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Lights out as Tokyo lives with power crunch

Lights off as 'Earth Hour' circles the globe
Paris (AFP) March 26, 2011 - Lights went off around the world Saturday as landmark buildings and ordinary homes flipped their switches while the annual "Earth Hour" circled the planet in what was dubbed the world's largest voluntary action for the environment. In Paris a minute's silence was observed for Japan as the city of light went dark, with illuminations switched off at the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral, City Hall, opera houses and many bridges, fountains and public places. Sydney's Opera House was the first of many global landmarks to go dark as the event got under way, as hundreds of millions of people prepared to follow suit to enhance awareness of energy use and climate change. Others in their turn included Beijing's "Bird's Nest" stadium that hosted the 2008 Olympics, the London Eye ferris wheel, Times Square in New York and Brazil's Christ the Redeemer statue.

Many were switching off their floodlighting, advertising signs and other illuminations for an hour from 8:30 pm local time. "The amount of power that's saved during that time is not really what it's about," Earth Hour co-founder and executive director Andy Ridley told AFP in Sydney, where the movement began in 2007. "What it is meant to be about is showing what can happen when people come together." Ridley said a record 134 countries or territories were on board for this year's event. Organisers also asked people to commit to an action, large or small, that they will carry through the year to help the planet. Ridley said Earth Hour, organised by global environment group the WWF, this year would also focus on connecting people online so they could inspire each other to make commitments to help protect the environment.

In Australia, organisers said an estimated 10 million people, nearly half the population, took part, with Sydney Harbour Bridge another of the landmarks to go dark. Hong Kong's neon waterfront dimmed, while in Singapore all decorative lights were switched off and non-critical operational lights lowered at Changi Airport for an hour. In Japan, which is reeling from a huge earthquake and tsunami that struck this month, several thousand people and a hotel-turned-evacuation centre in the northeast marked Earth Hour. "People in Japan will have a special feeling this year when they turn the switches off," WWF spokeswoman Hideko Arai told AFP ahead of the switch-off.

In Russia some 30 cities were joining in, from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the most easterly city on the Kamchatka peninsula, through Moscow to Murmansk in the far north. Moscow was to turn off floodlighting on more than 70 buildings and bridges, including the 540-metre (1,780-foot) television tower and the 32-storey Moscow State University building. In Athens monuments being darkened included the Acropolis, the parliament building, the presidential palace and the temple of Poseidon near the city. Lights went out in 52 Romanian cities, where concerts and candle-light marches were organised. In Bucharest, dozens of people cycled through the city centre before gathering in George Enescu square.
by Staff Writers
Tokyo (AFP) March 26, 2011
The giant TVs are silent, the neon lights dark and the bars of Tokyo half-empty. Two weeks after Japan's deadly earthquake, the city that once never slept is learning to live with a new era of frugality.

Many public escalators are idle, the trains less frequent and the usually overflowing shelves of the round-the-clock convenience stores sparsely stocked.

In the daytime, under the crisp winter skies, the city almost seems to have recovered from the shock of the massive March 11 earthquake which sent a huge tsunami crashing into northeast Japan and triggered a nuclear crisis.

But nightfall reveals the reality -- a fortnight after the twin disaster struck, the capital is still a shadow of its former self.

Nowhere is the contrast more evident than in the usually vibrant teen fashion district of Shibuya.

The huge television screens and illuminated billboards that usually light up one of the world's busiest pedestrian intersections are lifeless -- victims of an energy crunch that is expected to drag on for weeks if not months.

Even the normally ubiquitous store workers with loudhailers are absent.

"It's almost too much. It doesn't seem like Shibuya anymore," said student Shiyo Suzuki, hanging out with his friends near the statue of Hachiko, a dog famed for his loyalty, a traditional meeting place by Shibuya station.

The shops close earlier than usual, leaving apologetic signs that ask for the understanding of those clients who do arrive at their doors.

"Before the earthquake, there were many customers between 7 and 8 pm, but now they go home earlier," said one saleswoman at a men's clothing shop.

The taxi drivers, known for their white gloves and doors which swing open at the touch of a button, are also feeling the pinch.

"We have no passengers. People don't go out or they go home early by train," one driver lamented.

In normal times the capital's myriad bars and restaurants brim with office workers letting off steam after a long day in the office.

But few are in the mood for socialising these days and food safety is a major concern since abnormally high levels of radiation from a tsunami-crippled nuclear plant were detected in food and even tap water.

"I avoid going to restaurants because of the problems with food and vegetables found to contain radioactive substances," said one 38-year-old company worker.

Nobody knows when life will return to normal for the 35 million residents of the greater Tokyo area, even if conditions are immeasurably better than those endured by survivors in the quake and tsunami zone further north.

"The factories have halted, the roads in the northeast are hard to navigate, petrol there is rationed and power is sometimes cut. We're not getting the usual deliveries," said a worker at a FamilyMart convenience store in Tokyo.

The 9.0-magnitude tremor and ensuing tsunami prompted 11 of Japan's 55 nuclear reactors to automatically shut down and also damaged several thermal power plants.

The government has imposed rolling blackouts and asked people and businesses to save power as Tokyo Electric Power Co. struggles to meet demand.

But the real crunch could come in the hot summer months of July and August when Japanese usually crank up the air conditioning.

In the meantime frequent aftershocks have rattled the city -- which has long been braced for the "Big One" -- but there have been so many tremors recently that residents now seem to barely notice.

And on top of the visible privations, residents must live with the knowledge that 250 kilometres (155 miles) to the northeast, radiation-suited workers are battling to bring a stricken nuclear plant back under control.

Many foreigners have fled and embassies closed, fearful that dangerous levels of radiation might reach the capital, but for Japanese with jobs and families, leaving is not so easy.

Instead, they yearn for a return to normality.

"From now on everyone has to do all they can so that this doesn't drag on," said 18-year-old Nobuya Matsuda, one of those who -- despite the new era of sobriety and thrift -- refuses to abandon the streets of Shibuya.

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