Japan's huge earthquake brought super-modern Tokyo to a standstill today, paralysing trains that normally run like clockwork and stranding hordes of commuters carrying mobile phones rendered largely useless by widespread outages.
The magnitude-8.9 quake off Japan's northeastern coast shook buildings in the capital, left millions of homes across Japan without electricity, shut down the mobile phone network and severely disrupted landline telephone service. It brought the train system to a halt, choking a daily commuter flow of more than 10 million people.
"This is the kind of earthquake that hits once every 100 years," said restaurant worker Akira Tanaka, 54.
He gave up waiting for trains to resume and decided — for his first time ever — to set off on foot for his home 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of the capital. "I've been walking an hour and 10 minutes, still have about three hours to go," he said.
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.
Phone lines were crammed, preventing some calls and text messages from getting through. Calls to northeastern Japan, where a 23-foot (7-meter) tsunami washed ashore after the quake, often failed to go through, with a recording saying the area's lines were busy.
Unable to rely on their mobile phones, lines of people formed at Tokyo's normally vacant public phone booths dotting the city.
Marketing company employee Koto Fujikawa, 28, was riding a monorail when the quake hit and had to later pick her way along narrow, elevated tracks to the nearest station.
"I thought I was going to die," Fujikawa said. "It felt like the whole structure was collapsing."
Japan's top telecommunications company Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. set up an emergency phone line and a special Internet site for people to leave messages for families and friends to inform them of their safety.
Up to 90 percent of calls were being restricted to protect telecom equipment from getting damaged from overload, NTT spokeswoman Mai Kariya said. The company was checking on damage to towers and cables, and details were not immediately available.
Tokyo commuter trains and subways, as well as the superfast bullet-trains, all shut down, according to East Japan Railway Co. A handful of subway lines resumed service were back up, but only after six hours.
Normally when Tokyo trains suffer rare problems, they are running again within an hour. But the railway company announced that services would not resume for the rest of the day, sending crowds that were milling at train stations pouring into the streets.
Government spokesman Yukio Edano advised commuters to stay where they were to avoid injuries.
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."