How rugby is re-energising Japan’s Iwate prefecture, eight years after the tsunami

A gentle breeze ruffles the surface of Yamada Bay as our fishing boat idles among a flotilla of scallop beds. Around us, patches of water glint like signalling mirrors. Sat on deck in the mid-morning sun, only the occasional chug of a passing boat breaking the tranquillity, it’s difficult to imagine the devastation wrought here eight years earlier. 

Back then, on the afternoon of 11 March 2011, the tsunami hit. Not a foaming mega-wave like you see in movies, but an unrelenting dark mass of water that chewed and churned everything in its path. When it had finished, close to 20,000 people in Japan’s northern Tohoku region had lost their lives. 

The tsunami doesn’t get much coverage outside Japan these days, but on 25 September, when Fiji take on Uruguay in the Rugby World Cup in the town of Kamaishi – 15 miles down the coast from Yamada Bay – Tohoku will be back in the spotlight. And as I found during a trip around Iwate, one of the six prefectures in Tohoku, it won’t just be a time for remembrance. Many locals hope it will highlight both their recovery and all the region has to offer travellers.

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My time in Iwate begins in the Tono Valley, an hour inland from Kamaishi, with a day cycling around yellowing rice paddies on the trail of Tono’s colourful folk tales, which were documented in the early 1900s by folklorist Kunio Yanigata in the now-classic Tono Monogatari (Legends of Tono). The 118 legends are a mix of superstitions and myths starring creatures like the “kappa”, a cucumber-eating pond-dweller with a mischievous habit of pulling people into the water.

I meet kappa all around the valley – sometimes in the form of a menacingly wizened statue, other times a cheerfully rotund character on street signs and souvenirs – though no kappa tale is quite as juicy as the story of the farmer’s daughter that I hear in the town of Denshoen, a collection of preserved farmhouses that now serve as a craft, culture and folklore museum. The daughter, goes the tale, took a horse as her lover, much to her father’s dismay. In fact, he was so unimpressed he hung her equine beau from a mulberry tree, prompting the distraught daughter to kill herself so she and the dead horse could elope to heaven.

The attraction of travelling around Iwate for me, living in central Tokyo, isn’t just being deep in nature; it’s experiencing rural traditions. After Tono, I get more of both when I visit the 1,600m Mount Hachimantai in the far north of Iwate, a place known for its stunning autumnal colours, hiking trails and hot spring (onsen) bathing. I visit Toshichi Onsen, a rocky patch of mountainside dotted with steaming vents and milky outdoor baths that – in a bit of a throwback you sometimes find in Tohoku – include baths for nude mixed-gender bathing. I then spend the night at a traditional inn in Hachimantai’s Matsukawa Onsen area, where I have a tatami mat room, a dinner that includes grilled river fish and mountain vegetable tempura, and I end the evening soaking in a piping-hot open-air bath surrounded by reddening maples.

But it’s Kamaishi that grabs me the most. It’s while there that I venture up to Yamada Bay, where from April to October fishermen run charters during which you can sample local specialities – scallops, oysters and a chewy kind of sea squirt called hoya – pulled straight from the sea. 

From here, you can also hike Michinoku Coastal Trail, which reaches 450 miles through Tohoku, from Hachinohe in Aomori Prefecture all the way south to Soma in Fukushima Prefecture, and includes a 16-mile section that passes through Kamaishi. I walk a small part of it one afternoon and its somewhat awkward “Alps of the Ocean” tag soon makes sense, with jagged rock formations that look like miniature mountains punctuating the shore. I visit the clifftop Sekihozenji temple on one side of Kamaishi, too, where a pure-white 48.5m statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, stands guard over local fishermen. Climb the 100-plus steps inside Kannon and you get to share her sweeping bay views.

In Kamaishi, I also learn about the town’s rugby heritage; how with steel-industry backing, the “northern ironmen” of Kamaishi’s now-defunct Nippon Steel RFC won seven straight national championships in the 1970s and 1980s and how the new 6,000-seat stadium, built for the Rugby World Cup, will serve as a hub for community sports and events post-World Cup. 

Leaving more of an impact on me than anything, I find out why the Rugby World Cup coming to a town of just 35,000 matters so much to the many locals I meet. People like doctor and Kamaishi Seawaves RFC director Toshio Hamato, who lost his parents, wife and the youngest of his three daughters – just 19 months old – when the tsunami destroyed the family home. Mr Hamato uses one word that comes up time and again in the conversations I have in Kamaishi. Hope. 

“After the tsunami it felt like there was nobody and nothing left here. But having the Rugby World Cup to build towards gave us hope,” he says. “Like rugby, you get knocked down, then you get up again. When the World Cup comes, we want to show everyone who visits – and everyone around the world who has helped with our recovery – that we are up again.”

Travel essentials

British Airways and Japan Airlines fly from the UK to Tokyo from around £550 return. It’s then a short internal flight or train to Tohoku.

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