RIKUZENTAKATA, IWATE PREF. – Six years after tsunami ravaged Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, the coastal city is moving to rebuild tourism with a unique home-stay program.
The minpaku (private lodging) program, organized by tourism promotion organization Marugoto Rikuzentakata, enables visitors to get a taste of the daily lives of local fishermen, farmers and other residents while learning about the March 11, 2011 disaster.
Dipendra Lamichhane, a 27-year-old Nepalese who joined one of the three-day tours in February, said it was an “unforgettable” experience, citing his host family’s warm hospitality and the city’s beautiful saw-toothed coastline.
A student from a computer vocational school in Sendai, he said, “We made a family here,” after spending time with his host family and three Nepalese schoolmates. The stay included visiting an ocean lookout and hot springs, cooking and dining.
He said they also sometimes talked about what it must have been like when the city was hit by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011.
Lamichhane said he was surprised how his host mother, Renko Ogiwara, 69, miraculously survived, becoming the last to escape the tsunami when she drove up a hill while others said along the way it was the wrong direction to be fleeing.
“A big, black mountain was chasing after me,” Ogiwara said of the tsunami she saw on that fateful day.
Having heard that she later suffered from depression, Lamichhane, whose home country was also struck by a major earthquake, in 2015, said, “I was impressed how she’s been hanging tough.”
A total of 24 Nepalese and Vietnamese studying in Japan joined the home-stay program along with Lamichhane. Many of the host families decided to take part in the project as a way to reciprocate the kindness they received in the aftermath of the disaster and help make the city vibrant again, said Aya Yokosawa, who is a coordinator of the program for the tourism body.
Rikuzentakata was among the hardest-hit cities in the calamity. Nearly 1,800 people — around 7 percent of the city’s population — were lost in the disaster and nearly 4,000 houses collapsed entirely as waves, reaching 17 meters high at some points, destroyed the downtown hub.
Six years later, construction continues in a vast, raised coastal area buttressed against future tsunami.
Currently, Japan is experiencing a tourism boom, with the number of foreign visitors increasing for the fifth consecutive year to a record-high 24.04 million in 2016. But its benefits have not spread equally to disaster-stricken areas in northeastern Japan.
While hotel use nationwide by foreigners in 2016 jumped 2.5-fold from the pre-disaster levels, the combined figure for the Tohoku prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima has just recently recovered to pre-disaster levels, according to the Reconstruction Agency.
The city of Rikuzentakata officially started promoting minpaku private lodging services in 2015 as a way to revive tourism, believing the benefits are not only economic but offer opportunities for excitement and motivation, said Takanori Obayashi of the city’s tourism division.
So far, five Japanese schools have brought around 670 students to the city under the home-stay program in 2016, and 10 schools have signed up for the program this year for about 2,200 students, according to Marugoto Rikuzentakata. More than 100 non-Japanese have also used or reserved the city’s private lodging services for this year.
The city recently launched a licensing system for tourism guides to better cope with the translation needs of foreign tourists, while helping local restaurants and hotels prepare menus and signs in foreign languages.
Oyster farmers Sakae Suzuki, 65, and his wife, Mitsuko, 62, who lost their home and a fishing boat in the tsunami, said they never imagined they would one day host Vietnamese students at their new home.
“It’s fun to connect with people from outside. I didn’t think that way before the quake, but many volunteers came here at that time and I found it fun to interact with people from outside this city,” Mitsuko said while showing her Vietnamese guests how to shuck oysters. She also does not mind the extra cash she can earn through the program, she said.
Her husband was a little worried that they might not be able to communicate with the Vietnamese tourists, but it has never been a problem.
“We got a lot of help” after the disaster, Sakae said when asked why he decided to accept tourists at the couple’s home. “If there’s something that we can do to repay people’s kindness, we wanted to do it,” he said, referring to the relief donations that arrived from around the world.
Nguyen Manh Duc, 25, one of the Suzukis’ Vietnamese guests, said he enjoyed going out in his host father’s boat to catch crabs as part of his first fishing experience at sea.
“The ocean is very beautiful, and people are really kind,” said Nguyen Manh, a student at a Japanese language school in Sendai.
After ending the three-day tour, the foreign students appeared reluctant to part with their host families. They took photos, hugged until the last minute before departure, while some were teary.
The small coastal city became known for the casualties it sustained in the 2011 disaster, and its population fell 18 percent from the pre-disaster level to around 19,800.
However, probably the best-known symbol of Rikuzentakata today is the “Miracle pine,” a single spindly survivor among a grove of 70,000 trees that had lined the city’s beach for centuries. The tree eventually died but has been preserved and re-erected.
With anti-decay chemical treatment, the tree became a monument, standing on the beach as a symbol of its tenacity amid the unimaginable destruction.
Minpaku program coordinator Yokosawa said people come to see the pine and the buildings left stranded after the tsunami, but she wanted to offer them a chance to get to know the city at a deeper level through exchanges with the locals.
“The pine grove that lasted since the Edo Period is gone and it takes time to restore the beautiful scenery we used to have, but there are people who continue to live here,” she said.
“I want visitors to get a glimpse of their charm because I believe there is no place other than here where people’s ordinary lives are treasured and shine so much.”