Hisako Miura pats away tears with her small white towel as she talks about this year’s Bon festival, when Japanese families return home to visit the graves of their ancestors.

With three family members dead and one missing from the tsunami that wrecked the north-east coast after Japan earthquake five months ago, this year’s Bon which ended on Tuesday was a gruelling one.

Her home and birthplace wrecked, she now lives in temporary housing, tiny for a family of three even by Japanese standards, where she wakes up to a view of the devastated town of Minamisanriku. With no savings Ms Miura, 63, has had to borrow money for a car so that she can drive to buy food.

Bon is normally a time when families reunite to share memories and pay their respects to the dead, who are believed to come back to visit. If there are no recently dead family members, it is often a happy time.

But this year, many are coming to terms with the emotional and physical upheaval of the sudden loss of multiple family members and a hugely uncertain future. Many families have no place for relatives to gather, emphasising how families have been ripped apart.

For those with loved ones still registered as missing it is particularly tough. With no body for a traditional Buddhist wake and funeral, families feel they have not honoured the dead in the most respectful way.

“I can’t get a feeling of closure,” says Ms Miura. “Normally we would get together and talk about the memories of our dead family members. While we should be able to do that this time, I feel like I can’t, like I shouldn’t.”

Part of the Bon tradition is for families to burn incense at the graves. While some cemeteries have remained intact, others have been severely damaged.

Further down the coast of in Miyagi prefecture the city of Ishinomaki, two huge gravestones in a small neighbourhood temple complex were badly damaged in the disaster, and the heavy stones were still strewn across the ground five months after the disaster. Volunteers had been enlisted to clean up the rubbish in the complex, but not the stones, as they were deemed too heavy.

“What really struck me was that they were all doing what seemed to be cosmetic work in the garden and no one was touching the graves,” said Ian Callan, one of the volunteers, on holiday from Canada. “Obon is coming so I thought why don’t we give it a whirl [restoring the gravestones].”

With the help of internet research on feudal gravestones and a little girl who had played in grounds before the disaster confirming the order in which the stones needed to be placed, the volunteers restored the two large gravestones, sparking interest from residents who came to help.

“It attracted a crowd as it had been weighing on people that other stuff had been getting done but not this most important thing,” said Dustin Cassidy, another volunteer.

Even with cleaned and restored gravestones, the traditional act of lighting incense at the family grave carries a heavier weight than usual, a reminder of how lives were taken so brutally and suddenly. Fujimu Sato, 60, lost his older brother and his brother’s grandchild in the tsunami.

“We’ll go to light incense, but I’m worried about how to act and express my condolences to the other family members,” Mr Sato said.

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