ISHINOMAKI, JAPAN // The hair salon Haga Yoshie ran for the past 11 years was ruined by the tsunami, and the pavements outside are covered with mounds of debris and mud.
The 40-year-old is however surprisingly upbeat. She even laughs when explaining there is "nothing left" of the house she used to live in in another part of town - a house that was not insured for tsunami damage.
Many Japanese people have faced enormous adversity since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, which along with the emergency at the nuclear power plant, have become what the prime minister, Naoto Kan, has described as the country's biggest crisis since the Second World War.
Yet those in Ishinomaki, a city of 163,000 people in Miyagi prefecture, were among the hardest hit. Nearly half the city was inundated with floodwaters, killing 2,600 and leaving 2,800 missing. About 17,000 have lost their homes and most of these are living in evacuation shelters. Temporary housing is now starting to be built for evacuees. Helped by her 66-year-old mother, Haga Mitsuko, Ms Haga has cleaned up the ground floor of her salon, which is located on a street corner in central Ishinomaki, and is looking forward to cutting hair again. Once power supplies are back, she plans to reopen Cross, as her salon was called.
"We have customers who often used the salon and I am bumping into them, and they're asking when will we start up again. That's the motivation. And we won't charge for the first couple of weeks," said Ms Haga, who is staying with one of her two brothers, his wife and his parents-in-law.
There are countless others like Ms Haga rebuilding their lives, grateful they survived when so many in the city died.
The convenience store next door was also ruined by the tsunami. Three Honda cars floated into the yard behind and now lie there, muddy and wrecked, but the elderly couple who own the shop are determined to press on.
A Tokyo-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Peace Boat has cleared the yard of the vast amount of mud that accumulated - at least 100 sacks' worth - and Nitta Teiko, in her 70s, and her 74-year-old husband Nitta Sho are now hoping their son will be able to refurbish the shop and take over the running of it. They plan to continue living upstairs.
"My husband grew up here so he wants to stay here," said Mrs Nitta. "And the situation is becoming better. It's much, much better than it was after the earthquake."
The couple are among a group of about 50 neighbours that meets at 8am every morning in a nearby property to plan how they can ensure their daily needs are met and the clean-up of their neighbourhood continues. By doing things together, Mr Nitta said, they can achieve more than if they worked alone.
"If we ask for something as individuals, nothing will happen," he said. "But if we make some plan, then local government or NGOs can easily deliver the items or things."
It is not just the local people who are rallying round. About 1,200 volunteers are working through NGOs such as Peace Boat to clean up the city and distribute meals and essential items such as toiletries to the needy. The Japanese military are also providing meals for about 8,000 people in evacuation shelters, with relief organisations feeding several thousand more.
Among the other NGOs is The Nippon Foundation, which has a pump that provides clean water to residents.
Tomofumi Kaneko, an organiser with the group's relief centre set up to deal with the earthquake and tsunami aftermath, said the clean-up of the city could take as long as a year. Clearing the vast amounts of mud was essential because if left to dry, it creates dust that causes respiratory problems for local people.
"The water from the tsunami got into all kinds of spaces, so to get rid of all of these takes tremendous time," he said.
As well as well as military personnel and the volunteers working through NGOs, the city has also attracted individuals who travelled on their own initiative in the hope they could help. Toll Kimura, a canoeing instructor from Kochi prefecture in the south of Japan, arrived three days after the tsunami struck on March 11, first helping to rescue people from buildings before, as he is now, working through an NGO to distribute food.
"It's getting better little by little," he said. "It's being cleaned up and the situation is improving. As individuals, you can feel powerless, but once people get together you can achieve something that you personally cannot do."
Economic impact 'worse' than expected, page b8