Where else can you find cherry trees soaring above statues of Kamen Riders and cats overtaking whole islands?

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MAP

located in Miyagi prefecture, just east of Sendai, this oceanside city lies between Kesennuma Bay in the north and Matsushima Bay in the south.

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Dear Ishinomaki:

I met you, quite unexpectedly, when I was visiting Sendai. I intended to visit Matsushima, but fell asleep on the train and woke up to a friendly tap on my shoulder at the last stop. Knowing nothing about you, I decided this random stop was a fortuitous sign and spent the day exploring a strange town.

03I must have appeared quite bewildered when I looked around, having absolutely no idea where I was. A family sitting across from me on the train invited me to join them at the café by the train station for a coffee and offered advice on the best sights to see within walking distance of the station. Armed with maps, advice, iced coffee, choco-buns and a rental bike, I waved goodbye to my new friends and headed toward the waterfront and Hiyoriyama park. As I continued downhill toward the waterfront, the lingering devastation from the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami became apparent. I stopped in at a rest stop/café where I enjoyed a glass of refreshingly cold hand-pressed soy milk and got directions to the park. The proprietress told me her café had recently been rebuilt, and explained how she and her family had survived the tsunami by running up the hill to Hiyoriyama park, with water lapping at their feet. She pointed out the shortest route to the park, handed me a small takeaway bag with sweets and away I went. Halfway up the hill, I was winded and thankful for the treats and extra hydration. I made it to the entrance of the park near the apex of the hill, found a bench and looked out at the waterfront and harbour below. The damaged coastal areas remained barren, a sobering reminder of the desolation by 3.11 that left more than 15,000 people dead and 2,500 still missing.

I returned to ishinomaki a few years later in the spring, and spent an afternoon sitting under the cherry blossoms at the top of Hiyoriyama park near the stone torii gate of Kashima-miko Shrine. After only a few short years, the once thriving fishing port was already returning to its previous splendour. As the sun began to set, a party atmosphere settled on the hilltop park as locals enjoyed hanami (cherry blossom viewing). A group of young salarymen and women poured me a drink and invited me to join their party. Vendors sold colourful masks, fresh sushi brought in earlier that day by the fishing boats at the port below, and alluring candies featuring simple motifs of flowers, pandas and even maki sushi.

02The next day, I headed back to the waterfront to visit Tashiro island, famous for the hundreds of cats that call the island home, a shrine dedicated to felines and a manga-themed camping resort. After spending a sunny morning wandering the island and taking photos of cats in their scenic habitat, I was looking forward to visiting the ishinomori Manga Museum, dedicated to the famous mangaka ishinomori Shotaro, creator of the popular manga Cyborg 009 and Kamen Rider. The extensive museum features permanent and rotating exhibits, a giftshop and a character café. Across the bay is the Miyagi Sant Juan Bautista Museum, where visitors can board a replica 1613 Spanish galleon.

I may have arrived in ishinomaki by mistake, but I stayed for its fresh sushi, natural wonders and history, and I fell in love with its friendliness and resiliency.