A city in the north-east of Miyagi Prefecture in northern Honshu, Japan
, which was the place worst hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami, commonly known in Japan as “3/11” (from the date, 11 March, spelled the American way, and in obvious allusion to “9/11”). The whole seafront district was washed away and the waters reached far inland. No single other place suffered so many fatalities and so much destruction of housing and infrastructure due to the 3/11 disaster. Today this is also the best place for foreigners to learn about this disaster, thanks to a dedicated info centre that can cater for English-speaking international visitors.
More background info:
Ishinomaki may not be such a well-known name abroad or amongst tourists in Japan
, but it is, after Sendai (north Honshu's biggest city), the second largest conurbation in the Miyagi Prefecture. Since the 19th century it has been a major fishing port and later also became an important industrial centre.
When the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami
hit in 2011, the city became the most unfortunate of any larger city in Japan. Other, smaller places along the coast closer to the earthquake may have experienced higher waves (in some places up to 25 metres!), but the wave that hit Ishinomaki was still up to 8 metres high, enough to completely wash away the lower-lying seafront district and overwhelm the harbour and industrial parts closer to the coast. Furthermore, the river funnelled the flood upstream so that it even reached the city centre. Here the flooding was “only” 1 to 2 metres or less, but that is also enough to cause a complete breakdown of a functioning infrastructure, such as electricity supply or telecommunications. And it didn't end with just flooding. Ruptured gas pipes created lots of fires too. If you can recall those images of burning houses floating on an unrelenting surge of black, muddy water, then chances are that this footage was filmed/photographed here in Ishinomaki.
Only parts of the city much further upriver or the hills high enough escaped the flooding and fires. After the tsunami's waters receded, there was still all the deposited mud and debris to deal with … that, and thousands of tonnes of dead fish that had been washed ashore. Fortunately it was cold so the rotting of the fish was slowed down by the chilly temperatures. Had this happened during the hot summer months conditions would have been even worse and the spread of diseases almost inescapable.
But even without that added problem, Ishinomaki's tsunami-related statistics are more than sobering: well over 20,000 buildings completely destroyed, and at least 30,000 partially damaged; over 3300 people killed, plus hundreds “missing” (i.e. by now assumed dead too), and more than 50,000 evacuees. In terms of money, the damage caused in Ishinomaki is estimated at over 250 billion JPY (ca. 30 billion EUR in 2019 rates).
Today, relief efforts and reconstruction are slowly making a difference. New housing has been made available for surviving evacuees and the seafront area is undergoing a radical redesign. A massive seawall has been put in place as well – which may well be a good idea, given that due to the tectonic disruption through the massive earthquake, the ground in and around Ishinomaki had subsided by over a metre (though it is expected to slowly rise again over the years).
What sets Ishinomaki apart from virtually all other places along Japan's tsunami
-affected coast is, however, not just the sheer scale of what happened and still is happening here, but the fact that the commemoration and documentation of the disaster and its aftermath are more accessible to international visitors too (almost all other memorial efforts cater exclusively for Japanese visitors only), and that's primarily thanks to the Ishinomaki Community & Info Center (ICIC)
. This is run by a British director, who can not only provide an English-language narrative at the site, but can also help arrange further explorations of the area. The ICIC also has English-language information material to view in house and/or take home with you. See below
– and also under practicalities
Much of Ishinomaki is still in flux and will change a lot in the years to come, so the description below can basically just be a temporary snapshot of the state I found it in in April 2019. It would be interesting to go back and see what the developments will have brought in, say, five or ten years’ time. So if ever I go back to Japan for a third trip, the excursion to Ishinomaki would most definitely be high on my priority list.
What there is to see:
The most important place to call at as a foreign visitor is obviously the Ishinomaki Community & Info Center (ICIC)
. In fact it is advisable to get in touch ahead of time to arrange meeting the ICIC's director there to get the most out of it, especially if you also intend to see more of the city and the region – see contact details below
, and also combinations
The ICIC has a small but illuminating exhibition, and the director can give you an introduction and tour in English. His name is Richard Halberstadt and he's originally from Britain, but came to work at the local university in 1993 and has lived in Ishinomaki ever since (needless to say he's fluent in Japanese too). His personal story about the tsunami and his decision to stay in the area after the disaster are also worth hearing (but I won't give any details away here).
The exhibition includes lots of panels with facts & figures, charts, maps etc. relating to the tsunami and also photos of Ishinomaki before, during and after the tsunami as well as ample coverage of the reconstruction efforts, including a large glass display case with a diorama of Ishinomaki as it is intended to look like when all the reconstruction and landscaping of the seafront districts is finished. Moreover there is plenty of printed material to browse, but unfortunately nothing in English was available for purchase at the time I was there. In the centre of the building stands a column with an indicator of how high the water of the tsunami
reached at this point: 2.1 metres (and this is well over a mile/1.7 km from the coastline). You can find such water-level-indicating columns all over the town.
