Testing out tourism in Tohoku

Warmth and tragedy await visitors to Iwate's stricken coastline, as Tomoko Otake found

by Tomoko Otake

Some, though not all, of our travels change our lives; they cultivate sensibilities, shape values and alter our outlook on things. One such trip I experienced was a sixth-grade school excursion to Hiroshima when, at the Peace Memorial Museum, I saw photographs of people who had suffered massive burns and lost limbs as a result of the Aug. 6, 1945, U.S. atomic bombing of the city. Those photos terrified me so much that I remember bursting into tears.

A visit I made late last month to coastal areas of Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan reminded me of that Hiroshima school trip. In cities and towns along the rugged Sanriku coast, some locals are trying to connect with visitors by sharing their memories of the giant tsunami that roared in from the Pacific following the magnitude 9 Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, instantly taking away many of their family members, friends and neighbors.

On that trip organized by the Iwate prefectural government, I and several other journalists (mostly from vernacular travel magazines) journeyed all the way from the city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate’s south, just north of Miyagi Prefecture, to Ninohe, not far from Aomori Prefecture — witnessing awful devastation almost everywhere we went.

Covering eight municipalities in three days, the tour made me realize that the communities affected by the March 2011 tsunami are in various stages of mourning, healing and rebuilding. But everywhere we went, locals were open to sharing their thoughts, whether about lost family members, feelings of insecurity over their future — or fears that they are fading out of people’s memory.

Our first stop on the tour was a small cafeteria in Rikuzentakata, one of the cities worst hit by the tsunami. Called Yahagi Shokudo, the business, which occupies a single-story prefabricated building, opened a year ago in the mountains off National Route 343. Now it keeps busy serving ramen noodles and set menus to reconstruction workers and the 20,000 residents remaining from a pre-disaster population of some 23,000.

Seiko Matsuda, a manager there, cheerfully explained how the eatery was opened by business owners in the inland Iwate city of Kitakami, some 60 km northwest of Rikuzentakata, as a way to provide disaster victims with jobs.

But then, as she recalled how she’d lost her previous job at a ramen shop to the tsunami, Matsuda suddenly choked up. “All the staff of that shop were fired immediately afterward,” she said. “Then, day after day, I had no idea what to do. Just losing a job was so hard; I can’t imagine the hardship for those who lost their family members.”

After finishing our steaming helpings of stir-fried pork with ginger, we headed off to Ofunato, a city of some 39,000 people that also suffered substantial tsunami damage. Afterward, many of its residents banded together late last year to build a prefab “shopping mall” — with government subsidies earmarked for reconstruction.

The resulting Purehabu Yokocho/Ofunato Yataimura — which means “The Prefab Side Street/Ofunato Stall Village” — is a cluster of 42 businesses, comprising eateries, bars, a barber shop and even a juku (cram school) for children.

At Kaizan, one of the izakaya (pubs) there, manager Takahisa Niinuma told how, when the tsunami hit, he had watched from a hill inland as his bar and home were washed away. “As a port city, we used to have a fair number of places like mine,” he said. “But all but two of the 60 bars in Ofunato were washed away. Lots of volunteers came and helped us, but we felt that our own caterers had to do something (instead of everyone just being fed by others).”

Now, 65 percent of Kaizan’s business comes from locals, with outsiders — mostly workers engaged in reconstruction work — making up the rest, he said. But the government permit for operation of the mall expires in 15 months, and the premises will all have to close as redevelopment gets into full swing. Niinuma doesn’t know what will become of his business afterward.

Asked whether tourists should simply enjoy themselves in disaster-area bars like his, Niinuma said: “We welcome anyone, even just curious onlookers. Our mentality has always been hospitable, and we want people to come back and see how the city changes over time.”

Later, as our party checked in further up the coast at the seven-story Rikuchukaigan Grand Hotel in Kamaishi, which had just reopened on Nov. 7, its President Kyohei Nomura greeted us warmly. But then the room fell silent as he recounted his own 3/11 experience.

