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A month after quake, Tokyo is a city of shadows

Continuing aftershocks, darkened shopfronts, and the radiation threat make life in the metropolis a dizzying experience.

Dead neon: About half the lights of Tokyo's red light district are off. Tim Hornyak/CNET

TOKYO--If there's one sound you don't want to hear in Tokyo these days, it's the earthquake alarm. The two jarring chords came crashing through the cherry blossoms from a public-address speaker the other morning and sent me bounding into the street in my pajamas. The room started wobbling seconds later.

The 6.3-magnitude aftershock followed a 7.0 quake the evening before that made the skyscraper I was in feel like a ship at sea. On the 20th floor, I could sense the building sway for several minutes as it absorbed the shock waves.

I lived in Tokyo for a long time and I'm used to quakes rattling the capital. But returning after the 9.0 temblor and tsunamis that smashed northern Japan on March 11, Tokyo feels more dangerous than ever.

There have been nearly a thousand quakes in the past month, including one as I write this. Not to mention the threat from the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where radiation leaks have led Japan to rank it on par with Chernobyl on the International Nuclear Events Scale.

Some people have left Tokyo, or even Japan altogether. Fukushima differs vastly from Chernobyl, but for every scientist who downplays the radiation danger, there seems to be another who will emphasize the unknowns in the equation and play it up. It's hard to know whom to believe.

People are coping in different ways. The famous Japanese stoicism, born out of centuries of earthquakes, fires, and war, is evident everywhere as Tokyoites quietly go about their business, making sushi, holding elections, and playing baseball. But there's a pronounced sobriety in the air.

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When the aftershocks do come, and cell phones squawk out those warning chords, people brace themselves and then check NHK TV for the quake report. Some say the dots on the map are getting closer to the capital, and that the Big One will hit right under Tokyo Bay. The capital region is home to more than 30 million people.

Long ago, Japanese believed giant catfish underground caused quakes when they thrashed about. They would pray to the god Kashima to subdue the catfish with a magic stone.

These days, people are more practical. Walking down a backstreet in the Meguro district when an aftershock hit, I heard the sound of an acoustic guitar coming from a tiny shop selling Hawaiian shirts. Inside was a lone merchant, strumming away.

I knew the tune well--"Ue wo Muite Arukou" (aka Sukiyaki) by Kyu Sakamoto, a 1960s hit about holding one's chin up. "It's a song of peace," the guitarist said. He plays to pacify the earth.

Fear of the ground shaking is perhaps entirely subjective, but it didn't help to arrive from Narita airport at night. The biggest change I saw was that many escalators had been stopped, with signs reading "setsuden" (electricity conservation).

It's a slogan seen everywhere as Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) struggles to raise its capacity from 40 million kilowatts, down from 64.5 million kilowatts; it anticipates a 20-25 percent supply gap with summer demand. Subway corridors and shop signs are dark or half-lit. Many streetlights are out and buildings are dim. Tokyo has become a city of shadows.

The hill of Kagurazaka, an old geisha quarter that's home to some of my favorite watering holes, seems like a tenebrous alien land. The garish lights of the Akihabara electronics district are muted. Even the great wall of neon along Kabukicho, the massive red light district by Shinjuku Station, is half-off. The sex trade is still swinging, but times seem harsh.

"A soapland pimp invited me," an American habitue told me, referring to Kabukicho's massage parlors. "It was the first time in 25 years. You know business must be terrible if they're soliciting gaijin (foreigners)."

The other watchword here is "jishuku" (self-restraint). Events such as concerts and welcome ceremonies for new employees have been canceled out of sympathy for victims of the disaster in northern Japan, which left nearly 30,000 dead or missing.

But as plans for annual summer festivals are shelved, people have started groaning about excessive government dourness. When Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara called on Tokyoites to refrain from the traditional spring "hanami" drinking parties under the cherry blossoms, many companies canceled official parties.

Yet that hasn't stopped thousands of people from boozing it up under the white petals, much to the delight of sake brewers in northern Japan who fear further economic hardships if no one is spending money on alcohol for the hanami season. There's still public division over the merits of jishuku, but there is a growing sense that self-restraint won't help Japan get back on its feet.

And on that note, I'm off to knock back a few cups of rice wine under the cherry trees.