Once these streets buzzed with life, but now silence reigns. Children’s bags still hang on hooks in the elementary school, waiting for their owners to claim them. Kitchen shelves are filled with food, slowly rotting as the years pass. This town was once home to thousands of people, but now everybody is gone.
The village of Namie was established on April 1, 1889, in the Nahara District of Fukushima in Japan. It was built on the site of Koyamachi, an ancient settlement that had been destroyed by fire.
Over the years, Namie expanded from a village into a town. Then, in 1956, it swallowed up the nearby areas of Obori and Karino to form one larger metropolis.
By March 2011 there were more than 20,000 people who called Namie home. They worked in the rice paddy fields that surrounded the town, and eked out a living through fishing and collecting salmon roe.
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant just along the coast also played an important role in the town. More than 2,000 local residents were employed there, while its owner Tepco often supported events and activities within the community.
Then, on March 11, 2011, everything changed. Shifting tectonic plates beneath the ocean near Japan caused a massive earthquake that wreaked havoc across the country.
With a magnitude level of 9.0, it was the strongest quake to hit Japan in recorded history and the fourth most powerful in the world since records began. It hit the country with such force that Honshu, the main island of Japan where Namie is located, was shifted eight feet to the east.
The effects of the quake were staggering. The seismic shift triggered giant waves that reached up to 130 feet in height, traveling up to six miles inland and destroying almost everything in their path.
Officials estimate that almost 16,000 people lost their lives in the disaster, with many thousands more missing or injured. But another terrifying side-effect of the quake was its impact on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the towns surrounding it.
During the chaos, several electrical generators at the plant went down. Without power, the cooling systems in the nuclear reactors failed and a build-up of hydrogen gas caused several explosions. And to make things worse, dangerous radioactive material began to leak out of the plant.
At 7:03pm on March 11 the Japanese government declared a state of nuclear emergency. Initially, an area of a mile and a half around the plant was evacuated, with almost 2,000 people ordered to leave their homes.
By 6:25pm on March 12, this exclusion zone had been extended to a 12-mile radius. By the next day, around 200,000 people had been evacuated from the area.
For the residents of Namie, this meant having to abandon their homes overnight. They were alerted to the disaster by city officials driving through the streets with loudspeakers. They were told to evacuate to Tsushima, a small town around 17 miles inland.
The situation in Tsushima was dire. A town with a population of only 1,400, it struggled to provide food and adequate shelter for the residents of Namie. Then, the wind began blowing radiation from the plant directly over the town.
On March 15, three days after their arrival in Tsushima, the residents of Namie were on the move again. They packed up and relocated to Nihonmatsu, a city located just under 40 miles from the plant. Five years later, they are still there.
Today, Namie is a ghost town. The exclusion zone restrictions remain in place, barring the residents from returning to their homes. They are permitted to visit once a month to clean and retrieve possessions, but are not permitted to stay for the night.
Ukedo, the area of the town closest to the coast, was completely wiped out by the tsunami. Further inland, buildings still stand in various states of disarray.
Inside homes, belongings scattered by the earthquake are still strewn across the floor. Abandoned roads and train lines have been reclaimed by nature, with thick vegetation growing through the cracks. A damaged elementary school looks like a set from a post-apocalyptic movie, as if everyone had left mid-lesson, never to return.
Conservative estimates suggest that it will be at least another year before certain areas can be declared safe. Even then, many have lost trust in official statements after Tepco was heavily criticized over its handling of the incident.
Despite fears of the long-term effects of radiation on livestock and crops, the lengthy process of cleaning up the town continues. Whether anyone will want to return to live in the shadow of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, however, remains to be seen.