NARAHA, Japan — One hour from the evacuation zone, at a rest stop in the mountains, it hits you. A blue sign on the wall, with birds that look like flying oranges and a message for travelers.
"Cheer up, Fukushima."
Back on the Joban Expressway, rolling east toward the Pacific Ocean, large black bags sit in stacks behind a crude metal barrier off the shoulder. The first bags of millions. Heavy trucks pass by with more black bags. Road signs warn of raccoons, boars and the latest reading of radiation in the air.
The destination: Naraha Town. Before March 11, 2011, the country village in Fukushima was known for hot springs, rivers of salmon and a national soccer training center — all in all, a slow way of life.
Seven years after the triple disaster, Naraha is rebuilding its identity from zero.
The 9.0-magnitude earthquake — the largest in Japan's history — and subsequent tsunami off the east coast killed about 16,000 people. Towering waves overwhelmed the cooling system at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, prompting dangerous releases from three failed reactors and evacuations of more than 160,000 people.
Naraha, 10 miles south of the plant, closed for four years, reopening in September 2015. About 2,200 residents have returned, not even one-third of the pre-earthquake population.
New Naraha is older and busier. It has new apartment buildings, hotels, and scores of temporary concrete homes lined in rows near the government building.
Rush hour arrives each day as thousands of workers pass through to help with reconstruction, the decontamination of still-closed towns, and the decades-long process of decommissioning the nuclear plant.
This was always a town you grew up in, not one you moved to. Now, lifelong residents can hardly find the old Naraha.
"They're completely different — completely," said Yukiko Endo, 53. "All of the places from my memories, they've all disappeared."
Endo grew up in Naraha but has lived in Iwaki an hour south ever since the earthquake, when a speaker the next day told everyone they had to leave. She thought she would return with her parents in a few hours. They didn't know, four days later, that the plant would start releasing radioactive emissions, imperiling water, food and surfaces.
Old Naraha had everything she needed: a bank, a hospital, places to shop, post office, train stations. New Naraha has nice, new buildings but is missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: spirituality.
With Naraha's shrines came festivals, with festivals came special songs and dances for the seasons. Naraha had its own song for the summer festival, but "now we don't hear that anymore," she said.
Endo is training to work at a new hotel in Naraha this fall. The job will allow her to keep checking on her parents, who are in their late 70s and back in their renovated Naraha house.
They once had neighbors, but now Endo can only gesture toward empty lots of soil.
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"Our house is the only one left," she said.
• • •
Shigaru Matsumoto, 65, sips his beer at Ippei, Naraha's watering hole for locals and decontamination workers and one of the first places to reopen after the disaster. There's beer on tap, smoke in the air, bottles of sake on the wall, and a kitchen turning out Japanese pub food. A clock above the bar is stopped at 2:47, the time of the earthquake.
Matsumoto, 65, grew up in Naraha and worked in the local government. He had to move to Iwaki during the years of evacuation, like so many. Now that he's back in Naraha, he laments the lost natural appeal.
"Now it doesn't feel like my town," he said.
The town is ceding land once used for rice paddies for development and apartment buildings to lure young people. He says it won't work, sarcastically noting there are more teachers than children at the school.
"Younger generations are not coming back," he said.
• • •
Iwao Horiguchi, seated a few seats down at the bar, is new in town. He's been here two weeks for his steel construction business, laying the base for intermediate storage of the ubiquitous black geofabric bags throughout northeast Japan.
Millions of the sturdy bags dot open fields and beaches across Naraha and other evacuation towns — the area's new and useless crop. Decontamination workers have stuffed them with the top 2 inches of soil with high concentrations of cesium from the nuclear plant, tying up dirt for the most part, but also leaves, brush and acorns. The bags cannot be thrown away, and it will take centuries for the radioactive isotopes to decay in storage facilities built by contractors like Horiguchi.
Back home in Tokyo, Horiguchi wasn't sure what to expect about working in the disaster zone. People there aren't talking about the disaster-affected region anymore, he said, himself included. But he was touched when he came to Naraha and watched construction workers pray in silence for the people who died here, which he said happens on the first day of each month.
"We shouldn't forget about it," Horiguchi said.
• • •
In a new building on a hill, Principal Sachiko Araki looks past the significance of the seventh anniversary of the earthquake to Tuesday, March 13.
The first real one in seven years. It will be a proper ceremony with natural light between sturdy new walls and certificates of promotion for 20 ninth-graders who returned to Naraha for junior high school.
Immediately after the disaster, there was no school. There was disruption. Many students relocated to Iwaki. Graduates received certificates in a temporary school with thin, cold walls.
"They've had a really painful time," Araki said.
The new Naraha Junior High School opened in April 2017, at the start of Japan's academic year. The two-story building is gorgeous, with light wood interiors and new everything. But it is substantially oversized for the classes, down 83 percent since the earthquake. In seventh grade, there are just six students.
To fill space, the junior high school rents one side of the building to a combined elementary school, bringing total enrollment in the school building to 111 students.
A dosimeter off the campus parking lot illuminates with a reading of 0.099 microsieverts/hour on the evening of Feb. 7, well below the radiation of a medical procedure and on par with the radiation of major cities.
Most of the students use buses and trains to reach Naraha from their new homes outside of town, just like their teachers and principals. Araki lives an hour north in Minamisoma, though her old home remains on the side of the exclusion zone.
"We haven't recovered completely," she said.
Naraha used to have excellent baseball and soccer teams, but the school cannot form teams anymore.
Without sports, elementary students have to play against themselves. They set their own reading and exercise goals, earning a "self best-record" award from their teachers.
Daichi Kusaka, 11, is finishing sixth grade. On a Wednesday after school, he said he is trying to run while jumping rope 140 times.
"I'm still at 40 times," he said.
• • •
Route 6 stretches from Tokyo to Sendai, a major city in the north. You can take the repaired road straight up from Naraha through Fukushima's no-go zones of shuttered towns.
Tomioka, Okuma, Futaba and Namie pass by in hues of bleached winter and black bags. Weeds have overtaken abandoned fences, gas stations and parking lots. Storefronts are empty and looted. Streets are closed or blocked off by metal fences and cones, so there's no turning off to look deeper. There's a heavier police presence in front of businesses and neighborhoods. Dosimeter readings jump 25 times as high as the school campus reading.
From the road in Okuma, you can see a line of green and white trucks crawling toward the Daiichi plant.
In Futaba, an animal hospital, public gym and produce market all stand closed, 4 miles north of the fallen plant.
Tomioka reopened last year, just north of Naraha. Before the earthquake, it had twice as many people as Naraha. Even with a new hotel, it feels like a lonely town with razed buildings and empty storefronts.
Here, the road to recovery is just beginning. Off the two-lane highway, a promise on a white sign with Christmas lights brightens the night sky.
"Tomioka will not be defeated."
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists. Contact Katie Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @KatieLSanders.