Tohoku ‘Revitalization Tours’ See Numbers Rebound

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shun Ito holds a photo of a hill flooded by the 2011 Tohoku tsunami on a bus in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, on June 3.

“Revitalization tourism,” in which people visit ruins left by the Great East Japan Earthquake and related facilities to learn from the disaster, is seeing a return in its popularity after a slump caused by the novel coronavirus.

Visitors to Tohoku are expected to increase now that COVID-19 has been reclassified to a category for less dangerous diseases. In order to continue to attract visitors and prevent the disaster from fading from people’s memory, local governments are working to improve convenience for tourists.

Minami Sanriku Hotel Kanyo operates a “storyteller bus,” which takes visitors to disaster ruins in Minami-Sanriku, Miyagi Prefecture, where 831 people died in the disaster. On the bus on June 3, hotel employee Shun Ito, 48, held up a picture of a 14-meter-high hill, on which a junior high school used to stand, right after the tsunami hit it.

“All of this high ground was swallowed by the tsunami. The tsunami went inland and came from the mountain side as well,” Ito told the 40 or so people riding the bus, who expressed surprise.

A 63-year-old nurse from Aomori who was taking the bus tour for the first time said, “I realized the importance of thinking on a regular basis about how to evacuate, so that we can make the right decision in the event of a disaster.”

The bus tour began in 2012, with 37,096 riders in 2019, but the number dropped to 12,219 in 2021 amid the pandemic. The figure recovered to over 20,000 last year, and 5,394 people had taken the tour by May, the same level as last year.

According to 3.11 Memorial Network, a public interest organization, the number of participants in earthquake disaster study programs held in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures dropped from 172,859 in 2019 to 74,277 in 2020. In 2022, when throughout most of the year there were no restrictions on activities, such as from a state of emergency declaration, the number recovered to 157,594.

“Many people want to listen to what people have to say in the disaster-affected areas,” organization director Masaharu Nakagawa, 46, said, adding that school field trips to the area are also increasing.

Autonomous driving

Each municipality is devising its own ways to improve visitor satisfaction.

In February, the city government of Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture, conducted an experiment where a self-driving electric bus was used to tour the Takatamatsubara Memorial Park for Tsunami Disaster, where the “miracle pine tree” is located. The park is large, at some 130 hectares, and visitors have complained they cannot see everything on foot. The city plans to conduct the electric bus experiment again this September.

The Sendai city government will launch a bus service connecting the city’s subway stations with Arahama Elementary School, which is a disaster ruin, as well as agritourism spots and commercial facilities built on tsunami-hit areas. The service will run for the summer vacation period from July to August.

“We would like visitors to see the revitalization of disaster-stricken areas, and at the same time, strengthen the local economy,” said an official in the city’s tourism division.

In May, Fukushima Prefecture opened a support center in the coastal town of Tomioka for visitors who wish to tour disaster-related facilities. Three staff members from Fukushima Prefecture’s tourism and local specialties exchange association are stationed at the center to provide information on tours and develop new destinations.