I’ve been living in Ichikawa City, on the outskirts of Tokyo, since January. It all feels a very long way from Berkeley, California: my neighbourhood here has a public address system, for example, which quietly reminds us at 4.30 every afternoon that the children are on their way home from school and we should try not to run them over, and half an hour later plays a thirty-second excerpt from the New World Symphony (arranged for organ).

With the few minor earthquakes I’ve experienced in California, it’s often been hard to tell whether it‘s really a quake or just a heavy truck going past, and by the time I’ve shambled over to stand in a doorway the whole thing‘s already over, with no harm done except maybe a couple of broken plates. No one I know in Berkeley has a disaster kit or a disaster plan. The consensus seems to be that it probably won’t happen, and even if it does, as long as you’re not on the Bay Bridge you’ll be fine.

There was no doubting what was happening when the earthquake struck here this afternoon. My girlfriend and I looked at each other and made for the nearest supporting doorway. We weren’t especially worried at first, expecting the usual thirty seconds of rattling crockery. But it must have lasted three times that. The house swayed backwards and forwards, gently at first, but with increasing force. It felt like being on a boat, but without a fixed horizon as a reference point. Cupboard doors flew open. The main ceiling lamp in the kitchen came crashing down (now I know what that chain was for).

After a little over a minute – I would guess – the force began to dissipate, and the movement of the house began to slow. We felt dizzy and light-headed. After checking the gas we went to our computers to see what was happening. It was only as the pictures from further north started coming in and the scale of the disaster and the loss of life became clear that we realised how lucky we’d been. We were even lucky not to have gone in to Tokyo, as we’d meant to: there’s clearly much more damage and debris among the downtown high-rises, and at the very least we could have been stranded there overnight.

Within minutes the prime minister was on TV, in an unflattering disaster anorak-cum-shellsuit, asking everyone to remain calm. Helicopters were soon in the air. About ten minutes after the first shock a voice over the tannoy informed us, in the usual measured tones, that there was a tsunami warning and we should brace for aftershocks. These came thick and fast, every ten minutes or so for at least a couple of hours. There wasn’t time to recover between them, and the cumulative effect was nauseating; I never thought I’d have motion sickness from sitting in my living-room. The tannoy came back on to inform us that the tsunami would be here shortly and we should keep the door shut, which seemed like sound advice, though in the event the waters didn’t reach us.

The announcements kept coming over the course of the afternoon, and after checking on Twitter and Facebook that friends and family were safe we headed out to the local shops to put together a belated disaster kit: water, bread, chocolate, bananas, beer. It was strangely peaceful outside: people were moving around purposefully but calmly, with the usual lines of bicycling salary-men on their way home. There were even some children playing in the street. Although there is still chaos in other, worse-hit parts of the country, life here seems to have returned to normal surprisingly quickly. At five o’clock we even received our daily dose of Dvořák.