Sensational Sanriku: Reborn 10 years later
On 14:46 on 11 March 2011, Japan’s most powerful earthquake ever recorded happened just 70km off the coast of Tohoku, triggering a devastating tsunami that pummeled many of the coastal communities along the Sanriku Coast in Iwate Prefecture, one of the most badly affected. Today marks 10 years after the tragedy, and we would like to give you glimpse of how some of the communities are doing now.
Although things will never go back to the way they were before the disaster, Sanriku’s local communities are full of strength and resilience, as seen through their reconstruction and recovery efforts.
In the years since the tsunami, more visitors have been heading to Sanriku to support its recovery efforts. Simply staying a night or having a meal would help the local communities, and more importantly, let them know that you have not forgotten about them and what they’ve been through, and that you are cheering for them.
Michinoku Coastal Trail
Start of the Michinoku Coastal Trail. (Image credit: JR East / Shibata)
The Sanriku Coast is blessed with breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery. A symbol of recovery for the Tohoku Region’s Pacific Coast, the Michinoku Coastal Trail (みちのく潮風トレイル Michinoku Shiokaze Toreiru) is a foot trail stretching around 1,000km from the island of Kabushima in Aomori Prefecture to Matsugawaura in Fukushima Prefecture. Michinoku is the old name for the region comprising the four prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, all facing the Pacific Coast, and all of which were hit hard by the 2011 disaster.
The Michinoku Coastal Trail (MCT) is meant to be explored on foot, and passes through diverse terrain and coastal villages. It is hoped that through exploring the MCT, visitors will be able to learn more about the places it passes through, through interaction with the local communities. For more information and photos of some of the sections you can visit on this trail, check out my previous article on Sanriku's tourism recovery efforts here.
Rikuzentakata (陸前高田市), a small city in the south of Iwate, was one of the cities hit hardest by the tsunami in 2011. This city has a special place in my heart as it was during a disaster relief trip to Rikuzentakata that I first stepped foot on Tohoku, a region that has since become one of my most-loved and most-visited in Japan.
Flower offerings at Takata Matsubara Tsunami Memorial Park, and the Miracle Pine. (Image credit: JR East / Shibata)
In the years since the tsunami, Rikuzentakata’s city centre has been rebuilt on higher elevation as a precaution for future disasters, and efforts to rebuild the city are still ongoing. A memorial park (Takata Matsubara Tsunami Memorial Park 高田松原津波復興祈念公園) and museum (Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum 東日本大震災津波伝承館 いわてTSUNAMIメモリアル) have also been built, recently opened in 2019. The museum explains the 2011 tsunami—the science behind it, lessons to learn, and how local people have faced the disaster.
As we cannot travel to Japan right now, some of our Japanese colleagues are currently visiting the Sanriku Coast on our behalf, which I will be sharing about more in an online event later this month (details at the end of this article). Their videos and photos showed a brighter and more hopeful Rikuzentakata, a stark contrast from what I had seen in 2011.
Plaque marking the friendship ties between Rikuzentakata and Singapore. (Image credit: JR East / Shibata)
Did you know? Rikuzentakata has a special connection with Singapore. Thanks to the support of Singaporeans, aid from the Singapore Red Cross was used to undertake several projects in Rikuzentakata, the largest of which was the Rikuzentakata Community Hall. Its main hall was christened the Singapore Hall to mark the ties for friendship between the two cities. Rikuzentaka was slated to be the host town for Singapore athletes for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which has unfortunately been postponed due to COVID-19.
Bites of delight
Don’t miss Sanriku’s fresh and delicious seafood. (Image credit: JR East / Shibata and Goto)
The Sanriku Coast is home to one of the top three best fishing grounds in the world, with many of the towns here relying on the fishing and tourism industry. Their seafood is delicious, and in particular their uni (ウニ sea urchin) is heavenly.
Sanriku Rias Tei, inside Kuji Station, has a delicious uni bento. (Image credit: JR East / Shibata)
When travelling along the Sanriku Coast, you will most likely take a ride on the Sanriku Railway Rias Line, and one thing you cannot miss is the uni bento (うに弁当 sea urchin lunch box) at Kuji Station. An adorable elderly couple run the Sanriku Rias Tei store at Kuji Station, greeting visitors with warm smiles. Only 20 bento are sold each day (excluding reservations), so I recommend coming early or making a reservation!
(Rail)road to recovery
Sanriku Railway is the main railway serving the Sanriku Coast. (Image credit: JR East / Shibata)
During the 2011 disaster, much of the Sanriku Coast’s railway tracks and stations were destroyed, with many sections needing to be rebuilt from scratch. Less damaged sections were up and running by 5 days after the tsunami, and the full line finally resumed operations in March 2019. The Sanriku Railway Rias Line has since become a symbol of hope and resilience for the region. I have previously written about travelling along the railway line, which you can check out here.
Minami-Kesennuma BRT Station. (Image credit: JR East / Hoshino)
Instead of being rebuilt, portions of some lines like the Keseunnuma and Ofunato Lines were instead converted to a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. BRT are buses that partially use former railway tracks which were not rebuilt after the disaster. Switching to a bus system allowed for greater frequency, which better served the local community.
Opening ceremony of Tanohata Kita IC~Fudai section. (Image credit: Iwate Prefecture)
Although this is a railway-focused site, we’d still like share some information that will be useful for those of you wanting to explore Sanriku by car. A 359km-long highway—the Fukkо̄ Dо̄ro (復興道路 Recovery Road)— is currently being built along the Sanriku Coast to link Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture with Hachinohe City in Aomori Prefecture.
Strong and reliable roads avoiding tsunami-prone areas are being built/rebuilt. The Kesennuma section fully opened earlier this month, and the remaining sections in northern Iwate are slated to be completed later in 2021, something to look forward to this year. Other than cutting travelling time between Sendai and Hachinohe by more than 3 hours, most of the highway will be toll-free, to encourage travellers to stop by and visit the cities along the highway.
Sensational Sanriku: Reborn 10 years later
On 27 March, join us for an online tour as we take a trip along the revitalized Sanriku Coast, introducing some of the must-see spots along the coast like the Michinoku Coastal Trail and Jodogahama Beach, must-eat foods like Sanriku Railway’s famous uni bento and Miyako’s scrumptious bindon, and recovery sites like Takata Matsubara Tsunami Memorial Park and Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium.
Join us for an online tour of Sanriku on 27 March. (Image credit: JR East / Shibata)
Though blessed with enchanting natural scenery and bountiful seafood, let us not forget that 10 years ago, much of the Sanriku Coast was badly battered by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. How is it doing now? Watch the video to find out!
Video credit: Japan Rail Cafe
Header image credit: JR East / Shibata