I did another long Seishun 18 trip, this time with the intent to visit some of the least visited prefectures, and I wanted to go up north to see Iwate. I had purchased my Seishun 18 ticket last month, but due to some change up plans, I was not able to use it. However, I saved the ticket for the last 5 days of its validity, and took off on my trip up north on January 6th to 10th.

Iwate is one of the least visited prefectures in Japan

Why did I pick Iwate? If you have read some of my other postings, I have went on about how there are so many interesting places that most foreigners to often get to. Sometimes the reason is that there simply is not anything to see, and sometimes it is because people don’t take the effort to find out and prefer to stay on the beaten path: http://kakuekiclub.com/imbalance-of-travelers-to-japan/

However, in this case, I have to admit my ignorance. Although I had witnessed on television the destruction of the 2011 Great Kanto Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, I did not realize that my trip would be taking me into the heart of the most impacted areas of the devastation. It was the combination of my not connecting the dots, plus the long passage of time that I did not realize this prior to my trip.

It’s more about the journey than the destination

Sometimes the journey itself is what it is all about. Often times, the attractions are just an excuse to go. Deep down I think some of us know this. In picking this route, even Japanese friends were questioning my choices. I just decided to go and see for myself.

When you go far on local trains in a time-constrained situation, it’s going to be a Cook’s Tour. You won’t have a lot of time to see everything there is to see, but you certainly can get a flavor of what the country is about.

Given the five day duration of the ticket, my strategy is always to go as far as I can in the first two days and take the last three days back at a slower pace. After some deliberation, for my first stop, I decided on Ishinomaki, on the Pacific side. Although I had been there years ago, I wanted to go again this time to visit Tashiro island, the cat island. I like small islands in general, and this seemed an interesting first destination.

A longer route along the Pacific coastline

Since I had an unexpected late start out of Tokyo, I had to limit the trip that night to Sendai. However, I was not going to take the direct route that would pass through places I have been before, I decided to take a less convenient route that hugged the Pacific coast. I would have some long transfers (about one hour) that would allow me to take some walkabouts in some interesting cities along the way.

What I discovered was that even thought it was seven years ago, so much of the impact of the devastation still remains, and that they are still working on rebuilding and still have a long way to go. While the impact of the Fukushima reactor meltdown is still in peoples memories, the true depth if the impact of the tsumami seems forgotten by many.

My first stop where I had a chance to walk around was Mito, the capitol of Ibaragi. I had only one hour there, but here is what I learned: Mito is famous for Tokugawa Mitsukuni, the prominent daimyo of the Mito domain, who was know for his influence in the politics of the early Edo period. The other being natto.

Mito-chan promoting "Natto Power"
Mito-chan promoting “Natto Power”

As for Ibaragi in general, I saw numerous references to high technology robots, given the fact that just north is Hitachi city, named after that famous company that has it extensive manufacturing facilities there.

Yes, Mito and Ibaragi have less than a stellar image these days. Note that the founder of Globis Insights as attempted to revitalize its image by establishing a basketball team, the “Robots”, but even that has not gone so well https://e.globis.jp/article/432 . Anyway, I did not have much time there to find out more, so I proceeded my way up the coast line.

Part of my exploration strategy using the Seishun 18 ticket is to look out the window as I go, and if there was any interesting place I saw along the way, while looking at Google Maps, and jump off if I saw someplace that piqued my interest. However, as I made my way up the coast, it was comparatively uninteresting relative to my experiences on the Sea of Japan side. Based on the schedule from https://www.jorudan.co.jp/ , my next transit would be in Iwaki, where I would transit for one hour.

Outside of a nice new station, attached mall, and small shopping street, Iwaki really did not have much to offer. I could not find anything either on only online guide that would compel me to spend any longer than the allotted one hour transfer, so I got back on the train and made my way up north. I was looking forward to my next scheduled stop in Tomioka

Upon arrival in Tomioka, I was to witness my first look at the remaining impacts of the 2011 tsunami. The service of the Joban line still remains un-restored in many places. Everyone had to alight to wait for a bus connecting service to the next station. Now, if I had not known enough Japanese to figure this out, I would have been panicked because what you see in the above signs is the only information provided. I am assuming that there are not many non-Japanese speakers that take this line, because there were no foreign language explanations provided at all.