One other place to head for after visiting the ICIC is Hiyoriyama Park, about a kilometre (0.7 miles) to the south. It's a good viewpoint from which to see the Minamihama district that was totally washed away by the tsunami and where all the reconstruction work is still ongoing. In between two new apartment blocks you can make out an old cemetery that was damaged by the disaster but still remains. Most of the area beyond is bare. It will be landscaped and basically turned into a large park.
Right in the middle of that vast empty area is the Minamihama 3.11 Memorial Hall and next to it a special relic from the days immediately after the disaster: a locally famous large sign with some Japanese letters that transliterate as “Gambaro! Ishinomaki”, and which I was told means something like 'Never ever give up, Ishinomaki!'. This was apparently made by some locals shortly after the tsunami to boost morale, a nice bottom-up initiative. It was taken on board by the community and soon people started laying flowers etc. by the sign. So it was decided to keep it even after all the disaster debris had been cleared away. There are panels that show photos of what the area that the sign was first erected in looked like in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Further panels give additional information (though all text is in Japanese only) and there is a little shrine including a small “eternal flame” that was allegedly lit initially using woodchips from the disaster debris. Also at this site is another pole showing the height of the wave here: a whopping 7 metres.
Inside the Minamihama 3.11 Memorial Hall
(housed in a temporary hut) is another diorama of the area, this time showing what it looked like before the tsunami
. Also on display are various artefacts salvaged from the post-disaster rubble, such as road signs, a bent vinyl record and shoes and a book singed by the fires that broke out during the disaster (see above
). All labelling and texts are in Japanese only here, but those items really speak for themselves. Whether this memorial centre will stay at this location or maybe will move to some more permanent building remains to be seen. It was moved once before – together with the iconic sign next to it.
While this centre and the ICIC are local initiatives, there will also be an official 'national' memorial, namely at the former Kadonowaki Elementary School. The ruins of this building were covered behind scaffolding and tarpaulin at the time I was there, so barely visible. I was told at the ICIC though, that only the central part, the entrance bit, of the structure will be preserved and turned into a memorial, while the rest of the ex-school will be demolished. There was already leaflet about this future memorial that was a bit disorganized, but had various quotes from survivors and some rudimentary information. From that I gleaned that it is planned to partially open the site in 2020.
When driving along the roads closer to the sea you can see the massive new seawall
, whose construction was nearing completion at the time I was there. This wall is obviously intended to provide protection from possible future tsunamis
, yet it is controversial, I was told. It blocks the view out to the sea from street level and some regard it as an eyesore. Moreover, while it may provide protection from tsunamis up to a certain magnitude, in the event of a massive super-tsunami it could in fact exacerbate things: if a tsunami comes that is strong enough to break down this wall, then its broken bits could be carried inland by the force of the water thus adding to the damage tsunamis create, namely through the debris in the water. It's actually not so much the water itself that makes tsunamis so deadly, but all the stuff it collects and throws at houses, cars, people. Most victims die not directly from drowning in the water but from being crushed by this debris swirling around in the water or from being knocked unconscious by it and then drowning.
All in all, Ishinomaki is well worth the detour if you're interested in learning more about the 3/11 tsunami disaster. In fact it is probably the very best place for that, certainly for international visitors. Recommended!
in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Honshu, some 25 miles (40 km) north-east of Sendai, and over 200 miles (335 km) north of Tokyo
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: mostly fairly easy and largely free, but going a bit further afield may require taxi rides and would incur the relevant costs.
Getting to Ishinomaki is easiest by train. There are regular local train connections to Sendai, which in turn is on the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet-train network, with Tokyo
only a one-hour-and-a-half ride away. The express local trains take about an hour from Sendai to Ishinomaki, the regular trains that stop at every station are much slower (90 minutes). If you have a JR Pass (see under Japan), you can use it on this line too, or use a prepaid card or get a return ticket in cash from Sendai (where you are likelier to encounter staff speaking English). From the station it's only a ca. ten minute walk to the ICIC. Head down to the main street and turn left and walk until you nearly come to the river and turn right.
The ICIC is officially open daily except Tuesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed between 30 December and 2 January.
However, it's advisable to arrange your visit ahead of time to make sure you can meet the director, Richard Halberstadt, in order to get English-language guidance (in a place like Ishinomaki that is so far off the usual tourist tracks, you're very unlikely to encounter anybody else speaking English). He can be reached under this email address (reproduced by permission): ishinomakiicic[at]gmail.com
He can then also help with arranging a taxi and tell the driver where exactly you want to go in case you want to see the other sites mentioned above and don't feel like walking it, and especially if you also want to make the excursion to Okawa (see combinations
The park and viewpoint are theoretically reachable on foot from the ICIC in ca. 15 minutes, but it's an uphill route and getting from there to Minamihama would be tricky, especially as long as all that reconstruction work is ongoing down there. So a taxi really is the better option.
The planned memorial at the former Kadonowaki Elementary School is claimed to be ready for a partial opening in 2020. When it will be fully operational is as yet still unclear. For the time being, there is little point to specifically go there. You'll see the construction site from the road perhaps, that's all.
Time required: Just the ICIC can be done in 30 to 45 minutes, but to see the other sites in town you'll need extra time, and if you're planning on adding the excursion to Okawa it becomes a whole day trip from/to Sendai.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The most important combination – and a prime extra reason for coming to Ishinomaki in the first place – is an excursion to the Okawa Elementary School memorial
, which is by far easiest to reach from here, namely by taxi. As there is no public transport access, it's either driving there yourself or a taxi. And obviously you'll want to minimize the substantial costs for a taxi ride that far by starting at the closest possible point. And that is Ishinomaki. Richard of the ICIC will be happy to call a taxi for you when you're done there and instruct the driver.
Sendai, which is the most convenient base for all this, also has its own 3/11 Community Center too, reachable by metro even, namely by taking the Tozai Line to Arai station (the museum is part of the station building). However, here you won't find any provision for English-speaking visitors, and when I tried to contact them (in English) by email I never got a reply. Further towards the coast a whole memorial park has been developed, and there is yet another damaged former school building, Sendai Arahama Elementary School, only 700 metres from the shore, has been turned into a memorial as well – as this was a sturdy four-storey structure, the schoolchildren were safe on the roof, where they were trapped for quite some time, but alive. The memorial is open (except Mondays and every other Thursday) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; admission free. You can get there from Arai station by municipal bus, otherwise it's an hour's walk.
I also picked up a leaflet about the Natori area – i.e. where Sendai airport is, which was also flooded by the 3/11 tsunami. Allegedly there is a 3/11 Earthquake Museum at the airport, but I haven't been able to find more information about that. Not far from the airport, only some 700 yards to the south-east one damaged building has been left to serve as a memorial. The flat land of this coastal area, which was hence badly affected by the disaster, has various other memorials and allegedly there are guided tours as well (according to that leaflet), but I haven't been able to unearth more concrete information.
However, Sendai is also a good base from which to get to the starting point for tours of Fukushima
. In fact, I did it in the reverse order, i.e. went on two day tours in Fukushima and then moved on, by local train, to Sendai in order to get to Ishinomaki and Okawa.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The thing that Ishinomaki is best known for in Japan
(and, to a degree, beyond) is its association with Manga, that typical Japanese style of cartoons. Already at the train station you encounter sculptures of Manga characters, and references to it are dotted all over the city. The prime attraction for those interested in these things is the dedicated Manga Museum
, a futuristic, spaceship like structure on stilts that stands on an island in the river just a stone's throw away from the ICIC. The museum is open daily, except some Tuesdays, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m/6 p.m. (winter/summer); admission 800 JPY.
The rest of the city doesn't offer much in terms of tourism, although the new market and food court just to the east of the ICIC is a local attraction, in particular in culinary terms. Ishinomaki also has a good reputation amongst gourmets and lovers of regional specialities … some of the tins of food I saw there, however, may have contained a rather controversial delicacy, from an international perspective at least, namely whale meat. In fact in Ishinomaki's whaling-fleet base of Ayukawa there used to be a “Whaleland” visitor attraction (damaged by the tsunami and still closed).
The region that Ishinomaki is located in is quite off most Japan tourists' radar, though the rural scenery and jagged coastline are pretty. But the area isn't as well developed for foreign tourists as Tokyo or parts of Honshu south of the capital.
One specific and quite special attraction worth mentioning may be Tashirojima
, or “Cat Island
”, a small island in the bay outside Ishinomaki that is home to hundreds of cats, vastly outnumbering the island's dwindling and mostly elderly human population. “Cat Island” could be seen as the feline counterpart of “Rabbit Island” (Okunoshima
) near Hiroshima
, however it is far less touristy and much trickier to get to.
Sendai, however, makes for a nice city break and is easy to get to, in fact it's an ideal base for the region. Its tree-lined boulevards are quite pleasant, and there's good shopping and a vibrant bar and restaurant scene. Certainly good for an evening or two.
- Ishinomaki 01 - ICIC
- Ishinomaki 02 - inside the ICIC
- Ishinomaki 03 - model of the city after reconstruction
- Ishinomaki 04 - looking back and looking to the future
- Ishinomaki 05 - water-level marker within the ICIC
- Ishinomaki 06 - water-level marker near the station
- Ishinomaki 07 - view from a hill over the washed-away seafront district
- Ishinomaki 08 - with cherry blossoms for contrast
- Ishinomaki 09 - obligatory peace stele
- Ishinomaki 10 - old cemetery and new apartment blocks
- Ishinomaki 11 - never-give-up sign in the former seafront district
- Ishinomaki 12 - water-level marker in the former seafront dsitrict
- Ishinomaki 13 - temporary exhibition cabin
- Ishinomaki 14 - inside is a model diaorama of the district before its destruction
- Ishinomaki 15 - scorched exhibits
- Ishinomaki 16 - more exhibits
- Ishinomaki 17 - old street sign
- Ishinomaki 18 - official memorial in the making
- Ishinomaki 19 - Manga Museum
- Ishinomaki 20 - Manga galore all over the city