By Taiga Uranaka and Antoni Slodkowski
TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo's usually bustling central districts were deserted on Saturday after the country's worst earthquake and a tsunami devastated the north of the country, and the few in bars and restaurants were glued to television coverage of the disaster.
An explosion at a nuclear power plant near the earthquake zone and news of a radiation leak caused the most worry, but thousands also swamped the Internet to tell loved ones they were safe after phone lines went down.
At least 1,700 people were killed or missing, media said, and thousands of homes were flattened as a huge deluge of sea water swept inland in the north of Japan after the quake, engulfing roads, farmland and villages.
"Even in the bar we kept staring at the news," said Kasumi, a 26-year-old woman meeting a friend for a drink in the central district of Akasaka. "I looked at the tsunami swallowing houses and it seemed like a film.
"I live alone, so when I go home at night, I'm scared," she added.
Some outlets did not open their doors at all.
"Our bar is closed today due to the quake," said Kenichi Wakaki, 42, who works at a restaurant bar in Roppongi in central Tokyo. "Our bar will resume business on Monday but I am worried the economy might be impacted by this. Our business has been seeing a slight pick-up recently."
Worry spread on Saturday after news of a radiation leak at a nuclear power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), following an explosion at the facility, and many messages on social networking sites were panic-stricken.
"Came back home at 8 in the morning after the depressing night ... Now, the nuclear power plant has exploded and we might already be exposed to radioactivity," said a 23-year-old female office worker from Tokyo on a Facebook page.
"I just don't know what to do, what's coming next, and will I be alive tomorrow?" she asked.
Elsewhere in the world, from the foothills of northern India to crowded cities in the United States, Japanese on vacation used Twitter, Facebook and the Japanese service mixi to get in touch with family after the disaster knocked out phone lines.
"Can't get through via fone ... but Toru got through Facebook. Thank God for Facebook!" read a status message of a Tokyo resident.
"Yep! It brings down dictators, it reunites loved ones," was one of the comments.
Other users were not so lucky.
"I still cannot contact with my family and friends after the tsunami," posted a female student from Sophia University in Tokyo. "Information is necessary for me."
Many had reservations about the ability of authorities to deal with the disaster.
"I can't trust TEPCO," said a person with the handlename Tanuki Atsushi on mixi, the Japanese social networking site.
"They should not stop working to limit damage to the public even if this is not going to be a big accident like Chernobyl," said another user named papa.
The nervous reaction online was a response to the firm's chequered past. In 2002, the president of the country's largest power utility was forced to resign along with four other senior executives, taking responsibility for suspected falsification of nuclear plant safety records.
"I don't think TVs are telling the whole truth," said Wakaki, the Roppongi bar worker.
"I suspect the real situation is a lot worse, some horrible things are actually happening. TVs are just telling us things to soothe us."
(Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)