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On March 11, 2011 at 14:46, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan occurred 70 kilometers off the Pacific coast of the Tohoku Region. Approximately 30 minutes later a devastating tsunami struck the Sanriku Coast. The waves peaked at estimated heights of 40.5 meters in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture, and traveled several kilometers inland in the plain around Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. The sudden rising waters killed nearly 20,000 people and destroyed countless homes, schools, buildings and bridges.

The tsunami was particularly destructive along the Sanriku Coast in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures where entire towns and city districts were washed away and swaths of land were reduced to rubble. Further south in Fukushima Prefecture, the tsunami caused a disastrous nuclear accident, but the Sanriku Coast fortunately escaped heavy contamination, being located over one hundred kilometers away. Radiation levels remain mostly unchanged from before March 2011 in most of its areas.

Shops and restaurants opened in temporary buildings

Reconstruction works along the coast are likely to take many more years to be completed. While utilities and important roads were repaired swiftly, many displaced residents continue to live in temporary housing. Services and shopping centers have gradually opened - many in temporary buildings - to serve the community, but the full reconstruction of towns is going to be time-consuming.

Many tourist sites reopened within just a few months of the disaster. Tourists are encouraged to visit the Sanriku Coast to see the region's natural beauty, but also to witness the destructive force of the tsunami and the reconstruction process with their own eyes. Recovery markets have opened in several places along the coast that cater to the locals and visiting tourists. Tourism does not only help the local communities financially, but it also contributes to keeping the region and the disaster from being forgotten by the rest of the world.

Below is a short introduction to some of the worst hit cities along the coast:

Ishinomaki

Ishinomaki, a large city in Miyagi Prefecture, suffered the biggest losses of life and property of any municipality when the tsunami inundated much of the city's waterfront districts and low lying neighborhoods. Hiyoriyama Park, a hilltop park in the center of Ishinomaki, overlooks the parts of the city that were flooded by the high waters. The park has beautiful cherry blossoms in spring, which contrast sharply with the ruined foundations in the distance.

Minamisanriku

The tsunami hit Minamisanriku hard and swept away nearly the entire city center. Amid the remaining foundations stands the red skeleton of Minamisanriku's Crisis Management Center. Tourist buses routinely stop at the center, which has become a makeshift shrine to those who died and to the heroic city workers who broadcast emergency messages from the building until they were overrun by the waves.

Kesennuma

Before March 11, Kesennuma was a thriving commercial fishing port and one of the country's busiest bonito and swordfish processors. However, the tsunami destroyed large parts of the city and left its fishing industry in shambles. Several shopping markets opened in the city center to serve the community and visiting tourists.

Rikuzentakata

Rikuzentakata was devastated by the tsunami, which swept away much of the city center. Washed away with the buildings were nearly 70,000 pine trees which grew along Rikuzentakata's coast and were regarded as one of Japan's 100 famous landscapes. Only a single tree was left standing. Dubbed the Miracle Tree, it stood as a symbol of perseverance. Unfortunately, after 18 months the tree died from salt toxicity and was taken down for preservation. It has since been reinstalled as a permanent memorial.

Kamaishi

Kamaishi has been devastated over the centuries by both war and tsunami. Known as the birthplace of the iron industry in Japan, Kamaishi was hit by a 14 meter high tsunami on March 11, 2011. The water swept over the city's recently completed tsunami breakwater and through its low-lying industrial districts, destroying the local fishing industry and leaving several huge ships beached on dry land.

Miyako

Miyako was one of the northernmost cities significantly damaged by the 2011 Tsunami. The rising waters swept across many of the city's coastal districts, causing widespread damage. Some of the tsunami's most unforgettable videos were filmed in Miyako, depicting a huge black swell overtaking the seawall protecting the town and sweeping boats and cars and everything in its path along with it.

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Page last updated: July 15, 2016