Houses are in flame while the Natori river is flooded over the surrounding area by tsunami tidal waves in Natori city.—AP

TOKYO: A ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes on record slammed Japan's eastern coast Friday, killing hundreds of people as it swept away ships, cars and homes while widespread fires burned out of control.

Hours later, the tsunami hit Hawaii but did not cause major damage. Warnings blanketed the Pacific, putting areas on alert as far away as South America, Canada, Alaska and the entire US West coast.

In northeastern Japan, the area around a nuclear power plant was evacuated after the reactor's cooling system failed.

Police said 200 to 300 bodies were found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, the city in Miyagi prefecture, or state, closest to the epicenter.

Another 137 were confirmed killed, with 531 people missing. Police also said 627 people were injured.

The magnitude-8.9 offshore quake unleashed a 23-foot (seven-meter) tsunami and was followed for hours by more than 50 aftershocks, many of them of more than magnitude 6.0.

Dozens of cities and villages along a 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometer) stretch of coastline were shaken by violent tremors that reached as far away as Tokyo, hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the epicenter.

A large section of Kesennuma, a town of 70,000 people in Miyagi, burned furiously into the night with no apparent hope of being extinguished, public broadcaster NHK said.

''The earthquake has caused major damage in broad areas in northern Japan,'' Prime Minister Naoto Kan said at a news conference.

The quake was nearly 8,000 times stronger than one that struck New Zealand late last month, devastating the city of Christchurch.

''The energy radiated by this quake is nearly equal to one month's worth of energy consumption'' in the United States, US Geological Survey Scientist Brian Atwater told The Associated Press.

The government ordered thousands of residents near a nuclear power plant in the city of Onahama to move back at least two miles (three kilometers) from the plant.

The reactor was not leaking radiation but its core remained hot even after a shutdown. The plant is 170 miles (270 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo.

Trouble was reported at two other nuclear plants as well, but there was no radiation leak at either of them.

Japan's coast guard said it was searching for 80 dock workers on a ship that was swept away from a shipyard in Miyagi.

A dam in Fukushima prefecture broke and homes were washed away, Kyodo news reported.

The Sankei Shimbun reported that the Fujinuma irrigation dam in Sukagawa city, Fukushima, had collapsed, with homes washed away and people missing.

Even for a country used to earthquakes, this one was of horrific proportions because of the tsunami that crashed ashore, swallowing everything in its path as it surged several miles (kilometers) inland before retreating.

The apocalyptic images on Japanese TV of powerful, debris-filled waves, uncontrolled fires and a ship caught in a massive whirlpool resembled scenes from a Hollywood disaster movie.

Large fishing boats and other vessels rode high waves ashore, slamming against overpasses or scraping under them and snapping power lines along the way.

Upturned and partially submerged cars bobbed in the water. Ships anchored in ports crashed against each other.

The tsunami roared over embankments, washing anything in its path inland before reversing directions and carrying the cars, homes and other debris out to sea.

Flames shot from some of the homes, probably because of burst gas pipes.

Waves of muddy waters flowed over farmland near Sendai, carrying buildings, some of them ablaze.

Drivers attempted to flee. Sendai airport was inundated with thick, muddy debris that included cars, trucks, buses and even light planes.

Highways to the worst-hit coastal areas buckled. Telephone lines snapped.

Train service in northeastern Japan and in Tokyo, which normally serve 10 million people a day, were suspended, leaving untold numbers stranded in stations or roaming the streets. Tokyo's Narita airport was closed indefinitely.

President Barack Obama said the US ''stands ready to help'' Japan.

Jesse Johnson, a native of the US state of Nevada who lives in Chiba, north of Tokyo, was eating at a sushi restaurant with his wife when the quake hit.

''At first it didn't feel unusual, but then it went on and on. So I got myself and my wife under the table,'' he told The Associated Press.

''I've lived in Japan for 10 years, and I've never felt anything like this before. The aftershocks keep coming. It's gotten to the point where I don't know whether it's me shaking or an earthquake.''

NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs. As night fell, Tokyo's streets were jammed with cars, buses and trucks trying to get around and out of the city.

Pedestrians swarmed the sidewalks to walk home, or at least find a warm place to spend the night as the temperatures dropped.

Tomoko Suzuki and her elderly mother stood on a crowded downtown corner, unable to get to their 29th-floor condominium because the elevator wasn't working. They unsuccessfully tried to hail a taxi to a relative's house and couldn't find a hotel room.

''We are so cold,'' said Suzuki. ''We really don't know what to do.''

More than 220,000 people were killed when a 9.1-magnitude quake hit off Indonesia in 2004, unleashing a massive tsunami that devastated coastlines in countries around the Indian Ocean as far away as Africa.

Small quakes are felt every day somewhere in Japan and people take part in regular drills at schools and workplaces to prepare for a calamity.