East Japan Earthquake

I hear the rattling of the furniture a millisecond or two before I realise the room in a Tokyo suburb is starting to shake. The jolting comes up from underneath, possessing everything, and I can feel it tremor through my body. I’m sitting at a table and react immediately, jumping (half-falling) onto the ground and grabbing a leg of the table. I can’t help but shout a little – I’m not sure if it’s because I’m scared or because the sound is being shaken out of me like tomato sauce from a glass bottle.

This is what an earthquake feels like, I discover. But not just any earthquake. This is the quake that hit Japan in 2011, killing more than 15,000 people, and creating a nuclear emergency when a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. Here it is referred to as ‘The Great East Japan Earthquake’ but right now all I’m concerned about is that it has a magnitude of 9.0 – the fifth strongest quake ever recorded.

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

Before you panic, though, I should back up a little. I said this is what an earthquake ‘feels’ like. Because, although I am here in Japan, it’s two years on from that devastating natural disaster and this is just a simulation. But it’s still pretty terrifying.

I’ve come to what many people call ‘The Ikebukuro Earthquake Museum’ – although its official title is ‘The Life Safety Learning Centre’. It really isn’t a museum, that’s a bit of a misnomer, and I realise that pretty soon after arriving.

The Ikebukuro Earthquake Museum

The centre is above a fire station in the Tokyo suburb of Ikebukero. It’s a nondescript building in many senses and would be easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for. When I arrive I am immediately sent to join a group that is just starting a tour – this isn’t the kind of place you can just wander around by yourself.

The group I’m assigned to is almost completely full of Japanese people. They haven’t come here for a fun experience or because they are pretending to be tourists in their hometown. They have been sent here by their employer, school or landlord because the aim of the centre is to teach people how to behave in case of disaster. Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world and, for most of the participants here today, this kind of training is a regular and compulsory activity.

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

That doesn’t mean that I am unwelcome or seen as a distraction. The organisers of the learning centre (or museum, if you prefer) like having foreigners come along and learn because the scary reality is an earthquake could hit Tokyo at any moment and a bit of knowledge can help anyone.

There are three main activities that I am guided through here. The first is how to use a fire extinguisher.

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

“1, 2, 3. Pin. Hose. OK?” is about the extent of the explanation in English. But the instructor demonstrates himself and it all becomes pretty obvious. I stand in front of a screen with a projection of a normal kitchen. A fire breaks out on the screen and I grab the extinguisher I’ve been given. As instructed (I think), I pull out the pin, point the hose at the screen and pull the handles together. Water spurts out and I spray the projected fire until it goes out and the cute chimes of Japanese music play to indicate I’ve been successful.

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

Next is the smoke maze – a training exercise to practice the best way to escape from a building that is filling with smoke. An alarm sounds to alert us to a ‘fire’ and that’s the signal to begin. I open the door to the maze and am confronted with an onslaught of smoke. I cover my mouth and nose with my shirt. Hunched over, almost crawling on all fours, I try to find my way through, using a hand to find the walls when needed. If you go over 120cm in height, an alarm sounds and the instructor’s voice comes through a speaker with a warning (in Japanese) to get lower. After a few false turns and locked doors, I find my way to the other end – still breathing.

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

The final exercise – the most terrifying of them all – is the earthquake simulator. It is set up as a typical dining room with a table set for five people. But the room is actually built over a machine that will create the tremors and shakes. The instructor can choose different earthquake from the history of Japan – some longer than others, some with more ferocious shaking, others with longer deeper shocks.

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

When he presses the button and The Great East Japan Earthquake begins, it’s much stronger than I expect. There’s a huge force to the movements beneath the room and I really do have to hang on hard to the leg of the table to not be thrown about. It also goes for so much longer than I would have thought. At least 40 seconds of shaking, only slowing down and easing up in the last few.

Even in a controlled environment, this felt dangerous. I can only imagine how it would have been two years ago when so many Japanese residents were suddenly confronted with this kind of force as plates smashed on the ground around them, signs fell in the street, and houses crumbled.

ikebukuro earthquake museum, safety learning centre, tokyo, japan

I’m not sure why this place has attracted the name ‘The Ikebukero Earthquake Museum’. Perhaps it’s from tourists who are trying to justify a visit. But this is not about the past or about looking at exhibits from history. This is about the future and understanding what is lurking at a tectonic level and waiting to strike again at any moment without warning. After experiencing it for myself, I sincerely hope for the sake of this country that it is a long time before the next.

  • zoomingjapan | Sep 18, 2013 at 1:22 am

    As I live in Japan I was there when the “big one” hit in 2011.
    I wrote about how I experienced that day in my blog, so you might be interested in reading about “the real thing”: http://zoomingjapan.com/life-in-japan/japan-earthquake-and-tsunami-2011/

    Japan has a lot of earthquakes, especially Northern Japan and Kanto (Tokyo). It’s not as bad in other parts of Japan.
    I’ve been in Japan for 6 years now and I only ever really experienced one “stronger” quake.

