Rikuzentakata looks to future with new tourism ventures


Special To The Japan Times

The coastal town of Rikuzentakata in southeastern Iwate Prefecture became an international symbol of the devastation wreaked by the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Lashed by waves up to 13 meters high in places, the sections of the town closest to the sea were decimated and some 1,700 citizens lost their lives.

Showing unusual foresight, Mayor Futoshi Toba turned to social media, updating the world on the situation and keeping the town on the international radar. He also appointed American Amya Miller as the town’s global public relations director, who now acts as liaison between his town and the rest of the world.

Having spent her childhood in Japan and attending Japanese school, Miller is fully bilingual and holds a great love and respect for the country and its culture. Miller was living in the United States when the tsunami struck but quickly made her way over to Japan to offer help in any way she could. In what she likens to “an alignment of the stars,” she happened to be in the area when Toba came up with the idea of appointing an English speaker to handle global relations, and she willingly accepted the role.

Over the past four years, Miller has divided her time between Japan and her family in the U.S., maintaining a busy schedule as she juggles local activities in Tohoku with media relations and speaking engagements around the world. As rebuilding efforts in Rikuzentakata move ahead, Miller took some time out to talk about the latest tourism developments in the area.

“Ever since the tsunami struck, Mayor Toba has asked people to come and see what was going on with their own eyes,” Miller says. “Now that the city is moving into the next stage, we want people to come here not just to volunteer but to spend some time, get to know our people and form deeper connections.”

Probably the best-known symbol of Rikuzentakata today is the “miracle pine,” a single survivor among the 70,000 trees that once graced the coast and attracted tourists. Although the pine was initially left standing after the tsunami, it was declared dead in 2012 after the salt water damaged its roots. There was considerable debate as to what to do with the tree, but the decision was made to preserve it. A rod was inserted into the center of the tree and synthetic branches and leaves were added.

“The miracle pine is a powerful symbol for the town and it conveys a message of hope, akin to the Hiroshima Dome,” Miller says. “It would have been painful to leave buildings where people lost their lives, but a tree is in itself a symbol of life. It says, ‘We aren’t going anywhere. We’re staying’ and it was important for the people of Rikuzentakata to see this, and to show it to the world.” (While local officials decided to leave several buildings standing in their original post-tsunami condition, care was taken to ensure that nobody had died in these locations.)

The town received criticism, even at a national level, for the decision to spend ¥1.5 million on preserving the pine tree, but Miller has some straight words for dissenters who claim the money should have been spent on helping survivors to rebuild their lives. “We didn’t use any money that was earmarked for recovery — it was all fundraised specifically for the pine tree,” she says. “We would appreciate not having this criticism from those who haven’t been through what this town did, and who haven’t seen it with their own eyes.”

Busloads of tourists already arrive daily to see the miracle pine, and once reconstruction of the town’s central business district and residential housing for displaced citizens is completed, there are plans to build a waterfront park in the vicinity. The forest of pine trees will be rebuilt, using seedlings from the original trees. Along with the forest, there will be a museum and recreational facilities, providing an opportunity for people of all ages to come to learn about and reflect upon the 2011 disaster, as well as to relax and enjoy the scenery.

It goes without saying that great care is being taken to ensure that the rebuilt sections of the town and waterfront will be protected from any future disaster of the magnitude of March 2011.

In April 2014, the city launched a unique tourism venture with the aim of letting visitors and residents interact in a way that brings tangible benefits to both sides. The Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project offers visitors the opportunity to work alongside local farmers, fishermen or craftspeople to get a taste of their daily activities. “Marugoto” roughly equates with “entire” or “whole” in English, conveying the hope that participants in the program will get to know Rikuzentakata on a deeper level.

“To be honest, few people outside Tohoku had heard of our town before the tsunami,” says Shosaku Kuwahara, a tourism promotion consultant for Rikuzentakata. “Now they come to see the miracle pine and the buildings that were left standing after the tsunami. However, we wanted to offer something more — a chance for meaningful exchange with locals.”

Many of the people who came here as volunteers in the aftermath of the tsunami expressed the wish to come back again, and Kuwahara notes that the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project provides the perfect opportunity. “Of course, it is also open to those who are visiting for the first time,” Kuwahara says. “Since the program started last year, we’ve welcomed corporate groups, government officials and schools, as well as private parties.”

Participants can select from a wide range of agricultural activities for their marugoto experience, ranging from helping on apple and yuzu orchards to planting and harvesting rice. Those who are comfortable going out on a boat can harvest wakame (seaweed), oysters or scallops. And for visitors who would prefer something a little more sedate, there are also craft and cooking classes on offer.

Kuwahara says Marugoto Rikuzentakata is very much a grass-roots type of project, with the farmers and other local residents signing up of their own accord based on mostly word-of-mouth advertising. “They are friendly folk who are eager to talk with visitors and are not shy about sharing their homes and livelihoods,” he says.

Aside from the friendship exchange, there is also a practical aspect to the program. Since many of the area’s farmers and fishermen are elderly, they welcome some help with the physically taxing work.

To date, no foreign nationals have yet participated in the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project, and Kuwahara admits that part of the problem is information dissemination. There are plans for a multilingual website but, with limited staff and budget, this is some way off.

The local participants only speak Japanese, so at present the onus is on visitors to find a way around the language problem if this is an issue. However, both Miller and Kuwahara urge interested groups not to be put off by this. “These people are witty and gregarious small-town farmers with big hearts,” Miller says. “Communication goes beyond just words.”

Kuwahara echoes this sentiment, saying that the staff from the project office will do their very best to answer queries in English and help foreign visitors to enjoy their time in the area.

It is hoped that Marugoto Rikuzentakata will contribute to grander plans afoot in the area by appealing to visitors who may be interested in eventually moving there as part of the so-called “U-turn” (people returning to their hometowns) and “I-turn” (city dwellers relocating to rural areas to begin new lives) trends.

“Rikuzentakata isn’t just rebuilding in terms of infrastructure,” Miller says. “It is aiming to become a new kind of inclusive and open community that welcomes people from all walks of life, including single parents, foreign nationals and those with handicaps. Our message is simple: Come and visit and get to know us.”

Rikuzentakata has clearly captured Miller’s heart. “In fact,” she adds with a smile, “I’m seriously considering retiring here myself in a few years.”

Contact the Marugoto Rikuzentakata Project by calling 0192-22-7410 or emailing info@marugoto-rikuzentakata.com (English or Japanese), or visit the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/まるごとりくぜんたかた協議会/ (Japanese only). Most programs require a minimum of five participants and charges vary. Getting there: To reach Rikuzentakata from Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen up to Ichinoseki Station in Iwate Prefecture (about 2½ hours). From there, connect to the Ofunato Line and take the train to Kesennuma (a town in Miyagi Prefecture that was also hit hard by the tsunami) and then board a JR bus to Rikuzentakata. It takes about two hours to reach Rikuzentakata from Ichinoseki.