KAWAUCHI, Fukushima Prefecture–Hatsuo Sakamoto approached his home carrying a bag of cat food and found the pet he had sorely missed lounging in the garden. When the animal saw its 63-year-old owner, it sprang to its feet and scampered away.
“The cat must be startled because it has been two months since we last saw it–and because we look like space aliens,” his wife, Yukiko, said with a smile.
The Sakamotos, wearing white radiation protective gear and face masks, were among a group of 92 residents of Kawauchi who were allowed to return home temporarily to collect essential items on May 10.
Part of the village lies within the 20-kilometer radius of the hobbled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that was declared a no-entry zone by the central government on April 22.
About 350 Kawauchi residents lived in the zone prior to the declaration.
Yukiko’s smile at the cat’s behavior quickly disappeared. In fact, there were few signs of joy during the homecoming of the residents, who ranged in age from 21 to 85.
They were the first ones permitted to re-enter the zone.
Yukiko, 58, found that all the apples in a cardboard box and vegetables in her kitchen fridge had gone rotten.
“This is awful, just awful,” she said.
A mound of Chinese cabbage harvested in autumn and stored in a warehouse had also spoiled.
When the rotten vegetables were carried wrapped in a straw mat, dark liquid dripped out.
“This is awful,” she repeated.
Nearby, the garden of Misaji Masuda’s home was littered with cow pies.
The door to a tool shed was open, revealing a mess of scattered bottles and empty cans. The Chinese cabbage and Japanese radishes he had stored inside had all disappeared.
“Cattle that may have run away from somewhere must have done this,” Masuda, 67, said. “We cannot blame them because they are desperate to survive.”
Masuda said his 43-year-old son works for a contractor of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the stricken plant.
The son went to work after he had received a phone call from his company about five days after the crisis started at the plant.
Since then, he has returned to where his parents are staying only twice.
Masuda’s wife, Mieko, 62, said that during her evacuation, she was constantly worried about mold forming on the plates that she had no time to clean.
Upon her return to the village, she washed the pile of dishes in the kitchen sink.
But a voice from the walkie-talkies that residents were required to carry shattered any sense of normalcy she may have been feeling.
“Everyone, an hour has passed,” the voice said.
The residents were allowed to stay for only two hours in their village.
“The flowers are blooming, but even if I say ‘they are beautiful,’ my words are not coming from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “I am feeling pressed, but I cannot get things done.”
The couple wanted to scale a hill to find out what happened to the grave of their ancestors, but they didn’t have the time.
On the top of the hill, a stone lantern was toppled and the gravestone was lying on its side.
Daffodils near the grave were in full bloom and bush warblers were chirping. But these traditional signs of spring’s arrival in this pastoral, mountain village were marred by lingering signs of destruction brought by the magnitude-9.0 temblor on March 11.
“You have 30 minutes left,” a voice from the walkie-talkie was heard saying from behind Nobuichi Kobayashi’s home.
Kobayashi, 65, said he has been looking for clothes requested by his 91-year-old mother, with whom he had fled.
But he could not find them despite his frantic search.
“I have no clue,” he said.
Kobayashi has served as the neighborhood leader for the past six years. He laments that the area could not hold its annual festival at the shrine as usual on May 3.
Kobayashi said he has no idea when he and the others will be allowed to return to their village again.
“I hope to come back during the bon festival,” he said, speaking of the period in summer when the spirits of dead ancestors are said to return. “I want to at least offer incense (to my ancestors).”
“You have 15 minutes left,” the walkie-talkie announced.
Shoichi Akimoto, 60, stood in the garden, looking confused.
His pet dog, John, still tied to his kennel, was lying dead in a burrow it had dug.
“The dog was alive for as many as 15 years,” Akimoto said. “It was getting very weak.”
Akimoto said he sneaked back to his home after the evacuation instructions to check on John.
Since he was not allowed to bring the pet to where he has been staying, all he could do was to leave a lot of food and water each time he returned to the no-entry zone.
Kobayashi put unburned incense sticks on the gaunt body of the white-and-brown dog.
“My dog will accept it although the incense is not burned,” he said. “I will bury his body on my next return.”
The voice from the walkie-talkie made a final announcement: “For all of you, the time is up.”
Akimoto and the villagers slowly headed toward the bus that would once again take them away from their homes.