    That earthquake museum sounds interesting. I’ve never been to one, but I might go there next time I’m in Tokyo. Thanks for introducing it to us! ^_^

  • Nicole | Sep 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    I wish they would do something like that here in Los Angeles. We could benefit from it more than the typical earthquake “drill” we participate in in elementary.

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 1:01 am

      Yeah – LA should definitely think about something like this. Unfortunately, California is probably due for another quake soon.

  • Jade | Sep 19, 2013 at 7:15 am

    Wow, what a unique museum. I went to a hurricane museum in Florida and it was fascinating looking at all the different hurricanes and what type of path they took and how they were different. Thanks for sharing.

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 3:09 am

      Hurricanes are interesting – and quite different, I imagine – because they’re gradual and you can see them coming. It’s probably easier to prepare and warn people. The scary thing about earthquakes is they happen so unexpectedly and are over so quickly.

  • Mary @ Green Global Travel | Sep 20, 2013 at 3:04 am

    It’s not hard to imagine how terrifying it could be to endure these exercises, though I have to hope that the experience could be useful. Learning to escape a smoke filled room without panicking or simply knowing how to use a fire extinguisher effectively could save your life and help you save others. It really is a brilliant idea though like you, I truly hope that these skills are rarely needed.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..BAHAMAS: The Swimming Pigs of Big Major CayMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 3:10 am

      I’m surprised more cities don’t have these kind of safety centres. Although the Japanese, of course, would always make there’s more technologically advanced than anyone else’s anyway!! 🙂

  • Jennifer | Sep 20, 2013 at 5:14 am

    This sounds like a really good museum. People that have experience with what to except can better react in the actual situation. We should have a course like this in the US where earthquakes are rampant.
    Jennifer recently posted..Three Michelin Star Dining at Les MenusMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 3:11 am

      This one in Japan is compulsory for most employees and students – and I think sometimes landlords can force people to go to the training too. I wonder how that would go down in other countries like the US?

  • Carmen Allan-Petale | Sep 21, 2013 at 1:53 am

    Wow! This looks amazing. It kind of goes one step further than a museum in a way because not only does it tell you about an insight into Japanese life but you can see Japanese locals being trained on how to deal with this aspect of Japanese life – so that’s pretty eye-opening.
    I would’ve been a little ‘shaken’ by the demonstration too! Scary…
    Carmen Allan-Petale recently posted..Top 10 Cruise DestinationsMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 3:15 am

      I hadn’t thought of it like that but it’s a really good point! Maybe that’s why people call it a ‘museum’ rather than a ‘safety centre’. Do you think the locals thought I was an exhibit, though?

  • Christina Pfeiffer | Sep 21, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Nice story, Michael. It’s a great angle and one that really hits hard at the heart of Japan. Nice chatting with you the other day on the Happiness Show. Hope to catch up with you somewhere in the world.
    Christina Pfeiffer recently posted..IE 6 styleMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 3:20 am

      Great chatting with you too, Christina. You just reminded me I have been meaning to check out your blog so I’ve popped over and had a look just now. I would recommend everyone do the same!
      Speak soon, I hope.

  • Ali | Sep 24, 2013 at 12:03 am

    This sounds like such an interesting place! I can NOT imagine experiencing an earthquake, but what you described sounds really scary, even in a simulated environment. It’s great that they’re trying to make sure people are prepared.
    Ali recently posted..Our Big Berlin AnnouncementMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Sep 24, 2013 at 3:23 am

      I think it would be completely different outside of a simulated experience. This could only prepare you slightly for a real quake, I think. But I guess it’s still better than nothing!

  • apol | Wanderful Together.com | Sep 29, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    interesting… it’s good that they have venues like this to practice safety… it’s totally different from the usual company drills.
    apol | Wanderful Together.com recently posted..The Colorful Haji Lane in SingaporeMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Oct 4, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      Yeah, I don’t know why all the workers who had been sent along looked so bored. I would’ve thought it would be quite an interesting distraction from the office!

  • Devlin @ Marginal Boundaries | Oct 1, 2013 at 7:17 am

    That’s a pretty ingenious place they have there. I need to remember this when I visit. Must try Earthquake Simulator!
    Devlin @ Marginal Boundaries recently posted..Comment on The Importance of Language Immersion For Expats by T.W. AndersonMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Oct 4, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      Yeah, give it a go. As I mentioned, it’s not really a museum and it’s not extremely well-marked for tourists – but they are more than happy for you to come along and experience it for yourself.

  • Seattle Dredge | Oct 4, 2013 at 12:55 am

    Hm.. I’ve always been fascinated by earthquakes, but have never experienced a serious one myself. I’d be interested in visiting this place, although it would be nice if they did have more actual museum exhibits as well. I’d probably be clinging to the table leg too, haha.
    Seattle Dredge recently posted..I’m Going to IsraelMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Oct 4, 2013 at 11:28 pm

      Give it a go sometime – then you’ll be very glad you’ve never experienced a real earthquake! It’s interesting to see what it’s like (in controlled and safe conditions).

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  • Rianti | Nov 26, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    too bad I missed this interesting place after my Japan Trip… I will definitely visit this place for next visit
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