A former soccer training facility close to Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant has been used as a staging point for recovery work since the 2011 nuclear disaster, but that's about to change.
Temporary dormitories for workers stand where there used to be a soccer field at the facility, called J-Village. The area is filled with memories for Shigenari Akashi, who worked as a coach for a junior youth team there for more than 10 years.
"National tournament finals used to be held here. Children from all over the country would practice hard, aspiring to play here," Akashi says.
J-Village was Japan’s first national soccer training center. It opened in 1997 and over the years saw more than a million visitors. The complex was even used to train the national teams of Japan and Argentina.
But the nuclear disaster changed everything. The facility is just 20 kilometers from the plant, so Tokyo Electric Power Company rented it to set up an operational base for containing the accident.
"I was in shock and at a loss for words when I saw the Self-Defense Forces’ tanks here, and the gravel laid on the natural turf for the parking lot," says Akashi.
At the end of last year, the moment he had been waiting for finally arrived as TEPCO began work to return the facility to its original form.
Fukushima Prefecture has even bigger plans -- tt wants to build Japan’s first “all-weather soccer field” at the site. Part of the facility is scheduled to open in the summer of 2018.
The Japan Football Association has given the project its full support. The Japanese national team will use the new J-Village as its training base for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But there are bigger challenges than rebuilding. There are fears over radiation levels -- in some areas they're still higher than international standards recommend. So the J-Village operator has a plan.
"The construction work will focus on largely replacing the soil, a technique we expect will reduce radiation levels more than usual decontamination methods," says Eiji Ueda, who is executive vice president at the facility. "We can emphasize how safe it is by hosting national teams from Japan or perhaps abroad for training."
A town near J-Village was evacuated because of the disaster. Residents got the green light to move back a year and a half ago but few have returned as most of the evacuees still live in a neighboring city.
Akashi and his co-workers have been giving soccer classes for children, including some who lived near J-Village. But there are mixed feelings about playing there again.
"I want to use the new J-Village, but I live far away now, so it will be hard to go there very often," says a boy at the facility.
"We still have the lingering memory of it being used as the staging ground for decommissioning work," says one father.
For Akashi, he's got a specific goal in mind.
"In reviving J-Village, we want to give back local people a gathering place and their sense of pride. We believe this will also help to revive Fukushima as a whole," he says.
The clock on the J-Village scoreboard is stopped at 2:46 p.m., the moment the earthquake struck. The deep rift created over the last 6 years will need to be filled so that the clock can move forward once more.