Japan is a beautiful country that boasts amazing natural attractions, from the world heritage sites of Fuji and Yakushima to the pristine beaches in Okinawa and awe inspiring mountains in the Japanese alps. While these places are rightfully famous worldwide, this is but a taste of the natural beauty that Japan offers. If you are looking for something off the beaten path, why not try the Sanriku coast. The coastline stretches from Southern Aomori to Northern Miyagi, but the most famous parts are in Iwate prefecture. The area has gorgeous beaches and cliffs as well as caves and even an amber museum. There's a lot to see so if you can, try to spend a few days in the area.
It is important to keep in mind that this is an area that was devastated by the 2011 tsunami. While many businesses and tourist sites were quickly up and running, many of the public transport routes are still suspended and reconstruction is still ongoing in many areas. As you travel you will encounter numerous signs marking where the tsunami hit and places that are still being rebuilt. Traveling through the area can be a sobering experience. However, tourism is an important way to help in the recovery process, and it’s a great chance to support local business directly.
While access by bus is possible in some areas, others are not serviced by public transportion and many buses only run a few times a day. Due to this, a car is the best way to see the area. The drive is easy and beautiful, and I found myself pulling over frequently just to stop and appreciate the scenery. I started my trip from Morioka, the capital of Iwate. It's only 2.5 hours from Tokyo by shinkansen, and there's also easy access from the north. There are many rental car options, and while the staff will likely only speak Japanese, many (like Times and Toyota) have English websites. Alternatively, you can start from the south in Ichinoseki, where you can also see the world heritage Hiraizumi. It is also a 2.5 hour shinkansen from Tokyo.
Kuji Amber museum (久慈琥珀博物館)
I started my three day road trip in Kuji, a town in northern Iwate. Kuji is Japan's only source of amber, with the amber dating back 80 million years to the late Cretaceous period. To celebrate this, Kuji has an amber museum, the only one of its kind in Japan. Here you can see amber from not only Japan but from all over the world. In the museum, you can learn more about amber and how it's created and mined. Of course, the most interesting part is the amber itself. The museum has an extensive collection, with 1000 pieces containing fossils, insects, or plants. Additionally, they also have sculptures, art, and jewelry made from amber (and of course a shop where you can buy your own). There's even an amber mine you can enter as well as a stunning room made of amber. It's a unique museum that's worth a stop if you are in the area. Coming from Morioka, it is slightly out of the way, but I thought it was well worth it. It’s a 2.5 hour drive without tolls and slightly under 2 hours with them.
From Kuji, Kitayamazaki (北山崎) is an hour away, or it's a two and a half hour drive from Morioka (both toll free). This is the most famous part of the coastline. It's an 8 km stretch with huge, impressive cliffs. The Kitayamazaki observatory offers 3 observation decks at various heights. You can walk down to the shore but be aware that it's almost 1000 steps. Boat tours are also offered by the shore, and these can be arranged through the visitor’s center. Kitayamazaki makes for a good midday rest as there is a restaurant by the observatory, where you can try the local speciality, sea urchin. Nearby, the Unosu cliffs (鵜の巣断崖) offer an equally striking view, with five almost identical cliffs jutting out into the water. In both spots you can sometimes see various birds such as cormorants, eagles, and osprey. For those without a car, Kitayamazaki can be reached with either a bus or a taxi from Tanohata station, though there is no public transport to Unosu.
If you want to take a break from the coastline, Ryusendo cave is the perfect stop. Ryusendo is one of Japan's three great limestone caves, and it's depths span 5000 meters, only 700 of which are open to the public. The cave is beautiful (but chilly) and everything is illuminated and awash with color for maximum effect. What makes it so popular is its underground rivers and lakes. The lakes are illuminated by lights placed deep underwater, creating an eerie sight that will surely stick with you. While I have visited many caves in Japan, Ryusendo is absolutely one of the best, and it is well worth the 1000 yen entrance fee. For those without a car, there are buses from Morioka (135 minutes, 2660 yen) or from Omoto station near Miyako (25 minutes, 620 yen). Both bus lines run four times a day. By car, it’s about an hour from Kitayamazaki and half an hour to Unosu.
