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Sanriku Coast Tohoku

3/11: three years later in Japan

Three years ago this day I was woken up by a text message from a friend.

“Is everyone you know okay?”

Huh?

Still sleepy, at first I didn’t realize what he was talking about, though the first thing that came into my mind was that maybe it could have something to do with Japan. But what?

Unfortunately, I turned out to be right.

The rest of the day I was glued to my TV and computer watching the destruction of the earthquake, tsunami and then the nuclear disaster, the extent of which only became apparent in the course of the following days.

Having lived in Japan for over 2,5 years, it is a place that’s very close to my heart. And seeing the destruction that occurred that day was devastating. Of course, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for people who lived there and had to run from their houses or office to get away from the rushing water and lost everything.

Just over a year after the tsunami, in May 2012, I briefly visited the area: I wanted to support the local economy by being there as a tourist, because part of this coastline is also a natural park so worth a visit for that alone. Nevertheless, I also wanted to see what was happening locally in terms of reconstruction. What I hadn’t expected at all, was that people were so open about their experiences.

Out of nowhere, a restaurant owner or a boatsman would start talking to me about what it was like that March 11th in 2011. These are stories I won’t forget.

This is also why it is so good to be able to see a little bit of the work that continues in this part of Tohoku, Japan. Many grass roots organisations and local governments in the region have embraced, mostly, Facebook as a way to let people see what they are working on.

It is also a way of showing potential tourists that yes, there is a lot to see and do in this part of the Japan, and it it so much worth the visit. I wish travel websites, guidebooks, travel shows – anyone – would share the amazing travel potential of Tohoku more (unlike Lonely Planet, which scrapped this whole part of the country out of its guide published after the tsunami).

Many of these Facebook-pages are in Japanese, though some are in English as well (or German, even!). Have a look at these pages to get an idea of what initiatives are working locally:

  • Tohoku Planning Forum: a platform facilitating collaboration among Japanese and international designers, architects and planners contributing to the long-term revitalisation of Japan’s tsunami-affected Tohoku region.
  • Rikuzen Takata town: a page run by the city of Rikuzen Takata, one of the most heavily hit towns along the coast, sharing events, news, pictures and other interesting bits of information about the city (in Japanese & English)
  • It’s Not Just Mud: INJM is a grass-roots organization which moved into Ishinomaki quickly after the tsunami happened to help locals with clearing debri and slowly start building again. Run by volunteers, they’ve expanded operations to other towns – and even recently to the Philippines after the destructive Typhoon late 2013.
  • DJSF Sanriku Fukkou: a German-Japanese collaboration to support the reconstruction of the Sanriku-region along the coast.

Through these pages there are many many more FB-pages you can click through to from various towns and initiatives.

Along the tsunami coast

Kesennuma, Kamaishi, Rikuzentakata, Miyako – two weeks ago I was travelling through a region in Japan where I had only heard of the names of places because of one thing: the tsunami that happened on 11 March 2011.

I only travelled part of this coast though, starting from Miyako in Iwate prefecture and heading north along a coast that is the northern half of the Rikuchu Kaigan National Park: 180 kilometers of stunning and spectacular cliffs, rocks and other natural scenery. I have a feeling this part may be one of the more accessible regions though I don’t know for sure. One reason is that here trains are mostly back up – with a short exception – while I have heard that further south there is much more work still to be done. I guess it’s more remote and some towns there suffered incredible damage.

Miyako is a town which feels good. Yes, there was a lot of damage but in the city centre this is mostly visible when you start noticing how much buildings look very new, or at least the ground floor does. Dinner, for example, was in a very friendly izakaya where the owners renovated for two months before re-opening as the building had been flooded with water 2 meters high. They had been inside during the earthquake and only barely managed to keep themselves standing – and then got the hell out of there to get away as quickly as possible for the expected tsunami.

Most of the ‘visible’ damage in Miyako – the rubble, the collapsed buildings, etc – is gone, with a collapsed Shell gas station as the clear exception. Instead, the city is rebuilding. And you can tell it is: there’s lots of traffic, a lot of people about town, hotels are fully booked, and buildings are being rebuilt where ever you look. The town’s people are positive that when summer is here, so will the tourists.

There’s good reason for the tourists to come to see the dramatic cliffs of the coastal national park. These rocks and cliffs are also again a reminder of the force of nature. They have been here for centuries and still look the same as always: strong, imposing, powerful. Just like the tsunami was.

I’m continuing my journey north by train and for the moment also by bus for a short stretch of railroad which hasn’t been restored yet (the other parts were put back to use only earlier this spring). But like a taxi driver told me “We won’t be beat”, which is even all the more admirable considering that people living here are confronted with what happened every day again – but that only seems to make their conviction to build up their towns and villages even stronger.

A very very impressive start of my 10 days across Tohoku.