Travel to the Heart of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami: Onagawa and Ishinomaki

Last weekend, a tour hosted by Tohoku University’s Foreign Student Association allowed foreign students such as myself to visit two towns: Onagawa (“Female River”) and Ishinomaki (“Rolled Stone”). What makes these two towns special is their location in regards to the tragedy that had occurred 6 years ago; a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, followed by 3 successions of 6-8 meter tall tsunamis, and a level 7 meltdown of three nuclear reactors had caused the costliest natural disaster in human history (about ¥26 trillion, roughly $235 billion). While the nuclear meltdowns did not occur close to these two towns, they were not even 100 kilometers away from the origin of the earthquake, thence the origin of the tsunamis as well. The above picture is of Onagawa, one month after the disaster had occurred. 827 lives of a population of 10,051 were taken and over 70% of all the buildings in the town were destroyed. Because the town was built at the end of a river that flowed between two mountains , similar to Norwegian fjords, physics applies and the tsunami was forced between a small area and rose to height of over 18 meters; it was so bad that 12 of the 25 tsunami evacuation sites had been flooded! Ishinomaki, the larger of the two, was not built between two mountains and had suffered relatively lower damage but had also suffered 3,097 casualties out of a population of 160,826.

We had visited the emergency houses propped up in Ishinomaki soon after the disaster had occurred. With most houses inundated, emergency houses hosted thousands during its peak moments. Even now, 6 years later, around 200 people still live within the cold concrete structures. We were invited to talk to and have a meal with those who still lived there, mostly elderly. Previous visits in earlier years had the students perform some cleaning of the area as an act of kindness and empathy to those there. Our group, as well, had been instructed the same task; however, with only 200 people left, there wasn’t actually much to clean as the Japanese are very clean in general! I suppose it is the act that counts rather than the amount actually cleaned.


We spent the evening resting in Onagawa and enjoying their newly-built station with an onsen, a Japanese bathing facility that draws natural hot spring water into an indoor bath (at least in this case). This was, my first experience with an onsen by the way as most actually do not accept people who have tattoos (a little tip in case you wanted to visit one)! However, they were nice enough to allow me to join the rest of my fellow tourists into the bath.


The following day was spent listening to a man named Mr. Kuriya, a Tokyo native that actually moved to Onagawa following the disaster to help the locals. He had eventually decided to set up shop there as well, selling ornamental soaps to tourists to help build a thriving economy for the town. We were given the fun opportunity to create our own soaps and bring it back home with us–mine is a charcoal-infused bamboo soap in case you were wondering! For the rest of the day we were allowed to roam the town and enjoy what we could find. Thanks to the Japanese government and aid worldwide, Onagawa was able to rebuild itself rather quickly, although it is still an ongoing process. It was an extremely eerie feeling walking through the town and seeing nothing but absolutely brand new stores, houses, and buildings everywhere; it was something out of a movie! There was also a flat expanse of land that we learned was no longer considered “safe” to build upon due to risks of future tsunamis. The locals are attempting to turn it into a large park and memorial to those who have lost their lives years ago.


As we have learned, many people are starting to forget the tragedies that had unfolded in Onagawa and Ishinomaki–a tragedy that should never be forgotten. With so many people taken from a town of such low population, it is very easy to find someone who has had a friend or family member taken away. To the people of these towns, March 11, 2011 is a date that will forever live in infamy but also serves as a reminder of the generosity of humanity when they choose to band together and help one another.