Relief, recovery and rebirth: the 2011 Japan earthquake & tsunami

Nearly one year on from the 2011 Japan natural disaster, The Gap Year Travel Guide’s Sam Moir spoke to people involved in the Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing recovery.

“After the tsunami and earthquake I went looking in the destroyed town for my family. What usually took five minutes to drive by car took five hours on foot. I found my father safe at the elementary school evacuation centre but my mother was never discovered.”

These are the words of 30 year old Yuzuru Sato, a resident in the town of Minamisanriku, North Japan. Yuzuru rushed to the front of the hotel where he worked and stood watching in horror.

On 11 March 2011 at 2.46 in the afternoon, Japan’s north-east coast was rocked by one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded.

recovery 2011 japan earthquake

For six minutes, The Land of the Rising Sun shook and the devastating tsunami that followed resulted in 21,000 people perishing – with thousands more reported missing. The quake – what geologists called a ‘megathrust’ – shook the Pacific coast with an energy equivalent of about the same as the annual output of the UK.

It was the fifth-largest in the world since 1900 and nearly 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch in New Zealand last year. “The days after seem a blur – one long succession of days and nights full of unease and worry,” says Yuzuru, “There were many aftershocks and tsunami alerts through the next couple days and in the weeks that followed we got used to the tremors.”

“It was a difficult time, with no running water. Bathing and use of toilets were unavailable to us, but we made do – we washed laundry in the river as our ancestors had done.”

“The most difficult aspect for me of living in a post-disaster area was the lack of contact and information,” Yuzuru says. “No phones working, no one knew exactly what was going on, who had survived, who had left, and travel to and from information posts was difficult due to the destroyed road and town conditions.”

As the residents began to rebuild their lives, tourism understandably dropped dramatically in the immediate aftermath.

International visitor numbers to Japan dropped 63% the following month. Last summer, in August, visitors were 32% down on 2010 numbers.

Though the economic fallout has been devastating for tourism, Japan is gradually moving forward and many of the nation’s popular tourism regions were unaffected.

Gap year travellers can still visit some of the nation’s stunning attractions…


recovery 2011 japan earthquake

Japan’s capital, Tokyo, is not surprisingly the hub of the nation. The Temples of Asakusa, the gardens of the Imperial Palace (in Chiyoda) and the Meiji Shrine offer a spellbounding insight into the country’s cultural history. While a little overpriced, the Tokyo Tower offers an impressive view of the city’s bustling and futuristic skylines. The city boasts an array of large and small museums which centre on every possible interest from pens to antique clocks to traditional and modern arts.

Shiretoko National Park

A popular travel destination is Shiretoko National Park in the remote north eastern corner of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The park covers the entirety of the Shiretoko Peninsula and was designated a World Heritage Site in 2005. The renowned Shiretoko Five Lakes are located within walking distance of each other and offer a tranquil backdrop for the perfect walk. A word of warning to travellers, Shiretoko claims to house Japan’s largest bear population. But show caution and you are unlikely to be attacked.

Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji – Japan’s highest mountain at 12,388 ft is a manageable climb for travellers of all experience. Thousands of tourists take on the challenge every year during the climbing season (July to the end of August) to reach the top to take in the majestic views.

A relatively easy ascent route means the only problem is the occasional steep and rocky terrain. Signs along the trail warn the hikers of other minor problems such as sudden wind gusts and falling rocks. Outside the climbing season, only experienced hikers should consider the route.


Osaka remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan. The Osaka Aquarium is one of the largest in the world while the surrounding Pacific Ocean offers stunning scenery. The Osaka IMAX is the largest IMAX movie theatre in the world which is a popular pull for English speaking travellers. The Osaka Science Museum boasts a great wealth of knowledge and is very popular for its planetarium and theatre. The city is also famous for its vibrant nightlife when the streets transform into an array of riveting neon lights.


recovery 2011 japan earthquake

Kyoto, once the capital of Japan for over a millennium, is widely thought of as the country’s most beautiful city. The city’s hidden beauty lies in its many temples and parks. The millennium spent at the centre of power, culture, tradition, and religion allowed the city to build up a remarkable collection of palaces, temples and shrines – many of which still stand today. A favourite hotspot is in the north of the city which features several World Heritage Sites and one of Kyoto’s most famous attractions – the phenomenal gilded pavilion of Kinkaku-ji.

Looking forward

Despite everything that has befallen Japan over the past 12 months – the future looks bright. Roberto De Vido, author of 2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake, believes it is only a matter of time before the country is back on its feet

“Numbers are down, understandably, but I think that’s fine. To imagine that the JNTO can resuscitate tourism so soon after one of the worst nuclear disasters in history is naive. Nor do I think they should be setting that as an objective.” “Japan is and always has been a terrific travel destination,” he says, “The famous movie line is ‘build it and they will come.’ Well, Japan built it long ago.”

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