Japan lies in a volatile part of the planet, where three tectonic plates meet: the Pacific, the Philippine and the Eurasian plate.
This is the reason for all the volcanoes in Japan (Mt. Fuji is the largest), the abundance of hot springs – onsen – and the almost regularly occuring earthquakes. There are about 1500 earthquakes on the Japanese isles per year (that’s about 4 per day!), but the majority of them are harmless, and people don’t even notice them. If you do perceive one, however, and you are on a higher floor, trust me, the experience is not pleasant, especially if it’s your first earthquake.
The Japanese have a very easy way to determine what to do in case of an earthquake: If the shaking is horizontal, left-right, it is quite harmless, and there is no need to do anything, except waiting for it to pass. If the shaking is vertical, up-down, however, you should try to cover at least your head (a pillow will do), or, better still, get underneath a table. Stay away from windows (as they may break) and heavy furniture like bookcases (as they may move or even topple). Wait until the shaking stops, then leave the building (using the stairs), preferrably without rummaging for any stuff to take with you. Once outside, follow the locals – in every city in Japan there are special evacuation zones where people should gather in such circumstances.
In any case, whatever type of earthquake you encounter, there will be some report about it very quickly, either on the designated internet site of the Japan Meteorological Agency (which would issue a tsunami warning within 3 minutes) and on TV, and most likely also on local radio (I don’t know that for sure though).
My first earthquake?
One evening in August 2011, when I was in the 7th floor of the Toyoko Inn in Kabuki-cho, Tokyo.
At first I thought the person in the neighbouring room had dropped his heavy suitcase. Then I realized that suitcase-dropping usually does not last for several seconds. And then I held on to my desk with a slightly panicky feeling of “And what do I do now?” and a slightly worrying prospective of having to run downstairs in a too small hotel yukata.
When the trembling stopped there was – nothing. I mean, no sirens, no official announcements, no running people on the corridor, just silence. When I took a peek onto the streets, the people appeared to be uninterested about the incident and carried on with their business. So, I decided to do the same, although I have to admit I did feel a bit queasy…
However, don’t worry too much about earthquakes. It is very unlikely you will encounter one when you are visiting Japan. My first earthquake described above only happened on my eighth trip to Japan.