Stokes Young  /  msnbc.com
A man watches a news report about the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan on a street in Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood on Sunday.
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updated 3/14/2011 1:21:26 PM ET 2011-03-14T17:21:26

Tokyo was gorgeous on Sunday. Even at 8 a.m., the sun glared down brightly on a city that had shaken violently just days before, and is still experiencing mental echoes and physical aftershocks of that first, massive temblor. That tension between sunny tourism — a novice encounter with a great and complex city — and the terrible news still unfolding north of the Japanese capital defined a brief visit here.

My girlfriend and I arrived at Haneda airport Saturday night, after an unexpected 18-hour layover in Anchorage, where our non-stop flight from JFK had diverted after the quake . Haneda is a gleaming, clean and efficient facility. Clearing immigration and customs was a breeze, and there weren't any obviously stranded passengers anywhere in the international terminal. It was an apt introduction: During our stay in Tokyo we didn’t see any physical earthquake damage.

We'd expected to take the express train into Tokyo, but it, like much of Tokyo's rail infrastructure, had been shut down. The bus was an easy alternative. At the stop, I fiddled with my phone settings and got local mobile service. A backlog of breaking news alerts popped up. The most recent: "BREAKING: Explosion rocks earthquake-hit Japanese nuclear plant.”

On arriving at Shinjuku, one of the 23 city wards of Tokyo, we quickly got a little lost walking around a mix of big boulevards and very cool neon-lit warrens of shops and cafes. The streets and sidewalks weren't empty of cars and pedestrians, but weren't busy. Far more taxis were sitting in queues than ferrying fares.

A friendly guide
After a few wandering turnarounds, a friendly Welshman named Peter noticed us staring quizzically at a map and offered to walk us to our hotel. Peter, a 20-year resident of Tokyo who lives in the neighborhood, was out for a walk. He said that for 9 p.m. on a Saturday — or any night, really — the normally busy streets of Shinjuku were shockingly empty.

He wasn't surprised. He and his workmates had rushed out of their office during Friday's quake. They were scared of collapse: "You could see buildings like that moving like this," he said, pointing straight up towards a cluster of skyscrapers and pivoting his forearm rapidly back and forth, an unscientific but scary swing of about 20 degrees.

Everybody camped out in their offices after that, he said. "Once they got home, they didn't want to come back out."

At a crosswalk with a "Don't walk" sign, he said, "Come on, we can cross. It's a special weekend."

On the approach to our hotel, Peter made sure we were aware of the nuclear reactor explosion and suggested we monitor the TV in our room for news of possible fallout and any change in wind direction toward Tokyo.

Interactive: How a nuclear plant works

"Hopefully it's not like Chernobyl," he said.

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We shook hands goodbye and Peter said "Enjoy your time."

Our hotel room was tiny but comfortable. We washed up with the news on, unable to really tell what was happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex after the reactor explosion, or what it could mean for Tokyo.

Story: Americans cancel trips to Japan after earthquake

Soba noodles and high-tech bidets
The Toto toilet had a computer-controlled bidet that took some figuring out. I'll leave it at that.

Out we went, looking for a ramen shop with a little help from the front desk. Just up the street from the hotel were shops decorated with pictures of pretty women in lingerie. Touts asked single men, and some not-so-single men, whether they wanted "to do something tonight." It was obvious then that the services on offer in the neighborhood sometimes exceeded massage. Today, two tweets from @TokyoReporter  suggested that such establishments weren’t immune to the shaking fear that accompanied Friday’s quake in Tokyo.

We walked on to the recommended noodle spot, pushed the button on the sliding glass door once we figured out that's how to swoosh it open, and were promptly ushered back outside by a counterman.

He used his hands to explain that we were to find what we wanted from the plastic models in the sidewalk display, then pay in the vending machine next to it, press the number of our dish, retrieve our ticket, go back inside, deliver it to the counterman, and have a seat.

We each had soba noodles in a miso base, mine topped with sliced roast pork and hers with a long piece of shrimp tempura. Except it wasn't shrimp, it was a slice of a large octopus tentacle, and it was plenty tasty. To me.

Back in the room, we watched TV for more information about the nuclear situation about 170 miles north of us. In the middle of the night I half-woke just long enough for my girlfriend to tell me that she'd just felt an aftershock.

Disaster at a glance

We rose at 7 a.m. to a sunny day and a deadline: we had to get to the airport bus by 2 p.m. to get to Narita airport in time to catch our evening flight to Manila.

