Photo/IllutrationYoko Kimura, left, with her daughter Junko, eats lunch during a brief visit to her home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, in January. The area remains designated as a difficult-to-return zone, and a brief visit requires permission from the town. Residents are permitted to stay only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Yosuke Fukudome)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Nearly eight years have passed since their lives were uprooted by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but evacuees are slowly returning to pick up the threads of their former lives and making small, but incremental steps, in the process.

The magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011, generated towering tsunami that swamped the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, triggering a triple meltdown when tons of cascading seawater knocked out its cooling systems.

The scars of that awful time are difficult to erase, and plain to see in so many ways.

“I’m not doing anything special here, but the air is fresh and it makes me feel calm,” said Yoko Kimura, 90, during a brief visit back to her home in Okuma in January.

Her house is located just 4.7 kilometers away from the crippled nuclear facility. Kimura and her daughter Junko, now 67, were among residents living within a 10-kilometer radius of the power plant who were ordered to evacuate immediately to escape massive amounts of radiation spewing into the atmosphere.

Kimura's home is located in an area still designated as a “difficult-to-return zone.”

But with permission from town authorities, she returns to Okuma for brief visits twice a month or so, accompanied by her daughter.

The house is without running water and electricity, so Kimura draws water from a well and relies on power from solar panels installed on the roof.

The January visit was her first homecoming this year. In a hallway, where sunshine streamed in, Kimura ate a rice-based meal that she had prepared in Iwaki, where she lives as an evacuee.

Readings of spatial radiation in her garden are between 3 to 4 microsieverts per hour, meaning there is no prospect of the evacuation order being lifted anytime soon.

“My only wish is to die here.” When Kimura said that, she was smiling.

Tomioka, another town located in close proximity to the nuclear accident site, lifted the evacuation order for most areas two years ago.

Hiroki Sato, 32, an evacuee in Iwaki, rebuilt his home in Tomioka and tries to spend weekends there with his family whenever he can.

“I don’t suffer any inconvenience and I have no worries about my life here,” said Sato, as his children enjoyed playing in front of his new two-story home.

Sato intends to relocate to Tomioka when his oldest son, Seiru, 10, enters junior high school.

Namie, too, partially lifted its evacuation order two years ago. The town's population numbered in excess of 20,000 before the disaster, forcing a mass evacuation. Now, only 900 or so people live there.

Kazuki Oshimizu, 31, is one. He returned because he said he genuinely loves Namie.

Oshimizu reopened his izakaya, a Japanese-style bar named “Kondokoso,” six months ago. Since then, it has become a place filled with laughter on an otherwise quiet street corner among vacant lots.

Prior to the disaster, Oshimizu could purchase all his needs in town. But nowadays, he sometimes has to drive 50 kilometers to pick up stock.

He acknowledged that it is "grueling not to be able to do things I used to without any problems.”

While residents have started returning to many towns in the area where evacuation orders were initially issued, time seems to stand still in places such as Futaba, a neighboring town that co-hosts the nuclear plant with Okuma.

At Futaba-Minami Elementary School, classrooms remain untouched since the moment the earthquake hit. Satchels and other remnants are scattered where they fell. Children were immediately evacuated to the schoolyard, then forced to leave.

The school has reopened in a temporary campus in Iwaki, but the number of pupils has dropped to 15 from 192.

(Yosuke Fukudome has been assigned in the Tohoku region for four and a half years, visiting many disaster-stricken areas, particularly Fukushima, to take photographs to document the lives affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.)