April 10, 2011

JAPAN: Tokyo plunged into darkness as neon dims.

TOKYO / Asahi Shimbun / News / April 10, 2011

Although Tokyo was mostly spared by the Great East Japan Earthquake, life in the metropolis has been transformed. With rolling power outages and efforts to save electricity, the capital is not the glittering city it once was. It is as if someone hit the dimmer switch.

Escalators are at a standstill. Many elevators are out of service, and shelves at many stores are only now being restocked. In entertainment districts like Shinjuku, many of the neon lights have been switched off.

With most electric bulletin boards turned off to save electricity, the east exit of Tokyo's JR Shinjuku Station is plunged into darkness On March 27. (Gen Hashimoto)

As the death toll rises, the lingering fear of radioactive substances from the Fukushima No. 1 power plant descending on the capital remains.

Amid the gloom, fewer outsiders are visiting the capital.

A bus stop in front of the Marunouchi-Minami exit of JR Tokyo Station was almost empty on a recent Sunday afternoon. Normally, it would be packed with people ready to catch a sightseeing tour covering Tokyo's landmarks.

Only three people joined a tour on a double-deck open-air Hato bus with a capacity of 42 that day, according to Masanori Nagano, a spokesperson with tour operator Hato Bus Co.

"It's high season, but there are few takers," Nagano lamented. "Last year, we had to put many people on a waiting list. Tour after tour was fully booked."

Fewer senior citizens have been spotted in the Sugamo district in Toshima Ward in recent days. It's a favorite spot for the elderly because many of the shops cater to them.

"Many elderly people are choosing to stay away out of concern that they could not walk back home if train services are cut off in a blackout," said Shigeko Hatano, whose shop Eirakudo sells Buddhist altars and related paraphernalia. Her shop is located in front of Koganji temple, which is renowned for a Buddhist statue dubbed Togenuki Jizoson.

Rolling power outages introduced in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures by Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the stricken nuclear power plant, caused transportation chaos for several days after the March 11 disaster.

Tokyo Disney Resort in Urayasu, in neighboring Chiba Prefecture, shut down after streets in the city rose up and cracked due to liquefaction damage caused by the quake. It is one of only a handful areas near Tokyo that were affected.

Urayasu sits on a vast landfill.

With the resort closed, passenger traffic at nearby Maihama Station has dropped to a trickle.

"I've never seen Maihama Station deserted like this," said Mika Umehara, 40, a resident of the city.

A frenzy of panic-buying gripped many Tokyoites immediately after the disaster. For days, store shelves remained empty of basic foodstuffs and other necessities.

The supply of water and milk became particularly strained after the Tokyo metropolitan government announced March 23 that radioactive iodine at levels exceeding safety standards had been detected in the Kanamachi water purification facility in Katsushika Ward.

Officials banned the use of tap water for infants, who, like pregnant women, are particularly vulnerable.

Although officials lifted the ban the following day after readings fell below the permissible limit, mineral water and milk remained in short supply. Mothers desperately shopped for bottled water.

A section selling mineral water at a shop near the water purifying facility put up a notice asking customers to "show a maternity record book" as proof of an expectant mother. It also limited purchases to one bottle per person.

The crisis at the nuclear plant also triggered an exodus of frightened foreign nationals.

A high-end supermarket near Hiroo Station in Minato Ward said the number of foreign customers, who normally accounted for about 60 percent of patrons in pre-quake days, had plummeted.

"Some embassies moved their functions to somewhere else (outside Tokyo)," said the head of the supermarket, speaking of the fewer number of foreign shoppers.

Khaosan Tokyo Annex, a guesthouse in Sumida Ward that is popular with budget-conscious young travelers from abroad, was also hit hard.

Many of the rooms are unoccupied, the operator said.

While many tourists have gone, quake victims and volunteers trying to help relief efforts have begun to show up, albeit in small numbers.

In the Shibuya district, a magnet for teens and young shoppers, most of the neon signs in front of JR Shibuya Station are unlit even after 8 p.m.

Faces of pedestrians, once brightly lit by the glare of neon, are dimly illuminated by the red and green traffic signals.

Still the statue of the Hachiko dog in the square facing the station remains swarmed with people on weekend nights.

"People have returned after payday on March 25," said a man trying to lure customers into an "izakaya" Japanese-style pub. "The town is in darkness, but it is filled with people. It feels odd."

In the morning, salaried workers hurry to their offices along a dimly lit concourse in JR Shinjuku Station. A lack of lighting is now the norm among railway companies trying to cut back on electricity.

(This article was written by Kazunori Haga and Daisuke Igarashi.)

Copyright The Asahi Shimbun Company