A quick breakfast preceded a brisk walk to the train station for the subway to Tsukijishijo. We planned to eat some of the world’s freshest sushi in the shops just outside the city’s main fish market, but we arrived there to find them all shuttered. A few workers were sitting on a cart, sharing breakfast and a bottle of rice wine, so we asked them if the market was shut because of the tsunami. One of them, a woman in coveralls, said “no” and explained: “It’s Sunday.”

I never said I was an old Tokyo hand, much less a professional traveler. So I can only offer our mistake as a simple lesson for you if you need it: Read your guidebook closely.

Hipster shops and black pigs
The subway spirited us away to Harajuku, where narrow streets lined with clothing and accessory shops were busy with pedestrians. I need a baseball cap for the Philippine beach, so I ducked into a shop offering “Hip-Hop” items, including a wide selection of sneakers and Major League Baseball caps, to see if I could find a Detroit Tigers New Era with the road orange “D.”

The storekeeper was a young man clad in Yankees cap, thick plastic glasses, scraggly goatee, T-shirt, baggy jeans and high-end sneakers. He asked when we’d arrived, and noted that we missed the earthquake. My girlfriend asked him what it was like. “Scary,” he said, “everything was moving so much,” and he widened his stance and mimed a wide fast back-and-forth sway. If you’re telling someone about your experience of an earthquake, words aren’t enough. You need to use your body to show what it was like.

He offered discounts on everything, but we just wished him safety and walked back out into Harajuku, looking for lunch.

Our guidebook said Maisen, located in a converted bathhouse, was a good bet for fried pork cutlets. The short walk there led us through a mixed neighborhood of hair salons and very nice residences, none of which showed any obvious signs of earthquake damage. The restaurant was high-ceilinged, with prompt delivery of the house specialty, described on the menu:

“Kurobuta, literally "black pig," is the Japanese term for Berkshire pigs. "Satsuma" is a district in Kagoshima Prefecture and "Roppaku Kurobuta' are six-spotted kurobuta.”

If you asked me to name the best pig-based restaurant meal I’ve enjoyed, a few would come to mind. Momofuko’s bo ssam in New York is one. The swine-centric course at Cochon in New Orleans is another. As of today, the lightly breaded, delectably smooth Berkshire cutlet, spooned over with Maisen’s special sauce, is in contention. I’ll remember it, and speak of it to friends, whenever I describe my first earthquake-addled visit to Tokyo.

Image: Lunch in Toyko
Stokes Young  /  msnbc.com
A lunch portion of "black pig" pork cutlets at Maisen. Per the menu: "At a large farm in the mountainous region of Kagoshima Prefecture's Ookuchi City, Mr. Hayao Okita raises his 'Okita Kurobuta' with dedication and enthusiasm." The main course is served with lettuce, lemon, a miso broth with pork belly and scallions, and pickled radishes.

At lunch’s end, we had just enough time to hop the subway back to Shinjuku for the bus ride to Narita. Delta’s check-in line at the international terminal appeared interminable. An entrance attendant said the queue was made up of folks whose flights had been canceled in previous days. My girlfriend is a Delta Medallion frequent flyer, so we were lucky (we’ve been so lucky, these past few days) to be able to join the short premium class line to check in for our roughly on-time flight to Manila.

Collecting thoughts
I have many mixed feelings at the end of my first day in Tokyo.

First and foremost, I think of the victims in the north of Japan: Those who have passed away; their families; people without water or food; and folks under threat of possible irradiation.

It’s not the first bright day I’ve seen after a tragedy. I remember the sunny weekend after 9/11 in New York: A string quartet playing Bach in Union Square; the frowns painted on clowns’ faces in Washington Square Park; the faces of the missing, often smiling, looking out from flyers everywhere. I empathize.

Second, I’m still a tourist (albeit a journalist on vacation from a newsroom working its collective ass off to cover this story). So I’ll do my best to enjoy memories of modishly dressed Japanese kids, the irony of a suited office man pulling down his sanitary face mask to smoke a cigarette, the taste of octopus tempura.

I’ll be back. First, for another short day on the return to New York in a little more than a week. And not a Sunday, either. We’ll eat sushi at the fish market, and soon.

But that won’t be my last visit. I could spend weeks, months, even years here, and feel as torn about leaving the durable city of Tokyo as I do about leaving the immediate story of the quake’s aftermath. Trying to experience a great city like Tokyo in a day is a fool’s errand, hinting insistently at the deeper joys to be had with a longer commitment.