“The wave swamped this hotel all the way up to the second-floor ceilings,” he said. “After I made sure all our guests and employees were safe, I looked for my family. My wife ran a gift shop in the market (by the shore). She was found dead. Then, after that, my father was found dead in the garden of his home, covered in blankets. On the day of his cremation, my mother turned up (from the sea, as a dead body). I spent months in anguish, wondering whether to carry on living. I nearly gave up … “

The reopened hotel uses the same concrete structure, which, though tsunami-damaged on lower floors, remained structurally sound through both it and the quake. The rooms and the entrance lobby look like a new hotel’s, but I couldn’t help wondering why Nomura decided to resume business in exactly the same location right by the ocean — where his hotel is sure to be in the path of any future tsunami.

In answer to my puzzlement, the hotelier explained: “The government subsidies for reconstruction have certain conditions attached, under which you cannot use the money to build a new structure. So we had no other choice but to reopen here. Also, this hotel served as an evacuation site for locals as no other buildings in the area are this high.”

After dinner, I went with others in our group to explore Nonbee Yokocho (meaning “Drinkers’ Side Street”) near JR Kamaishi Station on the local Kamaishi Line. Here, in rows of prefabs, were lots of identical-looking little bars, mostly named after their female proprietors and with room in each for up to about seven customers seated on stools along a counter.

Such joints used to line the oceanfront district in this once-prosperous steel-making city, but they quickly vanished with the tsunami. However, in December 2011 they returned — thanks to support from the owners of similar cozy establishments in the Nonbee Yokocho that runs by the JR tracks in Tokyo’s central Shibuya district.

The keepers of the Kamaishi bars didn’t talk much, preferring instead to get on with what they’ve always done: serving drinks, keeping glasses full and listening to patrons as they ease their blues away.

Then a stop at a funky cafe in the town of Otsuchi the following day offered further respite from all the tales we’d heard of what people had lost.

Cafe & Bar Ape is run by a young musician couple, Norishige and Ria, who lived in Tokyo until they learned that Norishige’s hometown had been caught up in the disaster. Built from scratch on the site where his family home used to be, the cheap-chic cafe serves fair-trade coffee and snacks as well as also holding live concerts and other events.

“We made everything by hand; we even built our bath,” Norishige said, pointing out that “Ape” in Cafe & Bar’s name actually means “fire” in the aboriginal Ainu language — and that he wants to build a pizza oven next.

Ria said their 5-year-old daughter was initially so shocked by the area’s landscape that for about six months she kept repeating the same phrases: “It’s broken. There’s nothing here.” But then, Ria said, “I guess she finally accepted the reality, and she goes to a local nursery now.”

Then, after a night in the village of Tanohata at the clean and nicely refurbished Hotel Ragaso — which also reopened in November — our short tour ended with a stop at Ninohe. There, we visited the famed Nanbu Bijin sake brewery, which has bounced back from the disaster; and the Goshono Jomon archeological site, with its replicas of complete pit dwellings right above ruins of the originals from 4,500 years ago.

Compared with these two spots inland, which are well worth a visit, the coastal communities, it seems, have a long way to go before they become tourist destinations for the mass market.

But like my school trip to Hiroshima, this visit to Iwate will stay long in my memory — reminding me not only how fortunate I am, but how we must not forget those disaster-hit areas, either as tourists or simply as fellow human beings.

Getting there: To reach southern Iwate Prefecture’s coastal areas, take a 2-hour Tohoku Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Ichinoseki then travel onward by infrequent local buses or rented car. Ninohe further north is 3 hours by shinkansen from Tokyo. Places visited: Yahagi Shokudo, 99-1 Aza-sodeno, Yahagi-cho, Rikuzentakata; (0192) 57-5888. Purehabu Yokocho/Ofunato Yataimura, 21-2 Aza-nonoda, Ofunato-cho, Ofunato. Rikuchukaigan Grand Hotel, 1-2-3, Minato-machi, Kamaishi; (0193) 22-1211. Cafe & Bar Ape, 2-6-18, Kirikiri, Otsuchi; (0193) 44-3021. Hotel Ragaso, 60-1, Raga, Tanohata-mura, Shimohei-gun; (0194) 33-2611. Nanbu Bijin, 13 Aza-kamimachi, Fukuoka, Ninohe; (0195) 23-3133. Goshono Jomon Site, 2 Aza-goshono, Iwadate, Ichinohe-cho, Nihohe; (0195) 32-2652.