Interview: Kumi Aizawa on how Tohoku survived the 2011 tsunami and came out stronger than ever

Kumi has dedicated her life to rebuilding Tohoku. Here, she talks about the rebirth of the place she once called home, the generous spirit of the local people and the Michinoku Coastal Trail, which winds along the coastline for 600 miles.

Published 19 Mar 2021, 17:14 GMT
The Jodogahama volcanic rock formations in Miyako are just one of the natural wonders you'll see while walking ...

The Jodogahama volcanic rock formations in Miyako are just one of the natural wonders you'll see while walking the Michinoku Coastal Trail

Photograph by Getty Images

Kumi Aizawa is a woman who wears a lot of hats. She’s an architect, interpreter, editor, publisher and documentary film producer specialising in disaster preparation and recovery. Though now based in Tokyo, the mother of two is focusing her considerable energies on her home region of Tohoku, which was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, resulting in the deaths of more than 18,000 people. As the managing director of the Michinoku Trail Club, she oversees and promotes an extensive hiking path that not only aims to attract visitors to one of Japan’s wildest and most scenic areas, but to also bring healing to the survivors themselves. 

Kumi Aizawa loves Tohoku's wild landscapes and the local people, whose way of supporting each other is both moving and inspiring. 

Photograph by Kumi Aizawa

Where were you when the earthquake hit on 11 March 2011?
I was living in Tokyo at the time, on the seventh floor of a building we had just reinforced. It was shaking so much. It trembled for such a long time, along with all the buildings around us, and I remember telling people that the building should be fine, but privately thinking it may not be if the earthquake lasted much longer. The shaking lasted more than three minutes. It was a really scary experience.

How did the communities in Tohoku come together and rally after the disaster? 
So many people lost everything — but because of this, everyone was so kind to each other, helping each other through it. Japanese people are like that. Some people said they didn’t know each other very well before the earthquake, but that afterwards this completely changed. Because of the disaster, a lot of people met others in the community, as well as outside it, and they all started to rebuild the region together. 

How has Tohoku changed in the 10 years since the earthquake?
Tohoku is totally different now, but what I can say is that while the physical reconstruction of the region is almost complete, the mental recovery is still a long way off. There are still a lot of people who don’t want to talk about the earthquake — something that's common in Japan, where people often keep their feelings to themselves.

The longest stretch of the trail passes through Iwate Prefecture. Expect a dramatic prehistoric-looking coastline, with enormous jagged rocks and cliffs plunging perilously towards the Pacific.

Photograph by Kumi Aizawa

Tell us about the Michinoku Coastal Trail.
The Michinoku Coastal Trail goes from Hachinohe, in Aomori prefecture, to Soma City, in Fukushima prefecture. It’s a little more than 600 miles long and takes about 50 days to complete. The whole trail was opened in 2019, and since then we've had about 40 or 50 people who have hiked its entire length. 

The trail winds through nature as well as small towns and cities. It passes through a peninsula and many mountains — there’s so much variety. You’re also able to meet a lot of locals, who are all so nice and warm. I think this is, at least in part, because the people of Tohoku were so supported after the earthquake. People came from all around the world to help, and since they were taken care of by others, now they're trying to give back themselves.

What's your favourite thing about the trail?
Everybody gets involved. Even kids come out and say hello to hikers as they walk past, and that in turn makes visitors happy, too. When I’m walking, older people will greet me from their rice fields and we'll often have a little chat before I carry on. Everyone can join this project, which makes it very special — it's a chance for people to take some real pride in their community.

Also, it’s really difficult for local people to talk about the earthquake, but a hiker who comes from elsewhere can be much easier to talk to because they're emotionally distanced. This person didn't experience the earthquake, so, in that way, hikers are helping locals to relieve their minds, too. 

What are some other things travellers can experience in Tohoku?
One great attraction is the traditional performances held in each town; there are thousands of them, such as the Deer Dance and the Tiger Dance. Also, since there are so many fishermen across Tohoku and it’s dangerous to head out into the ocean, they pray to the sea. When they do that, they hold a traditional performance which is beautiful to watch. These performances and festivals also supported people after the earthquake. They're incredibly old and people love them — it’s a part of their life, so when they lost everything, the rhythms and sounds were all in their hearts. When the performances started up again, everyone was so happy. They felt relieved. They may have lost everything, but this part of their lives had come back.

There are many memorial facilities where you can pray along the trail, such as The Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum in Rikuzentakata. The site is dedicated to commemorating the earthquake, as well as to communicating the importance of disaster mitigation in order to create a resilient society.

Photograph by Kumi Aizawa

What do you love most about Tohoku?
The local cuisine, especially seafood. The sushi is so fresh and so much of what we eat in Japan comes from this region. Even though I live in Tokyo now, I still get a lot of fish and seaweed from Tohoku. The scenery is beautiful, too, of course, but what I really love is the people. Neighbours will bring you vegetables and fish, and in turn you might give them rice. Their way of living and supporting each other is wonderful. 

What should visitors do to best experience Tohoku?
Go walking — that’s the best. If you go step by step, you don’t miss things. You can meet the people, you can smell the flowers and totally immerse yourself in the surroundings. By doing that, you'll also come to really understand what has happened, how the earthquake has shaped the land and how the people have pulled through stronger.

What do you think the future holds for Tohoku? 
I think Tohoku will be a model for sustainable towns and cities in the future, but most importantly, it will also be a beacon of resilience and fortitude in the face of disasters. 

The compact coastal city of Sendai flawlessly combines modern Japanese living with fascinating ancient history. Founded in 1600 by one of Japan's most powerful feudal lords, Sendai is now known as the city of trees, and was the closest major urban hub to the epicentre of the 2011 earthquake.

Photograph by Kumi Aizawa

Plan your trip

Getting there and around
The Michinoku Coastal Trail connects Hachinohe, in Aomori, with Soma, in Fukushima. From Tokyo, simply hop on the Shinkansen Hayabusa, which will whizz you up north in four hours. The trail winds through Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, and highlights include beautiful beaches such as Otsuka and Odogahama, small fishing villages, and hidden Shinto shrines like the one on Horaijima Island, but also cities like lively, cosmopolitan Sendai.  

Where to stay
Accommodation along the trail is plentiful, and locals often invite travellers simply to pitch up in their gardens. While guides aren’t mandatory or necessary, their knowledge of the area is amazing, and they're sure to have some moving stories about the regeneration of the region.

When to go
It’s easiest and safest to tackle the trail in either spring (March to June) or autumn (September to December), as the summer can be hot and humid and in winter much of the path is covered in snow.

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