TAMURA, Japan – Donning white protective suits, neighbors of Japan's radiation-leaking nuclear plant returned home Thursday for the first time since March when the crisis began. But they barely had time to fill garbage bags with belongings and pray at a makeshift shrine before they had to leave.
Some residents lit incense in Namie, one of the deserted, evacuated towns frozen in time since March 11. Debris is still piled several stories high there, with a ship resting precariously atop one heap.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from towns near the plant soon after Japan's massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami flooded the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, which then began spewing radiation. Local officials and nuclear experts escorted several dozen of them back for a two-hour visit Thursday.
"It was just like it was when the quake hit," said Anna Takano, a 17-year-old high school student from Futaba, home to the plant. "It felt very strange."
Takano said she packed up as much clothing from her home as she could and then made a 10-minute visit to her family grave site.
For most, it was the first time they had been able to check on homes and possessions. Similar visits began earlier for towns farther away from the plant, but Thursday's excursion went deeper into the 12-mile no-go zone around the plant than any before it.
Many evacuees from the nuclear zone did not realize how long the crisis would drag on and left with only the clothes they were wearing and their purses or wallets.
Due to radiation concerns, officials allowed only two people per household to return and let them stay at their homes only for two hours. They gave residents no more than one large black plastic bag for collecting things, because of space restrictions and fears of contamination.
"I planned very carefully what I would get," said Mikio Tadano, an architect, also from Futaba. "I wanted to get my writing tools, my bankbook, and my daughter's school uniform."
Tadano said his daughter had transferred to a new school outside the zone where she was one of only four students without a uniform -- all of them evacuees.
In Tamura, a town on the edge of the zone, residents donned white protective suits from head to foot at a sanitized gymnasium near the 12-mile (20-kilometer) perimeter, and then went into the zone by bus.
After the disaster knocked out cooling systems at the plant, it suffered explosions, fires and spewed radioactive particles into the air, prompting the government to order 80,000 residents around the plant to evacuate.
Workers are pumping water into the reactors to cool their cores, but that water -- now highly radioactive -- is then spilling out and pooling around the complex.
Workers found a leak Thursday in a temporary storage tank that they're using to hold some of that contaminated water, said Junichi Matsumoto, spokesman for operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. There was no immediate sign it was making its way into the sea or that radiation levels in the air nearby had risen, he said.
Radiation levels in most areas have since declined, but are believed to still pose potential health hazards if sustained for long periods of time.
The radiation in the air near the front gate of the plant surged to 12 millisieverts per hour on March 15, just hours after a third reactor exploded. On Thursday, the radiation level had fallen to 1 percent of that -- 114 microsieverts, or 0.114 millisieverts -- according to TEPCO.
A typical chest X-ray emits about 50 to 100 microsieverts.
In the town of Namie, near Futaba, the radiation in the air was as high as 0.73 microsieverts per hour Thursday, regional nuclear safety official Masato Kino said. That's about half the level measured on March 30, the earliest date for which readings for the town were collected.
With better data now coming in, the government also recently added more areas to the evacuated zone, meaning another 7,000 outside the no-go zone in places previously believed to be safe are just now preparing to leave their towns.
Including those left homeless by the quake and tsunami, more than 100,000 people remain in shelters across northern Japan. More than 25,000 were killed or are missing.
As the hardships of living in shelters became more acute, the government came under intense pressure to let evacuees back in for short trips. It initially said the situation was too dangerous and the plant too unstable. But after announcing last month that the evacuation order would likely drag on for another six to nine months, the day trips were approved.
Thursday's trip by about 60 townspeople started with a briefing by Futaba officials and safety instructions by experts from TEPCO.
The residents were screened for radiation after the visit, but none showed health-threatening levels of exposure.
So far, 588 people have made visits to their homes. Another 16,000 more from nine towns are still lined up for trips that will be conducted over the next several weeks, according to another NISA official, Tatsuyuki Yamauchi.
A government team also went with the residents to rescue stranded dogs. They brought out four, all of which were in good spirits. Earlier in the crisis, when prohibitions on entering the zone were not strictly enforced, several private groups left food and water for lost dogs, keeping many alive long enough to be rescued and returned to their owners.
Cats have been more difficult to bring back. None were rescued Thursday.
Mihoko Watanabe, 73, said she left food and water for her cat, who remains at her home in Futaba but could not be captured and rescued.
"I'm glad she's alive," Watanabe said. "But it's very sad. She's 23 years old."