Fallen pillars of Okawa Elementary School
In the North-Eastern part of Honshu (Japan’s largest main island) lies Miyagi, a prefecture that was devastated by the Great Tohoku Earthquake of March, 2011.
March 11th, 2011 2:46 pm JST
I was in the office. In the afternoon, the earthquake hit us and it was the strongest I’d ever felt in my life. We didn’t know if we should go outside or stay inside, but we ended up taking shelter under our desks. I was scared and a co-worker of mine had a sister in Miyagi. I remember about eight of us were all on our cellphones trying to call her sister to make sure she was ok. None of our calls went through.
– Satoko Tsuruta, Tokyo, Japan
I was talking with my friend after school. We were about to head home when my friend received a text message from her sister, ‘There was a big earthquake. I mean a really crazy one!’ In Shiga prefecture, we didn’t feel so much as a tremor. We laughed it off and thought that her sister must’ve been exaggerating. When I got home, my parents were watching the news on TV. I remember seeing a mass of black water consume an entire town.
– Anonymous, Shiga, Japan
The ruins of Okawa Elementary School after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake
Eight Years Later
I stand with a tour group in front of Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi. Rather, I stand in front of what used to be Okawa Elementary School. It lies in ruins with an eerie and heartbreaking memorial Statue of Hope erected in front of it. Flowers are periodically left in memory of the children and staff that lost their lives. A man stands in front of our group. He’s our tour guide and he’s also a father who lost his son in the tsunami.
Okawa Elementary School front
He points to an empty field behind us with a single unpaved road running through it. There used to be houses over there, he says. An entire neighbourhood. After the earthquake happened the teachers made a mistake and told the children to go home. They told them to walk to those same houses that used to stand in the fields behind you. He points to a mountain just fifty feet behind the school grounds. What they should have done was climb this mountain.
Mountain behind Okawa Elementary School
We follow him behind the school and up the mountain. It only takes about 8 minutes from the school’s entrance to get to a platform about halfway up the mountain. We stare at the ruins of the school and it’s almost unbelievable how high up we were able to climb in such a short time.
View from the mountain behind Okawa Elementary School
Just a short three-minute walk and a five-minute climb and the students would’ve been untouched by the tsunami. Some students even questioned the teachers’ decision and said that they should go to the mountain, our tour guide says. But they didn’t. They followed the teachers’ instructions. My son was one of them. I expect the man to stumble over his words or to tear up, but he doesn’t. He speaks plainly, almost like a newscaster explaining what had happened. Obviously, none of us can understand how he feels, but the thought that just a five-minute climb would’ve saved his son’s life must weigh on him every day.
A shattered wall near the school playground
The man brings us into the school and it’s like a scene from an apocalypse film. We ascend the stairs and a torn page from a textbook lies on one of the steps. The walls are cracked or missing completely.
The floors in the classrooms bulge like an overinflated ball. Don’t worry, he comforts us. It’s safe to walk on these floors. They rose and cracked like this because of the water pressure from when the tsunami entered the first floor.
He takes us through a couple of the classrooms and a thought immediately hits me, Why are the shelves and furniture all in an upright position? Why are their books and tools in closed shelves?
English practice cards “Yes I can” remain on the blackboard
Before I can ask the question, he gives us the answer. The desks, shelves, and chairs were put back into place by the GSDF (Ground Self Defense Force). They came here and cleared the wreckage. As a sort of memorial to the students who passed away, they cleaned all the mud off the books, supplies, and furniture and put them back into place. They wanted to preserve this place to make it look like it did before the tsunami.
It’s incredibly eerie and almost unbelievable. Chairs and desks sit upright facing the blackboard, but behind them the wall of the windows are missing and we can see the mountain behind the school grounds.
On the wall, a clock was returned to its original place, forever frozen at 3:37 pm.
The guide tells us that numerous parents are currently pursuing a lawsuit against the school for the loss of their children. All throughout Miyagi prefecture in North-Eastern Japan, numerous coastal cities are building levees and incredibly high walls along the coast. This is of course to prevent any further damage from future tsunamis. However, one city refused to do that, and it’s the city that was completely swept away.
Onagawa: The City that was Washed Away and Reborn
I sit at the town’s information center with the tour group just a couple hundred feet from the coast of Onagawa Bay which spills into the Pacific Ocean. The information guide stands in front of our group and explains how the entire city was destroyed by the tsunami. Everything we see around us had been built or rebuilt within the past eight years.
Almost every other city or town in the area voted to erect a large wall along the coastline to protect against future tsunamis, the guide explains. We didn’t do that. Instead, every building in the city, as well as the roads, are built five to eight meters higher than they were previously. Near the coast, the only buildings are businesses and commercial buildings. There are no residences. All the houses are built much further away at a higher elevation. Therefore, if a tsunami happens during the night, everyone will be in their homes already at a safe elevation.
The guide points toward the windows at the red-bricked road in front of the information center. Additionally, the entire city was built with this red-bricked path at the center and leads all the way up to the new train station. Beyond that lies the mountain.
This path was built as the city’s escape route to higher ground. So if a major earthquake were to occur during the daytime, everyone would simply exit their buildings and follow this path to safety. Their decision against building a wall surprised me, but looking out at the beautiful view of the mountains and the sea, I thought about what a pity it would be if all this were covered by a wall of stone.
