Saturday, September 17, 2011
Recovery on Japan's Tsunami Coast
On the morning of March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, with an epicenter at 38°19'N; 142°23'E, created a tsunami that reached the east coast of Japan in 30 minutes. A 30-foot wave struck Sendai (38°15'), the largest city near the epicenter. The tsunami caused much more damage than the quake itself or its many strong aftershocks. Over half a million people were displaced and more than 20,000 died. The quake also damaged several nuclear reactors south of the line, most critically at Fukushima (37°19'N) where reactors lost cooling capability and experienced meltdowns.
We arrived in Japan in early September, after postponing plans to visit in April. Japan is a land of contrasts: quietly speeding bullet trains, carefully tended gardens, clean well-kept cities, but also bright flashing lights, Karaoke bars and pinball machine gambling halls. It is a traveler's dream country of order, efficiency and politeness.
In Tokyo, we met with six National Park administrators in their offices on the 26th floor of the Environmental Ministry building. They intend to create Sanriku Fukko (Recovery) National Park by combining existing local, regional and national parks and connecting them with a long trail the length of the affected coastline. They told us: “At first, we were overwhelmed by the earthquake disaster. We were here in Tokyo, but wanted to help those people because the National Parks there are a key to their local economy and the most significant features in much of that area. We have staff in several parks now, but hope to expand and create a new type of park.” Their goals are to increase tourism, provide employment and honor the victims of the tsunami with interpretive information. The new trail system will also provide escape routes to higher ground for future tsunamis. Though only at the vision planning stage, Tsunao Watanabe, the Director General of the Nature Conservation Bureau, said this was now the agency's most important national effort.
We traveled by bullet train to Sendai, the city where the massive tsunami wave swept across the airport, shown again and again in video news coverage of the earthquake disaster. Sendai is on the western edge of Matsushima Bay at the south end of the Tohoku region. North of the big city, at Matsushima, is Japan's oldest “Natural Park,”operated by the Miyagi Prefecture. Over 200 small islands topped by Japanese red pines are famed as one of three best visual features in Japan. We had a morning tour boat to ourselves; tourism has not fully recovered since the March disaster. Matsushima remains a magical place. Six months after the March 11 earthquake, the clean up already accomplished was impressive, but piles of debris remain and there were several wrecked boats on the beaches. Some pine trees were broken and brown, killed by waves and salt water, but trains and tour boats were running on schedule.
With the help of an English-speaking woman at the tourist information office (whose house was one of 200 in Matsushima destroyed by the quake -- already rebuilt), we asked local park administrator Hiroya Miura about the new Recovery Park idea being planned in Tokyo. He told us, “It will be difficult to coordinate so many different levels of national and local park operations but, yes, it could be a way to increase tourism and provide jobs.”
Though Matsushima Park still has bridges and walkways to repair near the main information center, the town bustled with Japanese tourists. Souvenir T-shirts were for sale everywhere, proclaiming: “Never Give Up, Japan,” and “Go For It, Tohoku.” Those words are being put into action.
That night, at our hotel in nearby Sendai, a magnitude 4.7 earthquake shook us awake – an insignificant aftershock, one of hundreds that size or bigger that still rock the region.