At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, the Miyagi Prefecture coastal town of Minamisanriku was rocked by a M9.0 earthquake under the Pacific Ocean approximately 50 kilometers to the southeast. The shaking lasted for nearly five minutes; less than 30 minutes later, the waters of a massive tsunami flooded into the town, reaching 20.5 meters at their highest point and pushing two kilometers inland. Nearly 95% of the town was destroyed and at least 1,200 people lost their lives.
But this area has more than a millennium of tsunami inundation history and the people who make their lives here are made of pretty stern stuff. Part of what makes Minamisanriku such an enchanting place is the resilience and attitude of its people, an attitude so contagious it actually attracts people to relocate here.
The spirit of the townspeople and the town they have rebuilt are worth exploring. For Tokyo-based visitors, it’s an easy weekend jaunt. Pick up a rental car in Sendai, just 90 kilometers to the south, for maximum flexibility. Visitors can see first-hand how this Tohoku town has triumphed over tragic circumstances and can also enjoy a number of fun, unique experiences.
The heart of old Minamisanriku, around the mouth of the Shizugawa River, has been built up at least 10 meters and the coastal highway now runs atop a levee expected to serve as a protective dike against future inundations. For further protection, replacement residences have been built above the tsunami’s highwater mark and the only construction in the area of the original town is commercial.
Be sure to visit San San Shotengai, a small shopping plaza on the river’s left bank. Originally a number of temporary structures that enabled local merchants to restart their businesses in 2012, a permanent complex opened in 2017 designed by Kengo Kuma, the architect who designed the new National Stadium in Tokyo and who often engages in revitalization projects emphasizing local building materials. Among the businesses are local fish and produce shops, several restaurants, coffee and gift shops and a photography studio/gallery. Don’t miss the gallery photos of local photographer, Shinichi Sato, shot on March 11, 2011. Even as he watched his own home claimed by the tsunami, Sato continued to create a powerful visual testament to the events of that fateful day.
At the east end of San San Shotengai, check out Minamisanriku’s Easter Island Moai statue, a gift from the people of Chile. Minamisanriku first received a Moai from Chile after the town was badly damaged by a 1960 tsunami resulting from the Valdivia earthquake, the largest ever recorded. That Moai washed away in 2011 and was replaced by the current one. Wooden Moai statues can be seen across the town.
At the west end of the shotengai, cross the Nakahashi footbridge — another Kengo Kuma creation — to reach the Memorial Park of Earthquake Disaster, notable for its memorial mound and the skeleton of the town’s three-story crisis management center, which was inundated and destroyed by the tsunami. As its waters streamed over the building’s roof, only 10 of 40 people who had fled that far, including the town’s mayor, survived by clinging to the stair rails and a transmission tower.
Little Arashima island in Shizugawa Bay, connected to the mainland by a concrete causeway, is home to a small shrine especially venerated by local fishermen. It lost its torii gate to the tsunami; the torn stubs remain alongside a new torii.
Not far from Arashima island, Minamisanriku Winery opened in 2020 in the middle of the town’s fisheries district, housed in a temporary building that originally served as a fish processing plant. The winery is fronted by a small restaurant serving elegant dishes made with local ingredients — especially the oysters this area is known for — and designed to pair well with the wines produced here. Founded by Michihiko Sasaki, a Yamagata native who originally came to Minamisanriku as a volunteer after the disaster, the winery produces a wide variety of wines using grapes grown in the mountains of inland Minamisanriku as well as from vineyards in Yamagata. It also makes a tangy dry cider from locally grown apples.
With prior arrangement, visitors can have a brief tour of the winery’s production area. One of the winery’s distinctive aging techniques is to sink its bottles into the waters of the bay for six months. The bottles emerge crusted with barnacles, containing wine deeper in flavor than that aged by more traditional techniques. The depth and steady temperatures of Shizugawa Bay are perfect for this technique, which was developed after delicious wines were retrieved from the wreck of the Titanic.
Hours: 13:00-18:00 Wed.-Fri.; 10:00-18:00 Sat-Sun
Wood-carving and other crafts
Yes Kobo is a craft studio in Iriya, an inland district of Minamisanriku, about three kilometers up the Shizugawa River. Housed in a pre-war wooden schoolhouse, the studio is always a hive of activity, with artisans painting and decorating little figurines of Octopus-kun, the town mascot, as well as making small figures out of silk cocoons. Visitors can try their hand at either of these activities, or carve a fork or spoon handle out of the local cedar wood.
Minamisanriku’s mountainous areas contain large cedar forests. To properly maintain these trees, they must be pruned from time to time and this carving experience uses those pruned branches, a perfect example of ecological upcycling. Fees range from 1,000 yen to 2,000 yen. Have a Japanese speaker phone ahead to make a reservation. Little to no English is spoken, but as the activities are well demonstrated and supervised, it is not necessary.
Hours: 9:00-17:00 (16:00 on weekends/holidays); closed Wednesdays
Denden Mushi is a small enterprise run by Miku Nakamura out of a 120-year-old kominka farmhouse in Haraikawa, another mountain district of Minamisanriku. Nakamura, a Tokyo native, was working in an architectural design firm in Osaka in 2011 when she first came to Minamisanriku as a disaster recovery volunteer. She fell in love with the community and decided to make it her home. While growing indigo and dyeing various items to sell, she is renovating her kominka, which she ultimately hopes to turn into a B&B.
She also offers an indigo dyeing experience. Over a couple of hours, visitors can don rubber aprons and gloves to dye their choice of items ranging from a tenugui towel to t-shirts and even silk scarves (prices vary depending on the item selected).
It takes several dips into the dye (5 minutes in, 15 minutes out) to get the darkest color. While waiting between stages, visitors can drink tea also made with indigo leaves and nibble on local sweets or take a walk to Nakamura’s half acre indigo field. At the final stage, to set the dye, the item is rinsed in the clear, fast-flowing waters of the stream below the house. Be careful not to let go!
Nakamura doesn’t speak English but this is another experience for which words are not needed. Just have someone who can speak Japanese phone ahead and make an appointment: 090-3846-7880.
For visitors who enjoy water, there are kayaking and sightseeing boat tours of Shizugawa Bay, with its substantial oyster and wakame farms, industries seriously damaged by the disaster but now well recovered. Needless to say, the restaurants of San San Shotengai and other parts of town offer this delicious seafood in its freshest iterations. The sushi master of Shinoya, a restaurant near the expressway interchange, will regale visitors with the tale of being in his restaurant on March 11 as the tsunami waters began to carry it away.
There are also onsen waters to enjoy, especially at Hotel Kanyo, where the rotenburo is in a cave overlooking the sea.
Part of the 1,000+ kilometer Michinoku Coastal Trail that runs the length of the Sanriku coastline passes through Minamisanriku, giving nature lovers a chance to get up close and personal with those famous cedar forests. Don’t miss Kyoseki, a massive piece of volcanic tephra on the flanks of Mt Shingyodo. The 5.5-meter boulder, now regarded as sacred, has split; it is said that only the righteous can pass through the opening. The boulder will close in and crush any evil-doer who attempts it! Do you dare?
Visitors will find this little town addicting and will want to return again and again.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today