Their decision seemed almost defiant or rebellious, as if they refused to hide behind a wall. Instead, they found a way to preserve the beauty of their city while intelligently designing it in a way to keep everyone as safe as possible.
What amazed me most about Miyagi was its people and their ability to persevere through rough times. Most people would pick up and move to a safer area and never turn back again. However, that is not the case for numerous Miyagi residents. Numerous cities and small towns are working hard to rebuild, repopulate, and increase their tourism economy.
Aside from new construction policies and designing the town with safety as a first priority, the citizens are trying their best to return Onagawa to its former glory. The government is trying to promote their town and its newly built residential areas to bring more residents back to the area.
Due to the severity of the damage from the tsunami, many survivors have never returned and others are hesitant to live anywhere near the coasts of Japan. No matter the amount of donations and government funds the city receives, there is only one thing that can truly revive Onagawa: people. Whether it be former residents returning to once again live in their hometown or new residents looking to find an affordable home in rural Japan, Onagawa needs people to populate it. The same could be said for all of the areas in Miyagi that were devastated by the earthquake.
Due bring attention to the area and boost the city’s economy, a brand new shopping area was built, as well as other tourist attractions. The Seapal Pier is a beautiful outlet shopping center only a 2-minute walk from the train station which has a beautiful view of the ocean and surrounding mountains. Numerous souvenir shops, clothing stores, and shops featuring handmade goods give the shopping center a nice and unique variety.
The Hama Terrace within the Seapal Pier functions as a town market. Visitors can often witness the process of drying nori (seaweed) and fish outside the shops. Inside Hama Terrace, visitors can grab a bite from one of the many restaurants and izakayas within the food court area. Those looking for unique souvenirs can choose from an abundance of nori, dried fish, pickled fish, and other seafood products exclusive to the area.
An Onsen in a Train Station
Onagawa Onsen Yupopo is quite possible the only onsen in Japan that is located within a train station. The first floor of Onagawa Station is a regular train station, the second floor holds the onsen and the third floor is an observatory. Onagwa Onsen Yupopo advertises that its bathwater which is hypotonic alkaline hot spring water with a pH of 8.8 has beneficial moisturizing effects for your skin.
From Okawa Elementary School, a total of 74 students and 10 school staff members lost their lives on that tragic day.
View from a second-floor window of Okawa Elementary School
While nothing could ever replace those that lost their lives in the tsunami, 23 families of the victims are currently in the middle of a lawsuit against the school board and local authorities. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2014 and the city of Ishinomaki was ordered to pay around 1.4 billion yen (roughly 13 million USD) in damages. In 2018 the city decided to appeal the high court ruling.
Despite that tragedy, the city has been rebuilding and the remaining citizens have been trying their best to heal. Levees and large walls are being built around the coast to protect against future tsunamis.
Ishinomaki is also trying to boost tourism in the area. While the area is secluded, it is also one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. From the lush mountains, cool, fresh air, and breathtaking views of the sea, Miyagi is one of the most beautiful places in Japan.
There are many mountains to hike and beaches to relax or swim in. As part of a tourism focus group, we were shown the Japanese version of Southern Hospitality. The people of Miyagi were some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. Of course, outside of Tokyo, English speaking Japanese people are few. However, in Miyagi I was shown how kindness and hospitality can overcome language barriers. Many of the people in the group could speak no Japanese at all. However, observing them interact with the locals and Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) staff taught me that you don’t need to know the words coming out of someone’s mouth to communicate things like gratitude and even simple requests.
In Ishinomaki, we were taken on a boat tour to catch uni (sea urchin) with local fishermen. Not only did we catch the uni ourselves with long hooks and fishnets, the fishermen cracked them open for us and urged us to try eating uni fresh out of the shell. To be honest, the idea of eating raw seafood freshly caught didn’t exactly appeal to me, especially at 10 o’clock in the morning. However, I knew this was a chance I’d likely never get again. I took the slimy uni meat out of the fisherman’s likely dirty hands and shoved the luscious orange delicacy in my mouth, trying not to think about it.
While the presentation of the meal was admittedly poor, the uni itself was incredibly delicious. The rich taste is hard to explain, but it is like a cross between fish and cheese.
The ryokan we stayed at was clean with modern amenities like Western-style toilets and in-room air conditioning, but at the same time, it felt incredibly traditional. We were treated to fresh seafood and other delicious Japanese foods for breakfast and dinner, which we ate in a traditional Japanese tatami room.
As well, one big plus side of staying in Ishinomaki is that it is a short, 30-minute or so drive to Matsushima. The islands of Matsushima are one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Japan. The boat tours are affordable and definitely worth it. Matsushima has its own shrine and numerous local delicacies to enjoy.
Bridge to the Shrine at Matsushima
How You Can Help
It was truly inspiring to see how these communities were not wallowing in despair or trying to run away to a safer place. The people of Miyagi are resilient and kind-hearted despite what they’ve been through. When people hear about disasters like The Great Tohoku Earthquake, often the first reaction is to send donations.
However, sometimes the best way to help these areas recover is not to send your money. One of the best ways to help is to enjoy yourself by visiting the area, staying in their hotels, and enjoying their food and sightseeing spots. Instead of donating your money to the local government or NPO groups, spend your money by visiting these areas and boost their tourist economy.
Sometimes the best advertising is word-of-mouth, and helping these areas appeal to tourists is a great way to help them create a sustainable source of income and rebuild.
If you’re interested in planning a trip to one of these areas, please refer to the following links to help you get started: