Eight months ago, people left this place in haste. Families raced from their homes without closing the front doors. They left half-finished wine bottles on their kitchen tables and sneakers in their foyers. They jumped in their cars without taking pets and left cows hitched to milking stanchions.

Now the land stands empty, frozen in time, virtually untouched since the March 11 disaster that created a wasteland in the 12-mile circle of farmland that surrounds the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Some 78,000 people lived here; only a handful have been permitted to return. Cobwebs spread across storefronts. Mushrooms sprout from living-room floors. Weeds swallow train tracks. A few roads, shaken by the earthquake, are cantilevered like rice paddies. Near the coastline, boats borne inland by the tsunami still litter main roads.

Only the animals were left behind, and their picture is not pretty. Starving pigs have eaten their own. Cats and dogs scavenge for food. On one farm, the Tochimotos’, the skulls of 20 cows dangle from their milking tethers.

Several thousand Fukushima workers, draped in white protective gear, pass daily through the front gates of the plant, site of the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

But beyond the plant, for at least 12 miles in any direction, the Japanese government maintains a no-entry zone, with teams of policemen sealing off all roads going in.

Nobody is allowed to live there — a condition that could continue for decades.

If the dormant Chernobyl plant in Ukraine provides any guide, the land surrounding the Fukushima facility will one day grow wild, with villages eventually bulldozed and buried. Maybe decades from now, Japan will tailor the area to adventure-seeking tourists, or it will use the region as a wildlife preserve. For now, though, the land surrounding the nuclear plant still preserves the history of those who were told to abandon it.

The area is dangerous over long periods, with many spots even 10 miles away from the plant showing radiation levels exceeding those at the facility’s main gate. But spend a full day driving through all parts of the no-entry zone and the risks are minimal, with a total exposure comparable with that from a 12-hour plane ride or two chest X-rays.

Only emergency workers and select residents with special permits are allowed to enter the zone, and only for brief trips. When two Washington Post reporters rode into the zone by traveling with a local rancher, only a few cars whizzed along the main roads. The rancher, Masami Yoshizawa, said that only about 1,000 of the area’s 3,500 cows are still alive. At one point, while driving, he spotted a few brown cows with yellow tags on their ears.

“Those are probably mine,” he said.

Many who once lived close to the nuclear plant have felt severed from their previous lives. But Yoshizawa’s case shows an alternative torment: He makes daily visits to his now-contaminated farmland, preferring a dangerous reminder of his old life to no reminder at all.

Before the nuclear accident, Yoshizawa worked at the M Ranch, a 30-hectare farm with the curvature of a salad bowl. From the corral where Yoshizawa kept his cattle, one could see the towerlike stacks of Fukushima Daiichi, just nine miles away.

Yoshizawa and his fellow ranchers raised the cows for their prized Wagyu beef, selling them to wholesalers for $13,000 per head. Then, in a five-day span of meltdowns and explosions, cesium and other radioactive isotopes were swept across the countryside; the cattle were worthless, and the farm’s president, Jun Murata, lost $6.5 million in assets. On March 18, Murata told his employees that this was the end. He went to the corral and unlatched the gate. Some 230 cows wandered into the open.

Most of the employees never returned. But Yoshizawa, with no wife and children, spent the next week thinking about his livelihood. He identified in new ways with the animals he once sold for their beef — he felt as if his own worth, too, was verging on zero.

So he clung to the ranch. He obtained a permit from a friend at the local mayor’s office, allowing him unfettered access to the no-go zone. He bought a dosimeter, clipping it to the front window of his car. He — and often Murata as well — made daily trips to the ranch, feeding the cattle with contaminated hay. A few of the animals turned feral, but most just stuck around.

Still, there’s a question now about how best to treat the creatures inside the 20-kilometer zone. A few animal rights groups have made quick trips to save dogs and cats — but not livestock. Scientific groups say the animals represent the best chance for research on the effects of radiation. But in May, the Japanese government recommended that farmers euthanize their animals. It also banned farmers from bringing feed into the no-entry zone.

“If the livestock have nothing to feed on, they will languish and eventually die,” then-government spokesman Yukio Edano said. “I understand we are forcing the farmers to make a very tough decision, but we also do not want the farmers to go inside the no-entry zone, because it’s not safe.”

Yoshizawa says he’ll defy the order to euthanize his cattle, but he also understands the government’s logic — self-preservation in a disaster. It’s the same logic that forced the Tochimotos to leave in such a rush. Yoshizawa knew the Tochimotos. They were his neighbors. And on his recent trip into the no-go zone, Yoshizawa stopped by their house — where the people lived on the second floor, the animals on the first.

Persimmons rotted on the driveway. Near the front door, weeds rose knee-high. A Mazda Titan truck was speckled white and black by birds. The cows, who died without being milked, no longer even smelled, their flesh pulled off by other animals.

“They were dead within 10 or 12 days,” Yoshizawa said.

He said he had talked to the Tochimotos just once since the disaster. “They have been having nightmares about cows,” he said. “They can’t even think to come back here and see. But you can’t blame them. They made the right choice.’’

Special correspondent Ayako Mie contributed to this report.