Journey along the Joban Line Part 1: Discover Ibaraki, Iwaki, and more!
Have you ridden the Joban Line (常磐線 Jо̄ban-sen) before? Passing mainly through the coastal areas of Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県 Ibaraki-ken) and Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken), the name “Joban” (常磐 Jо̄ban) combines the first characters of the former provinces of Hitachi (常陸) and Iwaki (磐城), which are parts of modern-day Ibaraki, Fukushima, and Miyagi. The 344km-long Joban Line facilitates convenient travel between Tokyo and Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture (宮城県 Miyagi-ken).
The Joban Line (in yellow). (Image credit: JR East, 東北観光推進機構, 茨城県庁)
When you travel from Tokyo to Sendai, you probably take the shinkansen, bypassing Ibaraki and Fukushima, don’t you? The next time you visit Japan, we highly recommend travelling along the Joban Line and spending a few days to explore the fun spots, beautiful nature, and delightful eats that await you!
In this first part of a 2-part series, we’ll check out the amazing things to see and do along the Joban Line. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we check out fantastic seafood and other delicious thing to eat!
A brief introduction of the Joban Line’s recovery
E657 series train vehicle used for the Limited Express Hitachi. (Image credit: JR East)
When riding the Joban Line, for a faster trip you can take the Limited Express Hitachi, which runs between Shinagawa Station and Sendai Station, with some shorter services ending at Iwaki Station instead. The Limited Express Hitachi only resumed its full Tokyo–Sendai services in March 2020, as areas along the Joban Line sustained damage in 2011.
In March 2011, a powerful earthquake occurred off the coast of the Tohoku region, triggering a devastating tsunami that pummelled the coastline and destroyed thousands of homes, buildings, and railway tracks. The tsunami also disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, causing a nuclear accident.
As parts of the Joban Line were part of a designated no-go zone in Fukushima due to high levels of radiation, it was a long wait until radiation levels dropped to a safe level to start carrying out repair work along the broken stretch of the Joban Line. A 20.8km section between Tomioka Station and Namie Station remained closed for 9 years, but finally reopened in March 2020. Evacuation orders have also been lifted for these stations.
At long last, the entire Joban Line is fully operational again! Let’s check out some of the recommended places and seasonal sights that you can access from train stations along this line.
A garden to enjoy together: Kairakuen
To start off, let’s check out a charming place in Mito (水戸市 Mito-shi), the prefectural capital of Ibaraki. You cannot talk about Mito without mentioning Kairakuen (偕楽園), one of Japan’s Three Great Landscape Gardens (日本三名園 Nihon Sanmeien). As its name suggests, "Kairakuen" means “garden to be enjoyed together”, and was built with the intention for public enjoyment.
Kairakuen is best known for its plum blossoms. (Image credit: 茨城県庁 and 茨城県観光物産協会)
Kairakuen is most famous for its beautiful and delicate plum blossoms (梅 ume), which signal the beginning of spring. The garden has 3,000 plum trees in 100 varieties, and holds the annual Plum Blossom Festival (梅まつり ume matsuri) from mid-February to mid-March. During this period there is even a special train station, Kairakuen Station (偕楽園駅), that operates for the convenience of the public!
Address: 1-3-3 Tokiwacho Mito,Ibaraki 310-0033
Access: Right by JR Kairakuen Station (偕楽園駅) (this station only operates during the Plum Blossom Festival period). Otherwise, from JR Mito Station (水戸駅), take a 15-minute bus ride and get off at the Kairakuen-mae (偕楽園前) bus stop.
Opening hours: 06:00–18:00
Admission fee: ¥300/adult
Hitachi Seaside Park, a year-round floral paradise
Can’t get enough of pretty flowers? Check out Hitachi Seaside Park (ひたち海浜公園 Hitachi Kaihin Kо̄en), also in Ibaraki Prefecture, where a variety of colourful flowers bloom year round.
