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To stand in the wasteland that was central Rikuzentakata is to sense the scale of the challenge faced by Japan's north-east coast as it struggles to rebound from the tsunami that struck on March 11 last year.
The carpet of debris that clogged the area has been mostly cleared and traffic has returned to the roads, but otherwise the scene is still post-apocalyptic. Neighbourhoods of wooden homes have disappeared, leaving only foundations. The hulks of concrete buildings stand empty, makeshift shrines set up at their entrances in honour of those who died within when the waters hit.
Similar scenes are common along hundreds of kilometres of coast scoured by the tsunami, a landscape of loss where nearly 20,000 people are dead or missing. And such sights are fuelling frustration at the pace of reconstruction from Japan's worst natural disaster in eight decades.
Yet travel to the inland edge of Rikuzentakata's disaster zone and the signs of tentative recovery are apparent. Temporary shops and restaurants line the road, offering residents some normality. On higher ground, a cement factory is being rebuilt.
In the new pre-fabricated city office, deputy mayor Takashi Kubota says residents' basic needs are being met and a broad direction set for reconstruction. "We have at last reached the starting point," Mr Kubota says.
The Rikuzentakata disaster recovery plan highlights renewable energy, reflecting hopes that the region can pioneer new sources of power after the nuclear crisis at the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant. The north-east coast is also a demographic forerunner, and creation of new and sustainable communities would provide a model of how to cope with Japan's rapidly ageing and population decline.
The government has allocated Y18tn (USD220bn) for reconstruction, which will sharply boost national economic growth this year, and progress is being made on restoring infrastructure, with repair crews a common sight along coastal roads. Yet spending the money efficiently will be a challenge. While funds slosh around regional centres, there is a shortage of labour. Work at the new Rikuzentakata cement factory has been slowed by lack of materials and accommodation for workers, some of whom have to commute from other prefectures.
Many in the region say slow action by the central government and red tape have slowed rebuilding. Mr Kubota says bureaucratic diktat blocks the city from funding a centre for volunteers, even though it is essential to make efficient use of the labour being offered by visitors from around Japan.
There is no doubting the determination to return to normal life. In the village of Hongo north of Rikuzentakata, fisherman Shigeru Chiba says government subsidies have covered almost all of the cost of new boats, allowing fishing and aquaculture, on which the village relies, to restart. "Today we harvested seaweed for the first time since the tsunami," he says. "It's an important day for us."
Still, social strains are growing. Kazuyoshi Sasaki, a Rikuzentakata city council member, frets that many tsunami survivors have lost the will to work. Instead, he says, they survive on unemployment insurance, donations and government sympathy payments, even squandering the cash on pachinko, a hybrid arcade-style gambling game.
Pachinko parlours are doing strong trade, even in the hardest hit areas. Yet players and providers insist the game provides a respite in an area that had few recreational options even before the disaster. "Without this amusement, I think the suicide rate might go up," says Shin Sasaki, a manager at one local pachinko company.
The area's most pressing need is employment in the long term. Rikuzentakata hopes to attract investment through tax discounts and other concessions. Farther south, the governor of Miyagi prefecture says special zones will make it easier for companies to engage in agriculture and fishing, for example. Such efforts aim to turn round a region long in decline. Rikuzentakata's population had already fallen by a third in the decades before the tsunami. There is a real risk that such communities could be rebuilt only to atrophy.
It is hard not to see a warning in the tale of Rikuzentakata's "miracle pine", a tree that was part of a famous seaside forest otherwise destroyed by the tsunami. This endurance made the tree a nationally recognised symbol, even embossed on the gold coins given to buyers of national reconstruction bonds.
But experts say salt water has rotted the roots and it is dying. Attention has now shifted to trying to cultivate seeds and grafts taken from it. Many on the north-east coast also wonder if communities can survive. For them, too, recovery will require finding new ways to grow.