Volunteers assist workers to slice and pack seaweed root at...

Volunteers assist workers to slice and pack seaweed root at a temporary processing yard on the Minamisanriku harbor front in Minamisanriku, Japan. (March 8, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

The squat 71-year-old fisherman turns his ruddy, weathered face toward the top of the hillside cemetery. With a heavy heart, he climbs steadily past row after row of tall tombstones, a bucket of water in each hand.

Takayuki Sato is here to clean the family grave. He lost his wife and mother in the tsunami that obliterated most of this once-picturesque fishing town famous for its salmon, seaweed and octopus. The women's bodies were never found.

He also lost his best friend, an aunt and uncle, his house and three boats. Nearly everything from his old life is gone.

"I'm afraid to be alone," Sato says with an embarrassed smile, after reaching the grave site. "I start thinking about a lot of different things when I'm alone. Sometimes I wonder if I can keep living."

One year on, the pain of unthinkable loss runs deep in the town of Minamisanriku. The March 11, 2011, tsunami took away loved ones. It took away jobs and the means to make a living. And it took away the very heart of the physical town, where people lived, worked and shopped.

As Minamisanriku plans to rebuild, moving its remaining population up into the surrounding hillsides, one thing is clear: It will never return to the cozy seaside town it once was.

The valley beneath the cemetery, where houses and shops were once clustered, is now a wide expanse of flat emptiness dusted with snow. The vacant, cracked remains of a hospital and a few other concrete buildings jut up here and there.

It's a scene repeated to varying degrees along Japan's tsunami-hit northeast coast. The debris has been cleaned up, but hardly any reconstruction has begun, leaving barren landscapes. More than 19,000 people died. Coastal communities are wrestling with how to rebuild when so much has been lost.

Tsunamis are nothing new to this region. Minamisanriku has seen four in the last 120 years, including one in 1960 that destroyed Sato's house — he was 19 at the time — and killed 41 residents.

Sato's family rebuilt near the sea then, but he won't this time. The latest tsunami was so much larger, the devastation so extensive, that it could be a transformative event in the town's roughly 900-year history.

Under current plans, no one will live in the low-lying land that runs to the sea. Most survivors, Sato included, say they want to move to higher ground, even if it means losing their old neighborhoods and changes their way of life.

Sato is abandoning the home where, some 44 years ago, he was introduced to his 21-year-old bride-to-be. Today, all that is left is the concrete foundation. A rusted Japan Railways cargo container sits in the neighboring plot.

A decade from now, Minamisanriku "will be totally different," predicts Osamu Takahashi, the owner of an eatery that reopened late last month in a temporary shopping area of 30 stores in prefabricated units next to a muddy parking lot. "The old atmosphere and history of the town will all be gone. But this is also a chance to recreate our town, too."

The town plans to carve several flat areas into the nearby forested hills for housing, municipal offices and a hospital — a difficult project that will take at least four to five years. The lower part of town, which will be raised several feet (meters) and protected by a new 29-foot (8.7-meter) seawall, will be reserved for shops, parks and fishing-related business.

Experts warn that scattering the residential areas will isolate people and weaken communal connections, particularly among the elderly, which make up a large chunk of this town and many others along the coast. As Japan's population ages and contracts, rural towns are trying to become more compact, but Minamisanriku is aiming to do the opposite.

"If safety is a top priority, then people will have to split up, but this could undermine the town's sustainability," said Katsuya Hirano, a professor of civil engineering at Tohoku University who is advising the town on its reconstruction plan. "It's a complicated problem."

The town, like many along the coast, is also battling a loss of jobs and people.

The population has shrunk by 2,200 to 15,419, between the 857 who died in the tsunami and those who have moved away to look for work. Many fear it will contract further. The number of people collecting unemployment insurance has shot up 34 percent in the three prefectures (states) worst hit by the disaster.

Restoring the fishing industry, which lost 90 percent of its boats and dozens of fishermen, is the top economic priority. A big tent-like structure is a temporary fish market, and daily auctions are being held again. In a nearby temporary warehouse, workers are about to complete the town's first fishing boat, with carpenters banging on the hull of another one next door.

Sato has found an abandoned boat and fixed it up enough to go out to sea occasionally.

"Minamisanriku is a fishing town, so if fishing doesn't recover, then the rest of the townspeople have an uncertain future," said Yasufumi Miura, Sato's nephew and a 61-year-old fisherman.

With the loss of income, it's not clear how many will be able to afford to buy land or take out a mortgage to build a new house. Many are already burdened with loans from houses that were destroyed in the tsunami. The government may offer them low-interest loans. Still, Takahashi, the eatery owner, is unsure he can afford one of the new houses in the hills.

"I'm 53," he said. "There's no guarantee that I will make enough to pay off those loans."

Perhaps the greatest loss, though, is that of loved ones — a relentless battle with loneliness that Sato fights every day.

From the hillside grave, a tall rectangular pillar etched with the family name, Sato turns somber as he recounts the events of last March 11.

As tsunami sirens wailed, his wife Hisako and his mother fled to his uncle's house on slightly higher ground. Sato went to the port to secure some equipment, then drove himself part way up a nearby hill. From there he watched in horror as the dark water devoured the town, crushing homes and sweeping people off rooftops before his eyes.

It wasn't until the next morning that he could wind his way through the rubble to his uncle's house. Nothing was left. For days, he went to a school gymnasium that had been converted into an evacuation center in hopes of finding his family.

Eventually, the bodies of his aunt and uncle were found. His wife and mother remain among the more than 3,000 whose bodies haven't been recovered, including 292 in Minamisanriku.

To fight loneliness, Sato says, he joins his buddies at the docks, energetically stirring a large vat of seaweed in boiling water and laughing with a dozen other fishermen. They wear overalls, rubber gloves and hats to protect against a cold wind.

Sato, now living with his son's family in an apartment about a 30-minute drive from town, doesn't talk much about the disaster with anyone. He finds time spent with his 4-year-old granddaughter is the most comforting. "She keeps me going," he says.

The tsunami has left him deeply conflicted about the ocean, whose bounty has sustained his family since at least his great-grandfather. The sea has also become the cruel thief that stole everything from him — and the last link to what he has lost.

"To tell you the truth, I want to get away from the sea," he says. "But at the same time, I am not able to leave this ocean that swallowed my mother and wife. If their bodies are found, it will bring some closure. As long as they remain missing, I don't want to leave this place."

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