Trip Tips: Japan's coastal Miyako city puts tsunami behind it

MIYAKO, Japan (Reuters) - Miyako in northeastern Japan was for decades a small coastal city, famed for the salmon that splashed upriver in the autumn and the succulent oysters gathered just offshore. Tourists came to fish, paddle kayaks in the bay and enjoy the scenic views.

A file combination photograph shows the same location on a street in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan on two different dates, March 11, 2011 (top) and February 17, 2012 (bottom). REUTERS/Miyako City Office/Handout via Reuters/Files

Then came March 11, 2011. A powerful 9.0 offshore earthquake struck, sending massive waves hurtling up the coast and into its fjord-like bays and inlets.

The water slammed into Miyako, flooding the city hall, train station and much of the central business district, in some cases several storeys deep. Some of the most harrowing footage of the tsunami - a black wave carrying cars over a seawall, a fishing boat crushed beneath a bridge - was recorded in Miyako.

More than 600 people died and 6,000 buildings were destroyed in the city. Hundreds still live in temporary housing.

Four years on, Miyako is recovering, with tourist numbers back up and many former sites restored. New businesses have developed, and oyster floats once again criss-cross the bay, where kayakers mingle with sail boats.

Many obvious reminders of the tsunami have vanished in central Miyako.

Piers where person-sized chunks of concrete from ruined seawalls once lay scattered have been repaired. Boats chug out on fishing tours from picture-perfect harbors where nets and floats line the shores while kites shriek overhead.

But amid the noodle shops, karaoke pubs and grilled chicken restaurants are empty swathes that are unusual in densely populated Japan. Weeds darken the tiled floors and low concrete walls where houses once stood, and visitors can still spot remnants of metal railings bent and twisted like pretzels.

In Taro area, where a 38-metre-high wave left little standing, visitors can stop by the Taro Kanko Hotel, whose two lower floors now consist of only girders. Its manager, who fled to an upper floor and captured the wave on video, takes visitors to the same place he stood and recounts the events of the day. (0193-77-3305 for arrangements; in Japanese only.)

Between Taro and downtown Miyako lies Jodogahama, a beach whose scenic rock formations were named for their resemblance to paradise. The rest house there features noodle dishes and other fast food, and sometimes fresh scallops grilled in their shells. A painted line two storeys up marks the height of the wave.


A popular site for tasty ocean treats is the Miyako Gyosai Ichiba, where market stalls holding bins of salmon, sea urchin and scallops crowd a warehouse-like building.

Depending on the season, live crabs and sacks of mussels are also available. Or stop off at one of several no-frills restaurants, which feature bowls of rice topped with slices of fresh sashimi. (0193-62-1521; closed Wednesday)

A short walk from the market is Yoshi Sushi, whose “Matsu” lunch set offers an array of fresh sushi for 2,000 yen ($17). (0193-62,1017; closed some Mondays).

For those tired of seafood, Torimoto provides juicy chunks of chicken and vegetables on skewers, grilled or deep-fried until crispy, while the drinks list includes award-winning New Zealand wines. The owner, who had to rebuild after the tsunami, hires mainly mentally disabled workers, for whom jobs are scarce in Japan. (0193-63-6776)

Bordering Miyako to the south is the town of Yamada, which was flattened by the wave. Among the prefab shops now springing up is the Yamada Kakigoya, or oyster shack.

From October to May, visitors sit at low tabletop grills to eat as many steamed oysters as they want within 40 minutes. (0193-84-3775; reservations required). At other times, it sells seafood to go, including mussels, oysters and crabs for a fraction of the cost.

Editing by Tony Tharakan