Travelling to Iwate in the autumn is a great idea – especially if you are a fan of nature, history and culture. The northern prefecture has so much to offer.
The resilience of the people of Iwate has been well known throughout Japan for many years and is often illustrated through the poems of local hero, Kenji Miyazawa. Lines from his verse, ‘Ame ni mo Makezu’ (usually translated as ‘Strong in the Rain’) were often quoted after the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, which hit the prefecture extremely hard, but they were written in 1933.
Said to transcend generations, the philosophy embodied in the poem’s “person I want to become” (he who is, among other things, unlikely to complain about snowfall, wind, rain or hardship) could be an aspirational, inspirational figure for us all.
Taking a trip to the prefecture this autumn you will still see evidence of damage from the disaster. You may recognise that work still needs to be done. But you will see the natural beauty and feel the history of one of the Tohoku region’s and indeed Japan’s true treasures.
With historical and architectural landmarks that have gained UNESCO World Heritage status, natural phenomena that have given us mountains, caves and underground lakes to explore and incredible hot spring resorts, a climate which has allowed a lush natural landscape to flourish and agriculture to thrive, Iwate is a place which many people will visit time and again.
If you have never made the relatively short trip from Tokyo to Iwate – the prefectural capital, Morioka, is just over a couple of hours by train from the capital and would make a great excursion should you stay in Tokyo – then during October, with nature’s autumnal colours at their most vivid, is perfect. If you wait, you may hit the ski season or, perhaps, the Iwate Snow Festival but whenever you are there, be sure to try the noodles.
We took a trip to Iwate to have a look at some of its highlights.
Surrounded by a calm forest of beech and oak trees, the underground caves and lakes of Ryusendo are located beneath Mt. Ureira, a two hour bus journey from Morioka.
The complex maze of caves – which visitors can enter from the Ryusenshindo Science Museum, next to the Ryusendo Onsen Hotel – were discovered in 1967 and are officially designated as a natural treasure of Japan.
Exploring the deep passageways carved into the limestone, with mystifying stalactites and stalagmites, it is easy to see why.
The area of the caves that has been explored stretches around 3,000 m but after recent expeditions it is thought they span more than 5,000 m in total.
Amongst the caves are a number of deep underground lakes, one of which is considered – at 120 m – the deepest in Japan and one of the clearest in the world.
A further three lakes are open to the public (the deepest is not yet ready to be explored by the inexperienced) and taking a 30-minute tour through the tunnels and along specially made platforms around them is a unique experience.
Underwater lights give the walls of the caves and the emerald green water a special glow, enveloping the entire area with a mystical atmosphere.
As fallen rain and snow melt spend years precipitating through layers of fallen leaves and limestone rocks before spouting out into the cave and its underground lakes, the idea of bottling the water seems more than sensible; Monde Selection even selected the water for an award in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Chusonji in Hiraizumi
Five sites of historical interest in Hiraizumi are known by UNESCO as the rather grand sounding ‘Archaelogical Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land.’ Encompassing temples and gardens, the 11th and 12th century buildings and surrounding areas were added to the World Heritage list in 2011 and are worth their place.
Chusonji Temple is one of the oldest in the area, having been founded in 850 and perhaps the most well known part of the complex is Konjikido (Golden Hall), which is similar to the famous Kinkakuji in Kyoto in that it is almost completely covered with gold.
If you fancy a good walk you could cover a lot of ground on foot but the main attractions are fairly widely spread so renting a bicycle is about the best way to go – especially if you enjoy riding through the forest and enjoying nature as you go.
Many of the slightly further apart attractions are covered by local tour buses – particularly the local ‘Hiraizumi “Run Run” Loop Bus’ – which connect Hiraizumi Station with all the sites of interest in central Hiraizumi.
Geibikei Gorges (pictured at the top), one of the outlying attractions, may even call for a car and if you do make that trip you will not be disappointed. Take a spectacular boat ride down a shallow river that runs between cliffs as tall as 100 meters and enjoy in the scenery which, in any season, is incredible. The autumn hues particularly bring many people to the area.
Finish a bowl and you’ll get another. And another, and another. The noodles will keep coming until you can eat no more, mouthful-sized portions flung into your dish by your server who, according to legend, is mimicking the hospitality of years gone by when landowners would feel proud to stuff their guests to satisfaction.
Whether you see it as a time honoured tradition to get your teeth into or simply a slurp-worthy wanko soba challenge with friends, this is one aspect of Iwate cuisine we particularly love.
The name of Koiwai Farm may be more familiar as part of the logo on the side of your milk cartons or ice cream tubs here in the city.
In real life, though, the lush green meadow-like fields at the foot of Mt. Iwate seem like a world away from Tokyo and their huge expanse has much to offer.
The farm itself spans 15 km east to west and 13 km north to south, a 3,000 hectare area that, if doubled, would just about fill the space inside the Yamanote line.
Its 100-year past as a working farm is reflected in an exhibition hall at the heart of the park, near the Koiwai Dairy Factory complex and the pastoral Makiba-en, at which you might learn a little more about the agricultural history of the area and where the milk in your coffee comes from.
Hiking, nature walks, horse riding, archery and many other activities may give you a hunger for some local creamy goodness and you might even check out the Makiba Astronomical Observatory, where you can observe sunspots by day and an expanse of stars Tokyoites can only dream about by night. In winter, entrance to Makiba-en, which also hosts the popular Iwate Snow Festival, is free.
Koiwai farm is about 30 minutes from Morioka by bus. Entrance costs 500 yen.
Text by Matthew Holmes