For a day of relaxation, Jodogahama is the perfect stop. It is named after the Buddhist pure land, an apt name for the heavenly beach. While surfers will be disappointed by the calm waters, the sheltered inlet, surrounded by scenic rocks and clear water, is a beautiful place to relax and cool off. As it’s a popular spot, there are places to eat and shop by the beach as well as free deck chairs to relax on and enjoy the sun. Even if it's too cold to swim (and the water is fairly cool even in summer), there is still plenty to do, like the two boat tours. As you exit from the visitor's center, you will first reach the Miyako Jodogahama boat cruise. The cruise will take you along the coast and give you a chance to see various landmarks that are otherwise difficult to access. The coastline and small islands are beautiful so it's worth a try, and it allows you to see the coast from a different vantage point. It costs 1400 yen and there are a 4-5 departures a day; you can see the timetable outside the visitors center, where you can purchase tickets. The boats do not run from mid January to early March.
The Blue Cave cruise is located slightly further, closer to the main beach. These small boats can only accommodate a few people at a time, but their small size allows them to go places other boats cannot. The main draw is the blue cave, a stunning cave only accessed by the sea. The bright blue water seems to glow and the spectacular sight justifies that rather steep 1500 fee. You are also given crackers to feed the seagulls with, and I was very grateful for the helmets we were given as one landed on my head! This cruise does get more crowded and you may have to wait, even if you get there early. However it is close to many food stalls and, of course, the beach so it is not difficult to keep yourself occupied.
Jodogahama is an hour drive from Unosu cliffs, and this is one of the easier places to access without a car; buses run once a twice an hour from Miyako station. The Miyako fish market is also located close to the station. While Miyako was heavily damaged by the tsunami, many hotels and restaurants are up and running again so it's a good place to stop for a night or two.
Goishi Coast (碁石海岸)
In the south is the Goishi Coast. It is named after the black stones that make up the beach, which resemble black Go pieces. There are about four kilometers of walking paths around the coast, which take you to numerous observation points. After a brief walk from the visitor’s center, you can stop and listen to one of the best soundscapes in Japan at Kaminari Iwa ("Thunder Rock"), aptly named for the thunderous sounds that occur when the waves crash against the cliffs. The dramatic coastlines and channels with their roaring waves are beautiful, and it’s a wonderful place for a leisurely walk. The beach itself is equally striking due to the black stones it has instead of sand. It was without a doubt my favorite part of the Sanriku coast, and I was surprised by how quiet it was; while Kitayamazaki and Jodogahama were quite crowded, there were very few visitors here, which led to a very peaceful trip.
Goishi Coast is best accessed by car; there are buses from Hosoura station, but they only run a few times a day. Coming from Jodogama, it's takes slightly over two hours. The area is fairly quiet though there are a few places to stop for a bite, and sometimes you can take a boat tour around the area though this was not offered when I visited.
Geibikei Gorge (猊鼻渓)
While not technically a part of the Sanriku Coast, Geibikei gorge is a worthwhile stop nonetheless. It's only an hour and a half from Goishi Coast so it is easy to combine the two, and it's a short walk from Geibikei station. The gorge is spectacular, and you can explore it with a 90 minute leisurely boat ride for 1600 yen. The ride is relaxing, and the scenery is stunning; you will pass many interesting cliffs and rock formations, and you can also feed the ducks and fish from the boat. At the midway point, you can get off and explore the area for 15 minutes or so by foot. Here you can purchase small stones, which you try to throw across the river into the opening in the cliff. If you are successful, you will have good luck.
The sanriku coast is a must see for nature lovers. I fully believe it is one of the most beautiful areas in Japan. While it is a little hard to access and it requires a fair amount of driving, it is absolutely worth the effort. It’s a trip I certainly won’t forget.