In downtown Tokyo, large buildings shook violently and workers poured into the street for safety. TV footage showed a large building on fire and bellowing smoke in the Odaiba district of Tokyo. The tremor bent the upper tip of the iconic Tokyo Tower, a 333-metre steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
In central Tokyo, trains were stopped and passengers walked along the tracks to platforms. NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs.
Tokyo prides itself on being an orderly, technologically savvy, even futuristic city. Residents have long daily commutes and usually can rely on a huge, criss-crossing network of train and subway lines. Tens of thousands of people milled at train stations and were preparing to spend the night at 24-hour cafes and hotels.
The Tokyo suburb of Yokohama offered the community's main concert hall as an emergency place to stay overnight, and planned to offer blankets and other amenities, Yokohama Arena official Hideharu Terada said.
“There has never been a big earthquake like this, when all the railways stopped and so this is a first for us,” Terada said. “People are trickling in. They are all calm.”
Large numbers of people waited at Tokyo's Shinjuku station, the world's busiest train station, for service to resume so they could go home. TV announcers urged workers not to leave their offices to prevent injuries in case of more strong aftershocks.
Osamu Akiya, 46, was working in Tokyo at his office in a trading company when the quake hit.
It sent bookshelves and computers crashing to the floor, and cracks appeared in the walls.
“I've been through many earthquakes, but I've never felt anything like this,” he said. “I don't know if we'll be able to get home tonight.”
Canadians living in Japan anxiously called home Friday morning, describing the terrifying pitch and sway of buildings in Tokyo and the gridlock as the country reeled in the wake of the quake.
Sam Rose, originally from British Columbia, has been teaching in Tokyo for more than a decade and has felt the earth tremble before.
But this time, he found himself clinging to a doorway at work, wondering if his wife and two children were safe.
“It's a brand new building and it was shaking like a mad dog,” he said in a telephone interview.
Footage on NHK from their Sendai office showed employees stumbling around and books and papers crashing from desks. It also showed a glass shelter at a bus stop in Tokyo completely smashed by the quake and a weeping woman nearby being comforted by another woman.
Several quakes had hit the same region in recent days, including a 7.3 magnitude one on Wednesday.
Hiroshi Sato, a disaster management official in northern Iwate prefecture, said officials were having trouble getting an overall picture of the carnage.
“We don't even know the extent of damage. Roads were badly damaged and cut off as tsunami washed away debris, cars and many other things,” he said.
Tokyo's main airport was closed. A large section of the ceiling at the 1-year-old airport at Ibaraki, about 80 kilometres northeast of Tokyo, fell to the floor with a powerful crash.
Dozens of fires were reported in northern prefectures of Fukushima, Sendai, Iwate and Ibaraki. Collapsed homes and landslides were also reported in Miyagi.
Japan's worst previous quake was in 1923 in Kanto, an 8.3-magnitude temblor that killed 143,000 people, according to USGS. A 7.2-magnitude quake in Kobe city in 1996 killed 6,400 people.
Japan lies on the “Ring of Fire” – an arc of earthquake and volcanic zones stretching around the Pacific where about 90 per cent of the world's quakes occur, including the one that triggered the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 12 nations. A magnitude-8.8 temblor that shook central Chile last February also generated a tsunami and killed 524 people.
The Globe began a live blog following the earthquake, featuring Japanese residents and our staffers.
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