The Night My Building Exploded

So I was laying on the floor last night, actually trying to study Japanese, which is increasingly rare, since eating sashimi and drinking shochu with Japanese geezers at the local bar has replaced more formal study as of late.  But, seeing as it’s the new year and all, I thought I’d get off to a healthy start by cooking up an enormous cauldron of vegetable soup and doing something other than boozing.  Yes, this is the year Ken Seeroi finally gets his life together in Japan.  Plus it was raining, and anyway I blew all my yen drinking the night before.

Now, perhaps you’re the kind of person who hears a lot of explosions, but I’m not.  Like maybe a car crash or a big earthquake once in a while, but that’s about it.  So when this enormous, earth-shattering ka-boom shook the building, I thought, well, that’s a bit odd.  I’m calm like that.  And then the fire alarm went off and I smelled smoke.  I opened my window.  It was still raining cats and dogs.  The smoke smell got worse.

The Evacuation

I live by three simple rules.  Eat healthy, get plenty of exercise, and go to bed early.  I don’t follow any of them, but hey, they’re still good rules.  Oh, and Rule Four (a recent addition):  Don’t burn to death inside a Japanese apartment building.  To hell with calm, it was time for a rapid late-night stroll.  I grabbed my wallet, laptop, a hat, a pile of coins, a banana, and then I thought maybe I ought to stuff everything into a backpack, and then my phone, and my parka, a folding umbrella, and ran out the door.  No keys.  Where the hell are my keys?  Crap, why can I never be more organized?  The fire alarm seemed to be getting louder and louder.  I rushed back in, decided to take some gloves, and my phone charger, and some Chapstick, and my passport, and finally found my keys and bolted for the staircase.

It was quite the scene outside.  There was glass everywhere and half the neighborhood was huddled together under umbrellas.  We looked up.  A window on the third floor had blown to pieces.  It must’ve been a hell of an explosion, because the window had been the Japanese version of safety glass, with wire mesh embedded in it, and now wire and glass were lying in large chunks all over the wet street.  The apartment where the window had been was dark.  “He must be dead,” someone said.

Deaf is More Like it

That seemed a reasonable assumption, so we were pleasantly surprised when the front door of the apartment creaked open and one presumed-dead neighbor stepped slowly onto the third-floor landing.  The fire alarm was still ringing like mad.  “It’s okay,” he called down, “you can go back in.”  He didn’t look very okay.  Then the door closed again.  Nobody moved.  A car drove by in the rain, over the glass.  “That glass is really dangerous,” someone said.  “Yeah, that’s a hazard,” someone else said.  Everyone agreed.  That glass in the road sure was bad.  Another car drove over it.

You know, I get the whole Japanese thing, and try to fit in most of the time, but for Chrissakes, sometimes you just gotta be the white guy.  I walked into the road holding my umbrella and slowly started sliding chunks of glass to the curb.  Everybody watched.  It took a couple of minutes, but I finally got all the major pieces safely out of the way.  The fire alarm stopped.  “Is the fire department coming?” someone asked.  “Someone should call them,” another person said.  Everyone agreed they should come.  I went back inside and up to the third floor, where I met another neighbor in front of his apartment.  “Kerosene heater exploded,” he said.

We use kerosene heaters a lot in Japan, because they’re cheaper than running the apartment heating unit.  I’ve never heard of one exploding before, but anytime you mix fire and flammable liquid, I guess that can happen.  But hey, I’m not a scientist or anything.  I use an electric heater.

Thirty minutes later, the fire department showed up.  Then the police, and the building management.  Then an ambulance.  I went back outside.  There were about a hundred emergency personnel ready to rescue someone, albeit half an hour late.  I took a couple of pictures, then went in, ate some vegetable soup, spread out my futon, and went to sleep listening to the rain.  It sure is a crazy country.

42 Replies to “The Night My Building Exploded”

  1. Very interesting story. Luckily nobody died.

    I had something very similar happen to me about 10 years ago, but not in Japan.
    It was much worse than your story, though.
    I was still a university student at that time.
    I went to bed late and so I was still half-asleep around 8am when I heard a lot of noise outside, thinking it was the usual construction work or something.
    I fell asleep again.

    Some time later, there were two fire fighters standing in my room. They apparently kicked my door open as I didn’t hear their knocking or the door bell.
    They looked stressed, put a mask on my face and told me to quickly get dressed and take my wallet with me and so I did.

    They led me down the emergency stairs (I lived in the 3rd floor). Outside a lot of other people were already waiting, some were sick because of the smoke.
    I was fine, but finally realized that I was super lucky. The apartment below me exploded.

    The guy who lived in there was dead.
    It was a homeless guy. The apartment was provided to him by the church. He drank a lot and smoked a lot … I can’t remember exactly what caused the fire anymore.

    Luckily the fire didn’t climb up to my apartment and apart from my broken door everything was fine.
    The apartment below was completely ruined, though.

