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11 March 2011: The day that changed the Sanriku Coast and my life

11 March 2011: The day that changed the Sanriku Coast and my life

The Sanriku Coast (三陸海岸 Sanriku Kaigan): an extensive rocky shoreline in eastern Japan that faces the Pacific Ocean. Stretching over 600km long, it crosses several prefectures in the Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō) such as Aomori (青森県 Aomori-ken), Iwate (岩手県 Iwate-ken) and Miyagi (宮城県 Miyagi-ken). The coast is famous for its exceptionally beautiful scenery, with naturally formed jagged granite rocks emerging out of the ocean waters, zigzagged sandy coastline and countless inlets and coves brimming with rich marine life.


Ōgama Hanzō, a scenic spot along the Sanriku Coast. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課)


For this article, I will be paying special dedication to the Sanriku Coast, which was the main site for a catastrophic event: The Great East Japan Earthquake (東北地方太平洋沖地震 Tōhoku-chihō Taiheiyō Oki Jishin), which destroyed countless homes, claimed numerous lives, and changed Tohoku’s landscape forever.


The cities and towns sustained extensive damages during that disaster, and it took many years for them to recover and get back on their feet. It not only directly impacted the lives of residents along the coast when the earthquake and tsunami happened, but it also indirectly affected the lives of those from other countries. One such person is myself: the event actually changed the course of my life. As the towns and cities gradually rebuilt themselves, I also look back at how the event eventually brought me to where I am today.


Before 11 March 2011

Kitayamazaki in Iwate Prefecture. (Image credit: photoAC)


The Sanriku Coast has always been known for its spectacular views, especially those of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean along with plentiful verdant flora. The coast is home of some of the most picturesque sceneries in Tohoku, such as Kitayamazaki (北山崎) in Iwate, Ōgama Hanzō (巨釜半造) in Miyagi, and the Tanesashi Coast (種差海岸 Tanesashi-kaigan) in the eastern part of Hachinohe (八戸市) in Aomori.


The Tanesashi Coast in Hachinohe, Aomori. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)


Back in 2011, I was still an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I was studying Japanese at the school’s Centre of Language Studies (CLS) which, now that I think about it, felt like a lifetime ago. Back then, I had been to Japan only once, and that was to Kyushu for a week-long study immersion program around the region, namely to prefectures such as Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Ōita. I didn't know much about the Tohoku Region; in fact, I actually didn't even know exactly which prefectures are in the region!


CLS had homestay programs in conjunction with Japanese universities, and 11 March 2011 was a momentous date for me. It was because I applied for an 3-month exchange program with Tamagawa University, and the results were scheduled to be announced on that day itself.


Machida in Tokyo, the backdrop of Tamagawa University. (Image credit: photoAC)


Tamagawa University is located in the city of Machida (町田市), in the western side of Tokyo Metropolis (東京都). I was really looking forward to taking part in this exchange program for two reasons: one, I had never been on an exchange program before; two, I had never been to Tokyo before and I wanted to travel to the capital city of Japan for the first time in my life so badly. Young and full of optimism, I was eagerly having high hopes of being selected… until news broke that an earthquake struck Japan.


11 March 2011

Aftermath of the earthquake/tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi. (Image credit: photoAC)


Due to Japan’s unique geographic location, earthquakes are a common occurrence and are part of daily livelihood in the country. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, Japan experiences more than 1,000 earthquakes every year, but their seismic intensity (震度 shindo) is usually low. However, in the afternoon of Friday, 11 March 2011, a powerful earthquake was registered in the north-western part of the Pacific Ocean, not far from the shores of the Sanriku Coast along the Tohoku Region.


With a magnitude of 9.0–9.1 on the Richter scale, or 7 shindo (the maximum seismic intensity), it was the most powerful earthquake in Japan’s history, and the fourth-most powerful in the world in recorded history. Furthermore, its epicentre was relatively close to Japan’s mainland―approximately 70km―and its hypocentre was relatively shallow, at approximately 29km below sea level. As such, and as with most earthquakes, the biggest concern that came to mind next was the impending tsunami.


