More Than A Recovery, in three parts

Here is the output of my week in Ishinomaki with the first Sosei Partners Writers Program in March 2018. I had a brilliant week meeting the diverse people making the present and future of Ishinomaki such an interesting place.

The restored sea wall, decorated with Ogatsu stone, in the seaside hamlet of Namiita, Miyagi Prefecture.

The restored sea wall, decorated with Ogatsu stone, in the seaside hamlet of Namiita, Miyagi Prefecture.


In the centre of downtown Ishinomaki, between the station and the sea, lies a hill called Hiyoriyama. Though it rises just fifty-six metres above sea level, it is a striking feature of the city’s profile. It is home to a maze of well-appointed houses, and the old castle ramparts these days host a shrine and Hiyoriyama Park. The park is a charming criss-cross of walking paths, stone steps, and stands of gnarly cherry blossom trees. I visited on a rainy weekday afternoon and had it mostly to myself. Looking south, over the Kadonowaki and Minamihama districts, the emptiness stretches out to the sea. Close to the base of the hill, clean new builds dot the ground, while the vast flatness beyond crawls with heavy construction vehicles moving earth and concrete. The Pacific Ocean sparkles and shifts in the distance.

Gobansho Park, on the Oshika Peninsula, is surrounded by the very water those distant trucks are walling out. The park, situated on the crest of the hill at the tip of the peninsula, has a precious peace, despite being the nearest point on the Japanese mainland to the violent epicentre of the strongest earthquake in the nation’s recorded memory. The peninsula, thrusting out into the ocean and open air, lulls you into a free, away-from-it-all feeling. From this high vantage point the sea is silent and beautiful, and a particularly rich shade between cobalt and cyan. Three small islands lie around the headland. The wide, high, open space is a cathartic contrast to the warren of the downtown streets, and the narrow, fjord-like coastline of Ishinomaki. Gobansho Park is a carefree yet meditative space, allowing for play, peace, and pensive reflection. Or maybe I’m just biased because I went on a beautifully clear sunny day seeking just those things.

The third and newest of the parks in question does not yet exist, but, in a project feted for completion in 2021, will fill the coastal area overlooked from Hiyoriyama. The land having been rezoned as dangerous for residential development, it will form a municipal park. Tentatively named the Ishinomaki City Minamihama District Reconstruction Prayer Park, the development will include new multi-purpose playing fields and community facilities, while retaining most of the former Minamihama-cho street layouts as thoroughfares and paths. Something in the story of this work in progress tells us a lot about Ishinomaki, of perseverance and preservation, of collaboration, and in the face of survival, striving to innovate and improve.


A bustling town is packed on a Sunday morning, and the ocean laps the shore just yards from vendors and strolling families. Driving on around the coast, life continues to go on, despite the many visual reminders of the disaster. Large road signs denote your entry into 3.11 tsunami inundation areas, and the scrubby or torn-up sections of land talk to you of both damage and reconstruction. Even as you look at signs marking the lines, the concept of the sea rising above where you are driving – past stores, bridges, and houses - seems unimaginable.

The geography of Ishinomaki is a clamorous mix of scooped out coastlines, flat flood plains, thickly forested hillsides, and the infinite reach of the Pacific Ocean. Water is the heart, soul, and skin of the region, as the Kitakami River flows in from the north and the sea beats upon the cliffs as on the shores.

I grew up by the sea, but not this sea. A different sea, but it's all the same water, isn't it? I looked at the water of Dublin Bay everyday for twenty four years, and I still take great pleasure in simply beholding it anytime I'm home. My eyes and nose drink in the sights and smells as I gulp the salty air gratefully. Perhaps it is the comforting thought that it is after all, all the same water, that pulls me magnetically towards the sea anytime I visit a coastal area. However, approaching north-eastern Honshu's Pacific coast, rather than delighted, I am sobered by my first glimpse of the ocean, despite it being the picturesque Matsushima Bay. The unimaginable catastrophe of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11th 2011 flutters at the borders of my perception, present but unknowable; traceable only through the words of survivors, by the shadows of water depth demarcated by signposts, and in the spaces between the remaining houses and the shore.

