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KIRIKIRI, Japan (Reuters) - The signs posted at intervals along the coastal road in northeast Japan read "End of Estimated Tsunami Inundation Zone." The obliterated landscape beyond shows the estimations were badly out.
Route 45 was once one of Japan's more scenic drives, hugging the coast for hundreds of kilometers, but the earthquake on March 11 unleashed a wall of water that tore through the region, leaving a path of destruction behind it.
Police, fire fighters and the inevitable disaster sightseers now travel the road from the northern city of Miyako, where an elaborate sea wall system proved helpless against waves as high as four-storey buildings, south to the area around a crippled nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture.
The road scampers up mountains and into cities nestled in the hills that had their centers ripped out by the tsunami, leaving surreal scenes of destruction.
Ships are stacked on cars and buildings; cars have ended up in hotel lobbies; fishing gear is wrapped around a power pole that crashed through the window of a convenience store, which was also hit by a floating house.
Sightseers stop in the parking lot of the heavily damaged Namizaka Tourist Hotel along the coast, where someone's home came to rest a few metres from the entrance.
"These aren't the towns that were once here. It's terrible. It's so tough to see," said Misato Chiba in the car park overlooking the sea. "Route 45 is all ripped up now. The towns are a mess and it's just dangerous."
The road passes through towns few even in Japan had heard of until the tsunami. It has mostly reopened now, except for stretches where the death and destruction were most concentrated, in cities such as Otsuchi, still covered by vast plains of mud-covered debris in which hundreds of people died.
Car navigation systems can easily falter here, with drivers directed on to bits of road that are obstructed by the wreckage or simply don't exist any more.
Troops with construction equipment have been preparing mass graves for victims to be laid to rest at the ravaged Jorakuji Temple, near where Route 45 is closed in Otsuchi. The hastily built cemetery at the Buddhist temple can be found just above the "Tsunami Evacuation Point" sign.
The dynamics of destruction are all about elevation here.
Almost everything 15 metres above sea level escaped and everything below was hit by a fast-moving wall of water that uprooted houses and slammed trucks together in a darkening soup, dumping them haphazardly when the giant wave receded.
In the town of Kirikiri, built up into hills, more homes survived. In the city of Rikuzentakata, where the land is flat along the coast, the tsunami erased vast areas where rescue workers are still finding bodies.
Tens of thousands of homeless people have been moved to schools along the road, where they squeeze into gymnasiums and classrooms, using portable toilets and yearning for a bit of privacy.
Crippled red fire engines stand out in the wreckage.
In the town of Okirai, firemen tried to slam shut a sluice gate in the seawall that proved of little use because it was too small to hold back the water. Those firemen died.
In the city of Kamaishi, the two fire trucks stacked atop each other in the shopping district had driven through the streets warning people to get away.
"If it wasn't for them, most people around here wouldn't have been able to escape," said hairdresser Hatsue Ishida.
The survivors have harrowing stories of escape.
Miyako fish merchant Kanichi Numata was at the waterfront when the earthquake hit.
"We felt the quake. Then the water was pulled out of the port by the sea wave and we started running."
About 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the south in Kesennuma, Takeshi Murakami was swept up by the wave with his wife. They clung to each other until someone pulled them to safety.
"I picked a really bad day for my first surfing lesson," deadpans Murakami, his dark sense of humor helping lighten the mood in the evacuation center he now calls home.
Life is coming back slowly to the area.
The Kirikiri Zembei, a Route 45 roadside diner that has been selling Japanese comfort food for 40 years, reopened on March 21, although its six-page menu has now been reduced to one dish, soy sauce soup with noodles.
Owner Ryutaro Maekawa and the staff work by candlelight at the restaurant, which offers spectacular views of the sea.
On his first day back, there was just one group of four. They were looking for a hot bath, which they couldn't get since there's no electricity, but settled happily for hot bowls of noodles.
"We can only stay open until 3 p.m. There's not much we can cook because we are just not getting enough ingredients," Maekawa said.
"I don't think we are going to have as many customers this summer as we usually do because of this."
Editing by Alan Raybould