Location of the earthquake’s epicentre, and selected cities that were affected the worst along the Sanriku Coast. (Image credit: Google Maps)


I vividly remembered sauntering into a tutorial room to hear the result of my application. I hadn’t heard about the earthquake yet because I was attending lectures and tutorials the whole morning and afternoon, and when I entered the room to hear the results, I was engulfed in an extremely sombre ambience. There was a lot of commotion in the room and I didn't know why. It’s only then that I learned what had happened in Japan, and the topic of application results immediately disappeared. Needless to say, the program was inevitably cancelled due to the disaster.


Although I was disappointed to learn that my long-awaited expectation to go on an exchange program was dashed, I was more shocked at the sheer scale of the earthquake and tsunami. I knew that Japan is always prone to earthquakes, but they were nothing close to what I heard about the impact for this one. It was unprecedented, and it was surreal for me to take in as I listened to the news developing back then.


After 11 March 2011

The aftermath in Minamisanriku, Miyagi. (Image credit: photoAC)


It was regarded as one of the worst (and costliest) disasters in Japan’s history. Reports on the death toll, and damages to cities, neighbourhoods, buildings and infrastructure came pouring in on the news from all over the world, and relief efforts were under way immediately. I remembered reading the news day after day with dread and concern for the country and the people. Japan was special to me, and when reports came in on how dire the situation was, I was earnestly trying to find a way to reach out to the people there one way or another. The answer came a few months later, in the form of a volunteer program.


Singapore Youth Ambassador for Tohoku (SYAT)

The Singapore Youth Ambassador for Tohoku (SYAT). (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)


The Singapore Youth Ambassador for Tohoku (SYAT) was a volunteer program jointly organised by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce & Industry Singapore (JCCI), Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), and the Embassy of Japan Singapore’s Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) committee. Inaugurated on 12 July 2011, it involved giving an opportunity to 100 university students to visit the Tohoku Region, receive briefings from those engaged in reconstruction efforts, and to experience volunteer activities and exchange views and ideas with local university students.


When I first heard about it, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to join because the program almost clashed with my upcoming curriculum. Nevertheless, I took a deep breath and volunteered for it. It turned out to be one of the most eye-opening experiences in my life, and upon retrospect, I realised how the decision to join also literally changed the course of my life.


Disaster relief efforts

Disaster relief volunteer at Rikuzentakata. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)


One of the main agendas of SYAT was to let the students partake in disaster relief efforts in Rikuzentakata (陸前高田市), one of the worst-hit cities along the Sanriku Coast. I went into the program not knowing what to expect at all, and the only knowledge I had on the disaster relief and reconstruction efforts were based on what I’ve heard and read on the news. The disaster relief efforts took place on the second day of the program upon arriving in Japan, and I began to truly see the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami on the affected cities in Tohoku unfold before my very eyes. It left me speechless. The sheer scale of the destruction was something I’ve never experienced before in my life, and nothing could have prepared me for it. For half a day, my team and I cleared some debris by hand, which was extremely hard. After the efforts, I wasn’t sure if our contributions amounted to anything, but we tried and hoped that it still helped one way or another.


Restoring hope and faith

Sendai Tanabata Festival. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)


The following day, my group and I had the opportunity to experience the Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕まつり Sendai Tanabata matsuri), a larger-than-life summer festival that is also known as the Star Festival (星祭り hoshi matsuri). Originating from the Chinese Qixi (七夕) Festival, the festival celebrates the meeting of the star-crossed lovers Hikoboshi (彦星) and Orihime (織姫), who are represented by Altair and Vega respectively, two of the brightest stars in the night sky. According to the legend, the two lovers are separated by the Milky Way and can only meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month, hence the Star Festival.


People’s wishes and words of encouragement. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)


It was my first summer festival experience in Japan, and it’s hard to describe what I felt that day. Sendai was adorned with huge, colourful decorations that immersed the whole city with a vibrant atmosphere, but what’s more poignant about this festival was the wishes people wrote on tanzaku (短冊), which are thin paper strips that are hung on bamboo decorations throughout cities. As the disaster took place only a few months prior, the memories of that fateful day were still fresh on people’s minds, so many others wrote words of encouragement. Words like “ganbatte” (頑張って "persevere") and “akiramenaide” (諦めないで "don’t give up") were everywhere, and they resonated with me.