Everything is new

The transit time was 90 minutes, so I decided to have a walk around. The first thing that you notice that is different is that everything – houses, roads, even a small hotel, is new. I don’t know the history of this place, but everything must have been cleared out by the tsunami. Outside of a small convenience store at the station, there was literally nothing to see but residences in a 200m radius around the station. It was cold and windy, so I went back to the station and got a hot can of coffee and waited for the bus to take me to the connecting station. After resuming the train, I went all the way to Sendai and arrived rather late, so I just went to my hotel and prepare for tomorrows ride to Ishinomaki.

Hybrid Train

Most of these local trains are relatively old and diesel powered. This time, it was a rather modern hybrid setup.

The ride to Ishinomaki was pretty boring, not much along the way except for flat land and farms.

The city of Ishinomaki was old and charming. I spent some time walking around as I made my way to the port where Google Maps said the ferry would be.

A massive construction site

As I got nearer to the port, it was one massive construction site. I later realized that this was the most devastated areas of all – with over 3,000 lives lost. As I got nearer to the site that Google Maps had said where the ferry terminal was, I thought that I must be in the wrong place. No way could this be an active port. Although I could see what looked like a boat, it was surrounded with construction gear, with large trucks going back and forth. It was not a very walkable route at all. Most of the guidance I had from online reviews were to take a bus from the station to the ferry port, but as usual I always want to walk.

Since I had about 90 minutes before the ferry would depart, I went up stairs leading to the top of Hiroyiyama Park It turns out that this was the precise place where local residents ran up to escape the rushing waters, and many were here to watch the devastation before their eyes. You can see it all here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBs7yfl8Se0&ab_channel=FNN311 I do recall seeing these videos after it happened, but never thought that I would actually go to the same place.

Despite having advanced warning and preparation, over 3,000 people perished. The before and after pictures are quite shocking.

Any, from the birds-eye view, I was able to confirm that this indeed was the correct port. With less than an hour before departure, I made my way down the mountain and back to the port.

Ferry to Tashiro Island

Believe it or not, this is what the ferry terminal looked like. Just across from it was a makeshift ticket sales office.

Seeing that the cats are the main attraction to Tashirojima, they really did a good job in getting you ready!

The ferry ride was very pleasant. There were not so many people on the ferry – most looked like locals going back.

Nitoda port terminal
Sea wall and massive door

On the way up to the village, just before reaching a community center, you pass through sea wall with a massive door. More evidence of the infrastructure that was built up since the tsunami.

The village was hit pretty hard. Although some restoration activities still seem to be in progress, many houses appear to be abandoned.

Tetrapods and sea wall being built

For the cat loves, you can walk around the village to see many cats. Because the day was pretty cold and windy, I actually did not see so many. I could have spent more time walking around and seeking them out, but I really wanted to see more of this beautiful island. It was also a pretty eerie feeling as outside of one other tourist that was taking cat pictures, I only saw one person in the village that lived there.

The Olive Cafe

On the way, I passed the Olive Cafe – one of two places to eat on the island. However, it was closed.

Manga Island

On the top of the hill was a series of cottages with cat ears called Manga Island. The place was closed for the winter, but it looked as if it could be a nice place to stay in the summer.

This one stop made the whole trip worthwhile

Just pass the Manga Island complex, I saw a sign for 4km to Mitsushi Zaki. I really wanted to take a long walk and explore, so I decided to check it out.

The walk was amazing. It was a small paved road, that had looked at one time to be used for light vehicle traffic, but fallen foliage seemed to indicate that it’s primary use has now been more confined to foot traffic. It was a very serene and peaceful walk, with no people around me, and the only sounds were the winds rushing over the treetops.

When I finally arrived at the viewpoint, the scene was nothing short of stunning. There was a small gazebo where you could sit and take in the view. It was a cold but clear day, and it was a very spiritual moment as took some time to contemplate the serenity of the moment. It is truly a gift when you can find such a place of unmolested beauty and know that you are the only one for miles around – no vendors, no noisy tourists taking selfies. This was truly one of those moments that defines the off-the-beaten-pay, off-season travel experience in rural Japan.

My return ferry arriving

I walked back down to the ferry terminal for my journey back to Ishinomaki. I would have liked to walk around longer, as I only had a few hours on the island, I needed to get the last ferry back. I tried to get to the cat shrine – was almost there but I turned back because I was running out of time. Most visitors to the island focus on the cats – but instead I chose to take the walk to Mistushi Zaki and have no regrets with that decision.