    It’s just strange because usually I wake up for the smallest noise and that time I wasn’t. Maybe the smoke already got to me and made me sleepy?
    No idea.

    1. Wow, that must have been terrifying. That’s an amazing story—thanks for sharing it.

      I’ve seen a lot of tragedies caused by fire over the years. I’ve inadvertently caused a couple that could have quickly gotten out of hand, and I’ve put out a couple that also might have had dire consequences.

      One of the last places I lived in the U.S. was a wooden house divided into eight units. One morning on my way to work, I saw smoke coming from my neighbor’s apartment, so I banged on the door, and then tried the door handle. The kitchen was going up in flames, and she was passed out on the couch. She was a terrible alcoholic, and whatever she’d been cooking on the stove had caught the kitchen on fire. I grabbed the fire extinguisher, which thankfully was right outside her place, and put the fire out. A couple more minutes and the place would have been toast.

      Fire is serious stuff. Know where your fire extinguishers are, for real.

  2. “I live by three simple rules. Eat healthy, get plenty of exercise, and go to bed early. I don’t follow any of them, but hey, they’re still good rules.”

    Gotta say I’m a fan. Best quote I’ve heard so far since the start of the year.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate that. Really, every day I wake up with the intention of starting a new diet and exercise program. Then by evening . . . well, there are just so many amazing places to eat and drink. Ah, why is this country so freaking delicious?

        1. Frankly, it’s a tough place to low-anything. Currently, I’m on a high-protein, high-carb, high-fat diet, balanced out by copious amounts of alcohol. Working out pretty well so far too, I must say.

  3. “I live by three simple rules. Eat healthy, get plenty of exercise, and go to bed early. I don’t follow any of them, but hey, they’re still good rules.”

    I am pretty sure you didn’t make that up…I’ve heard that from many Japanese people before but a lot like you, they follow none of them. They pick up the highest-caloried bento (ones with all the fried shit) from the conbini around 10pm; they claim they “walk” to work to get their exercise on but have you seen how slow they walk?!; and I see tons of people on the streets on a Wednesday at 12:21am (unless you count passing out on some street staircase “going to bed early”). If it’s in the US, restaurants shut at 9pm, the town is dead by 10pm!

    1. Yeah, there’s an awful lot to do in Japan other than exercise and live right. Like everything. If it weren’t for the last train, people would never go home. I’m pretty sure that’s the reason they don’t run the transportation system all night—people would either work themselves to death, or drink themselves to death. Not a country that’s great at moderation.

  4. Awesome story! I don’t mean to brag, but if an explosion like that had happened in Kansas City, Kansas, I would have had a general alarm worked up in a minute, and first responders would be on the scene within five minutes. Can you send me your pictures? I will share them with the KCK Fire Dept.

    1. It’s not bragging in the least. I have no doubt that Kansas City is on the ball. Actually, I would have expected the same of Japan too, which is why it was so surprising.

      No problem, I’d be happy to send you a couple of pictures.

  5. I definitely relate to what you all shared. Similarly to Zoomingjapan I shared a house with a bunch of people from all over the place…American, Irish, Hungarian-Mexican. I remember the time we celebrated with a quaint birthday cake ritual of putting a well wish upon a ring upon a cake. Then what happens? The house burns down, and we all scatter. I wish I knew what became of them.

    As for the 3 rules, I’ve got 2 out of 3 down I think. The trick is in conveying it to people I guess:)

      1. God bless ya. It was nothing really. It wasn’t because we all passed out before my friend could blow out his candles. Just an electric fire. It was winter, in a grungy Victorian off of Divisadero. I came home and was hit by an acrid smell and water dripping from the walls. I wandered around the city for a few days until it was safe to go back, then packed my bags and moved back to Los Angeles.

        1. Man, if that’s nothing, I’d hate to see what you call “something.” Anyway, I’m guessing nobody was injured, so that’s a good thing. And LA is warmer and sunnier, so maybe it was for the best? Just trying to look on the bright side, you know.

          1. Sometimes I forget that things are not so dark. Hey if I am ever in Japan, you’ll have to take me to the local izakaya for a Sapporo.

            1. Yeah, things are pretty bright. Well, sometimes. Anyway, maybe writing about it helps. That and drinking. Pretty sure that’s the reason Japan has roughly a 1-1 people to izakaya ratio.

  6. If I ever made a drama about a foreigner in Japan, you’d probably be one of the main characters. Scratch that, you’d be THE main character.

    While not in Japan, a few years ago our townhouse almost exploded when some fool living in one of the rooms of said townhouse decided to spray some strange insect killer into his lit stove.

    Needless to say, we were called home to find out that the fire department had just stopped the fire he started from reaching a very important part of the building (no idea what part) that would have caused a massive explosion. Insect killer + lit stove = ?????

    On another note, we’ve got to go to the Izakaya at least once. I’m half Greek and Black, so you can feel like you’re not the minority for once. I’ll be the super minority in your place, haha.

