Did the earth move for you?


Not really.

Tremor! Yeah, you see, that doesn’t have the same effect, does it?

A couple of nights ago, husband experienced his first tremor, while I was asleep in bed. (Less of the sniggering, thank you. Keep it clean.) The next morning, he described the sensation of the rocking sofa, and his eyes were alight with excitement and fear as he told me. “Did I wake?” I asked. “I don’t remember that.”

“No,” he said. “I looked at you through the doorway but you were asleep.”

Sniffily, I changed the subject. A tremor I slept through was nothing to go on about.

Then, yesterday, I felt my own first tremor. Husband and son were out visiting the Sky Tree tower, and daughter and I had returned from an epic shopping trip. Daughter was in her room preoccupied by newly purchased Sylvanian Families. I was standing in the sitting room, similarly preoccupied by my phone, when a train went past on the line below, and the floor shook beneath my feet.

That’s one big cargo train, muttered a tiny part of my subconscious.

The sound of the train disappeared, and the floor continued to shake. It was the rattling vibration of the 6-foot, freestanding mirror at my side that fully woke me. I realised the floor wasn’t just shaking, it was rocking alarmingly. I started to feel seasick.

The view from the window is of nothing but buildings, but the lights were on in a room I could see across the alleyway, and a man was moving unhurriedly across my view. He’s not panicking, I thought, so maybe I don’t need to. And I suddenly realised that I was, in fact, panicking. I understood the shining, fearful excitement in husband’s eyes when he told me about the tremor he had felt. My instinctive feeling was that I had no idea what was happening, whether it would get worse, and what I should do.

And then the tremor stopped.

I immediately looked up earthquake prediction apps on my phone. The tremor I had just felt had its epicentre off the east coast, about 70 miles from Tokyo, with a Richter scale magnitude of 5.4. When husband came home, I asked him if he’d felt it. Nope. This was another tremor we had failed to share.

Husband proceeded to Google what to do in an earthquake. We discussed at length what we would do in the event of a proper big quake. Having considered climbing onto the roof (we are in a top-floor apartment), sitting under the table or in a doorway, I finally conceded that no matter how much planning or research we did, when it came down to it, I would do nothing but panic and run out the building screaming.

One of the busiest, most bonkers junctions in Shibuya, Tokyo

Where, I would hope, I could take my cue from the more enlightened locals. Although that depends on the sheer numbers of people in the streets, because up until now my experience of crowded Tokyo is that there is very little rapid movement anywhere at any time. Personally, I’m used to marching at a brisk pace everywhere. What’s the point of the journey? One wants to be at either A or B. The inbetween bit doesn’t count. But trying to march through sluggish channels of meandering Tokyo hordes has proved frustrating at the very least.

I don’t think I will ever stop being amazed by the sheer numbers of people who live in this city. There is a very good reason for the Japanese traditions of civility and selflessness, especially in Tokyo – any behaviour other than sheer agreeableness would quickly spiral into an anarchic melée of disgruntled masses. Patience is not one of my most famous virtues, and the necessity of slowing down, giving way, waiting and being humble requires something of a personality overhaul on my part.

Yesterday’s spending spree with daughter threw us into the most congested herd situation yet – the famous Takeshita Street in Harajuku, a popular shopping district. Famous to other people, anyway. I hadn’t heard of it, or I might not have chosen to go there ON THE BUSIEST DAY OF THE WEEK. It’s a narrow, pedestrianised thoroughfare lined with shops that sell… don’t ask me. I haven’t a clue. I was too busy trying to steer daughter through the crush to look at the shops. I have a vague, side-eye memory of rainbow candy floss, biker jackets, cool chick skirts… This was certainly a capitalist Mecca for Tokyo’s hippest young things, and that’s saying something, because I have also noticed just how well-dressed and glamorous many Tokyo natives are. The shoes! The jackets, darling! To die for.

Anyway, yes, would it have been any more pleasurable to be squeezed to death by a throng of modish narcissists? I didn’t wait to find out. Halfway down this human hell I spied a side alley and practically threw daughter down it.

Takeshita Street, Harajuku – Carnaby Street on acid

The reason I endured this materialistic nightmare in the first place? Daughter had woken that morning showing alarming signs of homesickness. Sobbing on my lap she repeated that she “didn’t want to go to Japan any more.”

“But we’re…”

“I don’t want to go to Japan any more!” She wailed. “I miss home! I miss my toys!”

And therein lay the answer, for she is nothing if not my daughter. “Shall we go and buy some new toys?” I asked.

“Yes.” The tears evaporated. Look, I’m not proud of this consumerist trait, in either me or my daughter. But the sad fact is, things make us happy. All that nonsense about just needing love, and stuff not being important… Does that work for other people? Surely books, or shoes, or music, or cake is the cure for misery? For daughter, the promise of plastic tat soothes her deepest sorrow.

So off we went, first to the Disney store in Shibuya, which was alarmingly full of child-free adults clearly buying the cartoon crap for themselves, then on to Kiddy Store in Harajuku, a five-floor vacuum that sucks children and gullible parents into it and then spits them out again with bags full of unnaturally colourful rubbish and distinctly less money.

