Iwate, one of the six prefectures of Tohoku rightfully praised with the beauty of its nature, offers a perfect blend of cultural, natural and historical sites to keep the visitors busy for days.
In an early December morning, I boarded the Shinkansen at Tokyo Station, which took me to Morioka —the prefectural capital of Iwate— in merely two hours for the first part of my three-day trip exploring the surprisingly numerous wonders of the central/northern parts of the prefecture.
Road to recovery
The travel infrastructure and the transportation network in Iwate Prefecture is well established making it easy to explore numerous stops in a day. Although Japan is famous for transportation efficiency, this is not something to take for granted in Iwate.
Iwate was among the most impacted prefectures of Japan by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and the subsequent tsunami. In Iwate alone, 5,140 lives were lost, and 26,079 buildings were destroyed. The transportation network was heavily impacted and parts of it became non-operational for years. But today, not only the damaged roads and rail networks have been reconstructed but new routes are also built making it even easier to travel between the coastal and inner parts of the prefecture.
The signs of the recovery and healing in Iwate is not limited to the transportation network, but it can be seen everywhere: rebuilt houses, stores and more importantly on the faces of the locals, rightfully praised with their resilience and who are admirably committed to pass on the lessons learnt to the new generations and visitors. As one hailing from a country with its own share of devastating earthquakes, Turkey, Iwate gave me hope.
Visit the enigmatic Ryusendo Cave
My first stop of the trip was Ryusendo Cave located near Iwaizumi town, a little less than two hours by car (or direct bus) from Morioka.
The Ryusendo Cave system, which is estimated to be over 5-kilometers long, is one of the largest three limestone caves in Japan. Over 3 kilometers of the cave`s length has already been explored and 700 meters is open to the public. This allows for a long satisfying walk inside the cave following the underground river and passing by four different ponds standing out with their mesmerizing sapphire blue color.
With my newly acquired insights into the cave systems, I was immensely captivated by the enigmatic beauty of Ryusendo Cave with a unique scenic experience at each corner. The moon palace, which features heart shaped stalactites in a large space, is exceptionally picturesque. Another noteworthy site is the Bat Cavern, where five different bat species live together.
The cave visit was followed by a tasty lunch at the nearby Cantina serving the French delicacy of galettes in a very stylish setting. While I was surprised to come across such a voguish place in rural Japan, I soon discovered that it was not necessarily a rare find in Iwate where the atmosphere surrounding the dining experience often matched the taste of the food.
Jodogahama, a beach paradise
My next stop was Jodogahama Beach (meaning Pure Land Beach in Japanese) named by a Buddhist monk Reikyo who thought of the Buddha’s Paradise when he first saw the beach 300 years ago. It is an idyllic place where the cozy pebble beach, surrounded by pine forests, opens to a cove hosting numerous volcanic white rocks and small islands with pine trees.
In December, the sky was moody, but the weather was surprisingly mild and the clear waters were dangerously inviting. My guide, noticing my desirous look at the water, was quick to note that the beach turns into one of the prime swimming spots in the region during the summer. You can take a dip in the crystal-clear waters, kayak through the rock formations or take a boat tour and even explore the Blue Cave that is only accessible from the sea.
Jodogahama is part of the Sanriku Recovery National Park, which covers a 220-kilometer long coastline spanning three prefectures, Aomori, Miyagi, and Iwate and is also considered among the most scenic sections of the 700-kilometer long Michinoku Coastal Trail, starting in Fukushima and ending in Aomori.
I ended the day in Miyako city, which is 10 minutes from Jodogahama Beach by car. Although I did not have time to discover the city in depth, there was fortunately enough time to indulge in a raw fish feast in Janome, one of the best-known izakaya style restaurants in Miyako serving regional delicacies. Bin-don, a Miyako speciality, satisfied every taste bud in my mouth. The dish is presented in a small milk bottle filled with seasonal raw fish including sea urchin that is poured over a bowl of rice.
Yamada, a small town with giant oysters
A short trip on the Sanriku Rail Line, a line which only resumed operations in 2019 eight years after the tsunami, took me to Yamada the next morning. My guide pointed to the rugged coastline of Iwate causing transportation difficulties in the absence of rail connection and what it meant for the locals to have the line reinstated. I often sense that there is a strong emotional element linked to the availability of infrastructure in Iwate and Japan – giving the people the feeling of being looked after by the government, a sentiment strongly needed in Iwate after the tsunami.
I took a guided walking tour of Yamada to witness how the town was admirably rebuilt after the tsunami, which washed away 3,167 buildings along with more than 800 lives. Visitors are provided with a tablet showing before and after photos of the sites visited. The tour starts near the train station and ends at the evacuation area overlooking the hill and where 50 lives were saved during the tsunami. There is now also a memorial stone in the evacuation area, which also hosts the clock that was once located on the roof of Yamada train station and stopped at the time the tsunami hit the town.
There are also tasting stops during the tour introducing visitors to the delicacies of the town. My favorite was carving the giant fresh oysters of Yamada. While Yamada oysters were delicious, I was at the end glad to have felt a little shy and not ask for more. The lunch was a large bowl of tempura consisting of mountain vegetables and seafood along with a plate of sashimi served at the elegant Wami Ajidokoro Ippuku.
Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium
One of the other key stops along the Sanriku Rail Line is Kamaishi where the recovery efforts have an unexpected face – a rugby stadium. Kamaishi Unosumai Memorial Stadium was built in 2018 on the same site that once hosted the school buildings destroyed by the tsunami. The opening game attracted 7,000 spectators and was preceded by a moving memorial event where the local students sang for the lives lost during the tsunami.
Kamaishi, with its own rugby team since the 1950s, made quite the headlines in 2019 when the newly built stadium was selected to host two of the games in the Rugby World Cup of 2019 that took place in Japan. This triggered a great interest in the area and drew thousands of Japanese and international visitors to the region who had a chance to see the fruits of the post-tsunami recovery efforts.
Iwate is one of the most rewarding destinations in Japan combining a unique blend of picturesque scenery, culture, history and an exemplary story of recovery. It is hard to believe that I can still call it a “hidden gem.”