The pain of loss lingered in the hearts of many as they reflected Thursday on the devastating earthquake and tsunami that engulfed Japan's northeast coast a decade ago, despite few remaining traces of the destruction wreaked on that fateful day.
Among the three hardest-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, no single municipality lost more lives than Miyagi's Ishinomaki, where latest government estimates put the death toll from the disaster at about 3,300.
At Ishinomaki Minamihama Tsunami Recovery Memorial Park, around 50 local government officials and guests attended the unveiling ceremony for a newly constructed cenotaph ahead of the park's official opening on March 28.
"As a place that was hit hard by the disaster, we want to carry forward its memory so that such a sacrifice never needs to be made again," Ishinomaki Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama said in his opening remarks.
The names of more than 3,600 victims, 90 percent from Ishinomaki, are inscribed on the monument located on the west side of the main park entrance near the remains of the tsunami-hit Kadonowaki Elementary School.
The victims include those still listed as missing and those who died later from issues related to the disaster such as illness and stress-induced suicide.
A steady stream of people headed to the cenotaph following the unveiling ceremony. As they searched for the names of loved ones, some put their hands together to offer a prayer, while others wiped tears from their eyes.
Junko Onodera, 57, who lost her mother and only son in the tsunami, said, "The feeling of sadness is the same as it always was."
But Onodera, who said her sister and friends are what motivated her to keep on living after the searing loss, said she is happy the monument was made. "Seeing the names of (my mother and son) is proof that they lived in this world, so I wanted this," she noted.
At the Ishinomaki Community & Info Center, British expat and longtime Ishinomaki resident Richard Halberstadt said he finds meaning in educating people about the disaster.
"Everyone in this city has lost family or friends, or both," said Halberstadt. He now heads the facility, which provides information to visitors about how the tsunami devastated Ishinomaki and the progress of reconstruction.
Despite the urging of the British Embassy to leave the country due to possible fallout from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Halberstadt, who was teaching at Ishinomaki Senshu University at the time the tsunami hit, chose to remain in the city and assist in its recovery.
"Everything I had done in my life could be used in this job," he said, describing the opportunity to work at the center as "almost destiny."
In the neighboring city of Higashimatsushima, Shinichi Endo, a carpenter who lost his three children in the 2011 catastrophe, works in his atelier. Endo says he prefers to avoid the big ceremonies, instead choosing to spend each anniversary quietly mourning his loss with a close-knit group of other victims.
"The sadness of not being able to see my children won't ever fade, 10 years or 20 years on (from the disaster)," the 52-year-old resident of Ishinomaki said, admitting that his life had lost all meaning for a long time.
But the support he has received over the years has changed him, so that now, 10 years on, Endo "can sit here today and say that I don't want to die."
At a port in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, 39-year-old Tasuku Kubota threw a bouquet into the ocean in memory of his wife Eriko, 29, and three children, who remain missing since the disaster.
He now lives in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, with a new family but visits Yamada every year on March 11, where he lived with Eriko and the children.
"I came here to see you," Kubota said, wiping his tears. "I'll come again next year. I love you all."
At Ukedo port in the town of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, which last spring conducted its first fish auction since the disaster, fisherman Yasuo Ishikawa looked back on the past decade, saying he continued to live as an evacuee in the neighboring city of Minamisoma due to the Fukushima nuclear crisis.
"I was able to come back (as a fisherman) because the port was restored. I had lost myself in (making ends meet)," the 65-year-old said as he watched fishing boats. He added the tsunami washed away his house, although his family and vessel were safe.
In the Ogawara district of Okuma town in Fukushima, which hosts the crippled nuclear plant, Hikaru Murai, 71, who has returned to the municipality, said, "This is my hometown. I'm glad to have been able to come back."
The return of residents to the district began two years ago following decontamination work to bring down radiation levels and the rebuilding of infrastructure. Areas near the plant still remain no-go zones.
Many of the returnees in the Ogawara district previously resided in different areas. "Everyone here has yet to actually feel like a resident," said Murai, who lives in public housing.