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Millions of people in greater Tokyo were stranded far away from home on Friday evening after Japan's biggest earthquake on record shut down the capital's massive subway system.

Sirens wailed through Tokyo, television helicopters buzzed overhead and people rushed to the city's ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores, quickly emptying shelves of bento boxes, sandwiches and instant noodle cups.

Countless workers, who had earlier fled violently swaying office blocks, found themselves stuck far from their families -- and unable to speak to them because the overloaded mobile phone system could not carry most calls.

The government used loudspeaker alerts and television broadcasts to urge people to stay near their workplaces rather than risk long walks home, as highways leading out of the city center were choked and hotels quickly booked out.

"Please do not try to force your way home when there is no means of transportation, but stay in your offices and other safe places," said an emergency advisory carried by national public broadcaster NHK. "Night is falling," the NHK newscaster said as chilly darkness fell across the nation. "If long-distance commuters try to cross prefecture borders on foot at night, they may fall victim to secondary accidents."

The greater Tokyo region -- a sprawl that takes in Yokohama and vast suburban areas across the Kanto plain -- is the world's largest urban area, with more than 30 million people, many of whom commute for hours every day.

The spaghetti-like railway grid of the Tokyo Metro System and Japan Railway lines criss-crossing the megacity remained shut down for hours after the 8.9-magnitude monster quake violently shook buildings across the city.