It is a nuclear-era Mary Celeste, a town left virtually untouched since its 21,000 residents fled two years ago.
Rubble and roof tiles still litter the streets from the huge earthquake that dislodged them on 11 March, 2011.
A ship lies beached beside a main road, washed up by the tsunami that pummeled the coastline less than an hour later.
Homes and schools sit empty and abandoned, poisoned by the invisible radioactive payload from the nearby Daiichi nuclear plant that settled over everything here in the days after the Fukushima meltdown began.
Namie in Fukushima Prefecture will always be synonymous with the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Like the Ukrainian city of Pripyat, it is a nuclear ghost town, gradually being reclaimed by nature.
After the tsunami, bodies lay here undiscovered for a month because nobody could be found to retrieve them. Government officials concealed the spread of radioactivity, leaving the town’s citizens to be poisoned. Today, Tomotsu Baba, its mayor, serves a population that has been scattered across Japan, driven out by contamination. “Many want to know the current state of the disaster area,” he says. “They wonder what’s become of it and feel a great need to see it for themselves.”
Now they can. Google Street View is giving Namie’s nuclear refugees a virtual tour of their uninhabitable streets and homes.
The company responded to the mayor’s request by sending its camera-equipped cars to the town to create a panorama of stitched digital images. For the first time since the disaster began, the town’s residents can see what they left behind – most have only been allowed back under police escort for a few minutes since March 2011 to pick up vital belongings.
“It’s wonderful but scary at the same time,” says Yukiko Kameya, from the nearby ghost town of Futaba. “Some of us want to put that part of our lives out of our minds, but there are many who need to stay in touch.”
Google had to get permission to enter the 20-km no-go zone around the ruined hulk of the Daiichi plant. Police checkpoints guard the entry and exit points to the area. Most of the roughly 120,000 people who once lived inside the zone believe it will be years, perhaps decades before they can return.
Mayor Baba hopes the images will serve another purpose. “I imagine there are people around the world who also want to see the tragic aftermath of the nuclear accident,” he says in a video released to mark the Google project, translated by Japanese news blog RocketNews 24. “So I hope these images reach the rest of the world through Street View.
He says he wants the imagery to become “a permanent record of what happened” to his town. "Those of us in the older generation feel that we received this town from our forbearers, and we feel great pain that we cannot pass it down to our children.”
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