Nearly 400 kilometres north of Tokyo, and despite its scenic streets and many festivals, the Japanese city of Sendai is little known to Canadians.
But not to Nanaimo retiree Brian Jones. The coastal city is where his son Jonathan has taught English for the past four years.
Early Friday morning, expecting to chat with his son, Mr. Jones woke instead to horrific images and the devastating news that Sendai had been square in the path of the devastating tsunami that struck Japan, after an 8.9 earthquake.
He has not heard from his son since, and Mr. Jones fears the worst.
Choking back sobs, his voice breaking with frustration and fatigue, Mr. Jones noted that Jonathan, whose 32nd birthday is on Saturday, lives in an old, wooden apartment, five minutes from the city's downtown main train station.
He has tried to e-mail, his son's Facebook page and the Department of Foreign Affairs, without success.
"The television media have concentrated on Tokyo, Hawaii, California and everything else," Mr. Jones said. "We need information about Sendai. We are seeing some horrible pictures."
Mr. Jones's anguish was shared across the country by others with relatives in the Sendai area, hamstrung by the dearth of information and consumed by worry.
Sendai native Yumiko Tsunakawa, now living in Ottawa, said she has no idea whether her elderly parents survived the devastation. "I keep calling and can't reach them. There's no phone or power. I don't know what's happening."
Even if they did make it through the initial ordeal, her parents are 79 and 81 and could be trapped or fall victim to strong aftershocks, Ms. Tsunakawa said.
"I'm so frustrated. First, I don't know if they are okay or not, and second, if there is something wrong, how can I help them from here? That's what it is right now. Worry and frustration."
Meanwhile, seeing her childhood home under water adds to the pain. "I can't tear my eyes away from those images," Ms. Tsunakawa said. "It's so devastating to see."
Back in Vancouver, Sherri Kajiwara, acting director of the Nikkei Heritage Museum, said one of her relatives had been on the phone to her parents in Sendai on Thursday evening, when she cut the call short to put her child to bed.
An hour later, she tried to call again, and was unable to get through.
"She has not been able to contact them since," Ms. Kajiwara said. "The phone lines are down, the cellphones are jammed, and there isn't a lot we can do except wait at this point."
However, she said they remain hopeful everyone is okay, since the parents live on higher ground.
Junko Takashima, who works with the Japanese Community Association Tonari Gumi in Vancouver, said she received a call from her parents about 3 a.m. "They said, 'We're okay.' I didn't even know anything had happened."
Ms. Takashima's home town is about 75 kilometres from Sendai, in the mountains. Their home suffered some damage and shelves collapsed in the quake, but the tsunami stopped short of their surroundings.
Those with family in Tokyo have also been able to talk with relatives, who told of the harrowing few minutes when the powerful earthquake struck.
"My dad and mom live on the 19th floor of a building right downtown. My dad, who's 76, said he'd been through many quakes, but nothing like this," reported Tomi Asakawa from Vancouver's Japanese Language School. "He said it was the first time he'd been really scared."
Cupboard doors opened, dishes were smashed, and shelves collapsed, she said.
Now, she said, everyone, including herself far away, is worried about aftershocks.
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