Traveling with Natural Disasters and Climate Change

We’ve been in Japan for just about a week now, and in addition to grappling with a very different culture and a pronounced dearth of English-speakers, John and I have also found ourselves navigating the vagaries of earthquake and typhoon damage. Japan has been having a rough summer, climate- and disaster-wise. Earlier in the summer, flooding and mudflows decimated much of southwestern Japan. That was followed by a devastating heat spell, and then more recently, a typhoon that affected much of Japan, but caused particular damage to the area around Osaka. Last week, the island of Hokkaido experienced a magnitude 6.7 earthquake that disrupted power and caused property damage and a few dozen casualties across the island. With our flights and lodging already booked for Sapporo and Hakodate, we were reluctant to cancel our plans. I contacted our AirBnB host, and learned that she and her family were fine, and that there was power, water, and food in local grocery stores. The ever-helpful Japan-Guide revealed that trains and bus lines were gradually coming back online, and that most roads were open. So, putting aside any trepidation about aftershocks, we boarded the plane for Sapporo earlier this week. In the part of Sapporo where we were staying, there was no obvious structural damage to the buildings. The only indications we experienced that an earthquake had taken place within the last week were slightly long lines at the grocery store, and some tourist sites with shortened evening hours to promote energy-saving as power plants come back up to their normal capacity. Well, and the occasional little tremors that jiggled the furniture a few times in our third floor AirBnB.

As unfortunate as all of the damage this summer has been, it has been interesting from a preservationist’s perspective to see how heritage sites have been handling this onslaught of natural disasters. As climate change continues to exacerbate the effects of extreme weather, disasters such as the recent typhoon and earthquake represent a kind of stress-testing of precautions already in place to protect global heritage sites. I’ve been very impressed thus far at how quickly sites were restored to at least partial operating capacity on Hokkaido following last week’s quake and the previous week’s typhoon. At Hokkaido Historical Village, most of the “streets” had reopened and visitors could access about 80% of the site. Safety inspectors were hard at work, assessing the damage to buildings. Teams were rapidly dispensing with dangerous or damaged trees, sending up a flurry of sound and wood chips amidst the otherwise pastoral quiet of the town. At Moerenuma Park, an Isamu Noguchi-designed landscape and community space on the outskirts of Sapporo, ropes had been strung around groves of fir trees uprooted by the typhoon, but most of the park still remained open to visitors.

Typhoon damage at Hokkaido Historical Village. Photo by SR.

Part of this readiness no doubt stems from the strength of ongoing efforts. At the Edo Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, which we saw earlier in the week, several of the buildings were closed as part of “earthquake-proofing” projects. In Japan, even as preservationists attempt to present visitors an accurate view into the historical built environment, there is a corresponding need to structurally reinforce these buildings (even if those reinforcements might depart from historical building techniques, or alter the material composition of a structure). Digitization efforts and extensive documentation provide further insurance against the physical destruction of buildings and artifacts. The reality of architectural impermanence, and the ultimate fragility of the human-made environment seems deeply enmeshed in this culture that has survived countless natural and manmade disasters. The whole Japanese aesthetic system of “wabi-sabi” is rooted in the transitory nature of the material world, accepting things with all of their innate imperfections and the patina created by age. It has been interesting to observe the collisions between wabi-sabi and Western approaches to the built environment. Yesterday, I spent the afternoon wandering through the historic districts of Hakodate. The Old Public Hall is a wooden building in Western style, a neoclassical confection of Victorian frippery painted in saccharine lemon and lavender hues. If this building were part of any decently funded American historical site, that paint would be immaculate, retouched continuously to maintain the illusion of 1910s grandeur. Granted, a major renovation of the building is slated for next month, but nevertheless, the paint has flaked to a state of undeniable wabi-sabi-ness. It peels picturesquely from the columns, revealing the wood beneath—a vivid reminder that Western buildings, with some exceptions, are not designed to age well. Without falling back on tired tropes of East vs. West, I think it is still fair to say that many strategies to heritage preservation in the U.S. and Europe still rest on the presumption that original built material can and should be preserved indefinitely. Here, from what I’ve seen, there seems to be less of a drive to ruthlessly and ineffectually fight the inevitability of time and decay. Battered by war, earthquakes, and typhoons, architectural destruction here seems more intrinsically bound to creation, and as inescapable as death and taxes.

Weathered paint on Hakodate’s Old Public Hall. Photo by SR.

The Japanese approach to disaster preparedness has made for a striking contrast with our last destination, Cape Town. For the past year or so, Cape Town has been battling a severe drought—the worst in one hundred years. Cape Town already had advanced water-saving measures in place before the drought, and is regarded as one of the most progressive and eco-friendly cities in Africa. So when the extent of the drought became clear, there seemed to be almost an attitude of perturbed disbelief—surely Cape Town of all places was doing all it could to prevent a water shortage! Few of the heritage sites I visited seemed greatly affected by the shortage—beyond inoperative fountains and signs in restrooms urging hand sanitizer in lieu of soap and water, most sites seemed to be operating as usual. But while the built environment went largely untouched by the drought, the human landscape in and around Cape Town has born the brunt of its force, feeling effects that are as social and economic as they are logistical and climatic.

As I’ve discussed in numerous other posts about my time in South Africa, social division and racial tension are still major features of the cultural landscape. The water crisis has become something that has both united people across class and race lines, as the need to conserve became an all-encompassing mantra. Yet, in some ways, it also serves to reinforce existing disparities. Ultimately, for tourists and the wealthy living in the “city bowl,” the need to conserve might be an inconvenience, but it was rarely more than that. As visitors, we got used to taking our two minute showers, and boiling water so that we didn’t have to run the tap for hot water to wash dishes. And, as good New Mexicans, we are well trained in the arts of showering with a bucket to catch gray water. Still, the brain space to think about conservation and hitting the “60 L a day per person” goal is fundamentally just another aspect of privilege. We tried to be conscientious travelers and do our part while we were in Cape Town, but ultimately I don’t think we really understood what the water crisis means to people living in the townships, using shared taps or refillable community water tanks. Despite these differences in lived experience, from what I saw, there was an expectation in the water-saving campaign that the individual’s responsibility for conservation was really meant to be shared evenly among everyone, regardless of situation.

Along the “Pipe Track” at Cape Town’s Table Mountain; a reminder of historic ways of bringing water to the city. In this case, the eponymous pipe brought water from the mountaintop reservoirs down to the city. Photo by SR.

We arrived just as Cape Town was getting some very welcome winter rains, which helped to significantly replenish the local reservoirs. On the day we departed, a storm was bringing sustained, gentle rain to the region. On the radio, the announcers called for a “water party,” an opportunity to leave your work, and go outside and dance in the rain. Riding with our Uber driver, who was still in the middle of a long shift, I wondered who would have the time and the freedom to take them up on that suggestion.

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