Coming back, I realized that there is a more central location to board the ferry called “Chuo” or central. I had actually walked right past it the first time. The directions in Japanese were very sparse, and there were no signs in English. Oh well.

Since it was getting late, I made my choice to make it as far north as Morioka. I don’t like to arrive too late and this was a major city with decent priced accommodations. My strategy with Seishun 18 ticket, which is limited to five days, is to go as far as I can the first two days and take the final three days back in a more leisurely pace. This gives me options in the case of disruptions.

City of Morioka

Local cop doing a rendition of Tora-san during a recruitment festival

Morioka is the capital of Iwate prefecture. It is a pretty charming city to walk around. In the center of the city is a large park formed around the castle ruins. I spend the morning on a random walk around town and take in some of the views of older architecture which is all around. There are numerous shopping streets and it definitely has traditional flavor to it. While I could not recommend specifically as a tourist destination, it is a good stopover point to stay the night as accommodations are much cheaper in the larger cities. I stayed in a business hotel for 4,000 including taxes and fees.

A double random choice

This was day three to the five day trip, so the objective at this point is to take a ride back and find some interesting places to stay along the way. In a cafe in Morioka, and on the train as I left Morioka just after noon, I researched the various options along the way to stop. I really could not find any place that was particularly interesting, but the name “Hanamaki” (花巻)caught my eye. I thought the name was interesting (literally “flower roll”), plus there was a regional airport with jet service and a Shinkansen stop. I figured given the transport links it must be a substantial city. My transit there was to be eight minutes, with the next train continuing down the line one hour later, I thought it would be a good idea to take the hour to find if there was anything interesting.

Well, it turns out I was pretty much wrong at that. Outside of some onsen resorts, a nice park and a small castle site, there was really nothing to see.

The most interesting thing I saw was an old water filtration station along the river. It had been out of operation for years.

Well, enough with Hanamaki so I went back to the station to continue my journey south. After I got to the platform, on the other track was a train bound for Kamaishi just five minutes earlier. I had about one minute to decide, I did quick check and found that there we some decent priced hotels available, so I make the quick decision and jumped on the Kamaishi train. I was not totally unprepared in this decision however, as I had read about it before, but had earlier decided against it as it lacked north-south rail access, and I generally try to avoid destinations where I have to backtrack to return.

Anyway, I call this a “double random” choice because Hanamaki was pretty random, and Kamaishi was totally unplanned course. This is the
serendipitous beauty of the Seishun 18 ticket.

The ride there was pretty interesting as it passed through many quaint old towns and tall mountains.

I arrived late in the afternoon and took a walk around town and not much was open. I went to the local supermarket and got some fresh fruit and some takeaway foods and a couple of tins of beer. Had a nice bath in the outdoor onsen of the hotel before calling it a night.

The local tourism board had created an excellent local guide in English. There was truly a lot to see, but the main problem is that many of the interesting sites, like the original Meiji-era iron mining and smelting site (UNESCO World Heritage) were a one hour drive by car. This was a bit of a disappointment as I am really fascinated with the industrial history of Japan. Many other sites were simply not accessible by foot or public transit, so my options were pretty limited for the day. However, these were still pretty interesting – I would be getting to the view at the Kamaishi Daikannon and some time at the Iron and Steel History museum.

Getting the the Daikannon turned out to be a greater challenge than I had anticipated. Google Maps told me that it was about a 3.5km walk, which is nothing for me. It appeared to be walkable, but it turned out not to be so pleasant.

The one thing you need to know about Kamaishi is that it is not called “The City of Steel” for nothing. They take pride in the fact that Kamaishi was one of Japan’s major steel producing cities through the Meiji era, and up until the WWII when most of the production capacity was destroyed by American bombs. Since then, it has been built back and the city aims to make it into a world-leading steel production center.

Because of this emphasis on heavy industry, there are many factories around and a lot of heavy vehicle traffic. While the Google Maps route looked OK, as I walked I saw that it went though a tight tunnel – from a distance I could not see if the walkway actually went through the tunnel, and rather than continue on, I aborted by walk and returned to the station to find the bus that would take me to the Kannon. It was all in Japanese and not that easy to figure out, but I eventually got on the right bus and made my way. This mistake of judgement cost me about 90 precious minutes in the morning, but I eventually made it to the correct bus stop. Even that stop was not very clear where to go, but there was a little sign that pointed me in the right direction.

