From Wikipedia: An aerial view of damage to Ōtsuchi, Japan, a week after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the area. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Released)

With the recent five year anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, it seemed like a good time to write about our visit to Ōtsuchi - one of the low-lying towns devastated by the tsunami.

We all remember the scenes in the media of March 11, 2011, when the world was once again reminded of the staggering force of mother nature. We all watched in horror as the magnitude 9 earthquake devastated the vast stretch of the Sanriku coastline. As the media broadcast the scenes from above, I found myself wanting to direct the small, cube-shaped cars away from the approaching wave, driven with a force beyond our comprehension. Of course, we were all helpless.

Meeting Mio

On the morning we took the train from Sendai to Kamaishi, we were filled with a sense of solemness and apprehension. Was it wrong of us to go? Was it morbid of us to see an area of devastation, where so many lives were lost? I guess our usual curiosity got the better of us. We'd already seen the slow recovery efforts of Christchurch on our travels, so how was the situation five years down the line in Japan?

Friendly-faced Mio met us at Kamaishi station. Originally from Nagoya, Mio was as a nurse with an NGO and working in Vietnam when she got called back to her home country to help with the tsunami efforts.

As she took us on the short car journey to Ōtsuchi, it was clear just how much damage the events of 2011 had caused. There was no town to talk of. Instead, we were faced by a barren wasteland, a construction site, a bleak grey and dreary landscape. Was this really once a bustling fishing town, home to around 16,000 people?

“You might remember the image in the media of a ship that was carried inland and came to rest on a house. That was here in Ōtsuchi,” explains Mio in a matter-of-fact way. She's enthusiastic about telling us how it is. The initial sadness has evolved into an efficient, get-things-done attitude.

Taken at the Yume-no-hiroba centre in Otsuchi.

Little Cause for Concern

“Let me show you the town hall,” says Mio. It's the only building left standing in the midst of the leveled construction site. “This was where the mayor and other senior administrators were standing and discussing how to proceed. The earthquake had hit, but nobody knew the force of the tsunami that was rapidly approaching. Therefore the mayor and officers didn't go to higher ground.”

Of course, Japan is a country that knows seismic activity all too well. Everyone is accustomed to receiving warning messages on their mobile phones and March 11 was no exception. This alone led to many people seeking higher ground at the cemetery overlooking the town.

“But the warning message said the waves weren't expected to be higher than the sea wall,” explains Mio. Understandable, then, that not everyone was overly concerned.

As the mayor and other senior officials discussed the next steps, little did they know of their fate and that of their town.

A Matter of Minutes

A mere 40 minutes passed between the quake and the tsunami. It struck with a force that surpassed everyone's imagination. Mio told us how town hall clerks escaped to the roof, only to watch helplessly as their colleagues were washed away. Narrow roads created bottlenecks as families frantically sought the safety of higher ground. It's horrific to think about how some people spent their final moments.

A whole town was wiped out, livelihoods were destroyed, the rail line was swept away, fires broke out from the gas tanks used in people's homes – so much destruction, in the space of minutes.

We stood there in silence, surrounded by the eerie wilderness, the distant grinding sound of diggers, trying to grasp the situation. It was hard to comprehend.

Aftermath and Rebuild

Realizing that the town mayor fell victim to the tsunami, it took a long time for the recovery efforts to get started in Ōtsuchi. In a country where hierarchy plays such an important role, the loss of a leader and senior administrators left the small town with a lack of direction. One official, burdened by his decision not to send more people to higher ground, committed suicide.

In the small town of around 15,000 people, where everyone knew everyone, it's estimated that around 10% of the population was lost. Exact figures will never be know as all the documents, paperwork, and records contained in the town hall were destroyed.

In the days immediately after the tsunami, the school on higher ground was made into a shelter. When Mio arrived, the people had nothing – no food, no clothing, no bedding.

Over the following years, the rebuild has been painfully slow. Some families have left the area to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Others have been relocated to temporary housing in the form of small apartments – not an easy situation for people used to living with multiple generations in larger family homes here in the countryside.

For now, the town of Ōtsuchi, once reliant on its fish processing plant and steelworks, remains a huge construction site; Diggers work monotonously and trucks bring in gravel to heighten the land by 2-3 metres.

Resilience and Hope

The Japanese are resilient people, and if any kind of positive can be drawn from the apocalyptic events of 2011, then it's the attitude of the people to look to the future.

At the Yume-no-hiroba centre, which educates visitors on disaster management, Mio introduced us to her husband, Takuya, an Ōtsuchi inhabitant who lost his father to the tsunami. From the pain and suffering of the tsunami comes a positive. Takuya and Mio know that without the tsunami, they would never have met. And they wouldn't be standing here today with their three month old baby.

As we look out to sea, which today seems so calm, it's hard to imagine the contrast to five years ago, that such destructive waves were possible.

Mio points out a small island in the harbour, with some small trees and a small wooden shrine.

It's said that despite the high concrete sea wall being demolished, somehow this small island, this small sign of life, survived. For some inhabitants of Ōtsuchi, it's a sign that life goes on.