Wedged up in the corner of North East Japan, Iwate prefecture is economically one of the poorest parts of the country. But in terms of natural wealth, it`s one of the richest. This week I visited its two stunning National Parks: the elevated volcanic marshlands at Hachimantai and the white beaches and towering cliffs on the tsunami-hit Sanriku coastline.
A 90 minute bus ride from Morioka, Iwate`s capital, took me to the entrance to Mount Chausu. Then for 4 hours I followed a well-marked trail – in a biblical downpour. I knew that craters filled with black, acidic waters were scattered around the Hachimantai peak – unfortunately I could barely see any of them. The path soon turned into a river. Choosing the rainy season to visit wetlands was perhaps not my best idea; but at least escpaing Tokyo`s humidity I could liberate my lungs.
My second day in the north was like a fine English summer`s day, blue skies and warm. This time I took a 2 hour bus ride from Morioka through densely forested valleys to the port of Miyako on the Sanriku coast.
Armed with a bag full of maps – all supplied by the grinning girls at Morioka Tourist Information - I was ready to explore. I made my way by local bus to the modern Jodogahama Visitors Centre. Clusters of excited tourists wandered about inside. The displays, well-annotated in English, told the story of the Sanriku coastline: “one of the most vulnerable areas to tsunamis in the world.” The displays were written before the tragedy last March.
Out of habit, I found myself latching onto a tour group. The energetic tour leader led us all onto the kanransen pleasure boat. I quickly had to get off though – I needed to buy a ticket.
The boat survived the tsunami; it was out at sea when the main waves hit. But sea conditions were so unstable, the boat could not return to shore for a day and a half. The crew ended up eating all the bread normally reserved for feeding the umineko (seagulls).
On the cruise, the air hostess-dressed guide told us about a nearby hamlet called Aneyoshi, where the tsunami reached a record height of 40 metres – yet thanks to heeding the warnings of past disasters, none of the buildings were damaged.
Businesses continue to struggle in Iwate; thousands of people remain stuck in cramped temporary accommodation. But the natural beauty still sparkles, and visitors are warmly welcomed. I know I`ll be going back.