Visiting Rikuzentakata and Kessennuma
Living on an earthquake fault myself, I was struck by events set in motion after the Tōhoku earthquake in March 2011. We saw video coverage all across the country, unlike any other large-scale disaster before. Most of all, I was amazed at how the Japanese faced the disaster with the humility and fortitude.
The damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant quickly grabbed the headlines, and for good reason, the nuclear disaster was the worst reactor meltdown in history. The earthquake and resulting tsunami, however, wiped out many coastal towns, and had an estimated economic impact of 16.9 Trillion Yen or, 3.5 per cent of GDP.
I've wanted to return to Japan again and see what these cities are doing to rebuild and carry on. We spent time in both Rikuzentakata and Kessennuma. Both cities are located near the prefecture borders of Iwate and Miyagi.
Travel to this area is not easy by Japanese standards. Most coastal towns hit by the tsunami are along the coast between the Pacific Ocean the Ou mountain range. Some residents recommended not traveling North by rail, as the main lines pass through areas affected by the Fukushima meltdown. For several reasons, Japan has been surveyed like no other area for radioactiivity. Several Japanese, US, and crowd-sourced maps are available to help navigate contaminated areas in Japan. Both cities actively welcome visitors, and some companies offer tours. We weren't seeking a commercial experience, so we navigated on our own.
Travel north from Tokyo to Ichinoseki was 236 miles and took two hours by Shinkhansen. Ironically, travel to Rikuzentakata, just 28 miles away, took even longer. The ride through the mountains was quite an experience, and the bus along the coast was scenic. Many people commute through the mountains by train, including school children.
The first thing that struck me as we arrived was how unpopulated and undeveloped the affected areas were. Japan is a mountainous and rugged country. The few natural plateaus that do exist are occupied by medium to large buildings, multistory homes, and subsidized rice patties. Seeing unoccupied, level ground is highly unusual. Another surprising discovery is that in many cases, only the foundations remain. Much of the rubble has been cleared and is still being recycled or incinerated. Steel supports were snapped off just feet above the foundations.
In Kessennuma, one might see a salvaged building, next to a damaged and condemned building, next to a newly-built building. Sea walls have been partially replaced, but others still remain damaged, still showing where they breach and the upstream damage in the Tsunami's path. Rikuzentakata ,on the other hand, has few remaining buildings. Powerlines, streets, and cell towers have been replaced. In Japanese tradition, roads were rebuild where they were. City planners apparently do not revisit a layout for a once destroyed city. Aside from reclamation work, there was little else to see in Rikuzentakata. The city center is still a hub for traffic. We watched from above as vehicles meandered along the empty terrain, forced to travel along the artificial byzantine roadways that mirror the pre-tsunami city routes.
City residents can still be see traveling in to remember their homes, businesses, and loved ones lost in the Tsunami. We saw a hundred or more small memorials along the empty roadways, fresh with flowers.
Still, the waterfronts, the lifeblood of these cities were functioning well and have largely been rebuilt. Plant and flower nurseries have taken root in nurseries along the barren landscape. City services are being served from temporary structures, and new buildings are being built in the hillside.
The Japanese are not unfamiliar with rebuilding. Some structures date back to the seventh century, but some temples, shrines, and castles have been build and rebuilt many times throughout the centuries. Earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, and wars have ravaged the country over the years. New building codes make structures more resilient, but Japan is smaller than California, has far more earthquakes than California, and has over three times the population. Most historic structures in Japan have been rebuilt several times. What haven't been rebuilt must be continually renewed and refurbished under the high humidity and extremes in temperatures.
Japan has had it's struggles with natural disasters, but has always persevered, and continued on.
If you wish to read more about the Tōhoku earthquake and Tsunami, see the resources below.
Before and After Photographs
Miracle Pine Tree