Enjoy blue nemophila in spring. (Image credit: 茨城県庁)
If you can only visit once, I highly recommend going during the nemophila (ネモフィラ nemofira) season. From mid-April to early-May, the park’s Miharashi-no-oka Hill (みはらしの丘) turns onto a dreamy scene reminiscent of a fantasy, as it is blanketed with 4.5 million of these beautiful little blue flowers. With a colour similar to the sky, the sight of these pretty blue blossoms together with the azure skies is fantasy-like and calming; no wonder it continues to gain popularity!
Enjoy vibrant red kochia and pink cosmos in autumn. (Image credit: 茨城県庁)
If you cannot make it during spring, how about autumn? Another amazing scenery is that of kochia (コキア kokia), also known as summer cypress. Growing in round shrubs, they start off a bright green in summer (mid-July to late September), gradually turn a vibrant red in autumn (mid-October), and fade to a yellowish-brown in late October.
While the kochia covering Miharashi-no-oka Hill are already stunning on their own, bright cosmos flowers in varying shades of pink also bloom in the fields nearby, creating warm and colourful scenery that is made even more attractive when the skies are blue.
Hitachi Seaside Park (ひたち海浜公園)
Address: 605-4 Onuma-aza, Mawatari, Hitachinaka, Ibaraki 312-0012
Access: 25-minute bus ride from JR Katsuta Station (勝田駅)
Opening hours: 09:30–17:00
Admission fee: Varies depending on season
Explore the underwater world at Aquamarine Fukushima
Next, we head over to Iwaki (いわき市 Iwaki-shi), Fukushima Prefecture’s largest city. Our first stop? Aquamarine Fukushima (アクアマリンふくしま Akuramarin Fukushima), Tohoku’s largest aquarium.
Observe marine life up close. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
If you are a fan of aquariums, you definitely can’t miss Aquamarine Fukushima. This aquarium takes good care of reproducing the environment where their creatures live, and has fantastic and detailed exhibitions that focus on environmental education and the evolution of marine life.
Aquamarine Fukushima wants to encourage visitors to think about the future of mankind and the earth through learning about the ocean, as well as to realise the importance of protecting our natural environment. As an aquarium-lover and Environmental Engineering major, this is one place I’d love to visit the next time I have the chance to go to Japan.
Aquamarine Fukushima is Tohoku’s largest aquarium. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Located on the coast of Onahama (小名浜), Aquamarine Fukushima has distinctive architecture, such as a glass-domed roof that allows plenty of natural light into the building. Its highlight is undoubtedly the Shiome Sea (潮目の海 shiome-no-umi) tank, which features a triangular tunnel where you can observe the different marine life in the Kuroshio and Oyashio Currents.
Aquamarine Fukushima (アクアマリンふくしま)
Address: 50 Tatsumi-cho, Onahama, Iwak-shi, Fukushima 971-8101
Access: From JR Izumi Station (泉駅), take a 10-minute bus ride to the Shisho-iriguchi bus stop (支所入口). The aquarium is a 15-minute walk from the bus stop.
Opening hours: 9:00–17:30 (21 March–30 November) / 9:00–17:00 (1 December–20 March)
Admission fee: ¥1,850/adult, ¥900/child (elementary to high school students), free for children below elementary school age
Seafood galore at Iwaki Lalamew
Perhaps you prefer eating fish to observing them in an aquarium, or maybe you enjoy both? If so, head on over to the nearby Iwaki Lalamew (いわき・ら・ら・ミュウ Iwaki ra ra myū), a seafood market where you can buy fresh seafood products and dine on sumptuous seafood.
Shop for and eat fresh seafood at Lalamew. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
At Iwaki Lalamew, it is hoped that visitors can enjoy Iwaki’s wonderful local products and get tourism information for their visit to Iwaki. The facility has six zones spread over two floors, but the Dining Zone is where you want to be if you’re feeling hungry. At the restaurants, you can enjoy seasonal seafood while gazing at an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean. If you want to get closer to the ocean, how about taking a 50-minute pleasure boat ride on the Onahama Day Cruise (小名浜デイクルーズ)? The boarding pier is right outside Lalamew.
