Sunday, November 1, 2015

FUJIRAMA: When the Earth shakes, Tokyo shrugs

            CHAPTER ONE  (excerpt from the novel)        

The sun rises sharply, poking through the curtain of mist hanging over Tokyo Bay. Golden shafts of light reach across the waters, breaching the underbelly of swollen, low-lying clouds. A somnambulant city creaks into motion, one sleepy step at a time, awaking to the clickety-clickety clack-clack of restless trains adhering to timetable departures and arrivals.

Trains chasing trains, trains passing trains, always passing, never meeting, going in circles around the circle line morning to night. Groaning busses, thundering trucks and the smooth swoosh of bullet trains join the hustle and hum.

Sleep interrupted and slumber deferred, baggy-suited salary men brush past office ladies in tight skirts and short hose, trudging up and down drafty station staircases, offering up their bodies to cramped rail carriages, a ride so rhythmic, steady and stuffy as to invite meditative quiet and snatches of sleep along the way. Resting heavy eyelids, commuters drift back into the black, attending to unfinished dreams.

Millions of punctilious citizens trudge to and fro, transporting themselves from tatami to linoleum, from bedroom to boardroom by way of crowd-engorged stations, getting up extra early and walking extra fast so as not to be a minute late. Commuters scurry into subways, trading the rattle and roar of the surface road for the muffled whine and thrum of the underground.

Coffee is quaffed, toast is buttered, rice balls rolled and hard-boiled eggs are salted to go. Building by building, block by block, a warm tangerine glow beats back the cool of night. Subways slither through dark subterranean tunnels; autos speed obediently along walled-in highways, while up above, whispering jets scratch the sky, exuding iridescent vapor trails. To the west, the cloud cover is sundered by unseen winds, unveiling a glowing mound.

Mount Fuji is blushing pink, modesty violated by the rising sun.

The cityscape trembles and vibrates, lurching almost imperceptibly at first, followed by a sustained shudder and gentle shrug. A powerful subterranean jolt strikes unannounced, a hidden ninja leaping out of nowhere, poised to kill.

The ground underfoot shifts abruptly, causing countless buildings to creak and sway in tremulous unison.

Startled crows caw noisily and take wing, fleeing perches on rattled trees and wobbly utility poles. Lingering plum blossoms let drop, fresh sakura petals are shaken free from their branches en masse, fluttering silkily to the moist ground. Concrete slivers and steel towers quiver and swing in synchrony with rocking stands of bamboo.

Everything not nailed down shifts an infinitesimal bit and then just as suddenly goes still.

The tectonic plates of the earth’s finicky crust no longer slip and slide; terra firma is restored once more. In the absence of further subducting, buckling, grinding and thrusting, the fragile archipelago is at peace with the Pacific again.

Traffic signals dangle loosely, swinging in decreasing increments like spent pendulums, while startled crows caw-caw the all-clear signal. An uneasy calm follows. It was as if some humongous subterranean earth spirit had woken with a start, stretched, yawned, turned over, yawned again, readjusted its pillow, and then went back to a deep, peaceable sleep, unaware that it had roiled countless creatures in its wake.

No sooner does the trembling of the earth subside, than the rumble of rush hour resumes.

The shadow of uncertainty that passed over the city like an inauspicious eclipse is gone now, replaced by the reassuring cacophony of rush hour in full flow. The brush with the unthinkable imparts to the drudgery of the daily routine a renewed intensity, a raw appreciation for the little things in life. With the passing of apocalyptic danger, the habitual motions of the morning rush are back in full swing again.

Along the narrow banks of the rocky riverbed tramps and vagrants huddle in musty makeshift shacks and cardboard, lucky just this once not to have a solid roof over their heads.

In the shadow of a lumbering cantilevered bridge that spans the banks of a broad, shallow river, unwashed and unshaven men share a cup of hot coffee poured from a kettle that sits suspended on a stick over an open fire. The whiskered men, unaware they are being watched, huddle around the smoking embers, warming their hands, exchanging knowing glances.


“Ji-shin da.”

An earthquake. For the tramps camped out on the riverbed, the geologic disruption brought scant pause to the persistent ritual of heating water, washing up and airing out. Outsiders in an insular society, they lived on the edge, clinging to the detritus of the sparkling city like shipwrecked survivors, thankful for the shirts on their back, dry ground to sleep on, discarded food, and whatever flotsam and jetsam might come their way.

All is calm as the red-streaked dawn is sublimated into stormy gray skies. The sun is gone, swallowed up the mass of purple-bottomed clouds that come tumbling in from the sea. The scent of rain is in the air.

A disheveled American, whose arrival on the riverbank had initially gone unnoticed due to the drama of the early morning quake, is spotted and identified.


“Gai-jin da.”

The homeless men greet the far-from-home foreigner, wave him over and offer him a cup of their potent brew. He sips fitfully, smiles eagerly, and nods repeated thanks, but has little to say. It is plain to see that he was no early morning jogger, his whiskered face, dirty clothes and ready reception of recycled food suggests a man out of place and out of time.

At the first sign of rain, the exotic itinerant takes leave, bowing as he retreats, offering profuse thanks for the cup of joe before he moves on. He wants to get to where he wants to go before the skies open up.

One of these days, the big one would get its day in the sun; both the superstitious and scientific could agree on that much. A sneak attack from the subterranean depths was as overdue as it was inevitable. The big one would be big; big enough to shatter buildings, big enough to shutter the city, big enough to bring Tokyo down.

One of these days, without any proper warning, the gentle contours of the Kanto plain would ripple, buckle and shift, snap, sag and lift, reducing man-made towers and monuments of human ingenuity to rubble and ruin, rendering the rich as exposed and vulnerable as the homeless already were.