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San-sational Sanriku Part 1: 3 reasons to visit this rugged ria coastline

San-sational Sanriku Part 1: 3 reasons to visit this rugged ria coastline

The Sanriku Coast (三陸海岸 Sanriku-kaigan) is a 600km-long coastal region in Tohoku stretching from Aomori Prefecture through Iwate Prefecture and until Miyagi Prefecture. You might think that the rugged coastline makes it hard to get around, but thanks to the efforts of the local residents and businesses, the area is well-served by local railways and bus networks that connect the coastal communities.

 

In this series we will explore three compelling reasons to take a trip to the Sanriku Coast: the scenery, the food, and to support recovery efforts. These are not mutually exclusive; in fact, your trip would most likely be a combination of all three!

 

Though blessed with a plethora of enchanting natural scenery and bountiful seafood, let us not forget that barely a few years ago, much of the Sanriku Coast was badly battered by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (東日本大震災 Higashi-nihon daishinsai). If you can, stop by local facilities along your trip to support the recovery efforts. Simply staying a night or having a meal would help the local community, and more importantly, let them know that you have not forgotten about them, and that you are cheering them on.

 

Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series dedicated to tourism along the Sanriku Coast. Part 1 will focus on travelling by the Sanriku Railway Rias Line, while Part 2 will focus on recovery and reconstruction efforts in the area.

 

The Sanriku Railway Rias Line: a symbol of hope and resilience

The Sanriku Railway Rias Line offers scenic views as it travels along the Sanriku Coast. (Image credit: Sanriku Railway)

 

Spanning 163km from Kuji Station (久慈駅) in the north to Sakari Station (盛駅) in the south, the Sanriku Railway Rias Line (三陸鉄道リアス線 Sanriku Tetsudо̄ Riasu-sen) runs along the rugged ria coast of Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken).

 

Fun fact: Sanriku Railway (三陸鉄道 Sanriku Tetsudо̄ ) is often referred to as "Santetsu" in Japanese, a short form of its Japanese name.

 

Sanriku’s craggy coastline. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

The Sanriku Coast has a craggy coastline characterised by multiple rias—narrow coastal inlets forming prominent ridges. The area is so rugged, that over 80 tunnels had to be drilled through the coast to build the railway.

 

Railway lines along the Sanriku Coast in Iwate. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The Sanriku Railway Rias Line used to be made up of three lines:

  • Kuji to Miyako: Sanriku Railway Kita-Rias Line (北リアス線)
  • Miyako to Kamaishi: JR East Yamada Line (山田線)
  • Kamaishi to Sakari: Sanriku Railway Minami-Rias Line (南リアス線)

 

In March 2011, a powerful tsunami pummelled the Sanriku Coast, causing widespread damage to the railway—tracks, stations, bridges, and more. However, as the railway played such an important role in the daily lives of the coastal community, a decision was made to have less-damaged sections of the lines up and running just 5 days after the disaster. Eventually, the entire Kita-Rias and Minami-Rias Lines were fully reopened by April 2014.

 

After 8 years, the railway section between Miyako Station (宮古駅) and Kamaishi Station (釜石駅), which was one of the most heavily damaged during the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, finally resumed services in March 2019. Although building a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system would have been faster, after discussions with the local community, JR East decided to restore the line. Almost all of the railway tracks needed to be rebuilt from scratch, and what took the longest was considering where to rebuild them—building in the same place where the old tracks used to be might make the line susceptible to being destroyed by natural disasters again, so alternative routes had to be considered.

 

It took almost 8 years to rebuild the tracks and stations, and together with the service resumption, JR East ceded operations of the section to Sanriku Railway, and the entire continuous line from Kuji to Sakari became known as the Sanriku Railway Rias Line. After its opening, the Sanriku Railway Rias Line has become Japan’s longest third sector railway. Let’s take a trip on this line and explore the best of what Sanriku has to offer!

 

Uni bento at Kuji Station

The exteriors of Sanriku Railway Kuji Station and JR Kuji Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

At the northern end of the Rias Line is Kuji Station (久慈駅), which connects Sanriku Railway with the JR Hachinohe Line. Kuji is well-known as the stage for Amachan, a 2013 NHK morning drama about the ama of the Kosode Coast. Ama (海女) are female free divers who catch uni (うに sea urchin), awabi (アワビ abalone), and other shells from the sea. Kuji is known for producing uni, and the exterior of JR Kuji Station even features these prickly delicacies.

