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In a little room of a small hillside Buddhist temple that barely survived Japan’s tsunami five months ago, Yuko Kikuchi knelt down, quietly sobbing and gently caressing the boxes that hold the bones and ashes of her perished mother and sister-in-law, reports Yoko Kubota.

“It’s harder now,” says 57-year-old Kikuchi, who came back to her devastated hometown Otsuchicho, about 300 miles northeast of Tokyo to observe “obon,” a series of annual Buddhist ceremonies in mid-August to honor the spirits of the dead, writes Kubota for the British news agency Reuters:

“In the beginning, there were so many things I had to do and my feelings were high. But now that things are gradually settling, it’s hard and I remember many things that we used to do without thinking deeply … It was just so sudden.”

But residents of Otsuchicho, still surrounded by burned and melted buildings and other reminders of the disaster, know that the annual festive mood they have long embraced won’t be back this year.

“We can’t celebrate obon like we used to until last year. But even though we can’t recognize them in a visible way now, I believe talking about them with everyone and doing our best would help honor them, so I’m trying to stay strong,” Kikuchi said.

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