Touring the Sanriku Coast – I

11/04/ 2014


The notion to be pragmatically angry at a botched night’s sleep, especially a paid for botched night’s sleep would I genuinely feel have been warranted. But as soon as I was packed and on the road muscling my way through the inner city traffic and out towards the coast I was feeling decisively calm. The fat bastard back the dorm in Sendai was no longer a fat bastard, he was just fat, and that’s just the way it was.

My morning would see me take in one of Japan’s three most scenic sights, Matsushima. During the Edo period of the 17th century a Confucian scholar by the name of Shunsai Hayashi traversed Japan by foot and enlisted three sights of which he felt were the epiphany of the nations scenic beauty, Amanohashidate of Kyoto, Miyajima of Hiroshima and my current locale of Matsushima in Miyagi prefecture. ‘Matsu’ meaning ‘Pine’ and ‘Shima’ meaning ‘Island’ equates to the perfect title for this idyllic bay dotted with some 260 small alpine coveted islands and islets. The arrangement of the islands had geographically in effect enabled the area to succumb to very little damage from the areas 2011 tsunami.

Matsushima Bay

Planting my bike amongst a small gathering of pines I walked over to the small island of Oshima. A small red bridge connected the mainland to the island and upon the bridge were four noisy young Chinese girls doing selfies at various sections of the bridge. I courteously said hello as I passed and the squabble abruptly halted. I would be both greeted and dismissed by silence and upon reaching the other side of the bridge to Oshima the noise would be back to peak levels. I’d blatantly interrupted selfie time, I felt like a prize boob with donkey manure on top. Oshima contains a couple of short walks, the island once a retreat for monks with a number of caves that were used for meditating in along with stone scriptured tablets with cunning crows perched atop of them that appeared to be eyeing my every move. I sat on a large stone and cast my eyes out to sea, it reeked of tranquillity and I could see why Mr. Hayashi had favoured this place.  I took a rice ball from my coat pocket and instantly made two new little black friends.

Upon my exit of Oshima the Chinese girls were still hard at work trying to take 9.4 million selfies. I obeyed the rules of non-acknowledgment and it made the crossing a smooth transition. As I continued to cycle I wondered if a world without the Oxford dictionary approved selfie would be a better place, but I also wondered if there will ever be a goat born that can make Spaghetti. Both thoughts lead to an unsustainable quagmire, but kept my mind copiously busy all the same. And then something depressing happened.

Just a short ride north-easterly of Matsushima was Higashi-Matsushima, here I was suddenly hit by the consequences of the March 11th 2011 Tsunami. The change sudden and without warning, a world unlike any I have ever encountered.  I cycled passed the now defunct Nobiru train station. A mere husk of a station that nature had once destroyed and was now still in full command of as the muddled tracks lay dormant overcome by vegetation, the platform covered in dirt with its faded information signs and wilted wooden chairs. Across from the station toward the coast were miles and miles of flattened open land. Desolate and empty bar the legions of lorries, diggers and graders now plummeting back and forth reshaping the land, a land people once called home. A flurry of topsoil kicked up, tearing a reckless path across what was now essentially a quarry. I felt uneasy about being here, a place were 1,039 souls had been cruelly taken. This would be my first snippet of the effects of the tsunami and from here on in my journey along the devastated Sanriku coastline would not get any easier. A sturdy wind was beginning to take a hold as I pressed on along some testing and busy roads. Construction lorries at times merely centimetres from my person, dust and fetid wet sludge from the roads plastering me, it was a struggle to keep balance and my full attention was needed if I was to avoid an imminent nobbling.



A post-apocalyptic esque wasteland continued to unfold before me as a real sense of scale of the damage caused was already becoming horrifically evident. Although all tsunami debris had since been cleared (some 25 million tonnes of it!) the occasional abandoned house once part of suburbia stood eerily amongst the open plains destined to ruin, its days numbered.

