Communities along the Sanriku Coast, such as Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, took a direct hit from the March 11, 2011 tsunami. There was an enormous show of aid and support from around the country and the world in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The influx of volunteers and recovery experts to the region was so overwhelming at one point the government implored folks to simply send donations rather than going to help. Nearly ten years later, Kesennuma is hoping to attract visitors once again and create a first-rate tourist destination.
The first thing anyone coming from one of the larger metropolitan areas of Japan notices when arriving to Kesennuma is the quiet and stillness of the town. For the majority of the short taxi ride to the port it appears as if nothing ever happened here, yet there is a distinct point where the architectural landscape suddenly shifts from the drab off-white concrete edifices of sleepy store fronts and two-story office buildings constructed decades ago to a sleek, modern and new port of Kesennuma that has emerged from the rubble left in the wake of the tsunami. Here the reshaped structures showcase the hope, hospitality and uniqueness the town has to offer.
Lifelong Kesennuma resident, jazz aficionado, and volunteer tour guide Eiichi Kato, or “Eddie” as he likes to be called, could probably write a book based on his experience being right at the center of the disaster zone when the tsunami hit. In a presentation he gives to domestic and foreign visitors at the portside tourism center, he describes in vivid detail the events of that day, the immediate aftermath and what it was like living in the recovery zone in the weeks and months that followed. As the owner of a hotel located next to the port but situated above the tsunami inundation zone, Eddie found himself looking after 150 severely traumatized evacuees nonstop for several weeks amongst a surrounding scene of burning stench, death and devastation he says can only described as hell on earth.
As trying as the experience was for Eddie, his family and fellow citizens, in true Japanese fashion they endured, persevered and rebuilt until some semblance of stability, and a sense of a new normal, had returned to the town. Through his efforts and countless interactions with people from whom he received an outpouring of generosity and support, he came to embrace an enduring sense of optimism, gratitude and belief in the potential of humanity.
Prior to the disaster, Kesennuma’s primary industry was commercial fishing. A glance at the numerous medium to long-range squid and tuna vessels moving in and out of port is all it takes to understand it is still the soul of the town’s economy, yet according to Eddie and others, commercial fishing is slowly being eclipsed by a wide variety of leisure and recreational seaside tourism activities, like hiking, cycling, diving, paddle boarding, and of course, sport fishing.
As is with coastal fishing around the world, there are peak seasons for various species, but one year round target that attracts anglers throughout Japan is rockfish, such as ainame (hexagrammos otakii)—a type of greenling known to grow bigger and feed more aggressively in these waters than anywhere else.
All it takes is a short fifteen-minute boat ride past the shellfish farms dotting the coastline to reach pristine waters teeming with a healthy food chain, near the top of which are lots of often finicky yet hungry ainame ready to pounce on properly presented bait.
Like other types of inshore coastal fishing it’s best to toss a line during an outgoing tide when the fish are most active. Readers familiar with flipping Texas-rigged soft plastics for black bass or fishing for coastal ground fish like red drum or Calico bass will be right at home with the tackle and how to present the bait to the fish. Simply cast, let your lure hit the bottom and retrieve in a slow lift and fall motion while maintaining steady tension in the line.
The reels used for this kind of fishing are spooled with sensitive PE 0.8 to 1.2 braid line and paired with fast taper rods that allow the angler to feel every subtle bump as the sometimes skittish ainame will often nip at any lures that enter their strike zone before committing to the eat. It’s the kind of fishing that offers a perfect balance of challenge and excitement in that it requires anglers to stay sharp and bring their finesse game, but typically results in plenty of solid hook ups.
Readers interested in tossing a line at some hungry ainame, as well as a variety of rockfish and other species, can contact Capt. Masato Onodera who runs charters for clients from around Japan every weekend. He specializes in rockfish year around, but can also take clients offshore when the pelagics are biting good.
If you love sashimi, Kesennuma ought to be high on your “go-to” list. The major fishing port features some of the freshest and highest quality fish, particularly pelagic species like katsuo (skipjack tuna), sanma (saury), mekajiki (swordfish) and sayori (halfbeak). These are typically loaded with fat as they are taken in the colder waters off the Tohoku coast. Local restaurants and izakaya also serve a variety of rockfish and bottom fish taken from inshore waters—including ainame that are hard to come across at even high-end sushi restaurants in Tokyo. Shellfish connoisseurs would be hard pressed to find a better place to enjoy oysters, scallops, uni (sea urchin) and hoya (sea squirt) when they are in season. Best of all, it’s noticeably less expensive than what seafood at this level would set you back in the big city.
A good place to drop by in the morning for a traditional fisherman’s breakfast you won’t soon forget is Tsurukame Shokudo located just south of the port.
Getting to Kesennuma and the rest of Tohoku has been made a lot easier by the JR EAST Welcome Rail Pass 2020. The special campaign for foreign residents and overseas visitors offers a three-day norihoudai (unlimited travel) ticket for just ¥12,000. This pass, which can be purchased online through the end of February, allows travelers to use both local trains and reserved seats on shinkansen. It’s certain to be a hit among Tokyo’s ski and snowboard enthusiasts traveling to snowy northern resorts, but it also allows winter travelers to explore Kesennuma and other small towns for some delicious food and genuine Tohoku hospitality.