Miyako, a small coastal city (population approx. 50,000) in northeast Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, was known mainly for its pristine shores and Japanese charm. That is until March 11, 2011. That day, at 14:46 local time, the Great East Japan earthquake (also called the Tohuku earthquake) struck 72 km offshore in the Pacific Ocean. It resulted in a devastating tsunami which brought waves with heights of up to 40.5 meters (133 ft) and up to 10 km (6 mi) inland. I (Merge) visited Miyako on the MS Westerdam in October 2023, and by that time, the city was almost completely rebuilt. But the Miyako city municipal office had decided to preserve one building, the Taro Kanko hotel, both as a memorial to the tsunami, and to pass down the memory of the disaster to future generations.
To get to the Taro Kanko hotel, I caught a shuttle from the ship’s docking pier to the centre of town, and then made my way to the charming little train station. A very helpful gentleman helped me buy a return ticket (920 JPY) on the Sanriku line from the town centre to Taro, the neighbourhood where the hotel is located. About 30 minutes later, the train, covered with bright graphics, pulled into the station. I, along with several others from the ship, boarded, and we were on our way.
About 20 minutes later, we alighted at the Taro stop, and much to my surprise (and delight), the city of Mikayo had a local guide waiting to point us in the right direction. Not only did this young gentleman accompany us on the 10-minute walk to the hotel site, but he also answered many of our questions about the neighbourhood and the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
As we walked over to the hotel, the guide asked if we had made reservations to enter the building. Apparently, if you call in advance, you can go into the top floors of the hotel (which were not damaged in the tsunami). Turns out the owner of the hotel used to occupy the 6th floor, and he filmed the moments when the tsunami broke the sea wall and spilled over into the town. When we said we didn’t have a reservation,, he asked if we were interested, and of course the answer was yes. For a very reasonable 4,000 JPY, an entire group could enter the building and go up to the top floors to not only look out over the ocean, but also view the owner’s and other videos that were taken during and after the tsunami. Nineteen people stepped up to visit, and we each paid just a little over 200 JPY for a very unique experience. The video was heartbreaking and humbling. As far as modern civilization has advanced, the force of nature cannot be denied! On the day of the tsunami, there had been a power outage, so the public address system that would have warned residents about the tsunami was not operating. Despite that, there were no fatalities in the hotel.
After a very interesting hour, we made our way back to the town centre. Along the way, we stopped to view (from outside) the largest Buddhist temple in town and the graveyard next to it.
Taro is just a little neighbourhood, and under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have warranted a visit. But visiting the site of the hotel, and watching the videos upstairs were truly worth the trip. I highly recommend this short trip if you visit Miyako, but be sure to make an advance reservation to enter the building so that you don’t miss out.