One month after the tsunami

This is the first part of an open ended series to document the recovery of the tsunami hit coast of northeastern Japan, where approximately 20,000 people died and entire towns were destroyed in the afternoon of March 11, 2011. We hope to contribute to keep the region from sinking into oblivion, as the international media has been devoting most of its attention to the nuclear accident instead, and to document the region's reemergence as an attractive tourist destination.

On April 28 and 30, we visited several of the worst hit towns and cities along the Sanriku Coast, which spans Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori Prefectures. We plan to revisit the region regularly every six to twelve months from now in order to document its recovery.

One and a half months after the March 11 disaster, good progress has been made on clearing major roads, recovering victims and reinstating the food supply. The self defense force and police from all over the country were omnipresent, working hard on the initial steps towards recovery.

But clean up efforts on the hundreds of kilometers of coastline, that are covered in cars, ships, wood, personal items and debris, have only just started. Many districts also still lacked electricity and water supply, and only a few businesses have reopened in the affected areas. A strong smell of foul seafood hang over many of the fishing towns.

Our first destination was Ishinomaki City, where over 5000 people lost their lives and over 20,000 homes were completely destroyed - more than in any other municipality.

The tsunami flooded houses in this district of Ishinomaki, rendering many tatami mats useless
Damage became more visible in the city center, although all roads had been cleared of debris
We accessed the hilltop Hiyoriyama Park for a view over the coastal districts
The park's cherry blossoms were at full bloom...
... but the view down the hill revealed a shockingly different scenery
Wide residential and industrial areas of Ishinomaki were almost completely destroyed
Members of the self defense force at work
The tsunami lifted large ships onto land
View from Hiyoriyama Park in the opposite direction
Ishinomaki's main tourist attraction, the Ishinomori Manga Museum (white roof) suffered considerable damage

Our next stop was Minamisanriku, a particularly badly hit town along the coast. Tsunami waves of over ten meters destroyed virtually the entire town center, claiming over one thousand lives.

A temporary bridge provided access from the south to Minamisanriku
Almost no structures in the town center survived the impact of the huge tsunami
The sight reminded me of photos I saw on a recent visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
For minutes we were speechless
Hundreds of cars were destroyed
The city's hospital was one of the few structures left standing, but most patients did not survive
The town mayor was among ten people who survived the tsunami on the very top of this building
Shizugawa Station, the town's main train station was almost completely destroyed
Shizugawa Station's platform sign
Part of a sign that used to welcome travelers to the town
Train tracks bent by to the tsunami's tremendous force
Train tracks bent by to the tsunami's tremendous force
It will be years until the restoration of the train line
Among the first businesses to reopen were gasoline stands
Self defense force members at work

Next we visited Kesennuma further up the coast. Around 2000 people lost their lives here when the tsunami destroyed entire city districts.

The tsunami lifted many large ships onto land
Some of the ships were partially burnt out by large fires that accompanied the tsunami
A particularly badly hit city district of Kesennuma
A particularly badly hit city district of Kesennuma
This large ship was carried several hundred meters inland
The self defense force was omnipresent
Another badly hit district south of Kesennuma's city center

After crossing the border from Miyagi into Iwate Prefecture, we visited Rikuzentakata. Like Minamisanriku further south, the city center of Rikuzentakata was completely destroyed by tsunami waves that submerged even three storied buildings. Over two thousand people lost their lives, and close to 4000 homes were destroyed.

The tsunami cut down an entire coastal forest of 20,000 pine trees
Of the 20,000 pines, only a single tree withstood the tsunami
Rikuzentakata's city center
Even the fourth floor of this apartment building did not provide shelter from the tsunami
Rikuzentakata Station
Rikuzentakata Station
A symbol of encouragement - koinobori carp streamers put up on the occasion of the boy's festival
Officers combing the debris for something

We continued further north to the industrial port town of Kamaishi where the tsunami claimed over a thousand lives and close to 4,000 homes.

The tsunami lifted this huge ship onto land
The tsunami lifted this huge ship onto land
In some places, the tsunami exceeded the estimated inundation area

We concluded our first visit to the Sanriku Coast in Miyako City where the tsunami killed one thousand people and destroyed nearly 5,000 homes.

The scene of the ocean flowing over this seawall in Miyako made it into newspapers worldwide
A badly hit district in Miyako City
Miyako City
Miyako City
A seemingly intact building is marked for demolition