06/03/2012 – A few hours after arriving in Narita airport, I was on a bus on my way to central Tokyo as our guide Eriko enthusiastically pointed out eminent landmarks in her broken English. Sun rays flickered off Tokyo Bay and high-rise buildings blocked the horizon. On the surface, the capital seemed unharmed by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit the country on 11 March 2011. Yet up close, people still spoke with disbelief and sorrow about the disaster that shook Japan and the world when over 15 000 people died and thousands were reported missing. ‘Our turn is coming, so we try to learn from people living in the areas that were hit,’ a Tokyo resident told me.
After spending a few days in Tokyo, I boarded Japan’s famous high-speed railway, the Shinkansen, for a two-hour trip to Sendai, the capital of the northern prefecture of Miyagi. The Shinkansen dashed past seas of city lights. In the train, people to my right and left indulged in a quick on-the-run meal, a book or a tablet. Life seemed to take its natural, hurried pace for the Japanese.
About 300 km northeast of the capital, however, the bareness of what was once a residential area overlooking the Pacific Ocean speaks volumes of the horrors that were witnessed. Cement foundations of homes hint at the existence of life, but now give the impression of a graveyard. Pine trees lining the coast bend inland, and one cannot but fathom the sheer magnitude of the waves that washed away parts of Japan. While on site, a couple carrying their toddler walked up to a memorial and whispered prayers while hiding their tears behind hands.
By the time I reached Ishinomaki, about 40 km further northeast of Sendai (one of the hardest hit areas), weather conditions had deteriorated dramatically. Thick fog blanketed the city and snow fell steadily over the city’s hilly eastern terrain. According to the locals the weather conditions were identical to those the day after the tsunami hit; people were not only left terrified, homeless, separated from family members at the time of the tsunami, but also stranded in the freezing weather and fog. Damaged bridges and devastated buildings are still visible.
Located between Ishinomaki and Sendai, Matsushima is a tourist attraction comprising over 240 small islands. Apparently the ubiquitous islands scattered off the coast eased the power of the tsunami waves as they pushed inland, saving the city from the tragic fate of other areas. Standing in the lobby of the completely renovated hotel overlooking the Matsushima Bay, I saw photos of that same room a year ago, following the tsunami. The hotel was filled with rescue and humanitarian workers, which I was told remained the case for the first six months following the tsunami. By September, however, renovation work was complete and the hotel began welcoming visitors again. Officials state that tourism in Matsushima today is getting back on track, and is now at 60% of pre-tsunami levels.
By Dina Baslan
Information and Communication Assistant , ECHO Amman