MINAMISOMA, Japan — Peering through a car window, towns just five miles from the outer edge of Fukushima Prefecture’s nuclear exclusion zone appear no different than elsewhere in Japan.
Ramen shops serve up bubbling bowls of noodles and pork every few blocks. Carloads of families turn into the parking lots of neighborhood businesses.
The first signs that something went terribly wrong are the square plots, untended and overgrown with knee-high wild grasses, along the major routes to the sea.
Owners of these former rice paddies and vegetable farms are banned from selling produce from the fertile but tainted soil this close to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, even though the airborne radiation levels are well within government safety limits.
Two miles from the coast, the landscape changes dramatically at the end of a two-lane bridge. This is the front line, where a wall of water, higher than 100 feet in some places, slammed into Japan’s east coast on March 11, 2011, killing more than 20,000 people.
Buildings and cars remain in piles of mangled wreckage. The only sign of life is a feral dog running through an overgrown field. Steam rises from fetid puddles, creating a pungent mist stinking of decomposition. Locals say the steam is normal, but its presence adds to the alien-like atmosphere of the surrounding no-man’s land.
Similar scenes unfold for dozens of miles along the coast, images of a worst-case disaster — an earthquake spawning a tsunami which, in turn, caused a nuclear meltdown — that dominated global headlines for weeks.
With the catastrophe fading into history for the rest of the world, many thousands of survivors seek the first steps back to normalcy. They long to rebuild their former neighborhoods, but face numerous challenges.
“The house will be isolated,” said Kiho Ueno, who lost her parents and two children to the tsunami. Pregnant when the disaster hit, she now cares for her 9-month-old daughter, Sarii. “There won’t be any children for my child to play with. And since it will be built in the middle of nowhere, if something happens, we won’t be able to get help right away.”
Nevertheless, Ueno, 35, hopes that a levee will be built, which would eventually encourage her neighbors to return. Government officials have said they have no timetable for fully reinhabiting and restroing services to the exclusion zone; it could take years, or decades.
Many survivors from the coastline or the 12-mile radius of the nuclear plant now live about 30 minutes west of the seashore, beyond a mountain ridge in the town of Minamisoma.
The well-off have built new, two-story homes, some with shingled roofs that imitate ancient Japanese temples. Another, with a Mercedes-Benz parked outside, looks like something out of Byzantine-era Turkey.
Sandwiched in between these upscale houses is the Terauchi Dai-ni temporary housing complex. Ueno and about 40 families live in beige, trailer-like homes that average 320 square feet of living space.
They are among the 115,747 people living in 48,806 temporary housing units throughout the country as of June 18, according to a spokesman at Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
On a sunny Saturday in June, the residents of Terauchi Dai-ni are all smiles. A few women from Helping Hands for Tohoku, a volunteer group of Navy spouses that has donated supplies to the community since last year, drove six hours from Yokosuka Naval Base to spend the afternoon with them.
Women gather in a community room, where they receive gift bags from the volunteers. The residents, in turn, feed them heaping portions of white rice, topped with a smattering of red beans and salt. They later present the volunteers with gifts of intricately designed origami crafts.
“I feel very blessed to get to go and meet these people,” said May Collins, a Navy spouse from Jacksonville, Fla. “The thing that strikes me is that they appreciate our help, but they’re not dependent upon it either. They’ve lost everything … but they’re taking care of each other.”
Asked about their circumstances, the residents talk little of victimhood, even those who lost loved ones and all of their possessions. Many look forward to the time when they can be self-sufficient again.
“The support we have received is more than enough,” Ueno said. “I wonder if it is good to completely depend on it, if we receive too much.”
Ueno’s husband works every day, volunteering or going on construction jobs within Minamisoma. In his spare time, he walks the beaches near his former home, looking for the remains of their son, her father and anyone else he might find.
The tsunami virtually scoured the beaches of eastern Fukushima Prefecture. For many of the houses closest to the ocean, only the foundations jut from the sand.
For others — dream houses and the more modest fishermen’s homes — a few satellite dishes and other trappings of modern life remain, though the homes are missing walls and appear on the verge of collapse.
Hisako Endo and Toshi Kori, both in their 60s, lived about 100 yards from the ocean. Their families survived but lost their livelihoods when the tsunami destroyed the fishing fleet. Though many of those fishermen have found reconstruction jobs, it remains unclear what they will do in the long term.
The two Terauchi Dai-ni residents hope to live somewhere inland with others from their old neighborhood once again, though they know the chances are slim.
In the meantime, they have done their best to bond with their neighbors in the temporary complex.
The time they’ve spent preparing — including their interactions with the volunteers of Helping Hands for Tohoku — has strengthened those bonds.
“People in our temporary housing complex are tight-knit, thanks to them,” Endo said.
Kori has a new routine: She drops her grandchildren off at a new school, exercises at a community center and socializes with her neighbors. She says it will likely take a while longer before her family can find a home in a town farther away from the coast.
“I feel like I’m starting not from nothing but less than nothing,” Kori said. “So we just have to do our best and keep moving forward.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.