Photo/Illutration Mitsuhide Ikeda pours sake while seated in front of photos of his deceased parents at his home in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture. (Shigetaka Kodama)

OKUMA, Fukushima Prefecture--Settling in for the night, Mitsuhide Ikeda poured sake into a glass and raised a toast to framed photos of his deceased parents: “I finally made it back home. Let’s drink together.”

The last time the 60-year-old cattle farmer spent a night at home was 10 years and nine months ago.

Large parts of this town that co-hosts the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were declared “difficult-to-return” zones after the triple meltdown triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Ikeda’s parents died after the nuclear accident.

The Shimonogami district where the Ikeda’s home is located lies about five kilometers southwest of the Fukushima nuclear facility.

As part of efforts to rebuild the areas around the plant, the government recently began letting residents return home for an overnight stay as a means of preparing for the day when they can do so permanently.

Unsurprisingly, concerns about radiation levels are still on the minds of many former residents. His wife, Mikiko, 64, refused to accompany him for that reason. Ikeda was the only individual in his neighborhood who took up the offer to return home.

Dangerously high radiation levels registered immediately after the disaster that made it impossible for anybody to live in the area have gradually fallen. The government spent vast sums on the time-consuming process of decontaminating topsoil as a way of reducing radiation levels.

It intends to lift the evacuation order for some parts of Okuma in spring. That would be the first step for setting the stage for residents to return home.

The temporary overnight stay program began in Katsurao on Nov. 30 and is gradually being expanded to five other municipalities, including Okuma.

A check for radiation in November on the Ikeda plot found one spot with a reading of 3.8 microsieverts per hour, above the level deemed safe enough for the government to lift the evacuation order.

Even though the Environment Ministry is planning additional decontamination work, Mikiko was unsettled by the reading and concluded it would be impossible to pick up the threads of their past life in Okuma.

Other changes in the close to 11 years since the nuclear disaster make a return to Okuma unrealistic.

While a large supermarket, hospital and bank branch remain standing in the town, there is no indication when those facilities might resume operations.

In the interim, the Ikedas plan to commute to Okuma from the community they moved to as evacuees.

The overnight stay program is restricted to an area close to what was once the bustling center of the town. About 7,600 residents lived there before the nuclear disaster.

The town government envisions that as many as 2,600 people will reside in the town within five years of the evacuation order being finally lifted if plans proceed to rebuild social infrastructure.

But the writing is on the wall for many people.

According to the Environment Ministry, about 1,150 homes in the district had been torn down as of the end of September.

And as of Dec. 8, only 31 residents in 15 households applied for the overnight stays.

Even Ikeda admits that Okuma will likely never return to the community he knew before 2011.

“Too much time has passed,” he said.