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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And now to that Japanese seaside town of Rikuzentakata. It's home to a tiny temple called Kongoji. The temple is perched on a hillside, and it's one of the few structures left intact in the town after the earthquake and tsunami.

This week, NPR's Yuki Noguchi happened to be there. She was drawn to the spot after hearing the sound of drums.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

YUKI NOGUCHI: Rikuzentakata is so flattened it's hard to imagine life continuing here at all. Surveying the whole city, you can see maybe 10 buildings that are still standing. And yet, overlooking the city, we start to hear the sound of drums coming from the hillside.

(Soundbite of drums)

NOGUCHI: Celebrations like these honoring the dead might be commonplace in the U.S., but in Japan, it's unusual, especially now, since the country's been in self-preservation and conservation mode.

(Soundbite of music)

NOGUCHI: The ceremony featured men dressed in colorful robes, reenacting a dragon-like god blessing local rice cakes and sake. It's a ritual normally reserved for a harvest time offering to the gods. But organizers say this performance is a requiem. Fifteen people died and eight are still missing from the neighborhood at the foot of this hill.

The offering was followed by a long, silent prayer. Then a troupe of young men wearing wooden masks performed an acrobatic, traditional dance.

(Soundbite of music)

NOGUCHI: Older residents in the audience wept, moved by the idea that they were not just carrying on, but carrying on age-old traditions.

Volunteers from around the country brought their bounty. Residents feasted on stews, grilled fish and fried noodles. They grew cherry-faced, knocking back plenty of beer and sake from a famous local company that the ocean washed away.

There are those who are critical of anything that looks or smells like a party when the country is still in mourning, particularly anything reminiscent of a cherry blossom festival, which typically involves drinking to excess. And the novelty of ceremony, juxtaposed with total desolation, drew Japanese television crews and newspaper reporters.

Indeed, survivors like Takeko Kono didn't know how to feel.

Ms. TAKEKO KONO: (Through Translator) I can't tell whether I'm happy or sad to be here. My house is right there. Right there. I lost my daughter, so I came here looking for photos. But I didn't find anything. I just found these old bills.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of singing)

NOGUCHI: Naoshi Sato is the muse behind this event.

Mr. NAOSHI SATO: (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: The 77-year-old Sato lives on the waterlogged second floor of his house. He had mentioned doing an event to honor the dead, and that made its way onto the Internet.

Sato himself looks tired and soiled, but he still likes to crack dry, off-color jokes. He tells those gathered he loves them like his grandchildren or wives or lovers.

Mr. SATO: (Foreign language spoken)

NOGUCHI: Every day, we have to move ahead, he says, one small step every day patiently and steadily.

Sato is a logger. The tsunami washed away his chain saw, and the next day, he ordered a new one. After all, he says, there are more than 500 houses in this neighborhood that need to be rebuilt.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Rikuzentakata, Japan.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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