In an abandoned village where 15,839 people used to live, an unnerving silence prevails.
The families have gone, their cars have been left to rust, and house roof tiles lie shattered on the pavement.
Something terrible has taken place.
Even though the power lines are still down above the deserted streets, a newly installed LED screen over the main road flashes up numbers: 3.741, 3.688, 3.551.
They are radioactivity readings measured in microsieverts per hour, taken from Geiger counters in the ground below.
The normal safe level of background radiation in the air for humans to live in is 0.2 microsieverts. Here in Tomioka, in the shadow of the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, radiation is 19 times that.
Recent photographs purporting to show mutant daisies near the plant went viral on Twitter. No wonder people are not coming back.
In March 2011, the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl left the world fearing the extent of the fallout.
Japan’s 43 other reactors were shut down after the meltdown and remained dormant until earlier this month, when Japan restarted its nuclear power programme by turning on a reactor at its Sendai plant in northwest Japan.
But just last week, London-based radioactivity expert Dr Ian Fairlie claimed that while 2,000 people have already died from the effects of evacuation and suicide, another 5,000 could develop cancer after exposure to radiation.
Today, the deathly pall of radiation still lingers. I went back to Japan’s devastated northeast coast after the government opened up part of the evacuation zone enforced after a tsunami caused the disaster.
An unprecedented decontamination operation continues around the clock in a 50-mile radius around the stricken power station.
It is part of a £7billion effort by a Japanese government wanting the community to be able to return.
But as I enter the dead zone I see scores of decontamination workers in masks, plastic gloves and thick overalls. Field by field, they are clearing the top layer of soil from every affected area of farming land and the places where people used to live.
They clear a buffer strip along the side of the forest covering the hillsides above.
The soil is shovelled into thick plastic bags, which are then piled up in football pitch-sized pyramids at designated radioactive waste sites by the roadside.
At one seafront storage facility, where the now-defunct Tomioka railway station used to be, thousands of tonnes of toxic waste line the beach.
Many here believe it is impossible to get rid of the radioactive dust coating this densely forested rural area following the meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima.
As my guide Makiko Segawa says: “They are only digging up the farmland and three metres on both sides of the roads. That is a drop in the ocean, really.
“When you look up into the mountains and the forests, you realise radioactivity is everywhere around us and they will never get rid of it properly.
“People here are genuinely terrified of the effects of radiation and don’t believe assurance it is safe to return.”
Some of the 200,000 evacuees who had to leave in the days after the reactor’s cooling system failed can return, but the majority say they never will.
A mask-wearing policeman patrolling to prevent looting tells me it is dangerous to spend more than 24 hours here.
“We are sent up from Tokyo for a few months at a time, but we never stay longer than we have to,” he concedes.
“I have a family, so of course I worry. We stay in the car as much as possible and try to keep on the move.”
The hands on the clock on the main street outside Tomioka’s supermarket have stopped at five minutes to three. It is a permanent reminder of the earthquake that happened 40 miles out to sea, triggering a 130ft-high tsunami that caused meltdown at Fukushima.
A few metres away, opposite a roadside garage, vending machines are shrouded in six-foot weeds.
There are haunting reminders of broken lives everywhere I look. Children’s shoes have been left on a Mickey Mouse rack by the front door of one shuttered-down property.
Behind screens, through windows cracked by the earthquake, are glimpses of families suddenly uprooted: clothes left to dry, meals unfinished.
It was recently announced the clearance teams have started decontaminating a school in Iitate, one of the places downwind from the Fukushima where radiation remains highest.
I peer through the window of the locked-up school building in Kusano and see it remains as it was on the day of the reactor failure. Boxes of textbooks and stationery sit unopened following a delivery, while the swimming pool is murky and covered in green algae.
Iitate was right in the path of the plant but residents were evacuated only a month later, so many face health problems due to dangerous exposure levels. And only a quarter of the town has been properly decontaminated so far.
A Greenpeace spokesman said: “The decontamination efforts are largely insufficient and ineffective. It is clear that radiation levels in Iitate are too high for a safe return of its residents.”
The disaster has also been blamed for 80 suicides. Last year, a court ordered Tokyo Electric Power Company to pay £284,000 to relatives of a woman who killed herself after evacuation.
We pass abandoned amusement arcades, retail parks, restaurants and factories, all taped off and awaiting demolition. A church building is now a clean-up facility for the workers.
The government has assured all evacuees they can return home by 2017. Yet authorities were recently forced to admit the clean-up operation at the plant could take 200 years. Recent scans of one reactor revealed nuclear fuel in the furnace had melted and dripped into the outer containment vessel. It is so radioactive humans cannot go near it.
Tepco is developing robots capable of entering the ruined reactors and removing radioactive material safely. The alternative is to enclose the whole power station in concrete, above ground and below, as happened at Chernobyl.
Beyond a line of trees I see the outline of the plant. A security official stops our car when we stop at the turn-off.
His hands crossed in an X-shaped warning, it is clear Japan wants to keep its dirty secret away from prying eyes.