Twelve years have passed since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan. An enduring legacy of the disaster has been widespread population decline, with some 140,000 residents leaving affected areas in the years since. Amid this challenging environment, a few municipalities have been trialing fresh ideas in an effort to rebuild their communities. Using census data to map demographic change in the region, we identified the rural towns successfully attracting young people and new business. These emerging shoots of hope revealed by our disaster zone "recovery maps" may even hold valuable clues for addressing key demographic challenges faced by the country as a whole.