Exploring untouched Japan in Iwate Prefecture – where fishing and craft beer add the perfect touch to the Rugby World Cup™!

From the ocean to inland, on this tour I explored all over the beautiful prefecture of Iwate on the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan.

Kamaishi City, Iwate

Kamaishi City is located at the foot of the Kitakami mountains of Iwate prefecture. To the east is the Pacific Ocean, with spectacular views of the rugged coastline and the city’s four large bays. A city steeped in history, Kamaishi was the site of various samurai clan battles. In modern times it’s been rich in industry, including mining, steel production and fishing.

In recent years the city had suffered dramatically due to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The city itself was severely damaged, and many people, unfortunately, lost their lives. However, the people of Kamaishi bounced back, and now the town is thriving with business and opportunity.

These days the town is famous for Eco-Tourism and sports and commercial fishing – especially shellfish like scallops and sea urchin, both of which are highly sought-after ocean delicacies.

Kamaishi is also known locally as the “city of rugby” and will be host to this year’s Rugby World Cup™! Rugby in Kamaishi symbolises the city’s recovery from the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The stadium has been named the “Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium” in honour of the city’s spirit.

The stadium is only a short distance from downtown Kamaishi, where you can see two of the World Cup’s highly anticipated matches: Fiji versus Uruguay and Namibia versus Canada!

Sportsfishing in Iwate’s clear waters

It’s early in the morning and I had a fantastic night before where I talked to the locals about the area, the upcoming Rugby World Cup™, sampled some fine cuisine, local Japanese sake and a few beers. Maybe a few too many. We set out from our hotel and hit the road, and in no time at all we’ve come to a much-loved local fishing tour specialist: “Fishing Kaiou”. People from all over the country and from overseas come to fish in the clear waters off the coast of Iwate.

We step into the office; it’s covered wall-to-wall in fishing lures and all kinds of things which I don’t know the name of, but before I could feel insecure about my ability to fish I was greeted by a large burly man with a big smile: the captain. And by his side a young lady, Ms Mirei, who asked me whether I have any experience fishing or not. “Yes, I have a little, but I haven’t been on a boat for a long time.” I said. “No problem! She’ll be teaching you today!” replied the captain, motioning to the young lady who also just gave me some medicine to prevent seasickness.

We head to the pier, and it’s teeming with busy fishermen. We pass crates of Sea-urchin and other delicacies. I wonder aloud what we’ll fish on this trip. “Mostly Karei,” says the captain. Karei is a type of bottom dwelling flounder quite common to these waters. I was surprised to learn that the highly-prized Japanese tuna are also caught in these waters!

It’s a beautiful day. There’s a light breeze and the ocean is calm. After thirty or so minutes we’ve arrived at the fishing grounds. We use a mix of live and dry bait. “You have to be careful hooking the live bait,” Ms Mirei says. “These things can bite!” Luckily I get the bait hooked on the first go and I get instructions on how to hold the rod, as well as how to move it up and down. This makes the bait more appealing to the fish. And boy were they right! In no time I’ve hooked something and reel it up. To everyone’s surprise, it wasn’t a flounder, but an “Ainame” – known in English as Fat Greenling. A very valuable fish! I ended up catching one more fat greenling along with a nice flounder. I could’ve stayed out on the water all day, but there’s more of Kamaishi and Iwate to explore!

Back on dry land the captain asks me what I’d like to do with the fish. I can’t take them home so he suggests having them cooked at a restaurant for dinner tonight! In no time at all he’s on the phone arranging a reservation for our group. He suggests cooking the fish rather than eating it raw, like sashimi. “To enjoy good sashimi, the fish needs to be allowed a few days to mature.” I thank my generous hosts and head back in to town.

It’s lunch time in Kamaishi and we’re spoiled for choice! Near the train station you can enjoy fresh seafood at the fish market or head to one of the many cafes that are in town. But I’m interested in trying a Kamaishi staple: Ramen!