Fukushima’s coast faces the Pacific Ocean, and is where the warm Kuroshio Current mixes with the cold Oyashio Current. This creates some of the most conducive conditions for a variety of marine life to thrive, and also means a lot of delicious seafood. To find out what seafood Iwaki is famous for, stay tuned for Part 2 of this Joban Line series!
Iwaki Lalamew (いわき・ら・ら・ミュウ)
Address: 43-1, Aza Tatsumi-cho, Onahama, Iwaki-shi, Fukushima 971-8101
Access: From JR Izumi Station (泉駅), take a 20-minute bus ride to the Onohama Annaisho bus stop (小名浜案内所). Iwaki Lalamew is a 7-minute walk from the bus stop.
Opening hours: Depends on the individual shops, generally 9:00–18:00 for shops, and 10:00–18:00 for dining outlets.
Relax at one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, Yumoto Onsen
For centuries, Iwaki has been known for its healing hot springs at Yumoto Onsen (湯本温泉). With a history of over 1,000 years, Yumoto Onsen is one of Japan’s Three Ancient Hot Springs (日本三古湯 Nihon sankotо̄), with the other two being Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture.
Yumoto Onsen’s healing hot spring waters possess many uses. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Boasting one of the highest water output rates in the world at 5 tons per minute, Yumoto Onsen has sulfur-rich waters that are said to contain plenty of minerals that are good for the skin. Other than being well-loved for their skin-beautifying properties, the waters are also believed to aid in lowering blood pressure, as well as keeping the body warm.
Hot springs for horses
Yumoto Onsen’s hot spring waters are used for horse rehabilitation. (Image credit: JRA競走馬リハビリテーションセンター)
Something interesting about Yumoto Onsen: its healing waters are used not only by people, but also by horses! For a long period of time, Yumoto has had a close relationship with horses. The JRA Racehorse Rehabilitation Center is the only facility in Japan provides rehabilitation and treatment for active racehorses, offering not just physiotherapy, but also hot spring therapy.
The Center was started as Yumoto Onsen has an abundance of hot spring water, and its location is ideal—close to the Kanto area where there are many racetracks. The Japan Racing Association (JRA) was also able to secure a large plot of land in the area to build the rehabilitation facility. If you visit the Center on weekday mornings, you might be able to observe the horses soaking in the hot springs!
JRA Racehorse Rehabilitation Center (JRA競走馬リハビリテーションセンター)
Address: 71 Uenohara, Joban Shiratori-machi, Iwaki-shi, Fukushima 972-8325
Access: 15-minute drive from JR Yumoto Station (湯本駅)
Visiting hours: 8:00–11:00 (weekdays and Saturdays) / 13:30–14:00 (summer weekdays only)
Admission fee: Free
Japan’s first theme park and Hawaii in Japan?! Spa Resort Hawaiians
Until the 1960s, Iwaki thrived as a coalmining town, with the largest coalmine on mainland Japan. Back then, coal was regarded as “black diamonds”, and the majority of Iwaki’s population was involved in coalmining. However, as the world progressed and oil became the preferred energy source, coalmining gradually ran out of business, and many people were losing their livelihoods.
Spa Resort Hawaiians: Japan’s first theme park. (Image credit: Spa Resort Hawaiians)
Facing a crisis, an idea was hatched in an attempt to provide alternative employment opportunities for the local community, as well as a new source of income for the town—establish a resort facility that made use of the heat and water from the hot springs that were abundant underground. Previously, Yumoto Onsen’s hot spring waters were an obstruction to coalmining, and a lot of money had to be spent to pump it away from the mines. Rather than spending money to remove the water, why not harness and embrace it instead?
Thus, in 1966, the Joban Hawaiian Center opened as Japan’s first theme park. Back then, Japan had just started to open up to overseas travel, and Hawaii was seen as a dream destination—an island paradise admired by many. The daughters of former coalminers started receiving dance training, as the highlight of the new Hawaiian-themed resort facility was to be a hula dance show.
