By Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) - Yoko Hashiguchi and her toddler fled Tokyo after a deadly earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan and triggered a nuclear disaster at a power plant 240 km (150 miles) away.
Three weeks later, they're back in the capital, hoping life will get back to normal.
"After the quake, my husband said 'Leave' so we went to (the southern island of) Okinawa. Now I have to return to work and my daughter starts daycare, so we came back," said Hashiguchi, 33, cuddling her daughter on a park swing.
Life in the metropolis of 13 million people is tiptoeing toward normality from the early post-disaster days when train service was patchy, workers stayed home and groceries were bare of necessities such as bread, milk, toilet paper and diapers.
But the new normal is a pale shadow of the pre-disaster hustle and bustle.
Shoplights are dimmed as power shortages persist, only about half the escalators are running in subway stations and Tokyo's boisterous nightlife is only now starting to revive.
Stress simmers just beneath the surface and an air of self-restraint is keeping shoppers at home, raising concerns about the world's third-biggest economy as it tries to recover from a disaster that caused damages that could top $300 billion.
Some fret most about the possible spread of radiation from the quake-crippled plant to food and water after high levels were found in vegetables from regions around the plant.
A Reuters reading on Friday showed a radiation level in downtown Tokyo itself of 0.2 microsieverts per hour -- still low by global standards. "If the nuclear situation gets worse, we'll leave. I've got our gear all packed," Hashiguchi said.
The battle to stabilize six reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) Fukushima plant could take weeks if not months, followed by a clean-up operation that may drag on for years.
Repeated and large aftershocks are also fanning fears that a massive quake could strike again, this time closer to home.
"I only go as far from home as I can walk back and I take emergency gear with me," said Noriko Ariura, rummaging in a bag holding a radio, flashlight, bottled water and medicine.
"If we go further afield, I take protective helmets, too," said the mother of a five-year-old son, who admitted she was more nervous than many after surviving the 1995 quake that killed 6,400 people in the western port city of Kobe.
NOT A TIME FOR LUXURIES
Daily necessities are returning to shop shelves. But items like toilet paper and bottled water -- which disappeared after radiation from the damaged plant briefly made tap water unsafe for infants -- are limited to one per customer to stem hoarding.
"Toilet paper sells out quickly," said an employee at a supermarket in a residential area of Tokyo.
Shoppers' appetite for less urgent spending, especially on luxury goods and travel, is being restrained by a feeling that splurging now is inappropriate when nearly 28,000 are dead or missing and more than 172,400 survivors huddle in shelters.
"When those in the disaster-hit region don't have enough water or food, people feel it's not a time to think about luxuries," said Katsumi Fukuda at a kimono shop in the ritzy Ginza shopping district. "People are returning here bit by bit, so I'm hoping things will get back to normal."
Masae Kajisaki, 67, and her friend came out shopping for the first time since the disaster this week, but she has canceled a planned trip to Hawaii this month. "I felt guilty," she said. "I thought it wasn't right when people are still suffering."
Consumers are getting mixed messages from media.
Companies that pulled TV ads after the calamity hit are now airing commercials again, but these are interspersed with public service messages urging people not to buy more than they need -- as well as to pull together to overcome the crisis.
Some fear the artificial frugality is counter-productive.
"If we hold back from shopping, it will hurt the economy and recovery will be delayed," said Hashiguchi.
Major firms are going ahead with traditional entrance ceremonies for new hires and Tokyo elementary, middle and high schools will start the new academic year next week as scheduled, but many area universities are delaying the start of classes.
Politicians stumping for local elections this month in Tokyo and elsewhere are facing a dilemma about how to campaign without an unseemly -- and noisy -- display of partisanship.
Many have abandoned the campaign vans that usually blare out candidates' names and aren't using bull horns for speeches.
"We've got campaign cars ready but it may be impossible to use them," said Aiko Fujita, who heads small Tokyo-based party called the Suginami Consumers' Network.
Back in the Ginza district, as famed for its nightlife as its pricey daytime shopping, bars that closed after the disaster hit are reopening, but full recovery will take time.
"It's kind of like when it snows and customers stay away," said Atsuko Kuraoki, proprietor of the bar Hickory.
"When I look around the neighborhood, there aren't many people, but there are more than I thought there would be," she said. "People are trying to be cheerful."
(Created by Linda Sieg; Editing by Michael Perry)