(Note: Guess what? My colleague Carissa also took part in SYAT, and she wrote about her wonderful experience with the Sendai Tanabata Festival too. Check it out here!)


Road to recovery

How the disaster affected Sendai Airport. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)


One of the places that was severely affected by the disaster was Sendai Airport (仙台空港 Sendai-Kūkō), a common gateway to the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture. Located near the Sendai Bay (仙台湾 Sendai-wan) and facing directly towards the Pacific Ocean, the airport was directly hit by the earthquake, followed by the tsunami which came approximately an hour later. It sustained extensive damage, with tsunami waves as high as 3 metres completely flooding the ground floor.


Sendai Airport’s speedy recovery. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)


Humanitarian aid from other countries came pouring in after the disaster. (Image credit: JR East/Nazrul Buang)


Although it was affecting to hear how the disaster massively affected the airport and other countries, I was equally amazed at how speedy the recovery was. Despite being battered by the tsunami, the airport quickly picked up the pieces and flights resumed as soon as July, barely 5 months after the disaster. Aid also arrived swiftly to the airport and other affected regions from all over the country, helping them with their recovery. It’s extremely touching to see how other countries empathised with Tohoku’s plights, and I shared the same sentiment when it came to wanting to lend a hand to their recovery.


The program was one of the most life-changing experiences in my life. I made friends—both local and Japanese—whom I still keep in contact till today, the places I visited became some of my favourite travel destinations in Japan, and most important of all, it changed the way I view the direction of my life, especially when it came to what I wanted to do after university.


The years after 11 March 2011

Present-day Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture. (Image credit: photoAC)


It’s been around 10 years since that fateful day, and through the years, the areas in Tohoku that were severely battered by the earthquake and tsunami had been making steady progress in recovering their infrastructure and revitalising their economy. Cities such as Kamaishi (釜石市 Kamaishi-shi) in Iwate Prefecture are slowly experiencing life coming back, although painful memories still remain in which only time can heal.


Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum. (Image credit: JR East/Shibata)


The same goes for Rikuzentakata, one of the worst-hit cities in Tohoku. As the city experienced life slowly returning, it also opened the Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum. The museum officially opened in September 2019, and its mission is to educate the public with information on the Sanriku Coast and Rikuzentakata, as well as what happened during the disaster. The exhibits at the museum include vehicles damaged during the disaster, and firsthand accounts from survivors on their traumatic experiences and how they moved on with their lives.


Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum (東日本大震災津波伝承館 いわてTSUNAMIメモリアル)
Address: 180 Dotekage, Kesencho, Rikuzentakata-shi, Iwate 029-2204
Nearest station: Kiseki-no-Ippon-Matsu Station (奇跡の一本松駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (last admission at 4:30pm)
Admission fee: Free


The Miracle Pine. (Image credit: JR East/Shibata)


Just a stone’s throw away from the museum is perhaps the most poignant sight in Rikuzentakata. On top of its beautiful white sand beaches, the city was also known for its thousands of pine trees, of which were named Takata Matsubara (高田松原 Takata Pine Grove). The tsunami wiped out all the forests and stripped the land bare, except for a lone pine tree that miraculously survived.


Dubbed the Miracle Pine (奇跡の一本松 kiseki no ipponmatsu), it became a symbol of resilience for the locals even when almost everything around it was destroyed. The tree eventually died due to saltwater exposure, but thankfully, with the generous donations received from all over the world, it was preserved as a national monument.


Rikuzentakata City Community Hall. (Image credit: JR East/Shibata)


Rikuzentakata also received donations from Singapore during its reconstruction, and to showcase their appreciation, the city opened the Rikuzentakata City Community Hall in March 2015. It was an idea proposed by the mayor of Rikuzentakata to the ambassador of Singapore when the two met in the summer of 2011, as a place to build a sense of community for the locals. The building was designed with the community and needs of the locals in mind, and built on elevated land to mitigate against another possible tsunami, while overlooking the sea at the Hirota Bay (広田湾 Hirota-wan). In the building also stands a plaque that showcases the city's appreciation for Singapore's aid.


