By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) - Reconstruction efforts emboldened by preparations for the Rugby World Cup mean host city Kamaishi is ahead of its neighbours in recovering from the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the city's rugby ambassador said on Thursday.
Kamaishi will host two matches at this year's Rugby World Cup and is the only new stadium built specifically for the tournament.
The city and the stadium have become symbols of reconstruction in Iwate Prefecture, which was one of the worst hit areas in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 18,000 people across Japan.
Over 1,000 people in Kamaishi died that day in March and Rugby World Cup organisers hope that hosting games in the city will help boost the morale of its people and speed up recovery efforts.
Yoshihiko Sakuraba, who represented Japan at three Rugby World Cups, is also a former player and coach for the city's rugby team Kamaishi Seawaves, who won seven national championships from 1979-85 to cement their place in Japanese rugby folklore.
"After the official decision was made for Kamaishi to be the host city, the speed of the recovery has been enhanced and accelerated because 2019 has been set as a specific target," Sakuraba, who is now the city's World Cup ambassador, told reporters.
"The linkage to the road and the railtrack has progressed more speedily than before and the implementation continues to this day.
"Compared to other cities in the area, I would say that Kamaishi is really speeding up its reconstruction effort."
In March, a new expressway will open linking coastal areas such as Kamaishi with inland cities in Iwate.
The Sanriku railway line, which improves access to the whole region, will also fully reopen next month.
With 16,000 fans expected on matchday during the Rugby World Cup, Kamaishi, with a population 33,906, will need help from the surrounding areas to house all visitors.
Sakuraba sees the World Cup as an economic boost to the whole area.
"As for accommodations like hotels, of course Kamaishi alone cannot cater to it," he explained.
"So, a broader area will be involved with other cities in the area or inland places like Morioka or Hanamaki. There are additional hotels and onsens there so these can be used."
"People staying outside of Kamaishi will be transported by bus to the stadium," added Sakuraba.
Sakuraba and other tournament organisers hope the Rugby World Cup is just the start.
"We might be a small city but a big dream will be given to the inhabitants with the Rugby World Cup games," said Sakuraba, who remains as general manager with the Seawaves.
"It will be really linked to the bigger dreams ahead and pioneering for the future of all the people concerned."
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant; editing by Sudipto Ganguly)