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Darkness and daylight

Japan, May 13, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Out the window of the bus in Tokyo last night. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Rice paddy out the window of the Shinkansen (bullet train) this afternoon. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

My plane landed at Tokyo's Narita Airport at five o'clock in the afternoon. The sun set around 6:30, as we were driving into the city — and it just kept getting darker.

It was dull gray and drizzly out the windows of the bus, adding to the numbing torpor of jet lag from my nearly 20-hour journey to Japan. I was trying to get a sense of what the place looked like, but all I could discern were blocky outlines as we sped down the highway. There were very few lights except for the headlamps of passing vehicles.

I honestly started feeling disoriented, lost in the darkness — and, again, the jet lag certainly didn't help. All along the way, I kept expecting to be roused by the bright lights of a big city once we got into Tokyo.

But the bright lights never came.

Since the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis, Japan has been enduring a severe power shortage. Tokyo's main electrical company is only able to produce about 75 percent of its normal output because of damage to nuclear and conventional power plants. A concerted voluntary effort by Tokyo residents and businesses to conserve energy has helped the city avoid large-scale blackouts — but it has certainly given the place a eerie pall. In some hulking buildings, there wasn't a single light on.

And so, after a dinner meeting with Peace Winds Japan staff, I went to sleep in the ominously dark biggest city in the world.

But it didn't stay dark for long — by 4:40 A.M. the sun was rising. Thinking I had slept way too late and was about to miss my morning meeting, I jumped up and looked out the window onto a completely different city, then checked the clock and went back to bed.

A few hours later, the numbing gray from just hours before seemed like a bad dream. Aboard the Shinkansen bullet train — bound for northeastern Japan, where the earthquake and tsunami struck hardest — the hectic kaleidoscope of Tokyo's rush hour gave way to verdant rice paddy, gabled-roof houses and viridescent mountains. These are the scenes that I'd hoped to see.

I've only been here a day but, for me, looking out of windows always helps me to get a sense of place. To gain my bearings. So far in Japan, what I've seen has been the difference between night and day.