ISHINOMAKI (Miyagi prefecture) - Mrs Masako Karino cannot bring herself to return to what is left of Okawa Elementary School.
The battered shell of the school lies about 3km down the valley from her home, along the Kitakami River, and was where both her children died on March 11, 2011, when they were engulfed by the tsunami.
The area where she lives with her husband Tatsuhiro and his parents was spared the destruction of the waves and, coated in snow, is pristine. Closer to the river, where the tsunami breached the protective dyke, none of the homes or farm buildings there withstood its force.
Mrs Karino, 39, says the fact that everything around her seems the same as it always was makes her loss even harder to come to terms with.
“It has already been one year since the disaster, but it still feels as if it happened only yesterday,” she says, kneeling on the tatami-mat floor of a room that has been turned into a shrine to the memory of her son, Tatsuya, 11, and daughter Misaki, 8.
“We have gone through all the ceremonies for when a person dies and I’m aware that they are no longer with us, but I still get the feeling that they are here,” she says.
“I was working before the disaster, but the company is in Ishinomaki city and was badly damaged by the tsunami. But it has restarted now, so I have gone back to work,” she adds.
“It helps to take my mind off things,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that I forget them when I go to work and I can’t switch off completely, but it takes my mind off things for a couple of hours at a time.”
On the wall are black-and-white formal portraits of her husband’s grandparents and, alongside them, colour photos of a ruddy-cheeked Tatsuya, and Misaki in a purple and silver sweater.
Her son liked to draw and liked science at school, Mrs Karino says. His ambition was to be a designer of computer games. Misaki was always cheerful, and a framed certificate on the wall is an award for a poem that she wrote.
Two school backpacks – one blue and one red – are on the floor, next to photo albums, a stuffed toy and a baseball helmet. A pin-board is covered with photos of the children in summer kimono at Disneyland, in the snow.
Tomorrow, a priest will come to the house and the family will gather for a ceremony to mark the one year that has passed since the disaster.
“I’m up and down,” Mrs Karino admits. “I understand what has happened and I know that they are not coming back, but there are times when the lows are very low and I don’t feel that I'm coping well at all.”
On the third anniversary of the disaster, we look at how life has changed - or not - for the survivors and the country.
Other stories from our archives:
A year after the devastating triple disaster, rebuilding lives and industry along Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region, especially the three hardest-hit prefectures, has been painfully slow.
One of the streets in Ishinomaki hardest hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in north-east Japan – is showing signs of recovery.
Mrs Takako Niinuma, 75, has vowed to return the Takata Matsubara forest devastated by the March 11 earthquake to its former glory for the sake of future generations.
Japan is scrambling to find alternative energy sources as the lights go out at its nuclear power plants this year.
Mrs Naomi Hiratsuka is now still searching for four children and a teacher whose bodies have not been recovered.
Singaporean Lai Ying Loong has been making weekend trips to the Tohoku region about once a month, joining other volunteers first in clearing debris and then in bringing cheer to survivors.
Ms Ruiko Sasahara, a mortician by profession, has been volunteering since disaster struck last year, repairing battered faces so that surviving relatives can say their final farewells.
Red tape and lack of skilled manpower are holding up the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas in Japan, even two years after it was slammed by giant tremors and tsunami waves.