“We will simulate the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake for you, which was the strongest earthquake that ever hit Japan”, said my guide Hirota-san with a bright smile as she gestured towards the big table in the middle of a platform: the earthquake simulator. I had curiously eyed the table surrounded by a see-through fence before but as it dawned on me that I was about to experience one of the five biggest earthquakes in the entire world, my own smile froze. I exchanged a quick glance with my Japanese friend Kei who I had pleaded to join me in my quest to conquer all of the Bosaikan’s simulated disasters, simply because I’m a scaredy-pants and like to have someone next to me when squatting under tables and crawling through thick smoke. After a short and very interesting explanation of how earthquakes actually come to be and the different kinds of tremors, it was time to step on the platform.
Being mentally prepared for what was about to happen didn’t really help either – I already squirmed in my chair when the platform of the simulator started to move, simply to move to the middle of the space in preparation for quakes and shakes. “As soon as you feel the ground moving, grab the cushion and kneel under the table. Hold on tight to the table leg”, our guide instructed us in a calm, friendly manner just before the large screens on the sides of the simulator started to light up and a short introduction movie was shown. A brief explanation about the facts of the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake followed – and suddenly, I felt a violent jolt right below my feet.
“This is it!” I thought and dug my fingers into the soft pillow, throwing myself under the table as fast as I could – and indeed, the time between the first tremor and the violent shaking that set in immediately afterwards couldn’t have been longer than two, maybe three seconds. I knew that it was a simulation and I’d be safe and sound no matter what happened, so, just like on roller coaster rides, my mind decided to release the stress of the experience by laughing. The background screens had moved on from the introduction to actual scenes from 2011: office workers scrambling to get under their desks, swaying lampposts and construction cranes, and after a moment or two I foolishly thought “Hey, it’s not that bad.”
Boy was I wrong. Just as I thought that the worst jolts were over, the platform shifted even more violently than before, making me as well as my table leg jerk forward. I screamed and so did Kei, half out of surprise and half out of pure shock. Even for her, a Japanese person who experienced her fair share of tremors, this huge quake was an entirely new experience. And all of a sudden, it was over, calming down almost as suddenly as it had started as the movie in the background went from scenes of the earthquake to scenes of the devastating tsunami. I hardly paid attention to it anymore, however, as I was occupied with taking care of myself and the slight sense of wooziness as I stepped off the simulator platform.
While my heart was still beating rapidly in my chest, Hirota-san explained once again how important it is to react quickly and with a calm head. Seeking cover under a table one too many times is much better than underestimating an earthquake that turns out to be stronger than anticipated and I nodded in agreement. After this experience, earthquake-underestimation-time is officially over. After the simulation, we were shown a short, multilingual documentation about the very earthquake we just experienced, once again emphasizing the importance of not only being prepared but also to look out for each other after the disaster strikes.
The next experience on our schedule was a lot less scary, simply because I was given a tool to defend myself: firefighting! Hirota-san led us to a room that was half kitchen, half exhibition about firefighting methods and tools. Handling a fire extinguisher isn’t hard at all, as our friendly guide explained: just pull the yellow pin, grab the hose by pulling it at its very front, and push the handle! This being said, I still didn’t do it properly the first time and although the kitchen fire, simulated on a waterproof monitor right in front of us, was extinguished, I had forgotten to yell “Kaji da~!” which means “Fire!” in Japanese.
While the earthquake simulator seemed like a fun but serious rollercoaster, the firefighting experience was incredibly rewarding. I genuinely enjoyed yelling FIRE! and trying my best to get the extinguisher ready as fast as I could – and to my great pleasure, I beat Kei in terms of speed.
After successful attempts of extinguishing a kitchen fire, Hirota-san explained the three main reasons for fires inside homes: the leading cause in Japan is tempura oil left to boil on the stove, followed by cigarettes thrown in the trash while not extinguished properly, and last but not least defect electrical cables, mainly behind microwaves and fridges, places where people hardly check.
Having learned how to handle fires, it was time to tackle something that can be as dangerous as fire itself: smoke. Hirota-san led us to yet another section of the floor where the smoke maze. “There will be a siren, announcing a fire in the building. You need to escape. Before stepping through the first door, press a handkerchief to your nose and Mouth and crouch down as soon as you’re through the door. Follow the green emergency signs to find the exit, and hold on to the wall. It’s going to be dark”, she explained.
Yeah, she wasn’t kidding. As I threw open the first door to begin my journey through the maze, I stared at a glowing red window that clearly indicated a huge fire somewhere below. Just after a few crouching steps along the wall, however, I could hardly see a thing and despite the cloth pressed to my face, the stinging smell of smoke was almost overwhelming. Thanks to my long legs, I escaped the almost pitch-black smoke maze surprisingly quick, wheezing and coughing as I stumbled out the door to safety.
To tell the truth, I had not expected to be the Bosaikan such an amazing experience. Usually, these kind of disaster and survival training seminars have a reputation of being more on the boring side. The Life Safety Learning Center, however, does an excellent job in educating people in a very interesting and fun way, despite the seriousness of the topic itself. Every single experience is designed to give an authentic, realistic impression while making visitors feel safe and taken care of. Hirota-san wasn’t only one of the friendliest and most energetic persons that I’ve met in a while, she also made sure that we were well-informed not only on what to do and how to handle a situation but also about the background facts and statistics, be it quakes or fires.
The best part about the Bosaikan? For one, it’s completely free and while the instructors speak only Japanese, every single movie has multilingual subtitles and the flyers and booklets are available in a variety of languages. Especially the earthquake simulator is a huge recommendation for international visitors, specifically those who come from countries that simply doesn’t have tremors. The Bosaikan offers a great opportunity to not only learn how to react and how to be prepared, even if your stay in Japan is just a short one, it also makes it possible to get an idea of what an earthquake feels like.
I wasn’t around when the Tōhoku Earthquake struck Japan in 2011 and the strongest tremors I’ve ever experienced were Shindo-4. So yes, I was wondering: how do I know whether it’s a big one, how do I know if I should hide under a table or not? In experiencing a big earthquake in a safe environment, I definitely have a much clearer idea of what to expect. Fear of the unknown is a big factor in feeling insecure and the Bosaikan does an excellent job to clear up both a lack of knowledge and misconceptions, whether it comes to quakes, fires, or first aid.
The full course with the experiences described in my articles takes two hours with the additional option of taking park in first aid training. Between 11:10 a.m. and noon, the Bosaikan hosts a short course that focuses on the earthquake simulator and the complementary documentary only, a convenient arrangement for visitors who are already well-informed about everything but tremors. So, what are you waiting for? Step in the simulator!
Ikebukuro Life Safety Learning Center
*This information is from the time of this article's publication.