Out a different Miyagi coastal road, behind a handmade tree house, down a flight of leaf-strewn steps, lies a small cafe called Hamaguri-dou. From the cosy haven of the cafe, or a stool on the veranda in summer, you can watch the sea lap gently at the shore beyond a low concrete wall. This beautiful aspect is complimented by the charms of the lovingly restored building, and the local, seasonal food served with quiet pride by the smiling staff. Hamaguri-dou is named after the hamlet which once filled this modest seaside hollow. These days, from a slight rise on the hillside, just the cafe and a couple of houses look over what used to be.


In the twenty-first century our natural bias is to look on open spaces in residential and commercial areas as tasteful, curated, and environmentally forward-thinking, but lay eyes on a site emptied by the destructive power of tsunami, and you can struggle to perceive the overwhelming absence of what was. Before and after photographs provide some point of reference, but standing in a razed village after the debris is long gone, only the memories of the survivors can start to suggest the fullness of the past, and therefore the extent of what we can’t see.

In Ogatsu Town, in the north of Ishinomaki, in the small coastal community of Namiita, seventeen of its twenty-one households were washed away. Some residents have rebuilt on the hills which tightly hug the coast, and a community centre provides a social focal point as well space to preserve and practice the local Ogatsu-ishi stone craft. There I met Katsumi Suzuki, a former whale fisherman, who brought us down to the shore. We viewed the Ogatsu-ishi stone decoration on the concrete and he told me about the wall. There had been talk of building a nine-metre high wall to protect the shore, but this was eventually side-lined. It was decided that such a high wall would be too unstable on sandy ground, and moreover it was felt that it wouldn’t guarantee any greater level of safety than the wall which had born the brunt of the waves on 3.11. Seventy centimetres of fresh concrete was added to the Namiita walls to compensate for the topographical subsidence caused by the earthquake, which had also knocked the Earth’s axis by more than ten centimetres and changed the very geography of this coast dramatically.

Driving around the Oshika Peninsula, southeast of Ishinomaki city centre, you will pass through the coastal hamlet of Kugunarihama, where the land subsided by a record one hundred and twenty centimetres (just under four feet). This once popular beach resort lost its sandy shore and is currently building a mammoth concrete wall along the water’s edge. The vacant space behind it is ringed tentatively by surviving houses on slightly higher ground and the concrete edifice in place of a shore. Spaces like these in Kugunarihama, Namiita, Hamaguri, and countless other communities, are a manifestation of the unknowable and unimaginable; as visitors we remember that what we can’t see is actually one if the most ready expressions of loss.

Up and down the Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima coastlines, survivors and communities have rallied, gathered themselves and faced down clean-up, recovery, rebuilding, resettling, but while that all still continues even seven years later, they also face memorial, remembrance, and commemoration. As of early 2018, forty-one structures across the three prefectures have been assigned preservation orders to stand as memorials, reminders, even cautions, for future generations. One such building is the Ishinomaki Municipal Okawa Elementary School, which stands close to the bank of the Kitakami River, and was inundated when the tsunami-swollen river broke its banks. Though a painful reminder of the tragic loss of young lives, the building has been left to stand and speak its devastating story into the void left all around. On the day I visited, the sun was shining, and five or six different cars came and went – people coming to pay their respects and perhaps learn something Okawa might teach them. I have never felt so small as I did standing on the dusty ground, peering through where there used to be walls, up at the watermark on the second floor ceiling; another urgent flash of the unimaginable.


The planned new Minamihama park is but one of the many innovative projects driving Ishinomaki forward. Ishinomaki is place where good ideas seem to behave like bountiful plants - growing and scattering just to take seed and sprout further inspirations. While some individuals and projects seem instrumental in providing the support or facilitation for others, there seems to be a certain, positive, wilful collective unconscious in Ishinomaki. A combination of born-and-bred locals, and volunteers who came from all over Japan, are succeeding in nurturing a community that welcomes difference, embraces newness, and keeps both eyes on the future. Living in Japan, I have experienced a society which greatly respects precedent and tradition, and is slow to make changes, least of all for change’s sake. While all of these attributes are admirable, in practice it can result in an inflexible set of rules and standards which make creativity, innovation, and spontaneity a hard-sell. In Ishinomaki, collaboration, volunteer-spirit, and mutual respect seem to have bridged gaps of age, origin, and background.

