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5 Vacations to Help Rebuild Japan’s Disaster Hit Tohoku Region

Nine years after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the stunning coastal towns of this disaster-affected region still deserve your attention.

By 6 min read

Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ripped apart Japan’s northern Tohoku region, many of the area’s cities faced double devastation, as their tourism industry was heavily affected.

Now—nine years after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami—the areas have shown an unbelievable level of resilience and in terms of tourism, plenty of the areas are back in action.

From snow-capped mountains to scenic coastlines, there are so many adventures to be had here.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup helped breathe new life into Iwate Prefecture, for example, when two games were hosted in Kamaishi City. People from across the globe filled the Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium with laughter and joy, putting their hard-earned yen towards revitalizing the city.

A Rugby World Cup volunteer explains tsunami rescue efforts at the Kamaishi Tsunami Memorial Hall.

This is the kind of continued tourism and exposure these areas need. Vacationing in one of the affected prefectures is the best way to contribute to its rejuvenation. From snow-capped mountains to scenic coastlines, there are so many adventures to be had here.

Use this list as a guide to plan your next vacation to Tohoku with the comfort in knowing your money is helping the disaster-affected region get back on its feet. The following areas are best accessible by car, however public transport is still a rather viable option.

1. Sanriku Coast

Along the coast in Iwate.

The Sanriku Coast is a stunning untamed rocky coastline, a sprawling shore that stretches over 200 kilometers across Tohoku. Touching Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi prefectures facing out onto the Pacific Coast, its natural beauty is impressive in photos but amplified so much more when it’s right in front of your eyes.

Off the coast is where you’ll find Tashirojima—aka “Cat Island”—a small rural isle about an hour from Miyagi’s Ishinomaki City. For breathtaking natural beauty, you can’t look past the Kitayamazaki coast in Iwate Prefecture. Home to a number of observation decks, it’s the perfect place to view the incredible beauty of the Unosu Cliffs—five perfectly lined up, 200-meter-high cliffs that look like naturally crafted pieces of sculptural art.

Over its lifetime, this site has faced its fair share of natural challenges but March 11, 2011 was one of the most devastating. During the tsunami, entire towns along the coast were washed away along with tens of thousands of lives (over 15,000 confirmed dead as of February 2018). Many of the roads connecting many points of interest and tourist spots were rebuilt just months after the disaster, making it relatively easy to access.

Given how big the area is, how to get there really depends on where you want to start and finish. Although many train lines were damaged during the quake, JR East and Sanriku railway lines are now back in operation. For those with a license, rental cars are an excellent way to get around. You can pick one up in Sendai and the Sanriku Expressway is probably the most convenient route.

2. Rikuzentakata

A photo by a volunteer helping out at Rikuzentakata.

In southern Iwate Prefecture, along the Sanriku Coast, you’ll find Rikuzentakata—one of the areas hardest hit by the events of March 2011. Although a majority of the city was swept away, it’s a fascinating place to visit as the city has been rebuilt on a preventative raised platform. In 2014, the area utilized a type of massive-scale conveyor belt system that carried rock from the Kesen River to the center of the town.

The miracle pine stands tall after the destruction.
The miracle pine in a different light.

Known as the miracle pine, a 200-year-old, 27-meter-tall tree that managed to survive the tsunami became a proud symbol of the town’s resilience. It died 18 months after the events due to salt toxicity, however, it’s since been preserved as an iconic sign of strength and pride. The artificially restored tree now stands tall in its original position overlooking the coast.

The best way to get to the city is to catch a bus from Sendai Station to Rikuzentakata, the trip takes around three-and-a-half hours.

3. Matsushima

Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.

One of the ultimate sightseeing experiences—and one of the best places to really embrace your budding inner nature photographer—is Matsushima Bay. Located around half an hour from Sendai, it’s considered one of Japan’s most incredible natural spots. The bay is home to a cluster of around 260 pine-covered islands, large and small, scattered along the water.

One tip is to visit during dawn when the sky is sun-dyed almost psychedelic tinges of purple and orange. You can explore by sightseeing cruise, too.

Thanks to its positioning along the coast, the bay managed to dodge any major natural damage following the 2011 earthquake and many of the stores, restaurants and other tourist-centric destinations were able to reopen quickly. However, ever since the quake, the area has been struggling to recapture its tourist market.

One of the best ways to get to Matsushima is to catch the Senseki line from Sendai before getting off at Shiogama and then taking the cruise boat to Matsushima.

4. Aizu-Wakamatsu

A view of Mount Bandai.

If it’s sake and samurai you’re after, consider a visit to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a historic, mountain-flanked destination in Fukushima. Based around Tsuruga Castle, this castle town is famous for crafting some of the most incredible nihonshu (Japanese rice wine) in Japan, plenty of which comes from the iconic Suehiro Sake Brewery. Founded in the mid-1800s, the brewery has been perfecting its blend through eight generations of sake masters.

Luckily, a large portion of the town managed to avoid radiation contamination and the area’s levels now comfortably sit at pre-earthquake levels. For the ultimate in hiking and skiing, head to Mt. Bandai, a dormant volcano that towers over the area looking a little like Mt. Fuji. Also be sure to visit Ouchijuku, an old post town seemingly frozen in the Edo period—the time in which it truly flourished.

From many of Japan’s major cities, the best way to get to Aizu-Wakamatsu is to ride the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Koriyama Station and switch to the JR Banetsu-sai line, which will take you to Aizu-Wakamatsu Station.

5. Sendai

View of Cherry Blossom or Hitome Senbon Sakura festival at Shiroishi riverside and city, Funaoka Castle Ruin Park, Sendai.

If you do find yourself in Tohoku, chances are you’ll pass by or through Sendai at some point. Often referred to as the “city of trees,” its laid back charm makes it a city definitely worth exploring. Sendai is famous for gyutan, a locally perfected dish of beef tongue, which can be found on pretty much every corner of the city.

The only thing maybe more ubiquitous than gyutan is the city’s dedications to Date Masamune, one of most powerful feudal lords in Japan, a man you can learn more about at the Zuihoden Mausoleum. The city is also home to one of the biggest statues in the world—the Sendai Daikannon, which stands 100-meters tall to the north of Sendai.

From the rest of the country, the best way to access the city is via the Tohoku shinkansen. If traveling via Tokyo, you can also consider the bus—the JR Bus Tohoku and Tohoku Kyuko travel to Sendai from Shinjuku Station regularly.

This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on May 4, 2018, on GaijinPot Blog.

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