These days, Tokyo experiences about four or five earthquakes a day. Before going to Tokyo, I had never really felt an earthquake — or rather, the ones in California were so brief and so small that usually I doubted my senses until I saw the news reports after the fact. In Tokyo, particularly in the very tall buildings, you are left with no doubt that the earth moved; your drink sloshes about, fixtures sway, and the wall panels squeak.
For those who are curious as to what an earthquake feels like, I have a bit of serendipity to share with you. The turbulence in a large plane like a 767 is a decent earthquake simulator. I happen to be sitting in such an airplane right now, flying from Tokyo to Singapore, and due to weather conditions there’s plenty of turbulence. I’d say a shallow magnitude 6.2 at a close range feels like strong turbulence, the kind that makes even a seasoned traveler a little bit disconcerted (and to think a 9.0 is almost a thousand times more powerful!); a magnitude 5.1 or so feels like the tiny shakes you get all the time at cruising altitude — the types you get annoyed at because it means your movie is about to be disrupted by a fasten-your-seatbelt announcement.
Aside from the physical experience of an earthquake, there is a definite sociological phenomenon that goes with it as well. Personal earthquake alarms are quite popular in Tokyo. Just as lightning precedes thunder, these alarms give you a few seconds warning to an incoming tremor. The alarm has a distinct sound, and this leads to a kind of pavlovian conditioning. All conversation stops, and everyone just waits in a state of heightened awareness, since the alarm can’t tell you how big it is — it just tells you one is coming. You can see the fight or flight gears turning in everyone’s heads. Some people cry; some people laugh; some people start texting furiously; others just sit and wait. Once the tremors die down, life resumes, usually with a joke and a bit of a laugh to shrug off the tension.