Looking ahead – how can I help?

It is now 2 months since I returned to Tohoku, and I have been busy sharing the experiences I had over there with people here in Australia. There has been an incredible amount of support for the people affected by this disaster, and I know the people in Iwate are very grateful for all the generous support they have received – from donations, to volunteer assistance, food packages and school uniforms.

The main way we can help from now on is to visit Japan, visit Tohoku and see the local tourist sites (which in Iwate are open for business as usual). That way we can contribute directly to these local economies, where our assistance is needed most.

Ganbaro Iwate!!

Speaking at the 2011 Japan Matsuri Festival in Sydney

Presentation at the Consulate-General of Japan in Sydney

Iwate highlights – Flying Dango!

You can enjoy many unique experiences in Iwate. One of the most fun, and delicious, is trying the Kakko Dango – ‘Flying Dumplings’ - at Genbikei Gorge near Ichinoseki.

Genbikei is a beautiful stretch of river that features dramatic rock formations, rushing rapids and waterfalls.

Genbikei Gorge
Normally, you can stand on the viewing platform at the top of the gorge, place your order in a basket, and ring a large gong to announce that your order is ready. The basket is whisked away to the dango store on top of the other side of the gorge. In a few minutes, the basket is sent back to you, full of tea and dumplings.

This time, however, the river was swollen due to heavy rain caused by an approaching typhoon. So it was too dangerous to approach the water’s edge and the viewing platform.

But luckily, a kind-hearted neighbour took us up into the shop, and the owners very kindly let us in, gave us tea and dumplings, and let us have a turn at swinging the basket across the gorge.

It was truly a unique, only in Iwate kind of experience!

Iwate highlights – World Heritage Cultural Sites in Hiraizumi

Iwate’s most famous tourist sites are located in the town of Hiraizumi, in southern Iwate. Hiraizumi was founded in the 12th century by the Oshu Fujiwara clan and was designed as a Buddhist ‘Pure Land’ on earth. Located on a rich, fertile plain and with abundant natural resources including gold, Hiraizumi quickly grew into a thriving city, rivalling Kyoto in wealth and influence.

In front of the Konjikido at Chusonji Temple
Hiraizumi flourished for a century, through the reigns of four generations of Fujiwara lords. However, following the death of its fourth and final ruler, Fujiwara no Yasuhira, Hiraizumi was overrun by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate. Over time, many of Hiraizumi’s temples and buildings were destroyed by fire and the city fell into ruin. 

Takkoku Cave temple
However, the local people are intensely proud of their rich cultural heritage and have worked tirelessly over the centuries to preserve the history of old Hiraizumi. Major temples such as Chusonji, with its golden pavilion, the Konjikido, and Motsuji, with its manicured gardens, have been rebuilt and preserved, so even today we can experience the beauty and serenity of ‘Pure Land’ Hiraizumi.

You can also see a special flower, the Chusonji lotus, which only blooms on the temple grounds. A lotus seed was found in the head casket of Fujiwara no Yasuhira, who is buried with his ancestors in the Konjikido. This seed was planted again in 1998 and the Chusonji lotus continues to bloom to this day, 800 years after the seed was first handled.
Hiraizumi’s many temples, gardens are archaeological ruins have long been treasured in Japan for their beauty and historical value. This year, they were also recognised internationally, being added to the UNESCO World Heritage list on 29 June 2011.

This was very welcome news for the people of Iwate, who hope the World Heritage recognition attracts extra tourists from within Japan and around the world. Visiting Hiraizumi gives you a glimpse of Japan’s past. By going there now you can also help Iwate’s future, by contributing to the local economy as they recover from the earthquake and tsunami.

The poet, Matsu Basho, visited Hiraizumi on his trip to the 'deep north'

Back to school!

When I lived and worked in Iwate, I was lucky enough to visit Morioka School for the Deaf a couple of times each year, to help out in English classes and participate in school festivals. It was the most rewarding part of my job. Despite their hearing impairments, these kids were the most genki (bright and energetic) kids I taught in Japan. 

Primary students playing the Australia quiz
So I was very excited to go back to the school to see how the students and teachers were doing. Most of the kids I had known had graduated years before, but there was one student who had been in primary school when I last taught there who was now a high school senior. It was great to catch up with him again after all these years.

I was only at the school for one day this time but we had a great time practising English, learning about Australia, eating yummy Australian food and playing games at lunch.

Anbo sensei and junior high students

Thanks to all the wonderful students and teachers for letting me into their classrooms again – it was a great experience. And thanks especially to Anbo sensei for all her help in organising my visit (and cooking the pavlova!)


Read more about what’s going on at Morioka School for the Deaf at their blog: http://www2.iwate-ed.jp/mor-r/ (Japanese only)

Playing outside after lunch
Lunchtime in the cafeteria

Getting away from it all

Iwate is the second largest prefecture in Japan (after Hokkaido) and is also one of the least densely populated. As a result, you can truly lose yourself in the great outdoors. Iwate is great for mountain climbing, hiking, rafting, fishing and skiing. But for those who, like me, prefer to relax in the great outdoors, Iwate is also home to some of the most amazing onsen (hot springs) in Japan.

Hei River

And after a very hectic couple of days travelling around Iwate, meeting people and vising schools, I was certainly in need of an onsen to recharge my batteries. And luckily, I got to stay at the nicest onsen hotel I have ever stayed in – Yamado onsen in Yuda.

 Chilling on the deck

Yamado is only 3 years old and is built beside a small, mountain stream. Each room (with private hot spring bath) plus the main outdoor bath look out over the water and are surrounded by greenery. So you can relax in the hot spring while listening to the sound of running water.

 Main outdoor bath

For dinner and breakfast, you can enjoy a delicious selection of fresh, local produce. I think I lost count after about the tenth course at dinner! And because it’s such a small hotel (with aroud 10 rooms), you can get very prompt, personalised service (they even deliver pizza to your room in case you need a late-night snack).


It’s not cheap, but if you really want to get away from it all, there’s nowhere more relaxing than Yamado. 

And if you want to enjoy some of the most beautiful and untouched natural scenery in Japan, you can’t beat Iwate.

Iwate Highlights – Spectacular coastal scenery

The people of Iwate are very grateful for the assistance and donations they have received from all over Japan and around the world. And they are working hard to rebuild their lives and their communities. The best way we can help in the future is to go to Iwate, buy local products and contribute to the local economy through tourism.

All tourism sites inland are operating as normal. And even on the coast, areas that were badly affected by the tsunami are starting to reopen to tourists.

 Jodogahama Beach

Jodogahama– The name means ‘Pure land beach’ and it truly is a little piece of paradise. A new tourist centre opened in late August (where you can see an exhibit of heartbreaking before-and-after the tsunami photos), and scenic cruises are operating again in the bay.

Miyako is also famous for its delicious seafood!

Daisushi ('Big sushi') Restaurant

 The spectacular coastline in Taro, north of Miyako