Tokyo is crawling unsteadily back on its feet. Its buildings are intact, its vast transport network is creaking back to life, cellphones are working again – patchily. Planes land in the main international airports, but traffic crawls through the streets. The government projects weary control from the centre of the vast city
But the country outside the capital, along the Pacific coast to the northeast, has been knocked flat on its back. Battered by tsunamis, rocked by a terrifying string of aftershocks, thousands of people bed down for the second night in makeshift refugee centres in schools and sports centres.
The world's media has begun descending on the capital, looking to tell this story. And 300 kilometres north of Tokyo comes the biggest story of all: a fire at a nuclear plant that could potentially rival the twin nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. Getting there, over roads buckled and warped by Friday's huge quake, is an ordeal. With two of my colleagues, we rent a car and begin the long journey through Tokyo's clogged traffic, then on to almost empty highways toward Iwaki city in Fukushima Prefecture, as close to the plant as we can get. As we drive, we listen to live reports on the state broadcaster NHK, which says the Fukushima No 1 plant has started to go into meltdown.
It is terrifying news, filtered through the oddly emotionless tones of a professional translator. It's the first time the reactor core of a nuclear plant has melted in Japan, the announcer informs us. An explosion has torn the roof from the complex. Radiation has leaked into the atmosphere. Twenty thousand people within 10km (6.2 miles) of the plant have been told to evacuate. At teatime, the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, announces to millions of Japanese that the safety perimeter has been extended to 20km.
Japan's technological confidence has been shattered by quakes before. In 1995, the Great Hanshin earthquake, with its famous images of toppled highways and collapsed buildings, killed 5,000 people, injured more than 400,000 and brought global humiliation to a country proud of its construction prowess. Four years ago, another huge quake struck almost underneath the world's largest nuclear power plant in Niigata, sparking fires, leaks and a crippling shutdown. Officials were forced to admit that they had not known about the fault underneath the 8,200MW Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.
Most people want to believe Mr Kan when he says that the government is working hard this time to make sure "not a single resident will suffer any effects" from the radiation. But not Yoshi Watanabe, who lives with his wife and two young children about 135km from the Fukushima plant. "They don't know what they're doing," he says. "They should extend the perimeter further, but they can't because they can't handle that scale of evacuation."
The sun sinks behind the highway. We pass a convoy of fire engines and truckloads of self-defence force troops, on their way to the coast to help rebuild devastated villages. At an almost deserted service station, Chieko Matsumoto stands waiting for customers as NHK flickers live in the corner. The power plant is an hour away. "Not far enough," she says. "We've been told not to go outside and breathe the air, to stay here and watch the TV. It's just so scary."
In pitch darkness we enter Iwaki City. Apart from a handful of cars, the streets are deserted. Restaurants and bars have been closed. The blinds have been pulled down in the local Denny's. Even the 7-Eleven convenience store has shut its doors.
We spot a schoolgirl waking quickly in the dark. "I'm on my way to pick up my mother," she tells us. "We're going to the refugee centre. We've been told to stay indoors and not breath in the radioactivity."
Then she hurries off.
The local municipal gymnasium has been converted into a makeshift shelter. Dozens of people are lying on futons and blankets, some clearly exhausted. A truck arrives bringing pot noodles, water and toilet roll.
"It's our second night here," says Tsukase Yoshida, 33. He fled with his family after the first tremors on Friday, which were so strong they knocked him off his feet. "Now this," he says. "We heard rumours about the radiation before it was announced on the radio. My family are so tired."
In a corner, Shun Moue, 22, and her boyfriend, Sugunori Sakuma, 24, cuddle to keep warm. "We saw the news of the plant leak on TV," says Moue. "The quake was terrible, but I worry more about the plant. We get only limited information. Are they really going to be able to make it safe?"
Sakuma shrugs his shoulders. "They're doing their best," he says
On the radio, experts speculate on the worst-case scenario at the plant 30km up the coast. "If there's no time to escape, I'll just go home and lock myself in," says Moue. "There probably wouldn't be time to run away."
Some day they plan to marry, perhaps have children. Will they feel safe raising them here? Sakuma frowns. "This is where my family is from," he says. "Where else would I go?"
People inside the centre begin drifting off to sleep. News arrives that the container inside the reactor was undamaged in the explosion and that radiation levels are falling. Tiny and frail, Yoshiko Fukaya, 79, is wrapped in blankets that rise and fall with her breathing. She shrugs as she is told the news. "There'll be something else," she says. "There always is."
The bloggers’ response: 'I hope I won't witness a Japanese Chernobyl'
"I am in Ichinoseki. The ground continues to shake quite strongly. The shops are all shut, there are no traffic lights working. However, people are moving slowly and taking it in turns to cross roads, which is very impressive! Our grandparents re-built Japan after the war and the growth was considered a miracle. We will work to re-build Japan in the same way again. Don't give up Japan! Don't give up Tohoku!"
Blog from a "Japanese celebrity":
"I have bought enough bottled water ... to last for three or four days before I need to start drinking urine .... The ATM is working again so I've got enough money. We are expecting the tectonic plates to go mental again any time soon. Indeed, we have had many aftershocks over the last day – about 30, as of three hours ago. In short, us Tokyoites are doing quite well compared to poor old Sendai. All the dodgy little fishing boats that give the city its character have either been destroyed or just vanished. I'm sad to say all the people in them won't be seen alive again."
"As I write this the shaking comes and goes a bit, but so small compared to the ones yesterday that I hardly even pay attention. On the whole, it was a quite good "wake up call" for me to start stocking up on supplies and get some safety plans in order for the family in case the next time, the epicentre is closer to Tokyo."
"There were people queueing outside the supermarket hours before it opened. I managed to buy a box of water but batteries and portable stoves are sold out. The shelves that would normally hold bread and instant noodles are empty. It is only one day since the earthquake but already the way people think is changing. In the supermarket you see people in their twenties with a list in hand buying supplies like water and batteries. Then you see people in their forties buying cup noodles, tins and toilet paper. There are more men in the supermarket than normal."
Blogger Mirairara (A woman in her twenties)
"My host mother just informed me that they're probably going to be turning off all power and water in the Tokyo area to help out the north east so she's filled the bath tub and brought out extra blankets in preparation of a cold night. I hope I'm not going to be witness to a Japanese Chernobyl. Chiba's oil refineries caught on fire and now they're saying that if you go outside, bring an umbrella and raincoat and to cover all your skin in case it rains because the rain will bring over the shit from the refineries and it'll be trouble if it touches your skin."