Various dance shows at Spa Resort Hawaiians. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
In 1990, the Joban Hawaiian Center was renamed Spa Resort Hawaiians (スパリゾートハワイアンズ Supa Rizо̄to Hawaianzu). Although they started off with hula dance, the performances and shows have now expanded to include energetic Tahitian dances, breath-taking Samoan-style fire knife dances by male performers, and Maori dances from New Zealand. Even today, the thrilling and tantalising dance shows are the greatest draw of Spa Resort Hawaiians!
After the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant accident, Spa Resort Hawaiians sustained damage from the earthquake, and only fully reopened in February 2012. During this period, the resort’s hula dancers went on a nationwide tour to promote disaster recovery efforts, encouraging evacuees and inviting people to visit Iwaki. Continuing the fighting spirit of the first-generation hula girls who stepped up to revive their declining coalmining town, the modern-day hula girls were seen as symbols of hope for recovery, and were honoured with a tourism commendation.
Huge variety of pools at Spa Resort Hawaiians. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Other than the exciting dance performances, Spa Resort Hawaiians is well-known for its large indoor and outdoor water parks that offer a wide variety of baths, pools, and fun with water. In addition to the use in its bath and spa facilities, the resort also uses hot spring water from Yumoto Onsen in its pools, enabling visitors to experience the hot spring water’s beneficial effects while having fun in the pool.
Here, you can enjoy summer every day, as the indoor facility is set at 28ºC all year round. Spa Resort Hawaiians is also home to unique facilities, such as the world’s largest open-air bath, an aquarium pool where visitors can swim with fishes, record-holding waterslides, and more.
Spa Resort Hawaiians (スパリゾートハワイアンズ)
Address: 50, Warabidaira, Fujiwaramachi, Joban, Iwaki-shi, Fukushima 972-8326
Access: 15-minute bus ride by free shuttle bus from JR Yumoto Station (湯本駅)
Admission fee (1-day pass for the Water Park, Spring Park, Edo-Jowa Yoichi, and Spa Garden Pareo):
¥3,570/adult (middle school and above)
¥2,250/child (elementary school)
¥1,640/toddler (3 years old until below elementary school age)
Various discounts available, such as later entry (after 15:00, after 18:00), overnight guests, handicapped persons, groups, etc.
Hula Girls movie, based on a true story
The movie Hula Girls is based on the story of the Joban Hawaiian Center, the predecessor of Spa Resort Hawaiians. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
In 2006, the movie “Hula Girls” (フラガール fura gāru) was released. The film is based on the events leading up to the launch of the Joban Hawaiian Center, and tells the story of how the local women devoted themselves to learning hula dancing, something they had no prior experience in, in order to save their town.
It is a heart-warming and inspiring film showcasing the tenacity of the human spirit, and I highly recommend watching it. The film was critically acclaimed during its release, and went on to win many awards in Japan.
Coming soon: Hula Fulla Dance animated movie
Hula Fulla Dance’s protagonist, Natsunagi Hiwa. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Due to the prominence of Spa Resort Hawaiians, Iwaki is often referred to as the Hawaii of Tohoku (東北のハワイ), and the resort’s dancers are often referred to as “hula girls”. Set in Iwaki, the original animated movie “Hula Fulla Dance” (フラ・フラダンス fura fura dansu) tells the story of Natsunagi Hiwa, a young girl who chose to work as a hula girl. It shows Hiwa’s growth as she navigates her new job and forges new friendships with her fellow hula girls. The movie is slated to be released in theatres in Japan on 3 December 2021.
Hula okami: Dancing hula in kimono
Hula okami are known for dancing hula in kimono. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Hula has now become an integral part of Iwaki’s image, and something unique you can experience is the hula okami (フラ女将) at Yumoto Onsen. Okami are the lady bosses of hot spring inns (温泉旅館 onsen ryokan). Taking inspiration from Spa Resort Hawaiians’ hula girls, okami in Yumoto Onsen formed their own hula group in 2015 to revitalise their hot spring town. Other than providing hospitality and guidance about Iwaki’s history and sightseeing spots, hula okami are known for dancing hula while wearing kimono!