A sign showing the directions to the kannon at the bus stop

Once I got to Kamaishi Kannon, it was quite impressive. There was a long walk of steps to the entrance area where you pay a fee of 500 yen to enter, then there is an escalator to take you to the top. It was a clear, but pretty cold and windy day, and a saw perhaps 5 other visitors during the time I was there.

You can walk to the top of statue to enjoy some amazing views of the bay. The wind was so strong it almost blew the phone out of my hand.

The view of the bay was impressive from the grounds of the statue. In the background, you can see the massive breakwaters what were constructed to protect the bay.

Coming back down, you can pass though what is a half-abandoned tourist street. There are a few establishments still open, but you can tell that at one time tourism had been much more active.

Iron and Steel History Museum

Just across the road from the Kannon, was my next stop – the Iron and Steel history museum. Given the importance of this industry in Kamaishi’s history, and my interest in Japan’s industrial development, this was a must-see for me.

There were several floors of exhibits. Iron and steel played an integral part of Japan’s industrial development, and the Meiji-era leaders had the foresight to prioritize the development. It was really an impressive museum. I had no idea that this city had such a strategic importance in the past. You could easily spend three hours here soaking up the history. Since my time was limited by my late morning start, I had a very fruitful one hour there.

Just before leaving the museum, near the entrance there was a special exhibit on the seawall. At 63m (seven stories), it is the deepest in the world. It was completed in 2009, so it must have played a big role in protecting the vital steel production. Another example of some of the amazing achievements of civil engineering you can see in Japan.

After the museum, I took the bus back town to have a walk around before leaving Kamaishi

In the center of town, there is a newly built complex with a community center, Mifin cafe, various shops and a large, new Aeon shopping mall which seems to be the favorite gathering place of seniors in the city. It was pretty deserted this time of the year, and really not so much to see from a touristic perspective

The other thing that Kamaishi really goes out of their way to promote is their role in world rugby as they look to host the Rugby World Cup 2019. This should really be a chance to bring in a new batch of foreign visitors. Their local team is appropriately named the Seawaves.

Just before getting on my train, I visited the Sea Plaza which is right at the station. It had a lot of small shops and little traditional restaurants. On the second floor was the Ruby Cafe. I did not see much there, other than a foreign official talking to some businessmen – no doubt around Rugby business. Again, like many tourist spots at this time of the year, it was very deserted.

Since this was the fourth day of my trip, it was time to make my way back. I decided to make Fukushima city as my target destination – just a little more than half way back, and also another city with affordable accommodations.

I arrived in Fukushima rather late, I had a walk around at night on the bar street near the station after checking into my hotel, but I really did not see too much as it was rather cold and windy. However, one thing that I did notice is rather large number of foreign youths. It might be attributed to a large English language center in the area.

I spent the morning walking around the city a bit. Frankly, there was not so much there that I forgot to take any pictures. Not really a very compelling city to visit on its own, but is good as a stopover city. There are a few historic sites to see in the city, but on the 5th day of the trip where I had been walking about 30,000 steps per day, I was getting a little tired and wanted to get home.

I had a stopover in Utsunomiya, famous for gyoza which is one of my favorite foods. The famous gyoza street is right next to the station. This time, I picked on that turned out to be a little touristy, but it was good nonetheless. I ended up back in Shinjuku around 7pm.

Overall it was a great trip, considering that I did little planning or research in advance, but this was partly by design. My intent was to really enjoy the serendipity that you can have with the Seishun 18 ticket.

One thing that I am starting to discover, is that to get to some of the more remote areas, sometimes you do need a car. I think in the future, I might choose to pick a good starting point to rent a car, and set off for a few days. I have also been considering buying a small 4wd (Suzuki Jimny) and taking the long way on side roads.

The Suzuki Jimny is a much-loved car in rural Japan. This is an example of a well preserved 80’s vintage model.

The most important thing that I learned from this trip is how profound the devastation from the 2011 tsunami was. So many cities along the coast were impacted so heavily, and even after seven years, the rebuilding is still going on. What impressed me the most was how determined the Japanese were to mitigate the impact of similar events in the future by building impressive public works – they are really cutting no corners in the effort to do as much as they can.

The final thing that I learned was that while tourist traffic seems to be a fraction of it was designed for in past, the some locals governments such as Kamaishi are doing a lot to make their destinations attractive to visitors in the future.