In the US, everyone knows 9/11. In Japan, everyone knows 3/11. The day of the Great Eastern Japan earthquake. More than five years since it hit Ishinomaki with full force, the town is still hurting. Ishinomaki — a town of 150,000 — wasn’t more than a blip in guidebooks before the tsunami. Primarily a commercial fishing port, its claim to fame is the world’s best manga museum.
Everywhere you turn, there’s remnants of the tsunami. A sign in the train station shows the height of the tsunami. Over 75,000 homes were lost, and many look like ancient Roman ruins — the building’s plan is all that’s left. Many homes haven’t been rebuilt.
Hiyoriyama Park is the place to see cherry blossoms. It is also one of the highest points in the city at 200 feet above sea level. It served as a refuge for those fleeing the tsunami, where the water level rose halfway up the hillside. The land today is leveled — just mounds of construction-ready dirt as far as you can see.
When pulling up TripAdvisor, the options for where to stay are limited. Jamie and I chose the Ishinomaki Grand Hotel. Yes, I did have visions of a Japanese version of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Despite the grandiose name, the hotel was a spruced up Holiday Inn. As far as I can tell, it was the best in town before the tsunami and still is the best. That’s how much this sleepy town hasn’t changed.
One night in Ishinomaki and you’re wondering where the bar is. Search Google and it looks like Ishinomaki has been abandoned. Ask the hotel concierge, and he says “I think we have one bar — Bar K.” It is a swanky affair — barmen in suits, fine Japanese whiskey, and delightful little Japanese snacks. But where are the young people? The dive bars? Surely the tsunami didn’t wipe out fun?
Just across the small alley, a sign in the second window says DARTS. It’s dark and probably closed. Up the steps, a young guy in a tie-dyed shirt and jeans greets us. Two aging but fancy electronic Japanese dart machines are up against the far wall. We drink beer, toast, and — of course — sing karaoke on the omnipresent machines found in every bar. Then stumble down the alley to a makeshift brewhouse with wooden tables. A few more beers, a stunning rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and a freezing stumble back to the Ishinomaki Grand.
After a night of drinking, we wake up to a fresh bowl of chirashi. When you come to Japan, you better come for the food. Throw all that good, local, famous Ishinomaki fish into one delicious meal. The gods never had it so good.
It’s the people that make these small towns. The streets outside feel like a ghost town. Inside, the people — many who lost their homes — welcome you with open arms, a beer, and a karaoke microphone. They’re the reason so many of us keep going back to Japan.