A cream, four-storey concrete structure overlooking the Pacific Ocean is an anomaly in the flat, barren wasteland just south of the Japanese port city of Sendai. This building – a former elementary school – is all that remains of the town of Arahama, swept away by the murky waters of the tsunami that devastated the Tohoku coastline seven years ago.
Today, the school remains as a poignant reminder of the tragedy that struck, almost without warning, on March 11, 2011. The only reinforced building in the area, it managed to withstand the force of the surging waters, saving the 320 adults and children who sought shelter on its roof from the fate of the rest of the town.
Today, the school has been preserved in its ruined state as a memorial to the tsunami victims, as well as a museum of sorts documenting the events of that fateful day. The exterior of the building has not been touched, apart from a sign indicating the height of the floodwaters – over six metres, above the second floor – while a series of illustrative boards shows shocking aerial photographs of the school engulfed by a sea of rubble.
Inside, the lower floors have been left as they were found after the event, pummelled by debris, ceiling panels dangling, metal framework twisted and rusting, and electricals in disarray.
On the third floor, a model depicting the town of Arahama pre-tsunami serves as stark contrast to the view through the windows. More than 800 houses once dotted this coastal plain; today, all that remains is a cemetery, a grey patch among bleak, empty fields covered by a thin layer of snow and dotted with skeletal palm trees, stripped of foliage from two metres down.
On the fourth level of the school, we watch a 15-minute documentary that tells the story of the tsunami through the eyes of the school principal. With tears in his eyes, he explains how he made the fortunate decision to evacuate his students to the roof of the school, rather than to the designated evacuation point of the gymnasium, on the ground level. Had he followed protocol rather than his instincts, all those children would have lost their lives, with the waves hitting just an hour after the magnitude-9 quake rocked the region.
From a tourism perspective, there's nothing flash about the Arahama monument – just an emotionally powerful story of courage in the face of natural disaster. A visit to the site is free; a Sendai city official is employed to show curious visitors around.
"Keeping the ruins of the Arahama elementary school is helpful, not only as a record of the earthquake disaster, but to leave the memory without weathering," Chiaki Kobaysahi from the Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organisation tells me.
"Through the remains, we can help foster crisis consciousness and disaster prevention awareness for the next generation."
Meanwhile, throughout the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, the focus now is on encouraging international visitors to return, with tourism considered crucial to the revitalisation and reconstruction of tsunami-affected areas. This has been a difficult task, of course, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, with many visitors fearing the area is still toxic. But while the immediate surrounds of the power plant are still a no-go zone, most of the relatively vast Tohoku region – covering six prefectures from just north of Tokyo to the tip of the main island – escaped contamination and is safe to visit.
Divided by the dragon-back crags of the rugged Ou mountain range, Tohoku is incredibly scenic, showcasing the delights of all four seasons with a flurry of sakura cherry blossoms in spring, and bucketloads of snow – more than any other part of Japan – in winter.
Dotted throughout the volcanic mountains are "undiscovered" ski resorts such as Zao Onsen, home to the incredible "snow monsters" – trees frozen into blob-like shapes – as well as numerous onsen hot spring resorts. The region also has its share of gorgeous historic towns such as the former samurai centre, Aizu-Wakamatzu, in the west of the forever-maligned Fukushima Prefecture.
And there is a silver lining to visiting a disaster-affected region during its recovery period – no crowds. Visit Tohuku now before word gets out that it's back in business – the rewards are an authentic experience in the "real Japan", a world away from the well-worn tourist corridor.
Japan Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne daily to Tokyo. See au.jal.co.jp/aul/en/
The Tohoku region is accessible via the Shinkansen bullet train, with services from Tokyo to Aomori in the north, as well as several branch lines. See japanrailpass.com.au
JTB Travel offers tours throughout the Tohoku region. See jtbtravel.com.au
Julie Miller was a guest of Tohoku Tourism.