 

The special uni bento from Rias Tei. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Before setting off on your railway journey, don’t miss your chance to grab the special uni bentо̄ (うに弁当 sea urchin lunch box) from Rias Tei (リアス亭), a small dining area within Sanriku Railway Kuji Station.

 

The box may look unassuming, but open the bento and you will be greeted with a gleaming golden layer of fresh uni waiting to be devoured! Each bento contains 5–6 sea urchins’ worth of uni, and underneath is tasty rice simmered in umami-filled uni broth. Only 20 boxes are for sale each day, so come early to avoid disappointment!

 

Scenic viewpoint on the Osawa Bridge

Train slowing down at the Osawa Bridge. (Image credit: Sanriku Railway)

 

Along the train ride on the Rias Line, you will be greeted by stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. One particularly scenic spot is the section between Horinai Station (堀内駅) and Shiraikaigan Station (白井海岸駅), where the train will slow down along the Osawa Bridge (大沢橋梁 О̄sawa kyо̄ryо̄) for passengers to appreciate the view and take photos.

 

Horinai Station overlooks the Pacific Ocean. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Fun facts: If you’re a fan of the NHK drama Amachan, then you might feel that Horinai Station looks familiar…That’s right, Horinai Station was used as the location for the drama’s fictional “Sodegahama Station”. With the fishing ports and Pacific Ocean right in front of the station, close-up views of the Sanriku Coastline from Horinai Station are second to none.

 

On the other hand, its neighbouring station, Shiraikaigan Station, has a different claim to fame. The unmanned Shiraikaigan Station was ranked #10 on the 2020 list of the “Most Secluded Stations of Japan” (秘境駅 Hikyо̄-eki), and is a well-known stop amongst train photography fans and rail enthusiasts.

 

Get up close to the ria coastline at Kitayamazaki

Spectacular cliffs at Kitayamazaki. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Don’t just look at the scenery from afar, get up closer! One of the most beautiful sections of the entire ria coastline is at Kitayamazaki (北山崎). Kitayamazaki is considered by many to be the most spectacular section of the ria coastline, and it’s easy to see why. Towering 200m-high cliffs line an 8km stretch of coastline, providing incredible and dramatic views, which have earned Kitayamazaki the nickname of "Alps of the Sea" (海のアルプス Umi no arupusu). There are two ways to enjoy the view here: from high up, and from down below.

 

To enjoy an aerial view, head to the Kitayamazaki Observatory (北山崎展望台 Kitayamzaki Tenbо̄dai), which has three deck levels for you to soak in the sights. For the more able-bodied, you can go down 736 steps to reach sea level.  Kitayamazaki Observatory can be reached via a 10-minute taxi ride from Tanohata Station (田野畑駅) on the Sanriku Railway Rias Line.

 

If you’d like to get even closer, take a ride on the Kitayamazaki Cliff Cruise (北山崎断崖クルーズ観光船 Kitayamazaki dangai kurūzu kankō-sen), a sightseeing boat that will bring you out to the sea on a 50-minute ride. Staring up at the soaring cliffs from out in the sea…what a sight to behold! The cruise departs from Shimanokoshi Port, which is a 10-minute walk from Shimanokoshi Station (島越駅) on the Sanriku Railway Rias Line.

 

Clear waters at Jodogahama

Continuing along the Rias Line, you will reach what is perhaps one of the busiest stations along the line: Miyako Station (宮古駅). This place is famous for its fish market, which I will talk more about in the food section later.

 

Miyako Station is connected to the JR Yamada Line, which links to Iwate's prefectural capital of Morioka, and is the gateway to Jodogahama, one of the most scenic places along the Sanriku Coastline.

 

The beautiful shores of Jodogahama Beach. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

A 15-minute bus ride from Miyako Station is Jodogahama Beach (浄土ヶ浜 Jо̄dogahama), arguably one of the most beautiful spots in Iwate. It is said that this beach was as beautiful as the Buddhist Paradise (浄土 Jо̄do) and was thus named Jodogahama, which translates to “Pure Land Beach”. Here you can enjoy a breathtaking panorama of calm blue waters surrounding the white pebble shoreline, contrasting with the jagged rock formations in the ocean.

