It happened as a bus carrying a delegation of prominent Japanese-Americans neared a downtown Tokyo hotel where a meeting was scheduled with a group of Japanese businessmen.
"The shaking was very, very strong," Ken Oye, a professor at MIT, said in a telephone interview. "When you looked out the windows, you could see other vehicles tilting back and forth, buildings swaying, construction cranes on top of buildings wiggling back and forth."
"It was a quite strong sense of motion," said Oye, a Cambridge resident. But, he said, none of the buildings collapsed, which he called a testament to tough building codes and good engineering.
"To tell you the truth, that's remarkable," he said. "You look around and there's no damage and you can't believe it."
The magnitude-8.9 quake, which was centered hundreds of miles away, inflicted much more damage in other parts of Japan. The offshore quake spawned a tsunami that killed hundreds of people as it carried away ships, cars, and homes.
Oye, an associate professor who is co-director of MIT's Program on Emerging Technologies, was in Japan with a delegation organized by the US-Japan Council, a group that seeks to build a network of Japanese-Americans who are committed to maintaining strong US-Japan ties.
The meeting scheduled at Tokyo's New Otani Hotel with the businessmen went ahead after the initial shocks subsided, but in the middle of it there was a major aftershock, Oye said.
"You look down at your coffee cup and you see the coffee suddenly swaying back and forth, and you realize that you're swaying back and forth, and the chandelier is swaying back and forth," he said. The group evacuated the building and waited in a Japanese garden for the earth to calm again.
Oye said he had experienced earthquakes before, during a stint living in California and on trips to Japan. "This one was noticeably different," he said.
The group had been scheduled to meet with Japan's prime minister that evening, but that meeting was "understandably" canceled, he said.
Back at a different downtown hotel in the early morning hours of Saturday Tokyo-time, Oye said he was watching CNN and seeing the scenes of devastation from elsewhere in Japan, even as small aftershocks still shook the building.
But outside his window in Tokyo, he said, strangely enough, "It's a normal night except that there's more traffic than usual and it's gridlocked."
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