Ever since leaving Fukushima prefecture after the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, I’ve wanted to go back and explore more of Tohoku and in some way support the local people.
I’d never been to the Sanriku Coast before the earthquake, so I’d never seen the villages that once lined the shores. It wasn’t until I was there this August, driving through bare, flat fields, that it actually hit me. There used to be houses here. Whole towns, in fact. And I will never have the chance to see any of them.
Instead of quaint fishing villages, there are hillsides dotted with spotless, polished gravestones. They’re clearly not more than a few years old, and when I made the realization that they may be the graves of the tsunami victims, I suddenly felt very uneasy. As you drive around the bays and up into the forest areas, huge signs clearly state your position in relation to the tsunami safe-zone. It’s a side of Japan not widely advertised.
The people, despite everything they’ve been faced with, are so warm and friendly. I can still picture all the people I met during this trip – their smiling faces and kind nature. Without talking in depth, you can’t know each person’s circumstances, but the region as a whole has a “We got this; we’re getting back on our feet” kind of vibe. It was moving and inspiring.
Our Tohoku trip started with a shinkansen ride from Tokyo up to Morioka in Iwate prefecture. From there, we would rent a car, drive directly east towards the sea, then along the Sanriku Coast down to Sendai, before heading back to Tokyo. Here are the highlights!
Morioka is basically famous for one thing: Wanko Soba! (For those of you having a chuckle, it’s pronounced one-koh). This delicious soba is served in ‘bite sizes’. The waitress stands beside you with a tray full of small bowls of noodles. As soon as you slurp down one, she serves you another, then another, until you say stop. It’s meant to be eaten quickly. There are even wanko soba eating championships. The record is 380 in 10 minutes or something ridiculous! I won’t even bother telling you my embarrassing effort.
Morioka Handi-Works Square
A 30-minute drive out of the city is a pretty cool, very randomly located, craft centre. I’m very into my arts and crafts, having grown up drawing, sewing, cutting, glueing, etc., so I was stoked to be there. They provide classes in pottery, indigo dying, toy making, and even cooking. My friends and I chose to get our hands dirty doing pottery. For about 2,000yen you can make and design your own cup, and they’ll fire it and mail it to you. Too easy!
It’s amazing the amount of cool places there are in Japan which no one has ever heard of. It’s not until you start researching a specific area that sightseeing spots pop up. Ryusendo Cave is a prime example. To give you an idea how off the beaten track it is, the closest town is itself considered remote! Yet, there were surprisingly a lot of people there. Ryusendo is apparently one of the best limestone caves in Japan, and there are still many parts yet to be explored by man. Visitors can walk through a 700m section which takes you past ice-cold, gushing waters and 100m-deep underground lakes! They’ve lit up the caves in colourful lights which is actually helpful to see all the beautiful shapes of the cave walls and ceiling, and means you don’t need a headlamp or flashlight. How much fun is cave exploring!
One of the places I was most looking forward to were these spectacular seaside cliffs I’d seen in pictures which reminded me of the cliffs along the Great Ocean Road in Australia. Unfortunately for us, a typhoon was due to hit the next day, so instead, the view we got was a sea of thick, white clouds! There are 700+ stairs that lead down to the bottom for an up close view of the cliffs – definitely worth it, but the walk back up will test your leg strength! The waves were angrily beating against the rocks, and it was a bit scary standing there below these dark, towering cliffs. It was a very cool experience, and I can only imagine how beautiful it is there when the weather is nice.
Further down the coast is this pretty, white-pebble beach, enclosed by a row of dramatic, jagged rocks. We dipped our toes in crystal clear water and chilled for a while, watching the seagulls float by peacefully. The sun was going down behind us, creating mesmerising shadows on the outlying rock formations.
Made up of about 260 pine tree-covered islands, Matsushima is a very popular place to visit from Sendai. Since ancient times, the beauty of the bay has been the subject of famous poems and paintings. Now, boats take hundreds of tourists out around the bay every day. The islands come in all shapes and sizes – some are so strangely shaped they look like they’re defying gravity. Further out, you can see many oyster farms. Oysters are a local delicacy here, so make sure you try them fresh!
Zao Fox Village
The cutest way to end our trip was to spend an afternoon with foxes! This is a place that had been on my list for a long time, so I was very excited. It’s not really a village but more like a mini zoo. There are a few enclosures… some more well kept than others. The main enclosure is a big open area where you can walk around freely amongst the foxes. They won’t harm you so long as you don’t provoke them. Some of them were sleepy and looked adorable as they snoozed together, while others played and squealed/screeched at each other. I opted to pay a little extra to hold a fox – I adored their big bushy tails, soft fur and gentle faces. There were also two gorgeous white 2-month old pups… adorable!!
After 4 days, our trip had come to an end. We had seen so many cool places and explored parts of Japan many Japanese never even go to. As always, it was great to be behind the wheel. Being summer, there were colourful flowers, sunflowers and pretty sights everywhere. I’m glad we had the chance to support the people of Tohoku, even if it was just through our presence (and money). I hope more people will travel to this remote corner of the world!