Rising up again in northeastern Japan

Stories of survival are everywhere in this once devastated region
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa
By Time Out editors |
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By Time Out in association with NHK World

The 'Miracle Pine' of Rikuzentakata is a 26-metre testimony to survival. You can spot it from hundreds of yards away, its spindly trunk reaching into the Tohoku sky against a backdrop that tells of its latest and most dramatic chapter of endurance: A two-storey building sits by the water just a short walk away, one half crumpled and sinking to the ground; all around the tree, cranes and pickers rearrange the earth and push concrete slabs defiantly towards the shore.

The 250-year-old pine (176-6 Sunamori Kasencho, Rikuzentakata, Iwate) stands alone today, but it was once part of a thicket of 70,000 trees that lined the coast here. When the tsunami of March 2011 struck – the wave swelling to 15m as it roared through the shallow bay – it flattened the town and destroyed all the trees but one. People call it the Miracle Pine (it had also survived tsunamis in 1896 and 1933), and when it later died because of salt-water damage to the soil, the town raised ¥150 million to restore it.

Miracle PinePhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Replicas of the limbs, with leaves made of synthetic resin, were attached, a metal skeleton was inserted into its trunk and the restored pine was unveiled in 2013 as a memorial to the 1,700 people who died in the town.

All through the prefectures hardest hit by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami – Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima – communities are working to move forward and rebuild. They have marked the tragedy and commemorated what has been lost, but the feeling you get when visiting is one of grit, determination and of people trying to make an uncertain future something more definite.

This is apparent at the Mirai Shotengai 'recovery market' (3-1 Takinosato, Takekomacho, Rikuzentakata, Iwate), which you’ll find on higher ground just a short drive from the pine. Here, merchants whose businesses were destroyed by the tsunami plus those who have opened businesses since sell dried seaweed, flower seeds, chargrilled squid, clothes and groceries in temporary buildings. Kazuaki Abe, who runs a sushi restaurant at the market, serves incredibly fresh, skillfully made rolls and loves telling his story to those who visit (he has a picture of PM Shinzo Abe close at hand to show you).

Mirai ShotengaPhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

He is typical of many of those who operate businesses in the market and live in temporary housing close by: happy for the safety net, happier to meet you but uncertain about the future. The recovery markets are mostly set to close in the next few years – worries about government subsidies and the chances of insurance coverage and bank loans weigh heavily.

In a similar market on high ground in Onagawa, south of Rikuzentakata (60-3 Junijin Urashukuhama, Onagawa, Oshika, Miyagi), tea shop owner Takenori Onodera and his wife, Akiko, are planning to move into a new permanent store in the rebuilt downtown (though flattened by the tsunami, Onagawa’s downtown has been quickly rebuilt as a modern, almost ski-village–style collection of trendy coffeeshops and restaurants). Like the pine, Onodera’s story is miraculous: The wave ripped him out to sea as it recoiled, dragging him and the fifth-storey roof of his shop he was clinging to into the ocean; he managed to clamber onto a small boat and was later rescued by a fishing vessel. His new shop will be just a few yards from where the old one once stood.

Takenori and Akiko OnaderaPhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Survival stories are common in coastal Tohoku, from that of the soaring pine to the local shop owners to the region’s reopened major sites: The Sant Juan Bautista Museum (Omori-30-2 Watanoha, Ishinomaki, Miyagi; 0225 24 2210, santjuan.or.jp) features a full-scale replica of the eponymous ship, which sailed from Japan to Europe and Mexico in the 17th century. Moored in a small cove, it survived the tsunami with only the mast snapped by the wave. 'The replica was theoretically supposed to float,' says one museum staffer. 'The tsunami showed it could.'

Another symbol of the region’s recovery is the Sanriku Railway, which was extensively damaged during the tsunami and reopened in 2014. Running along the coast of Iwate, it had been central to the daily lives of people here – its comeback, with garishly painted, optimistic-looking new stations, was seen as representative of a region being brought back to life.

Sanriku RailwayPhotograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

As passengers ride in one of the railway’s new cars, the seaside villages of the region whiz by in little blurs of oceanfront beauty and activity. On the edges of the water are cranes, slabs of concrete, and pickers and men in hard hats. But there are also bustling little restaurants and shops, and people going about their lives. Both groups are doing their best to look forward and bring their communities with them.

See more photos of Iwate and Miyagi

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Advertising
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Advertising
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Advertising
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Advertising
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Advertising
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Advertising
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Advertising
Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

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Rising up again in northern Japan
Photograph: Keisuke Tanigawa

Check out our Tohoku travel series

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