Searching for the Sea

Ishinomaki is a seaside town, but it’s not easy to actually get to the ocean. After the tsunami, sea walls were built on most of the coastline to protect against future disasters. The area between the sea walls and town is all non-residential by law.

Many people don’t like the sea walls. Some because they miss the ocean view. Fishermen especially dislike not being able to wake up and gauge the temper of the ocean from their window. Others think the money could have been better spent on projects more closely related to the citizens of Ishinomaki.

I wanted to see the ocean, or at least get as close as possible. I had the impression that I could just walk up to a sea wall and climb up stairs on one side and down stairs on the other. I wanted to stand with a giant wall to my back and tiny, lonely beach in front of me. But I imagined it wrong. I haven’t been able to find beaches in Ishinomaki. You can’t just walk down to the ocean. You can’t touch it. I recorded approximately how far I walked from the center of town and back to try and give a sense of how far from the coast most things are and how much time it takes to get there.

Searching for the sea turned out to be a great way for me to explore Ishinomaki and go to many places we didn’t visit as part of our scheduled programming. The search gave me both the best and worst views of my entire trip. Yet I want to make sure it’s obvious that this is only a small part of Ishinomaki. I went out of my way to go to some of the worst looking places in the city. Just know that there is so much more beauty to Ishinomaki than this  journey.


May 17 – 4.5 miles

For my first attempt I had a fairly straightforward strategy. Find a road then walk toward the water. I was quickly out of the downtown area. The road was lined with foundations of destroyed buildings and large piles of dirt that I knew were buried rubble. It made me sad, but I wanted that. A lot of roads led into construction zones that I knew I should not enter or were just dead ends. I eventually I got to a small and obviously new park. There I could climb to the top of a slide to see what was ahead. Every path toward the ocean seemd to be fenced off, there were only fields of dirt and gravel. I could see a road with cars on it in the distance but I didn’t know how to reach it.  Maps told me I was about a 15 minute walk to the ocean, but I saw no clear path to get there.

Foundations of destroyed buildings
Construction zone and buried debris

There was an older women who had walked to a dead end intersection near the park. She did stretches against the fence and stared out at the desolate landscape. I wondered if she had been in Ishinomaki when the tsunami happened. I wondered if she remembered what that area had looked like before it was rubble. She soon left, but we exchanged good afternoons as she passed. I don’t have the language skills to ask her any of the question that filled my head. I went to stand in her place and stared at the emptiness for a while. Then I gave up looking for the day and turned back. I took a long route back and wandered for a while.


May 21 – 6.5 miles

A few days later I used a different strategy. I wanted to get to the distant road that I had seen before so I first crossed the river at a bridge close to town and then began following the river to the sea.

This area seemed to have more buildings close to the shore than where I was the first day I went exploring. I tried to stay away from places where it looked like I didn’t belong (more than it normally does). The town streets felt safer. I didn’t want to be yelled at by a construction worker who I couldn’t understand. As I passed a high school, I could hear the school band practicing and see girls playing tennis and boys playing baseball. All the buildings were new and everything smelled like fertilizer and and dirt. Many building have lines on the side that indicate how high the tsunami was in that area. All of them are over my head, many are multiple stories high.

Closer to the coast were many large warehouses that I assumed to be fish processing plants by the smell. The place was mostly empty because the work day was over, just a few stray cars still leaving. I don’t have a lot to say about the walk to get here because things were either empty or more of the same, but this part took the longest.

On the coast, there is a artificial bay created so that the boats have calmer water to dock in. Here you can finally smell the sea and see the gulls. But you still can’t see it because of the sea walls. You can only see the water of the artificial bay. More inland the seawall was slanted to one side but farther out it became a straight wall.

The slanted part has rickety collapsible metal stairs attached to the side. Once I climbed them I could finally see the ocean, stretching on for what looked like forever. It was beautiful. It was everything I has been looking for. To one side are two lighthouses. Three men fishing alone were scattered in different spots.

The sea wall and stairs to the top
Stairs on the sea wall








Farther out, the sea wall is about the width of an American neighborhood sidewalk, maybe three feet wide. Wide enough to comfortably walk on despite a strong wind. As I walk out, to my left is about a 10 foot drop on to concrete, on my right is a pile of what I can best describe as giant cement jacks piled up from under the water to close to the top of the wall. I sat down on the corner of the sea wall. The wind was louder than the waves and there was also an unidentifiable whirring noise like an airplane, but the sky was clear except for wispy clouds. I lay down on the wall to rest and breath in the smell. All I could see was ocean. It was just pure beauty and satisfaction. I stayed for a long time. I wanted to stay till sunset, but I also didn’t want to have to walk back in the dark. I said goodbye to the view and walked back down the stairs.

Coast lined with metal and bags filled with rocks. This was as close to the sea as I could get. The water is maybe three feet down.

There was a much lower wall nearby where you could get closer to the water. But still the entire waterline was composed of metal lining and bags full of rocks.

To get back to downtown I walked over the bridge road I had seen in the distance on the first day. This was a place where someone who didn’t want to walk through a construction zone or climb a sea wall could see the ocean. The extra height gave me a panoramic view of Ishinomaki at sunset. I walked back through the empty roads that I hadn’t been able to find a way through the first day. There were no other people in sight, I could just walk in the middle of the street.

I started with a simple goal of finding the sea. I also found time to reflect, a better understand of this complex city that I am only passing through, and a sense of awe at both nature and what people can build.

P.S. “Pool floaty” says there is a beach in Ishinomaki but I haven’t been able to find it and if he won’t take me there it doesn’t count

One Reply to “Searching for the Sea”

  1. Debbie, I love the way you documented your search for the sea in words and pictures. Your post makes me think back to Oguma’s phrase “respect for human life” in his article, “Nobody Dies in a Ghost Town.” For the central government, it seems to translate into 20 – 30 foot seawalls. But the question remains: what does “respect for human life” mean for the people who make Ishinomaki their home….

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