By late afternoon I would make it to Ishinomaki, one of the most heavily affected areas. Waves here in places reached as high as 20 metres destroying some 50,000 buildings and taking 3,162 lives, even now some 400 people are unaccounted for. Amongst the baron and flat unkempt land adjacent to the coast were a number of grave sites dictating the horrors of that fateful day back in 2011. I cycled through what felt like a void in reality before straying inland away from the coast to find a smaller rendition of Ishinomaki that was still seemingly in the process of finding its feet. Amongst a concoction of shabby buildings and cracked roads were signs of innovation. A number of quirky little back street coffee houses and restaurants were dotted about along with the all important snack bars. A ‘Happy Recovery Centre’ had also been established, essentially a series of small containers converted into shops, bars and eateries in an effort to draw back the crowds. One can also notice sprinkled about a number of statues of cartoon characters designed by local manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori of whom has also had a Museum dedicated to him close by. And thus a vibe has been etched and life goes on, it has too.

Ishinomaki Manga Museum


After a bite to eat and a coffee the town had sunk into darkness, accommodation for obvious reasons thin on the ground in these parts I would need to find a place to stealth camp for the night. Instinct bought me to the top of a hill, the same hill that some three years previously would have saved countless lives. Unfortunately not the lives of 70 of Okawa elementary school’s 108 students, for when the earthquake initially struck there was great debate among teachers as to where they should evacuate their students too. One teacher suggested that all students and teachers should evacuate to the hill directly behind the school to where I was currently situated, the majority of staff disagreed with this common sense suggestion. The teacher stuck to his guns but only managed to persuade one other student to accompany him up the hill, both would survive.  The rest of the teachers would lead the students across a bridge towards a hill much farther away. They would all be swept away by the tidal wave, very few surviving. One of the surviving teachers condemned by parents after the disaster would later end his own life.

I apologise reader if I am bumming you out somewhat, but there was little light on this section of my journey, the further I cycled along the Sanriku coast the more the sheer sense of scale of the devastation caused became apparent. The events witnessed from distant lands via YouTube or the News offer a terrifying insight, but just being here in person during the aftermath gave me such an utterly real perspective of one of Mother Nature’s darkest and cruellest of hours. But rest assured, when there was light, it shined bright and beautiful. There is something truly heart-warming about communities coming together during times of tragedy and overcoming the differences that had at a period turned their worlds upside down.

Like war or any catastrophe a great number of stories unfold, some we learn by some we don’t. Everyone who has experienced the likes of the Tsunami will have a story scarred to memory, a story that they will carry with them for the rest of their living days, such is the power of a catastrophe. And as I lay camping on a tennis court atop a hill out of the reach of the sea’s wrath, I felt safe. I prayed for the dead and the future safety of the people who had lost everything. It’s all I could do.


Today – 36.9miles (59.38 km)

Total – 830 miles (1335.76km)

Av/s – 8.9 mph

Today’s run time: 3 hours 40 mins

Total Run Time – 88:20 hours

Ishinomaki Figure #17Ishinomaki Figure #16 Ishinomaki Figure #12  Ishinomaki Figure #11  Ishinomaki Figure #2 Ishinomaki Figure #1  Hanging out with the girls in IshinomakiOshima Ishinomaki Ishinomaki container mall Ishinomaki Ishinomaki

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul says:

    In 2010 I went to Higashi Matsushima and walked from Nobiru to the ocean through lots of pine trees, it seemed so idyllic with scattered houses here and there. The breakwater along the beach seemed like an ill omen to me, it proved to be prophetic. I met a few locals who asked about my travels in Japan and welcomed me to their region .I remember the friendly faces but no names,I can only hope that some survived. I have been back to Japan every year since , but the next trip will be the first to cover the Sanriku coast from south to north.

    1. dsd_uk says:

      The change will no doubt shock you more than I then as you got to see the area prior to the tsunami. It had a very unworldly feel to it at times as I cycled here, especially knowing what had happened. The scale of damage monstrous, truly terrible. Yet the people were still as friendly and welcoming as ever, doesn’t seem fair.

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