 

Jodogahama is also part of the Michinoku Coastal Trail, which I will talk more about in the second part of this series focusing on the recovery and reconstruction efforts in Sanriku.

 

Bay views at Kamaishi

After Miyako, the next major station along the line is Kamashi, where you can transfer to the JR Kamaishi Line. Like Miyako, Kamaishi also relies heavily on the fishing industry, and you can find the local fish market, Sunfish Kamaishi, right next to the station.

 

The Kamaishi Daikannon overlooks Kamaishi Bay. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

While Miyako has Jodogahama, named after the Buddhist Paradise, and Kamaishi has the Kamaishi Daikannon (釜石大観音), a large statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. The 48.5m statue holds fish in her arms, and looks over Kamaishi Bay, watching over sailors and fishermen. For a small fee, you can even enter the statue, and take in a panoramic view of Kamaishi Bay. The Kamaishi Daikannon is a 10-minute taxi ride from Kamaishi Station.

 

In addition to fishing, Kamaishi is also known for its iron and steel works. Did you know? Kamaishi has been producing iron ore since the 1850s and is said to be the birthplace of Japan’s iron industry. The Kamaishi Iron and Steel Museum is a 15-minute walk from the Kamaishi Daikannon.

 

Station of love: Koishihama

The platform at Koishihama Station. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Continuing down south, another station with a special story is Koishihama Station (恋し浜駅), just three stations shy of the Rias Line’s southern terminal. Its name used to be written as 小石浜 (Koishihama), which means “small stone beach” and the station had a catchphrase of “Ai no isobe” (藍の磯辺 indigo seashore). In 2009, due to overwhelming enthusiasm from the local people, the station name was rewritten as 恋し浜 (Koishihama), which means “shore of falling in love”, and the catchphrase “Ai no isobe” was rewritten as 愛の磯辺 (seashore of love). Since then, Koishihama Station has become a power spot for those seeking love.

 

In line with this theme, a “Bell of Happiness” (幸せの鐘 Shiawase-no-kane) was built at the station in 2010, along with a special post box installed in 2014. Post boxes in Japan are usually a bright red, but a sweet pink post box was installed at Koishihama Station. It is said that posting a letter from the pink post box will help you find love.

 

Scallop shell ema decorating Koishihama Station. (Image credit: 海の見える駅)

 

But perhaps the most striking item would probably be the hundreds of scallop shell ema (絵馬 wishing boards) decorating the station. Usually made of wood, ema are a common feature of shrines in Japan, on which people write their wishes on and pray that it will come true. Koishihama is famous for producing scallops, so here you can write your wishes on scallop shell ema and hang them up at the station. Other than wishing for love, many visitors write their wishes for Sanriku's recovery here as well.

 

A train trip on the Sanriku Railway Rias Line

Enjoy the short video below showcasing some of the highlights of the Sanriku Railway Rias Line! The video was shot to commemorate the opening of the full line in March 2019, and has a special upbeat version of the song “Hana wa saku” (花は咲く Flowers Will Bloom) playing. “Hana wa saku” is a song produced by NHK in order to build public support for 2011 disaster recovery efforts.

 

Click here to watch the video on YouTube, as it cannot be played while embedded.

 

Savour Sanriku’s sumptuous seafood

The Sanriku Coast is home to one of the top three best fishing grounds in the world. Here, the warm Kuroshio current (黒潮) mixes with the cold Oyashio current (親潮), creating some of the most conducive conditions for a variety of marine life to thrive. The Sanriku region boasts a huge production of fish and seafood that are enjoyed both domestically and internationally, so what better way to experience Sanriku than to eat your way through it?

 

Uni is a delicacy abundant in Sanriku. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Uni is a famous product of Sanriku that you can enjoy at various locations along the Sanriku Coast; not just through Kuji Station’s uni bento. One interesting way that fresh uni is sold at some markets in Miyako is having them packed in glass milk bottles, filled with seawater. At some places, you can even eat uni straight from the shell!

 

Bindon, a meal in a bottle. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Continuing on with the fascination with glass bottles, something I’ve always been wanting to try since reading about it is bindon (瓶ドン), which translates to “bottle rice bowl”. Seafood toppings are adorably packed into glass bottles, layer by layer.

