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 today remain unchanged from before March 2011.
Reconstruction works along the coast are still ongoing and will take several more years to be completed, especially in the worst-hit city centers, such as the ones of Rikuzentakata and Minamisanriku. While utilities and important roads were repaired swiftly, many displaced residents continued to live in temporary housing for years. Only relatively recently has the completion of new housing allowed most of them to move into new, permanent homes.
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. 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, 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. A large memorial park is planned for the coastal district below Hiyoriyama Park.
The tsunami hit Minamisanriku hard and swept away nearly the entire city center. Over the past years, the grounds of the former city center were elevated by over ten meters to better protect the city from future tsunami. The red skeleton of Minamisanriku's Crisis Management Center was left standing on ground zero and has become a prime symbol of the disaster. A memorial park is scheduled to be opened around the ruined building around 2020.
Kesennuma is a major commercial fishing port and one of the country's busiest bonito and swordfish processors. The tsunami destroyed several parts of the city and left its fishing industry in shambles. In the meantime, the fish market has been repaired, and the industry has recovered.
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 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 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.