My name’s Isla and I’m a shopaholic.

At the till, I turned to daughter and said, “Is that better? Will we have no more tears now?” The man in front of us turned, smiling. I said, “Yes, this does sound like one of those bribery situations.”

“Oh, we’ve all been there,” he replied. I considered regaling him with the full justification and reason for our trip but then thought, he’s a grown man in a toy shop. I don’t have to explain anything.

(At this point, it needs pointing out that anything – ANY THING – will be done to keep daughter happy. Of the two children, she is the one who is most insecure about this whole trip. Son has settled in like an indigene, even going so far today as to patronise me in the subway, explaining which station we were at, which line we would need to use, and which platform we should aim for. I’m 43 fercrissakes kid. Let me work it out. But daughter, though usually naturally cheerful, has displayed some rather attention-seeking behaviour. “Muuuum!” she wailed, when I was in the toilet, and she was washing the dishes. “Muuuuuuuuuummmm!!” I hurriedly finished my business and rushed into the kitchen, expecting tragedy. “The plug’s come out and the water’s gone down the hole,” daughter sobbed. “Oh… right,” I said. “Um… shall I put the plug back in and refill the sink with water?” “Yes,” said daughter, mollified.

And then there was the occasion I was in the shower, with my eyes closed and almost falling asleep on my feet in the warmth, when there was a rattling of door handles and a commotion of voices. The door of the wet-room was shaken forcibly, then daughter came bursting through, standing before me in her knickers. “What’s wrong?” I gasped. “Is everything okay?” “Mum,” said daughter, “if I have two fruit juices mixed together in one glass, does that count as one or two of my five a day?” I stared at her. “One,” I said. “And what if I have strawberries, and blueberries, and raspberries in my cereal? Is that one or three?” “One,” I said, more faintly. She disappeared.

The long and the short of it is that daughter is high-maintenance but if maintaining her means having to buy a fluffy unicorn keyring, cheap glittery hair slides, a Sylvanian Family set, some Hello Kitty plasters and a sushi pen, that’s going to happen. M’kay?)


It gets everywhere. Every bloody where

Home schooling. It has begun. We are all still alive. That, my friends, is a win.

A half-arsed schedule has us every morning working our way through maths, reading, spelling and report writing, with half an hour spent on each, and cakes being eaten as we go. We are all delighted by the fact we can do our home schooling in pyjamas. Getting up at seven and forcing the kids into uniforms will be very hard when we return to the UK.

An inclination towards brutal honesty does force me to admit that attempting to teach son long multiplication was somewhat hindered by my own complete inability to perform that complex a mathematics exercise. Fortunately, we are signed up to an online learning site, and it reveals helpful hints as to how to proceed with each maths problem.

When son, with wobbly bottom lip, said, “Mum… you’re doing most of this,” I realised that I was hogging the pen and paper as I refreshed my memory of how to do bloody sums. (I say “refreshed” – I’m not sure I ever learned this stuff. All I remember of my maths lessons is boredom and arguing with the lads on my desk.)

Son’s propensity for refusing to learn anything from me, his stupid mum, has reared its irritating and precocious head a couple of times; as has daughter’s completely antithetical tendency to lack anything even approaching self-confidence. “Did I do well?” she asks pleadingly at the end of her spelling tests. “Am I being good?” Somehow, I am also having to teach son humility and daughter pride.

I will reiterate my assertion of posts passim that teachers deserve more than a bloody apple at the end of term. Frankly, they should all get a Nobel prize.

One subject especially that has brought out son’s lazy gene is our requirement that they write small reports on the things they’ve seen and done here in Japan, with a view to sending said reports to their teachers and classmates back in Scotland. As a compulsive writer myself, I find his apathy weird – but thank god for email, which we have now introduced to both children. They are delighted beyond belief by the ability to send an electronic message halfway round the world and have a reply sent back to their very own email accounts.

Of course, this now means we are having to endure incessant checking of their email accounts. We have created a monster.


  1. Michelle Ellel says:

    I was wondering how the heroic task of schooling was going. I should imagine that schooling can be incorporated into everyday life such as: if this piece of plastic crap is this… how much change do I need? and that way kill two birds with one stone. Or is that the wrong analogy.
    Give a very big thumbs up to Son… he has done tai quando or whatever it is, so he has a head start and commiserations to daughter. It must all be very daunting and unsettling for her.
    I hope that you and husband do achieve some earth moving but that it is never higher than 5.5!!
    ( Still slightly envious!)


    1. Yes – daughter’s habit of counting all the steps we go up and down, and all the white stripes at pedestrian crossings, is providing opportunities for division and addition. I get to practise, too…


  2. Leisha Wemyss says:

    Oh, Isla. I’m reading this while walking the dog round the lodge grounds, snorting and hee-hawing like a donkey. Brilliant blog. I just love it. Big hugs to Maia and good luck with the earthquake drills. xxx


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