Prince William travels to tsunami-hit northeast Japan

Britain's Prince William (right) being greeted by a lion dancer during his visit to the Chime of Hope Shopping Centre in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, on March 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Britain's Prince William (right) being greeted by a lion dancer during his visit to the Chime of Hope Shopping Centre in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, Japan, on March 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

ISHINOMAKI, Japan (AFP) - Britain's Prince William on Sunday made a pilgrimage to port communities devastated by a huge tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, receiving origami paper cranes from survivors before the fourth anniversary of the disaster.

Winding up his first trip to the country, the second-in-line to the British throne visited the northeastern city of Ishinomaki, one of the areas hardest hit by the gigantic waves which killed around 19,000 people.

William, 32, placed a bouquet at a hilltop shrine and quietly bowed his head in the direction of a now-vacant area where hundreds of people lived before their houses were swept away on March 11, 2011.

Following the prayer, local children presented him with red paper cranes - a symbol of good luck in Japan - which had been made by tsunami survivors still living in temporary houses.

A beaming William, in a navy-blue blazer, offered an "arigato gozaimasu" ("thank you very much") in response - the latest of a number of Japanese phrases he has attempted during his four-day stay.

"When we handed him the cranes, he told us that he thinks his son (George) will be pleased if he takes them back as souvenir," a young girl told national broadcaster NHK.

"I will remember this day forever," she added.

William also visited a tsunami museum in central Ishinomaki, which has on display handwritten editions of the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun, a newspaper whose printing presses were destroyed by the waves, and whose staff battled the odds to deliver the news.

The then-chief editor guided William around the museum, which was also engulfed by the tsunami, and explained the difficulties the paper faced in gathering news and distributing copies after the catastrophe.

Later in the day, the prince saw a temporary shopping venue in Onagawa east of Ishinomaki, the final stop on his four-day tour.

Against the backdrop of the prefabricated shops, he was welcomed with a lion dance, a traditional performance in which actors wear a lacquered wooden head and cloth dyed green with white decorations.

A smiling William proved he was game by pretending to put his head in the lion's mouth.

"Thanks to the prince's visit, we can let the world know that our region is still affected by the tsunami," said Hikaru Sato, a local high school student.

Radiation levels normal 

Prince William's visit to the disaster-afflicted area was important to Japan, with many locals keen to remind the outside world of the difficulties they still face four years after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the tsunami that it caused.

Others pointed to the tour as proof that the region is open for business and safe for tourism, despite the ongoing problems at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where three reactors went into meltdown after their cooling systems were swamped.

Tens of thousands of people are still unable to return to their homes in the area around the plant because of elevated levels of radiation, with scientists warning that some settlements may have to be abandoned.

However, officials insist, the affected region is relatively small, and radiation levels in most of northeastern Japan are normal.

On Saturday, William, whose pregnant wife Kate has stayed at home, dined in a ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn - with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The prince and the prime minister posed awkwardly for pictures wearing green yukatas - light cotton dressing gowns - before sitting down to a feast on low chairs, still wearing the robes.

Prince William had on Saturday donned a samurai helmet and coat during a tour of the set of a period drama.

The young prince is immensely popular in Japan, where people speak of his warmth and his easy manner with the public, in marked contrast to the country's own staid imperial family.

The media here has closely followed his travels, with many broadcasters showing library footage of William's mother, the late Diana, during her trips to Tokyo.

Visits by the Princess of Wales set off so-called "Diana Fever" as tens of thousands flocked to meet her, and women styled their hair to be like her.

Prince William was due to leave Japan on Sunday afternoon on his way to Beijing, another first for the young prince.