At midnight, he chanted Buddhist sutras in a ceremony praying for the rebuilding of the town.
"Those who live in temples have to go to where the people are," Sakanushi, 44, said. "Today is a milestone of sorts. I will return to the temple from today."
However, because only a small number of long-time residents have returned to Naraha, many parts of the town are quiet and lonely at night. Community bonds remain severed, making a return to Naraha difficult for former residents such as Teruyuki Ishizawa, 75, who now lives in temporary housing in Iwaki.
"I want to return but cannot," he said. "The town is so dark that I cannot allow my wife to walk outside by herself."
The lifting of the evacuation order for residents who fled in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami does not mean that all 7,400 residents can simply return home.
Some evacuees have established comfortable lives elsewhere and want to continue with that daily routine.
Others are discouraged by the likelihood that only a few neighbors will return to their communities even with the evacuation order lifted.
For Sakanushi, March 11, 2011, was a special day, but not because of the twin disasters that changed his life. That was the day he was officially appointed head priest of Dairakuin by the headquarters of the Buzan sect of Shingon Buddhism to which the temple belongs.
He intended to take over most of the duties performed by his father, Myokan, 78, who had served as head priest of Dairakuin for 50 years.
However, after the evacuation order was issued for Naraha, Sakanushi's family of six moved away.
Sakanushi is also an employee of the Naraha town government. He temporarily moved to Aizu-Wakamatsu where he provided support to other evacuees. Subsequently, he moved to Kita-Ibaraki, Ibaraki Prefecture, where his wife, Chisaki, 39, daughter, Mayu, 11, and son, Homare, 7, had evacuated to. Sakanushi's parents eventually settled in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, after initially evacuating to Gunma Prefecture.
Although the evacuation order has been lifted, Sakanushi is now the only family member to return to Naraha.
No decision has yet been made about whether to have his two children return. The town government plans to resume the elementary and junior high schools in town from spring 2017. But Homare has no memories of life in Naraha, because he evacuated four and a half years ago.
"I do hold the feeling of wanting to live together as a family," Sakanushi said. "However, the children have become accustomed to life in Ibaraki. I will think about whether we should all return by the time school resumes here."
Many of his temple's followers have also not returned to Naraha. Some are still concerned about the radiation, while others are worried about the inconveniences associated with returning to a community that has been deserted for more than four years.
Sakanushi plans to maintain the temple "annex" that was established in Iwaki, where about 80 percent of Naraha residents have evacuated to.
The tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident have drastically altered the appearance of Naraha.
Homes along the coast remain flattened from the tsunami. Areas that once were rice paddies now are filled with black plastic bags holding dirt contaminated by radiation.
After the nuclear accident, lodging facilities and offices of companies involved in reactor decommissioning and decontamination work related to the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have been constructed in Naraha. More than 1,000 workers now reside in Naraha, exceeding the number of long-time residents who returned. Those workers also frequent the temporary shopping arcade that has been set up in town.
A couple who now reside in Nagoya have all but given up hope of ever returning to Naraha.
Yoshiharu and Nobuko Matsumoto fled to Nagoya because their oldest daughter lives in Aichi Prefecture.
At first, Nobuko, 79, would say to Yoshiharu, 80, "We will return after a year or so."
However, their lives as evacuees have now lasted for four and a half years.
Their oldest daughter, who returned temporarily to Naraha to sell off furniture and clean up, told them how their home has deteriorated.
Mold has grown on the house, which has also been damaged by rats. Shrubs have grown taller than the height of the Matsumotos.
This spring, the Matsumotos were told it would cost 10 million yen ($84,000) to repair the home.
That was when Nobuko decided, "I will remain in Nagoya."
Yoshiharu was still determined to return to Naraha.
In early August, the entire family returned to Naraha with the intention of completing the clean-up work.
Even though he had back problems, Yoshiharu made the trip to Naraha, but he could not stop the tears from flowing when he saw his home for the first time in more than four years.
A next-door neighbor had begun destroying their home. The neighbor across the street had also decided to do the same. Of the family of five who used to live in the back of the Matsumoto home, only the grandmother in her 80s is planning to return.
In total, only one neighbor among their acquaintances was planning to return to Naraha.
"I want to return, but if I cannot farm and there are no friends, I would not be able to go on living there," Yoshiharu said. "When I saw our home, I felt we had moved far away."
He still has not decided whether to tear down the home because he fears that would anger his ancestors. Yoshiharu has asked his children to, at the very least, leave the family grave in Naraha.
Source: Asahi Shimbun