Women of vision

Women of Vision: Beacon of Hope

    As the country prepares to remember the devastating earthquake and tsunami five years ago, a hotel owner in one of the hardest-hit towns is working hard to help the community recover.

    Noriko Abe has been running Hotel Kanyo for almost 30 years. It stands on the coast of Minamisanriku, and is the fishing town's only hotel.

    Abe is the "okami," the title given to female proprietors at Japanese inns. She's responsible for ensuring the comfort of her guests and training staff.

    And since the disaster, Abe has taken on yet another role. She's been serving as a liaison between her community and government officials, to solicit support for the tsunami-hit region.

    "This is the biggest crisis ever for our hometown," Abe says. "A disaster like this happens once a millennium and it's giving us 1,000 years' worth of education."

    On March 11, 2011, 16-meter high waves left more than 800 people dead or missing in Minamisanriku, and destroyed almost all the town's key infrastructure.

    Abe's hotel was also damaged. The water and electricity were knocked out. She immediately mobilized her staff to bring food to her guests and keep them warm in the freezing cold.

    Abe also provided shelter to over 600 local residents who had lost their homes.

    "I told my staff, our guests and neighbors come first and foremost. We must persevere and never panic," Abe says. "If there isn't enough food for everyone, we'll divide up ours and share it with the people who have come to rely on us."

    Five years have passed, and reconstruction efforts are continuing. But since the disaster, the number of visitors to the town has dropped by 30 percent.

    That's dealt a severe blow to businesses throughout the community, including Abe's.

    Many are heavily burdened by the cost of rebuilding. So Abe started a project with shop owners who have moved their businesses to makeshift facilities.

    She created a map showing the new locations of 70 shops, to make them easier for visitors to find.

    "We don't have much power working on our own. But we can attract more attention by working together," Abe says.

    She has also launched a new service -- a bus tour of the disaster area. Staff members from her hotel serve as guides, sharing firsthand accounts of their experiences. Many have lost friends and family.

    "It's not easy to leave your family members behind. Many people tried looking for their loved ones but ended up dying together," one of the guides tells passengers.

    A woman who took the tour says she was surprised by the state of the town.

    "I'm shocked that after 5 years, this is still what the area looks like. This visit has taught me how bad the situation really is," she says.

    The passage of time is causing memories of the disaster to fade, so Abe believes these personal accounts are becoming increasingly valuable.

    "Trying to do things alone doesn't work. It's important to get everyone on board and cooperate with others in the community to make this place more attractive," she says.

    Despite all that the town has lost, Abe says she and her community must focus on what they still have to offer. And she believes that creating memorable experiences for visitors will help put her devastated town back on the path to recovery.