This is the fifth part (see also parts one, two, three and four) of an open ended series to document the recovery of the tsunami hit coast of northeastern Japan where nearly 20,000 people lost their lives, and entire towns were destroyed in the afternoon of March 11, 2011.
Two years after the tsunami, we revisited some of the worst hit cities along the Sanriku Coast in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures on April 16-18, 2013. After seeing little dramatic progress on our previous two visits, we felt that the recovery process has finally started to shift from the clean-up phase to early stages of actual reconstruction this time.
Although not completed yet, the clean-up efforts have further progressed. Most of the large ruined buildings that were still standing in October of last year, have disappeared from the cities in the meantime. Also mostly gone were the large mountains of debris that had finally been distributed to incinerators. Works on the reinforcement of the coast and repair of port facilities were also visibly ongoing.
One of the most eye-catching developments were widespread works on the hills surrounding the tsunami-hit towns. In a first step to create new residential districts at higher elevations near the former town centers, trees were cut down and restructuring of the terrain has started. These new districts should allow the displaced population to return into permanent housing starting in one to three years from now. Large mountains of soil were also visible in many of the cities which we suspect will be used for land adjustment works there.
Tourism continues to be promoted as a particularly effective tool to revitalize the region. Japan's public broadcaster NHK continues to feature the Tohoku Region in several of its most popular television dramas, and the area's tourist spots gradually regain their popularity. Multiple recovery markets have opened up in temporary buildings along the coast, catering to both local residents and visiting tourists.
Meanwhile, debates are ongoing on whether to remove or preserve some of the disaster's remaining landmarks. On the one hand, some residents understandably wish to have all the visible remainders of the disaster removed, while others urge them to be preserved as monuments for the education of future generations.
This time we started our trip in the north around Miyako City in Iwate Prefecture and traveled southwards. The coast north of Miyako offers some of the best scenic views in the region and has been an integral part of the Rikuchu Kaigan National Park since the park's establishment in 1955.
Next we stopped in Rikuzentakata City, one of the worst hit municipalities along the coast. Over the past six months, most of the remaining large, ruined buildings, including the former city hall and the Maiya supermarket, were finally torn down, leaving almost no signs of the former city center. The "miracle pine tree", on the other hand, was recently re-erected as a permanent monument after being cut down temporarily last year.
A short drive south of Rikuzentakata across the prefectural border in Miyagi Prefecture, we visited Kesennuma. Here, the municipal government is trying to avoid the removal of one of the disaster's most famous landmarks, the Kyotoku Maru Number 18, a huge fishing vessel that the tsunami carried several hundred meters inland into the Shishiori district.
Further south we visited Minamisanriku whose entire town center was destroyed by the tsunami. Here, too, some of the last remaining large buildings were finally torn down. Among the few remaining structures remained the Disaster Prevention Office, one of the most symbolic landmarks of the disaster.
In Ishinomaki, the clean-up efforts have also further progressed, and the large mountains of debris have disappeared. We were excited to finally visit the Ishinomori Manga Museum, which was fully reopened in March 2013. The museum suffered extensive damage by standing in the direct path of the tsunami, but much effort has been put into restoring it beautifully.
Thanks to its protected location in an island dotted bay, Matsushima suffered considerably less damage than the other cities visited on this trip. Most of the town's tourist facilities had been repaired and reopened long time ago, but visitor numbers have yet to return to their pre-disaster levels.