Kamaishi Ramen is a regional variety exclusive to Kamaishi City! It is said that the unique ingredient, skinny noodles, can be traced back to the impatience of local fisherman: Being hungry from a day or night on the high seas, they wanted their ramen more quickly!

Kamaishi Ramen consists of a light soy sauce-based soup and slices of delicate, juicy pork. Not all shops are alike, though, with some incorporating local shellfish and even chilli and vegetables. One thing is the same, however, and that is the thin wavy noodles.

With a smile and a belly full of noodles I head on to the next part of my adventure.

Kamaishi Daikannon and rural Tono

While walking around Kamaishi you may spot a huge white statue facing the Pacific Ocean. It is known as the Kamaishi Daikannon and it overlooks the Kamaishi Bay. It is a huge statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. She is holding a fish and stands facing out to sea to watch over the sailors and fishermen and to ensure a bountiful catch.

The statue stands almost fifty meters tall. From where the Kannon can be seen holding a fish is an observation deck with an unspoiled view of the city and pacific ocean. Situated almost 12 stories high, it’s the perfect way to burn off the ramen lunch!

After coming back down to earth, you can take a stroll around the grounds, make a prayer or have your fortune foretold. There is something so peaceful about this place that you’ll feel refreshed and revitalised.

Within one of the wings is an especially beautiful exhibit that contains Buddhist statues, some of which were more than one thousand years old!

It’s time to bid goodbye to Kamaishi City for a short while as we head inland to one of the most talked-about towns in Iwate prefecture: Tono. Known as “the timeless rural heart of Japan”, Tono is famous for its timeless landscape that is reminiscent of feudal Japan.

The town was made famous for its thoroughbred horses, prized by the Samurai. It is also known as the folklore heart of Japan, and in 1901 a local Tono resident compiled The Legends of Tono, a book full of exciting and frightening tales of ghosts and monsters. It is a literary masterpiece! Of particular notes are the stories about the Kappa, an amphibious green demon with webbed feet that resides in the rivers around town. They’re known to have quite an affinity for cucumbers and Sumo! So, if you find yourself facing one, offer a tasty cucumber or challenge it to a Sumo match! If you plan on hunting them, be sure to drop by the local souvenir shop to pick up a hunting licence! You do not want to be caught without one!

However, we’re not after Kappa. We’re after something delicious and juicy: Genghis Khan lamb BBQ! More commonly written as Jingisukan and having nothing to do with the great Khan himself.

How to enjoy Jingisukan

Some shops get very smoky, so it’s a good idea to put your jacket and belongings in the plastic bag provided. You’ll also get messy, so I recommend putting on the plastic bib. Thick cuts of lamb or mutton are grilled with veggies on a skillet resembling a Mongol warrior’s helmet. The ingredients are cooked until tender and can then be dipped in tare, a spicy soy-based sauce made with ginger, grated apple, and onion. This food is perfect with a beer! And speaking of beer it’s time to head to our final destination: a local craft beer shop, where we sit down and reflect on what a fantastic trip today was!

Tono in recent years has become a centre for craft beer and people from all over the country come to learn more about the beer brewing process and about Tono’s unique variety of hop: Tono hops. Tono has been growing hops used by big beer companies for more than fifty years. They then decided to increase tourism to the area by crafting their own unique beer, which also uses the freshest water from the mountain feed rivers.

Accompanying our beers are some delicious side dishes using locally grown ingredients. We take in the atmosphere of mostly out-of-town people, and we can see the delight in their faces. Tono beer is trying something different, and it tastes great. If you want you can also purchase a specially crafted thermos to take your beer home with you! Perfect for the train ride back to Kamaishi and the fish I caught today waiting for us.

Kamaishi and the nearby sea and town of Tono offer a unique experience that can only be enjoyed here. The people, the food, the tours will add an excellent experience to your Rugby World Cup™ adventure!