In IRORI, which its creators charmingly refer to as the “lobby” of Ishinomaki, you will find a warm welcome and a comfortable space. You may be forgiven for comparing it to any number of chic, hipster, warehouse-inspired coffee shops up and down Japan, but with a closer look, we can learn a lot about Ishinomaki, and about not just recovering in the event of a disaster, but innovating. The name is a Japanese word for a traditional sunken hearth, which seems suitable enough for a gathering place, but I was surprised to discover that this particular “IRORI” is also a rather ambitious acronym; Interaction Room Of Revitalization and Innovation.

In Ishinomaki, as with any coastal community up and down the eastern Tohoku, there is a tale of two cities. Time is divided into pre- and post-disaster. BC, AD, Showa, Heisei; these designations pale in relevance to the irreversible clock which ticked in a new reality in the afternoon of March 11th 2011. In times before, there was an automobile garage by an intersection near the river in downtown Ishinomaki. The garage, like countless other businesses in the city, was damaged beyond function in the ensuing earthquake and tsunami. In the aftermath, Matsumura Gota rented half of the building’s floor space (as much as he could afford at the time) and established Ishinomaki 2.0, an organization which even amongst the debris, strived see not only the return of Ishinomaki, but newness and betterment. From the poring of that new concrete floor to today, IRORI serves as a window into the state of the city

Today, recovery and innovation continue hand-in-hand around the city, visible in the new residential builds, the road works, and the dips and rises of earthworks taking place across the region. Inside IRORI, you can relax with a coffee and muffin, or sit down at a bench in the shared working space. It is an open, minimal space with a peaceful atmosphere, but it is full of stories waiting quietly for your attention. You will find that you are sitting on a sturdy wooden bench, designed and handmade locally in Ishinomaki Lab (Ishinomaki Koubou), a workshop set-up post-disaster. Originally a shared utility space to support local people in their repairs, it developed its own DIY culture around the sharing of knowledge and skills and encourages people to make their own furniture. The empowering message of learning to rely on your own acquired skills is a testament to the local belief in humanity’s boundless potential.

The walls in IRORI are adorned with posters and t-shirts, archival items telling some of the Ishinomaki 2.0 story. One t-shirt bears the mission statement of Ishinomaki 2.0 which translates roughly as “to make the most interesting city in the world.” I later saw this t-shirt on a young boy, joyfully dancing in Ishinomaki’s video for the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy,” which made a lasting impression on me. Below the t-shirts is a veritable library of pamphlets and information about social, commercial, and tourism activities in the area, which you could spend hours reading. If you wander over to the counter for a coffee or muffin, you might linger at the shelves containing some items related to Fisherman Japan.

Aside from the devastating loss of lives and livelihoods in the tsunami, the fisheries industry in Japan has been seeing a steady fall-off of numbers in recent decades. In the last twenty years, the number of fishermen has halved, while their average age has steadily risen. Supported by Yahoo! Japan, Fisherman Japan was created to change the image of fisheries and connect young people to the industry. One off-shoot of this is a brand called “Funade” which particularly empowers many female members of the community by marketing jewellery and accessories that they can make with the materials around them. Using deer antler, coloured fishing line, and remnants of boat flags, the Funade items are tactile mementoes of fisheries culture preserved as beautiful crafts. With this kind of provenance, you are literally taking a piece of local life with you as a souvenir. Fisherman Japan and its associated projects show Ishinomaki’s capacity for innovation, not simply in their own backyard, but by connecting the right people with the pertinent skills, to create a model of innovation which could be used in fishing communities across the country, and even adapted to support diverse industries and communities.

The Yahoo! Japan office in Ishinomaki was set up in 2012 as a communal space and a base for Yahoo!’s social responsibility operations in Tohoku. Recognising its success as an incubation, problem-solving, and community space, the model was used as inspiration for Yahoo! Lodge, a free, shared working space in the company’s offices in Tokyo. This combination of the immediacy of problem-solving and the consideration of a vision for the future is a great example of the innovation taking place in Ishinomaki and its capacity for nationwide application.


Like the slow decrease in fisheries activities, the decline of rural ways of life had been a downward trend long before the tsunami. In Namiita, I met seventy-year old Takeichi Itoh who told me that even before the disaster, they never had a convenience store or traffic lights anyway. Ultimately living there, he says, is easy – “there are mountains, there is the sea.” Wherever you look in Ishinomaki, there is a story of a very different past, but also countless stories of how people are working, innovating, and designing their own future together.