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Tomioka: Full Bloom

The cherry blossom season is often seen as a time of new beginnings in Japan. This year, for the town of Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture, both the symbol and the meaning couldn't be more real.

Six years ago, on March 11, 2011 and the following days, meltdowns and radiation-leaking explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant caused by the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami forced tens of thousands of people in eleven nearby municipalities to evacuate and relocate their lives.

On April 1 of this year, however, after years of major cleanup and reconstruction efforts, the government officially lifted evacuation orders for signficant portions of the exclusion zone within the town of Tomioka for the first time in six years. The majority of the area of Tomioka is now accessible to visitors and can be reinhabitted by residents, though one more heavily contaminated "difficult-to-return" zone nearest to the power plant (less than 10 kilometers away) still remains.

Returning to Tomioka, whose entire, mostly elderly population was evacuated en masse in 2011, is no quick or simple—or even feasible—task for many. But now, former residents have a new chance.

Before the accident, each spring the Yonomori district of the town used to attract thousands of visitors to its impressive 2.4-kilometer cherry tree-lined roads, the "tunnel of flowers." While over half of the district still remains in a no-entry zone that will likely persist for several more years, this year, for the first time since 2010, the trees are once again accessible to the general public.

Today, I made my way to Tomioka to see the blossoms for myself.

The blossoms today were at their absolute peak of full bloom. Assuming the clear and mild forecasts for the weekend hold, they should remain at their best viewing into mid next week, though possible rain may cut that slightly short.

In celebration of the town's reopening, the city is also illuminating the cherry trees at night until April 16.

The tree tunnel is mostly located within the recently reopened area in town, but the last few hundred meters are cut short for visitors by the border of the off-limits northeastern section still under exclusion. The guarded gates and hundreds of still-abandoned buildings are sober reminders of what happened here and the struggle returnees face to call this place home again.

Amongst the silent, empty homes and businesses lining the quiet roads here, reconstruction and cleanup efforts were clearly visible, too. Perhaps most noticeably, crews of laborers were hard at work around the now-out-of-use JR Yonomori Station platform area today, where hundreds of bags of contaminated topsoil and other material were being collected and loaded onto trucks for removal.

The people of Tomioka, it seems, are determined to fight to clean up and rebuild their town and its image, one step at a time.