Rikuzentakata City Community Hall (陸前高田市コミュニティホール)
Address: Tochigasawa-210 Takata-cho, Rikuzentakata-shi, Iwate 029-2205
Nearest station: Tochigasawa-Kōen Station (栃ヶ沢公園駅)
Opening hours: 9am–9pm (until 6pm if there are no activites at night; closed from 29 December to 3 January)
Admission fee: Free


As for me, in hindsight I realised how the disaster changed my life in significant ways. After taking part in SYAT to understand the devastation of the disaster and learning about the resilience of the people affected by that fateful day, I earnestly felt like I wanted to contribute to the rebuilding and reconstruction cause of the Tohoku Region and Japan as a whole. Despite my degree in computer science, I decided to take a leap of faith after graduation and went into the tourism industry, focusing especially on travel to Japan. My new direction in career development began with JTB Singapore, Japan’s largest travel agency and also coincidentally one of the coordinators of SYAT! I’ve been working in this industry ever since, committing to promoting Japan travel to Singaporeans and everyone else in Southeast Asia. Japan remains to be one of my favourite travel destinations, but the Tohoku Region in particular holds a special place in my heart.


11 March 2011 essentially changed the Sanriku Coast and my life forever. Many cities have recovered since that day, and tourism has since returned with increasingly more people travelling to the Tohoku Region over the years. As a member of JR East, I hope to see even more people exploring and experiencing the sheer beauty of the extensive coast and cities in the region. Perhaps for some people out there, they might end up having their own life-changing experience!


Getting around the Sanriku Coast

The Sanriku Coast is located along the eastern coastline of the Tohoku Region, stretching across prefectures Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi. Cities along this coastline are mostly accessible by trains, including those by JR East which covers eastern Japan.


Rikuzentakata was formerly accessible to visitors by JR Ōfunato Line (大船渡線 Ōfunato-sen), a local railway line in Iwate Prefecture that connected Ichinoseki Station (一ノ関駅 Ichinoseki-eki) to Sakari Station (盛駅 Sakari-eki), including Rikuzen-Takata Station (陸前高田駅 Rikuzen-Takata-eki). However, due to the earthquake and tsunami, almost half of the JR Ōfunato Line was affected and the train line now only runs between Ichinoseki Station and Kesennuma Station (気仙沼駅 Kesennuma-eki).


Stations between Kesennuma Station and Sakari Station—as well as between Kesennuma Station and Maeyachi Station (前谷地 Maeyachi-eki) the JR Kesennuma Line (JR気仙沼線 Kesennuma-sen)―have ceased train services indefinitely, and are now replaced with a bus rapid transit (BRT) service run by JR East to serve the areas along these sections, known as the BRT Ōfunato Line and BRT Kesennuma Line respectively. The BRT stations are equipped with amenities such as toilets and waiting rooms just like railway stations, and visitors can also search routes and timetables for BRT lines on JR East apps/websites.

(Bonus: if you fancy a unique and unforgettable way to travel from Ichinoseki to Kesennuma, the Joyful Train POKÉMON with YOU Train also runs on this line!)


Minami-Kesennuma Station, one of the bus stations along the BRT Kesennuma Line. (Image credit: JR East/Hoshino)


For the Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum located in Rikuzentakata, visitors from Tokyo can take the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Ichinoseki Station, and then switch to the JR Ōfunato Line and continue to JR Kesennuma Station. Upon arrival at Kesennuma, they can take a 30-minute bus ride on the BRT Ōfunato Line to Kiseki-no-Ippon-Matsu Station (奇跡の一本松駅 Kiseki-no-Ippon-Matsu-eki), where the museum is located. For the Rikuzentakata City Community Hall, visitors can take a 45-minute bus ride on the same line to Tochigasawa-Kōen Station (栃ヶ沢公園駅 Tochigasawa-Kōen-eki). The journey from Tokyo to Kesennuma takes approximately 3 hours 20 minutes, and the fare is ¥14,360.

(INSIDER TIP: get the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), and you can travel on JR East lines, including the BRT lines, to JR train stations in cities along the Sanriku Coast for free! Do take note that the pass is not valid for the Sanriku Railway Rias Line; separate tickets are needed for travel on this line.)


JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)


The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥20,000, making it a considerable option for those planning to visit the Tohoku Region. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free. Click here for more information on the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).


NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). For more information, please check here.


Header image credit: JR East/Shibata


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