 

Unload your bindon topping onto rice and enjoy your meal. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

When it’s time to eat, simply unload the contents of the bottle onto a bowl of rice and dig in! The concept of bindon is to let customers sprinkle the bottle-packed blessings of Miyako onto a bowl of rice, with the contents of the bottle changing to reflect the ingredients in season.

 

Other than shellfish like awabi (アワビ abalone) and hotate (帆立 scallop), fish such as salmon (鮭 sake), Pacific saury (さんま sanma), bonito (カツオ katsuo) and mackerel (サバ saba) are also top products for Sanriku. The seafood in season varies across the months, with different selections to tantalise your tastebuds at different times of the year.

 

A winter Kira Kira Don. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

While Miyako has bindon, Minamisanriku (南三陸), located further down south along the coast, has another seafood rice bowl dish that will catch your eye: the Kira Kira Don (キラキラ丼). “Kira kira” means to sparkle or to shine, and refers to the delicious seafood toppings—the jewels of each season.

 

Kira Kira Don is a rice bowl topped with the best catches of each season (the jewels of each season), and ikura (いくら salmon roe) is the main topping for winter (November–February). Don’t you think that the dozens (sometimes even hundreds!) of ikura topping the bowl resemble glittering jewels? Uni is the jewel of summer (May–August), while spring (March–April) and autumn (September–October) feature many seasonal ingredients in their respective bowls.

 

Iso Ramen. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

If you’re not a fan of raw food or prefer something cooked, check out Iso Ramen (磯ラーメン), a regional noodle dish made primarily with konbu or bonito flake broth, and topped with decadent seafood. Its name means "seashore ramen", and although the exact combinations differ with each shop, you can expect toppings along the line of squid, shrimp, and scallop, while higher-end offerings may include crab and uni…yum!

 

Hoya Ramen. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Another ramen unique to Sanriku, albeit a bit more unusual, is the Hoya Ramen (ホヤラーメン). Hoya (ほや sea pineapple) is a type of sea squirt that is usually enjoyed as sashimi together with a drink. In this dish however, you get to try cooked hoya, with a salt-based soup that complements the natural flavour of the hoya.

 

Combining the aroma of the sea from the generous serving of wakame (ワカメ seaweed) and the umami from the hoya, this ramen aims to deliver blessings of the sea (海の恵み Umi-no-megumi) to those who eat it. Hoya Ramen is an original dish from Taneichi (種市), which is located at the northern part of the Sanriku Coast.

 

Fresh catches at Sanriku’s fish markets

Fresh catches at Miyako Fish Market. (Image credit: 宮古観光文化交流協会)

 

Craving for fresh fish? Head over to any of Sanriku’s many seafood markets to grab the fresh catches of the day. As fishing is a major industry in the Sanriku region, you can find fresh fish markets almost everywhere. The ports and fish markets are usually very close to each other, so you can be sure that the products you are seeing are very fresh.

 

One of the largest and most important markets serving the region is the Miyako Fish Market (宮古市魚菜市場 Miyako-shi Gyosai Ichiba), a 10-minute walk from Miyako Station. Miyako Fish Market is sometimes referred to as the “Kitchen of Miyako”, highlighting its importance to the local community. The market sells not just fish, but also locally-grown fruits and vegetables. Uni, salmon and ikura are the top products at this market, and it is also here where you can find the fresh uni sold in glass bottles, as well as try bindon.

 

Miyako Fish Market (宮古市魚菜市場)
Address: 1-1 Satsuki-cho, Miyako-shi, Iwate 027-1522
Access: 10-minute walk from Miyako Station (宮古駅)
Opening hours: 06:30–17:30 (Closed on Wednesdays and during the year-and holidays)

 

Sunfish Kamaishi. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

Another popular fish market is the Sunfish Kamaishi (サン・フィッシュ釜石), a two-storey building just a 1-minute walk away from Kamaishi Station. After purchasing your pick of fresh fish from the market on the 1st floor, you can head over to the one of the many restaurants and rent a grilling set to cook your own fish! For just ¥500, you can rent a grilling set comprising of the grill, tongs, gloves, paper plates, disposable chopsticks, and soy sauce.

