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 suddenly rising waters killed nearly 20,000 people and destroyed countless homes, schools, buildings and bridges.
The tsunami was particularly destructive 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, especially in the worst-hit cities and towns, such as Rikuzentakata and Minamisanriku, where with monumental efforts the former town centers were elevated by over ten meters and new residential districts were built in the nearby hills to reduce damage by future tsunami. Read more about the recovery process in our recovery blog.
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 economies, but it also contributes to keeping the region and the disaster from being forgotten.
Below is a list of tsunami-related points of interest. Note that several additional new museums and memorials are currently being built and scheduled to open along the coast over the coming months and years:
Of a coastal forest of almost 70,000 pine trees only a single tree was left standing by the tsunami. Dubbed the Miracle Pine (Kiseki no Ipponmatsu), the tree stands as a symbol of perseverance along the coast of Rikuzentakata. It unfortunately died from salt toxicity 18 months after the tsunami, but was reinstalled as a permanent memorial. Nearby stands the Iwate Tsunami Memorial, an excellent museum about the tsunami.
The Kesennuma City Memorial Museum consists of the ruins of a former high school that is located on a peninsula eight kilometers south of Kesennuma's city center and was damaged by the tsunami. The school was turned into an excellent museum which opened to the public in spring 2019. Some of the school's rooms have been preserved in the way they were left by the tsunami.
The red steel skeleton remaining of the former Crisis Management Center in Minamisanriku is one of the disaster's foremost symbols. Many city workers died when the tsunami completely flooded the building and only a few people, including the town mayor, survived by clinging to the building's antenna. The center can currently only be viewed from the distance, but it will become the focal point of a memorial park which opened partially in late 2019 (and will open fully in autumn 2020).
Museum Hours: 9:00 to 17:00 Museum Closed: Third Wednesday of each month Museum Admission: Free
Located only a few hundred meters from the coast, Nobiru Station along the JR Senseki Line was flooded by the tsunami. The line and station have since been relocated 500 meters inland, but the former station platform has been preserved, alongside a small memorial park with a monument for the local victims. On the second floor of the station building is a small museum that commemorates the disaster, while a convenience store is found on the first floor. Nobiru Station is located between Matsushima and Ishinomaki.
The Taro Kanko Hotel is a 6-storey hotel in the Taro district of Miyako City which lost its two lowest floors to the tsunami. The hotel is now out of business, but the building will be preserved as a memorial to the disaster. The exterior of the building can be viewed freely, while guided tours of the interior require advance reservations by phone.
The Rias Ark Museum in Kesennuma is a contemporary art and local history museum that features an exhibition about the disaster in its basement. The exhibition includes many photographs and a collection of debris and items left by the tsunami.
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 town center. Over the past years, the grounds of the former town center were elevated by over ten meters to better protect it 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 in late 2019.
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. Since then, the grounds of the former city center have been raised by over 10 meters. A memorial park is currently being built along the coast which will include the Miracle Pine, the ruins of a former roadside station and a new memorial museum.
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.