A National Treasure: Shiramizu Amidado
Just few kilometres north of Spa Resort Hawaiians, we have Ganjoji Temple (願成寺 Ganjо̄ji), which is said to have been built in 1160 by Princess Tokuhime as a memorial temple for her husband Iwaki Norimichi, a lord of the former Iwaki Province.
Shiramizu Amidado stands in a Pure Land style garden, and is stunning during autumn illuminations. (Image credit: 福島県観光物産交流協会)
Part of the Ganjoji Temple complex, Shiramizu Amidado (白水阿弥陀堂 Shiramizu Amidadо̄) is a beautiful Buddhist hall standing in a Pure Land-style garden (浄土庭園 jо̄do teien), a style that was popular during the Heian Period (794–1185). Shiramizu Amidado was designated as a National Treasure (国宝 kokuhо̄) in 1946, and enshrines rare statues of the Amitabha Triad (阿弥陀三尊) and Jikoku・Tamonten (持国・多聞天), both of which are Important Cultural Properties.
The temple grounds are a popular spot for enjoying flowers such as plum blossoms, irises, and lotuses, as well as autumn foliage. The night illumination during autumn is exceptionally stunning!
Shiramizu Amidado (白水阿弥陀堂)
Address: 219 Hirohata, Uchigo Shiramizu-machi, Iwaki-shi, Fukushima 973-840
Access: 5-minute bus ride or 30-minute walk from JR Uchigō Station（内郷駅), or 25-minute bus ride from JR Iwaki Station (いわき駅).
Opening hours: 8:30–16:00 (April–October) / 8:30–15:30 (November–March)
The temple is closed on the fourth Wednesday of the month, on Setsubun, during the Obon holidays, during the spring and autumn equinox, on the second Wednesday and Thursday of December, and during the year-end period (25–31 December). The temple may also be closed when the weather is bad, as well as during special religious events.
Admission fee: ¥500/adult
Stroll under a sakura tunnel at Yonomori
Further along the Joban Line, in Tomioka (富岡町 Tomioka-chо̄) is a road lined with beautiful someiyoshino cherry blossom (桜 sakura) trees on both sides, creating a pink tunnel known as the Yonomori Sakura Tunnel (夜の森桜トンネル). Many of trees were planted over 80 years ago, with the first ones being planted during the Meiji Period (1868–1912). The sakura trees are planted over a 2.2km stretch, but currently only an 800m section is accessible to the public.
Yonomori’s beautiful sakura tunnel. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Usually blooming from early April to mid-April, the Yonomori Sakura Tunnel is only a short walk from JR Yonomori Station (夜ノ森駅), which was one of the affected stations that finally reopened in March 2020. Evacuation orders for Tomioka were lifted in 2017, and many people continued to visit this beloved cherry blossom viewing spot after the 2011 disaster.
During the sakura festival, the road is closed to vehicles from 9:00–15:00, making it a pedestrian paradise. There are also light ups in during the evenings, which start the night before the festival.
Yonomori Sakura Tunnel (夜の森桜トンネル)
Address: Tomioka-cho, Futaba-gun, Fukushima
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Yonomori Station (夜ノ森駅)
Viewing period: early to mid-April (varies each year)
Admission fee: Free
Samurai spirit and horse races at the Soma Nomaoi festival
Held on the last Saturday, Sunday and Monday of July in Minamisoma City, Soma Nomaoi (相馬野馬追 Sо̄ma Nomaoi) is a traditional samurai horse-racing festival with over a 1,000-year history dating back to the Heian Period.
Hundreds of participants wear samurai armour and ride horses. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
The Soma (相馬 Sо̄ma) district is famous as a horse-breeding region; its name even contains the kanji character for horse (馬)! “Nomaoi” literally means “wild horse chase”, and the festival was started as a military exercise for samurai to catch horses, in order to keep their fighting skills sharp. Now, Soma Nomaoi is an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
The exciting Kacchu Keiba horse race. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
During the festival, hundreds of participants put on elaborate samurai armour and parade through the city. The most exciting events however, occur on the second day. A must-see is the exhilarating Kacchu Keiba horse race (甲冑競馬 Kacchū Keiba), where horsemen donning full battle gear, including swords, race their horses over a distance of 1,000m with the roaring cheers of the crowd in the background.
