Under tight government supervision, dozens of villagers from a town where the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant is located ventured deep into an irradiated no-man's land Sunday to hold a belated memorial for friends and relatives killed by Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
They found that their town _ evacuated for more than four months _ is fast becoming a wilderness.
"There is nothing left but debris and empty streets," said Norio Kimura, a villager who lost his father, wife and a daughter in the disaster.
With no one left behind to care for them, cattle roam the streets. Tall grass has grown out of rice paddies and meadow flowers bloom in farms. Weeds have grown knee-high out of cracks in the streets.
Wearing full-body protective gear and white face masks because of the continued risk of radiation exposure, the families bowed their heads in silence before a shattered public hall as a Buddhist priest chanted sutras and burned incense for the dead. Their village, Okuma, is where four of the crippled nuclear plant's six reactors are located.
The priest also wore a radiation suit underneath his purple robes.
"Many of us are still living in difficult circumstances. We cannot yet even imagine when this crisis will end," said Mayor Toshitsuna Watanabe. "But those of us left behind must carry on. May our dead rest in peace, and may this crisis end soon."
The residents were brought in on government-chartered buses, allowed to stay less than one hour and then screened for radioactive contamination.
Okuma had several thousand residents before the March 11 tsunami, but it has been completely evacuated because of the ongoing crisis at the plant, which has suffered meltdowns, explosions and fires. Though other villages farther away from the plant have held memorials, this is the first time that Okuma residents have been allowed into the 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone to do so.
All told, about 23,000 died or were left missing across wide swaths of Japan's northeast coastline. Another 80,000 have been forced to evacuate their homes because of the radiation threat from Fukushima Dai-ichi.
Though their village has been deemed unsafe due to the radiation, only 11 Okuma villagers have been confirmed dead and one _ Kimura's daughter _ is still missing. Search and rescue missions were severely hampered by the dangers of operating near the nuclear plant and most of Okuma's victims were found just recently.
Officials say the situation at the Fukushima plant is improving and has stabilized somewhat. But it remains unclear if villages like Okuma will ever be habitable again.
"I want to return someday," said Kimura. "But I worry about the safety of my family if I did. Realistically, I imagine it will be 10 or 20 years before it will be safe. But I want to come home someday."