The earthquake was powerful enough to sway skyscrapers 300 kilometers (185 miles) away in Tokyo. And with an estimated magnitude of 7.2, it had the potential to cause catastrophic damage.
But this time, Japan is lucky.
No one died in the quake that rocked a wide swath of northern Japan Tuesday.
The scene of the worst damage was an indoor pool where part of the roof caved in, injuring a couple dozen swimmers, many of them young children, AP reports.
Still, the jolt underscored the fragility of the lifelines of even the most modern, quake-resistant cities. It forced highways and railroads to close, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded, and 17,000 households without electricity.
And with Tokyo overdue for a major quake of its own, it was a psychological jolt for many.
"I was stuck in a stopped train for three hours, and then had to walk 2 kilometers (about a mile) along the tracks to get here," said Shigenori Torihata as he waited for a friend at Sendai's main train station. "I was supposed to go home to Tokyo. Now I'm stuck in a hotel."
The coastal city of Sendai is the capital of Miyagi prefecture, which was hit hardest by the quake, although visible damage was surprisingly light.
Few houses were destroyed, and by nightfall Sendai had returned to its normal routine. The streets were crowded with cars, and the malls with shoppers.
A total of 62 people were reported hurt, the worst injuries being broken bones. Most were hit by falling debris.