Another highlight is the battle for the sacred flags (神旗争奪戦 Shinki Sōdatsu-sen) in which hundreds of horsemen clad in samurai outfits compete to catch sacred flags that have been shot high into the air.
A colourful and thrilling festival, Soma Nomaoi offers visitors the unique opportunity to see faithfully replicated samurai armour and battle flags, so do check it out if you are visiting during late July!
Soma Nomaoi (相馬野馬追)
Address: Hibarigahara festival grounds, 4-13-27 Haramachiku Hashimoto-cho, Minamisoma, Fukushima 975-0006
Access: 10-minute taxi ride from JR Haranomachi Station (原ノ町). A free shuttle bus runs from JR Haranomachi Station to the Hibarigahara festival grounds on the second day of the festival.
Festival dates: Last Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of July
Experience a relaxing horse ride at Odaka
If you want to get up close with horses but cannot make it to Minamisoma to catch Soma Nomaoi, don’t worry, you can still try out riding horses all year round with Horse Value in Odaka (小高), which is also in Minamisoma.
Try riding a horse through the city or along the coast. (Image credit: Horse Value)
Horse Value was started in 2020 to increase the social value of horses, and lets customers experience relaxing horse rides. If you are short on time, you can opt for the short stroll through Odaka’s streets (小高うまさんぽ Odaka Uma Sanpo). If you have more time to spare, you can try the hour-long coastal trekking (海岸トレッキング kaigan torekkingu) or forest trekking (森林トレッキング shinrin torekkingu) courses, where you can explore amazing natural scenery while on horseback!
Address: Depends on riding course
Prior reservations are required for all riding courses.
Odaka Uma Sanpo Course: ¥4,400/pax, nearest station: JR Odaka Station (小高駅)
Coastal Trekking Course: ¥15,000/pax, nearest station: JR Kashima Station (鹿島駅)
Forest Trekking Course: ¥11,000/pax, nearest station: JR Iwakiо̄ta Station (磐城太田駅)
Sunflowers galore at the Yamamoto Sunflower Festival
Further along the Joban Line—near JR Sakamoto Station (坂元駅) in the southern part of Miyagi Prefecture—is Yamamoto Town, where a sunflower festival has been gaining attention.
Sunflowers at the Yamamoto Sunflower Festival. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)
Started in 2018, the Yamamoto Sunflower Festival (やまもとひまわり祭り Yamamoto Himawari Matsuri) celebrates its fourth edition this year. The area used to be farmland, but the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011 damaged it, and rendered it unsuitable for growing crops.
In order to improve the soil fertility of the damaged land, the people of Yamamoto Town worked hard and started the sunflower field. It is hoped that in a few years, the soil will become suitable for growing crops again. The sunflower field comes alive in summer, welcoming visitors with around 2 million bright and cheerful sunflowers that create a seemingly endless yellow carpet stretching into the horizon!
Yamamoto Sunflower Festival (やまもとひまわり祭り)
Address: Nakahama, Sakamoto, Yamamoto, Watari, Miyagi
Access: From JR Sakamoto Station (坂元駅), take a 5-minute taxi ride to the festival site.
Viewing period: early to late August (varies each year)
Admission fee: Free
The Joban Line connects Tokyo with Sendai, passing through delightful places in Ibaraki Prefecture, Fukushima Prefecture’s Hamadori region, and the southern part of Miyagi Prefecture. Tons of fun and exciting experiences await you, so when travel to Japan is possible again, let’s hop aboard a train and go on a journey along the Joban Line! Check out Part 2 of this series where we the introduce delicious food you can enjoy along the Joban Line.
JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are thinking of exploring the Joban Line, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥20,000, it offers considerable savings. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
Header image credit: 東北観光推進機構 and 茨城県庁