MIYAKO, Iwate Prefecture–In a special room next to the lobby of the Nagisatei Taro-an hotel, guests can gain a sense of shock, horror and utter helplessness.
The hotel opened on June 1 in the Taro district of Miyako, a city devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
Constructed on a hill about 1 kilometer from the district’s coastline, the hotel is one example of the city’s efforts to rebuild local communities by drawing visitors, sharing survivors’ experiences and preserving testaments to the devastation of the disaster.
A 65-inch TV in the special room shows six minutes of footage of the tsunami taken by Yuki Matsumoto, president of Nagisatei Taro-an.
Matsumoto was on the sixth floor of the Taro Kanko Hotel, which he ran at a location about 150 meters from the sea, when the tsunami, spawned by the magnitude-9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake, struck northeastern Japan on March 11 four years ago.
“The tsunami was significantly more menacing than I had previously imagined,” he said. “My video is a record that enables guests to get a real sense of what the tsunami was like.”
About 200 people in the Taro district were killed, accounting for a third of the city’s death toll from the disaster.
Matsumoto’s video shows the waves reaching the fourth floor of the six-story Taro Kanko Hotel. The metal framework was about all that remained of the bottom two stories after the water receded, and the hotel was forced to close down.
But Matsumoto decided against demolishing the building.
“In Taro, visitors can see the destroyed hotel and listen to the accounts of survivors at the newly opened hotel,” he said. “I hope many people will visit Taro.”
Matsumoto thought deeply about what to do with the wrecked hotel and how to best use his and others’ experiences to pass down lessons learned from the disaster.
On a visit to Hiroshima in November 2013, hibakusha atomic-bomb survivors stressed the importance of keeping his hotel as a testament to the power of the tsunami.
“It would have been difficult for us to pass down our memories of the nuclear blast to future generations if the Atomic Bomb Dome had been demolished when the number of survivors is dwindling year after year,” one of the hibakusha he met said. “Your hotel should be preserved at any cost.”
In addition to preserving the Taro Kanko Hotel, Matsumoto’s 82-year-old mother, Miya, will be among the local survivors who will share their experiences with guests at the new hotel.
She was initially reluctant when her son suggested the idea in March, when they were busy preparing for the opening of Nagisatei Taro-an.
But he insisted, and she changed her mind.
“I thought that relating my experiences to guests could help them better prepare for a disaster and survive,” Miya said.
The Taro district has been vulnerable to tsunami since ancient times. The area was also well-known for its gigantic seawall as a defense against such waves.
But the seawall, 10 meters high and 2.4 kilometers long, was also destroyed by the 2011 tsunami.
The remains of the seawall and the Taro Kanko Hotel are two key monuments in the Taro district that guides show on study tours themed on the disaster and rebuilding efforts.
The district has drawn more than 80,000 visitors since 2012, many of them junior high and high school students on school excursions and people in group tours.
Miyako Mayor Masanori Yamamoto said the two relics in the city with a population of 56,000 will play a crucial role in passing down lessons from the tsunami.
“Memories of the disaster will be kept alive if people who have never gone through a disaster will be able to have a ‘you-are-there’ feeling here (with the sight of the structures),” he said.
Similar endeavors to preserve disaster ruins are also under way in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the two other prefectures hardest hit in the 2011 disaster.
The Kesennuma municipal government in Miyagi Prefecture decided in May to preserve a high school building that was swamped to the fourth floor.
In Fukushima Prefecture, the town government of Tomioka is displaying a police car swallowed by the tsunami at a park. The vehicle symbolizes the bravery of police officers who rescued residents in the face of danger and the force of the tsunami.