Japan is a country where you can certainly get your fill of Theme Parks, temples, mountains, fast paced city life, clubbing and museums. But there is so much to the country, and you might be surprised at the different places you can find if you’ve a mind to explore outside the regular places and probably – a hire car will be very valuable too.
Japanese roads are, I feel, some of the easier international roads to drive on outside Tokyo and Yokohama where it’s quite complicated and there are more overpasses than I have ever seen in my life. But out in the countryside it’s usually one lane and pretty easy going. Of course both Japan and Australia drive on the left, which helps in my case!
To get up north into Honshu’s Iwate prefecture may not be something I would choose to do when planning a trip to Japan, but I lived in the town of Ichinoseki from 2012 to 2014 and that’s in the south of the prefecture. From there I would often make a trip to Morioka in the north of the prefecture, which had a little for the visitor to discover including an old castle in the middle of a beautiful park.
Elsewhere in the prefecture there was more to see and do. One thing my wife and I did was drive from Ichinoseki, which is a city around 50-60 kilometres from the coast of Japan, to Kesennuma which is on the coast and was severely hit by the 2011 tsunami. I don’t recommend a tourist trail based on disaster, but as a resident of Iwate I wanted to see just what it was like. Albeit more than a year on.
It certainly was eerie. The photos give you an idea I guess. Buildings at funny angles, huge holes in the side of buildings and more strikingly there was a lot of land that had buildings on it which was now vacant around the sea. It seemed to be on a bit of an inlet but the waves pushed up rivers and to a lesser extent over land, reaching villages many kilometres from the ocean. It was though well over a year on and so I wasn’t struck with the reality of just how horrific the damage was at the time.
Kesennuma was still functioning and slowly rebuilding. People still live there today, and I know what you may be thinking, that it would be crazy to move into a place hit by a tsunami or indeed stay there, but I guess if we consider the rarity of such disasters, well, it’s understandable and there’s a certain admiration I have for those who show determination in the face of this sort of challenge.
But there is a real ghost town in Iwate Prefecture. It’s not that hard to visit – if you have a vehicle, that is. It’s around 40 kilometres north of Morioka. This town was a mining town which opened in 1914 and closed down in 1979. When the mine closed, the town was abandoned and you can still visit today, although it’s not what most people would call ‘tourism’, and it definitely isn’t 100% safe.
However, my fellow English teachers knew about it and I went there a couple of times when I was living in Iwate. There’s a couple of buildings that you can reach via a very thin path from the road, apartment buildings and you can explore as you like. There will be metal rods sticking out and remnants of the apartments as they were when lived in. Don’t expect hand rails or complete floors, it really felt like people just left one day like it was Pripyat near Chernobyl. But in this case, no disaster other than the mine was empty I guess!
The third place I wanted to write about in this post is the Yakehashiri Lava Flow, lava that came from Mount Iwate when it erupted back in 1732. The lava is between five and ten metres thick and stretches for around 3 kilometres. It’s between Matsuo and Morioka, and can be accessed by bus from the nearest train station. The area is great for hiking in the summer and it also offers winter sports enthusiasts quite a bit as well.
The Lava Flow is just fields of hardened lava, with a walkway around it. I say ‘just’ but it is something else! It’s very ‘other worldly’ and it’s highly worthwhile seeing. Both the Lava Fields and the abandoned town of Matsuo I used for filming my Doctor Who Fan Fiction back in 2013 I think it was. And these two places to visit are just the tip of iceberg so to speak. If you are into nature, mountains, the whole of northern Iwate is going to impress you. You have two impressive mountains in Mount Iwate and Hachimantai – which I believe is very climbable. And there are onsens and interesting places to stay as well. I went there in late December I think it was 2013 and stayed in huts while the land was caked with snow! But that’s another story I will save for another day!
Thanks for reading today – May the Journey Never End!