© 2012 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Death toll rises amid Japan disaster

  1. Closed captioning of: Death toll rises amid Japan disaster

    >> begin with the latest on the unfolding situation in japan . we have several reports starting with ann curry who is in the hard hit region of miyogi. good morning, ann.

    >> reporter: good morning. i'm in a city called minamisanriku. it is one of the most devastated towns in the most affected region of this epic disaster in japan . and four days after the quake and tsunami, this area is barely reached by the outside world . [ screaming ]

    >> reporter: nbc news obtained this home video of the tsunami as it struck the coastal fishing village of minamisanriku, considered one of the hardest hit. where 10,000 of 17,000 residents are missing. it is a city obliterated. and heartbroken. hiromi hirayuchi can't find six members of her family. another eyewitness video shows the power of the wave as it engulfed the coastal city of miyako. the destruction is so widespread and sudden the prime minister is calling this japan 's gravest crisis since world war ii . [ speaking in a foreign language ]

    >> reporter: this is a nation on edge. hit with more than 1,000 aftershocks which sounded the alarms in sendai repeatedly this weekend. they're yelling at us saying a tsunami is coming right now. they are yelling at everybody to get out of the way. we're leaving the area. tsunami alarms are so frequent, even emergency crews lost count. add to that the quake impacted nuclear power plants .

    >> the nuclear and safety industrial agency said an explosion occurred in the number 3 building of the reactor around 11:00 a.m . japan time on monday.

    >> reporter: now, more than 180,000 people have been evacuated from around the plant which has released some radiation. more than 60 nations have pledged aid, sending in 13 rescue teams including from europe and china on sunday. u.s. teams are already on the ground searching. the u.s. navy has dispatched eight warships.

    >> we are here to help protect the japanese people .

    >> reporter: the u.s.s. ronald reagan arrived on sunday to bring in supplies by helicopter. in the midst of so much destruction, there is hope. floating for two days, this 60-year-old was found alive, clinging to the roof of his house, nearly ten miles out to sea. survivors on a rooftop saw signs of life in the debris, and three elderly people who were trapped for 20 hours in a car were saved. even here, someone was found alive in rubble today. though this town has been virtually destroyed a woman said to me today, "we will be strong, we will rebuild." meredith?

    >> positive thoughts in the midst of such devastation. besides the aftershocks, there are reports of hundreds of thousands without food, water, electricity, heat and now the threat of radiation exposure . how are people coping with this?

    >> reporter: it's very difficult. people are standing in long lines for food, fresh water , for gas just to get around. the hotels are closed down. electricity is down. people are coping by leaning on each other. we found that true in this hardest hit region. people have established evacuation centers and schools. in other places, sleeping together in classrooms, sharing food. really it's been a matter of people helping each other. the outside help has not yet arrived. they are relying on each other as long as the meager food rations they have will last, meredith.

    >> you talk about people standing in lines. i have noticed they are patiently standing in line. there is almost a sense of order there. often after a natural disaster there are stories of looting. you don't hear about that in japan now. does that surprise you?

    >> reporter: you're absolutely right. you usually hear those stories. i'm not surprised because i have lived in japan . my father's in the military. order is a word you can use to describe the character of the japanese people . we have seen no examples of any kind of looting. we have seen however a kind of stillicism. there are people who have been traumatized. yet there is a resilience and even people smiling through tears, trying to move on, look toward the future. that's the impression we have been getting as we meet the people. we have more reporting on that coming up.

    >> and the rescue workers who are beginning to pour into the country, how are they dealing with the massive effort in front of them?

    >> reporter: you know, largely they are struggling gettinging into place. the roads are often blocked or the traffic is really paralyzed. the trains are down. the planes are not landing in the upper region, largely because there is a lot of concern about tsunamis and also because of aftershocks. there have been so many aftershocks. and other subsequent earthquakes. the difficulty is just to get here. it takes hours and hours. that's one of the reasons why aid has yet to arrive. the good news is we are starting to see signs of the outside world beginning to reach them. i suspect if not today, tomorrow, the next day, we'll see a major arrival of outside aid based on what we are hearing from the agencies we have been dealing with.

    >> ann curry , thank you very

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Kawauchimura Village in the Radius of 20-30 km from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant
    Koichi Kamoshida / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (9) Devastation in Japan after quake
  2. Daryl Cagle / MSNBC.com, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (13) Japan's Enormous Earthquake

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

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