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Global Japan
JUN 21, 2013

How Innovative Thinking Launched a Hotel and Revived a Community in Post-Tsunami Tohoku

By Christina Tsao

Visiting Minamisanriku, Onagawa, Yamamoto, and Sendai, all still recovering from the March 11 earthquale, brings nature’s impressive power into sharp focus. There is a lot people can learn from this event.

The town of Onagawa, located in Miyagi Prefecture, has historically been a port town with a heavy reliance on its fishery industry. The geographic advantage of being located right at the intersection of two major sea currents means a greater variety of fish can be caught in the area. Then, on March 11, 2011, Onagawa lost close to 10% of its population in a single day, and over 80% of the homes and shops were washed away by the tsunami.

The Hotel El Faro is a trailer house hotel founded after the disaster by Ms. Sasaki. The original purpose was to provide housing for volunteers visiting Onagawa to help with the reconstruction. Before the El Faro, with no other local housing options, these people had to travel 2 hours each way from Sendai every day. Ms. Sasaki wanted to take provide a comfortable place to stay right in Onagawa. With the help of her business partner, Mr. Komatsu, she managed to secure the financing, fight through the red tape, and acquire a business license to start a trailer house hotel. Locals gathered to help with the construction and daily operations of the hotel.

According one Onagawa City Hall representative, the biggest hurdle in rebuilding the city lay in zoning issues. After the tsunami, the city decided that all residential areas must move to higher ground. Flat ground closer to the coast would strictly be for commercial use. That meant the city required every resident’s consent on the location and the size of any land distribution on that higher ground.

No one was willing to invest all that energy in building anything.

Ms. Sasaki and Mr. Komatsu had a spark of innovative genius. Rather than build up a traditional hotel structure, they used trailers that could serve as their hotel rooms. Not only did these suit the zoning laws, but they were transportable and cheaper – trailer houses, after all, are all pre-assembled.

No doubt there are other such opportunities in the Tohoku area. People just need to build trust, think creatively, and start investing.