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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Pedal Power Raises Spirits

Seigi Ishikawa

Sep. 30, 2016

As cranes raise buildings across the tsunami-hit city of Rikuzentakata, people recently got on their bikes for the Tour de Sanriku to help lift the community's spirits and their hopes for the future.

The city in northeastern Japan was one of the most badly devastated by the disaster 5 years ago and people there are busy rebuilding their community. Work is underway to raise the central part of Rikuzentakata by up to 11 meters and new commercial facilities are being built.

The annual cycling event isn't a race. This year, nearly 1,000 participants chose between 4 tours of the city to enjoy the views of nature as well as areas under reconstruction. The event has been held for many years, and the city government re-launched it after the area was slammed by the 2011 tsunami.

The cycling event is the highlight of Kikumi Murakami's year. The 91-year-old has come every time to cheer the cyclists on.

"I'll be waiting for you next year," she tells one of the participants.

Organizers have added other activities and they conducted a special city tour the day before the main event. Ang Yeow Sien came from Singapore to race there for the first time. He says he wants to witness the reconstruction process with his own eyes.

The group visited a building that was once used as a "road station." The 14-meter-high tsunami submerged almost all of it. Only a small section at the top remained untouched.

They also entered an area that’s off-limits to the public, where the damage was left unchanged. A huge amount of land, it's being preserved as a memorial park. It will be open to the public in 2020 to remind future generations of how powerful the tsunami was.

"There're a lot of things they learned from the disaster and they try to improve it," Ang says.

Ang stayed with a local resident named Keiko Okamoto, as part of a new program to foster a stronger connection to the area. Okamoto tells Ang about the city hall that was reconstructed with Singaporean money.

"After the tsunami, there was nowhere we could gather to hold events or meetings, and it was very hard on our spirits. But this magnificent hall was built because Singapore donated a large amount of money. We feel very grateful," Okamoto says.

She hosted Ang at her relative's house because Okamoto's home was destroyed by the tsunami. She and her family went from one shelter to another and eventually ended up living here.

"Our hands were full just taking care of our own lives. It had been a struggle just to live," Okamoto says.

After finding out about Ang's forty-fifth birthday, she secretly bought him a cake.

On the day of the event, Ang decided to take the route past the Miracle Pine. It was the only tree in the area to initially survive the destruction, and it became a symbol of hope.

Okamoto gave him a send-off at the starting line.

"Please tell the people of Singapore that we are grateful to them," she told him.

"If I choose to stay in a hotel, I'll be alone in my room waiting for the race today. But by going for a homestay, there's a lot more interaction with the locals," Ang says. "What I heard from the host and what I heard from the tour, I get to learn more about the restoration effort."

The scars left by the tsunami are still deep in Rikuzentakata. But like Okamoto, many residents think with these kinds of interactions they can turn a corner.

"When I meet with visitors and have a good time, it boosts my spirits. The accumulation of these experiences helps us to move forward, little by little," she says.