Today was the day I was supposed to leave Japan. Emphasis on “supposed.”

traffic.jpg It dawned as an absolutely gorgeous day here. I walked around about 6 a.m. and found the streets predictably quiet. The top of Tokyo Tower does appear to have a bit of a kink to it, but nothing terribly obvious. At 7:30, I headed out to Narita airport with Gary Moriwaki, a fellow member of the delegation and a New York lawyer, who was also trying to get home today. The gridlock in the central city had cleared by about 4, so the car carrying us moved relatively quickly until we neared the edge of town. The expressways remained closed this morning, apparently to allow relief vehicles a clear shot at them, as Narita lies in the same general direction from Tokyo as the quake- and tsunami-affected areas of Tohoku. So we had to travel on smaller, local streets to make our way to the relatively distant airport.

In photo: Heavy traffic Saturday morning on a secondary road, headed to Narita airport.

The eastern side of Tokyo, toward suburban Chiba Prefecture, is sliced through with numerous rivers and drainage channels, meaning there are lots of bridges to traverse. It turns out that a few of these bridges were knocked out of action by the earthquake and the others were absolutely clogged with cars and trucks, many presumably headed to Narita and some, I would expect, to the area of the greatest damage and human need. We crawled and stuttered through neighborhoods and over ribbons of water; diesel exhaust expelled all other smells; our progress was excruciatingly slow, and every effort to flank or outrun the surging sea of vehicles was met with frustration. After two hours, we had made it only about a dozen kilometers, with 60 or more left to go.

The vistas from the car were revealing. As in Tokyo, there was no physical damage to be seen for most of the trip. We did pass a small section of tarmac in Chiba that had buckled during the quake and was steadily seeping water from a broken pipe; at least one worker was on site, but he only seemed to be surveying the damage with a kind of forlorn resignation. There were a few people on the streets – bicyclists, a family or two, a man out walking the dog – but the shopping districts and housing blocks we passed by seemed unusually depopulated. There were delivery trucks about, but the scenes lacked the usual bustle of Tokyo on a bright Saturday morning.

Beyond the snarled traffic, it was clear that not all was happy less than 24 hours after the quake. Worries about the nuclear reactors of Fukushima Prefecture were running through the media, local and international. Stocking in convenience stores was unusually light, with few of the musubi (rice balls) and bento (boxed lunches) that are usually there in such profusion on the shelves. A number of shops and restaurants appeared to be closed all day. Even in the center of Tokyo it was said that restaurants were empty and fashionable shops stood almost deserted. And friends reported that all over the Kanto region of eastern Japan the quake had scattered books and files on the floors of offices and that in many homes once precious collections (especially of china) were no more and kitchens were akimbo.

The trip out to Narita ended up taking over five hours, and when we arrived at the airport we found most flights posted as “uncertain.” The airport was only moderately crowded, and most people were remarkably patient, considering that relatively few flights were actually making it out. It was finally announced about 3 that both Gary’s and my flights were cancelled. So back we headed into the city to spend the night before trying again to get out on Sunday. The return trip was still long (3 hours or so) but was scenic and peaceful as we wound through the semi-rural outer suburbs of Chiba and the dense, lively neighborhoods of the old shitamachi of Tokyo. From the remove of the back seat of a taxi cab, all looked reassuringly normal.

The compromised nuclear reactors along the Pacific Coast, uncomfortably close to tens of millions of people, are a huge concern. Yet they have received relatively little attention on Japanese government television (NHK) this evening, only about as much as buckled highways and closed airports. Human interest stories are just beginning now to appear on TV. It’s a little hard to tell just how much urgency is being put into relief and recovery efforts: one of the major lessons of the 1995 Hanshin (Kobe) earthquake was that the government, which was widely criticized at the time, needed to be much speedier and more aggressive in responding to a natural disaster. I certainly hope that the response has been sufficient this time around, but I have to wonder if the sheer scale of this disaster has undermined the good intentions and thorough plans of the Japanese authorities.

The video footage of the tsunami hitting Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures is certainly going to be the abiding imagery of this catastrophe. I was particularly struck by one aerial shot that showed a dark, angry, roiling wave of water, thick with cars and homes and soil and (I fear) humanity, sweeping across a flat landscape and swallowing farms and fields into its churning blackness. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the climax of the classic 1985 animated film Akira, when the title character, mutated by government experimentation and adolescent hormones, finds his body swelling out of control and consuming everything that gets in its way. As grotesque, terrifying, and unforgettable as that cinematic scene is, it cannot compare to those horrible, compelling, and heartbreakingly real images coming out of Tohoku today.