    1. You know, sometimes I feel like I’m already the main character of some crazy solipsistic drama, like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show,” so much weird stuff happens to me. But maybe it’s just Japan.

      So your theory is that by hanging out with you I’ll look like less of a foreigner? Kind of how like if you hang out with fat friends, you look thinner? Man, that’s excellent. I’ll be Japanese simply by comparison.

      1. Or Malcovitch, Malcovitch, Malcovitch. I’ve had so much trouble finding my own voice. I guess this is where a voice coach helps.

        1. You might also try a downing a quarter bottle of cough syrup and covering yourself with Vicks VapoRub. It may not help your voice, but you’ll have a hell of a fine evening.

          1. Cough syrup and vapor rub, I’ll keep that in mind for the future. Okay, back to memorizing the phonetic alphabet.

      2. Sounds like you take after the Doctor from Doctor Who.
        Here’s a quote from season 1, episode 1:

        Clive: The Doctor is a legend woven throughout history. When disaster comes, he’s there. He brings a storm in his wake. And his one constant companion.
        Rose: Who’s that?
        Clive: Death.

        1. Yeah, I think my constant companion is beer, and in it’s wake, poor decisions. So yeah, pretty much the same thing.

    1. Yeah, mentally is a different story, but I doubt that has anything to do with the fact that things keep exploding around me.

      Well, of course Japanese snow is different, in that it’s smaller and more self-conscious. It’s a Japanese thing. You Koreans wouldn’t understand. Fire, same thing–it humbly asks you before setting you aflame. That’s just good manners.

      1. I actually find the Japanese reaction to something like this kind of refreshing. Whenever there is some sort of emergency or disaster here in the states it seems everyone is tripping all over each other to be in charge. I once joked we should just give everyone a badge and an important title and get it over with.

        More milling around and slow response time by the authorities and waiting for someone else to do something that’s what I want.

        1. Yeah, there’s definitely a good side. Japanese people take a very measured approach to everything—car crashes, people falling down stairs, fires. You could let a tiger loose in Shibuya and people would be like, huh, well, look at that, a big kitty. Kawaii.

          I generally like the Japanese approach. People don’t fly off the handle. There’s no road rage. Rarely, someone will snap and do something nutty, but given the population density, it’s amazingly calm. It’s only once in a while, when a fast response is called for, that I feel people here could take a little more active role. When there’s an earthquake, or a fire, or a tsunami, it might be a good time to do something rather than just freeze and stare blankly. There’s a time and a place for everything, including panic.

  7. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the orderly nature of society when I lived in Japan. However when something out of the ordinary happens or isn’t covered by the book of a million and one rules, everyone shuts down and can’t think for themselves. Everyone staring at the glass on the road but doing nothing about it is a classic example. I know it’s a gross generalisation but I felt this way on more than a few occassions.

  8. See, this is why I want to come to Japan – so I can live in a world of adventure where I get to use the tag “kerosene heater explosion” as if I know it’s just a matter of time before it becomes a useful means of post classification.

    But having made my way to page 4 of this blog, I have a feeling Ken would tell me the grass always seems greener, or that there is a negative side to the “kerosene heater explosion” coin.

    1. Well, there’s that, but mostly I’d tell you that we always live in a world of adventure. A lot of crazy stuff happens in Japan, but then, it happened in other countries too. I could tell you stories from around the globe that’d get me banned from the internet. I assume it’s not just me. Japan’s pretty low-key, actually. It’s just that a lot of people are crowded into a small space, so the number of observable events are compacted into a shorter span of time.

      But that being said, it’s still a cool place to hang out.

      1. That’s true. And I was being facetious to a certain extent, but that phrase ‘around the globe’ is important I think – staying in a familiar hometown with a familiar job, familiar people and familiar everything is unlikely to yield much adventure. And it’s true I could have adventure anywhere, but Japan’s the place my life’s connected to and I probably wouldn’t trade the safety of the familiar for any place else.

        Also I would like to eat a panda in a bento, so that too.

    1. Seriously, after I saw that window blown out, I thought the entire apartment was vaporized. I still can’t believe he survived. Maybe he was in the bathroom at the time or something. Anyway, yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s gonna take a bite out of his security deposit.

  9. Brilliant ken

    Reminds me of the big tohoku earthquake. Yep, felt it down here in Osaka. I was teaching English to a group of housewives, all very nice, like your favorite Aunt. Then it hit. Guess the building was old as suddenly the florescent light smashed down onto the table we were sitting around. I can’t recall what we were talking about, something along the lines of who is stronger, superman or apanman, adult class of course , but the conversation stopped. It was like someone had done a huge fart at a posh dinner. We looked at each other ‘ wasn’t me ‘ and then without any regard for my safety, the four old biddies made for the door like a flash. Great I thought, that’s the lesson finished 10 minutes early. Result!

    1. Yeah boy, I remember that earthquake. When something like that hits—and particularly a tsunami—it’s every person for themselves. And any time you can finish class early, that’s a win.

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