 

Sunfish Kamaishi (サンフィッシュ釜石)
Address: 2-1 Suzukocho, Kamaishi, Iwate 026-0031
Access: 1-minute walk from Kamaishi Station (釜石駅)
Opening hours: 07:00–16:00 (Closed on Wednesdays, irregular closing days)

 

Sightseeing Trains

Along the Sanriku Coastline, you can transfer to three different JR East Joyful Trains—themed sightseeing trains that make the train trip more enjoyable. All of these three trains were created in order to increase tourism to the areas that they run in, which were hit hard by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

 

The POKÉMON with YOU Train. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The POKÉMON with YOU Train, which runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma, was started in 2012 to bring back smiles to children in the Tohoku region affected by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. At Kesennuma, the JR Ofunato Line connects to the two BRT lines. You can check out my previous article about a trip aboard this train here.

 

The TOHOKU EMOTION. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Running between Hachinohe and Kuji, the TOHOKU EMOTION (東北エモーション Tōhoku Emōshon) is a fine-dining restaurant train created in 2013 to promote tourism to the Sanriku area, and provides amazing views from the train windows. At Kuji, the JR Hachinohe Line connects to the Sanriku Railway Rias Line. You can check out my previous article about a trip aboard this train here.

 

The SL Ginga. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Restored from the C58 239 steam locomotive train, the SL Ginga, which runs between Hanamaki and Kamaishi, was started in 2014 in order to revitalise the disaster-stricken region after the 2011 disaster. At Kamaishi, the JR Kamaishi Line connects to the Sanriku Railway Rias Line. You can check out my previous article about a trip aboard this train here.

 

Inside some of Sanriku Railway’s seasonal sightseeing trains. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Other than JR East’s Joyful Trains, Sanriku Railway also runs its own seasonal sightseeing trains along the Rias Line, such at the Kotatsu Train (こたつ列車  Kotatsu Ressha) featuring kotatsu (こたつ heated blankets) in winter (December to February), or the Sanchoku Train (産直列車 Sanchoku Ressha) where locally produced items are directly sold onboard the trains, turning the train into a mobile market.

 

Exterior of the 36-Z series car. (Image credit: Sanriku Railway)

 

Fun fact: Sanriku Railway’s train model numbers begin with “36”, the pronunciation of which is a play on “Sanriku”! Currently, the models used for regular operations are the 36-100 series, 36-200 series and newest 36-700 series. There is also a special car, the 36-Z series, which features Japanese-style seating (座敷席 zashikiseki), that is used for special events such as the Kotatsu Train. Both the 36-700 series and the 36-Z series were manufactured in support of the Great Eastern Japan Tsunami and Earthquake, with aid from Kuwait.

 

BRT services

The BRT runs along the Sanriku Coast between Sakari and Maeyachi. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The Sanriku Railway Rias Line ends at Sakari Station, but here it connects with JR East’s BRT (bus rapid transit). BRT are buses that partially use former railway tracks which were not rebuilt after the disaster. Switching to a bus system allowed for greater frequency, which better served the local community.

 

The BRT is divided into two sections which join at Kesennuma Station, where you can also transfer to the JR East train line:

  • BRT Ofunato Line: Sakari (盛) to Kesennuma (気仙沼) (85 minutes, 43.7km)
  • BRT Kesennuma Line: Kesennuma (気仙沼) to Maeyachi (前谷地) (140 minutes, 72.8km)

 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where we will explore the Michinoku Coastal Trail, as well as Rikuzentakata (陸前高田)—one of the places the BRT passes through, and also one worst-hit cities by the 2011 tsunami.

 

Getting there

Kuji Station (northern terminal of the Sanriku Railway Rias Line)

  • From Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe Station (八戸駅) (2 hours 45 minutes), then transfer to the JR Hachinohe Line to Kuji Station (久慈駅) (1 hour 40 minutes).

Sakari Station (southern terminal of the Sanriku Railway Rias Line)

  • From Tokyo, take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Ichinoseki Station (一ノ関駅) (2 hours), transfer to the JR Ofunato Line to Kesennuma Station (気仙沼駅) (85 minutes), then transfer to the BRT service Ofunato Line to Sakari Station (盛駅) (85 minutes).

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting the Tohoku region to explore the Sanriku Coast, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and BRT) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥30,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Kuji (~¥34,000) or Tokyo and Sakari (¥30,000). 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, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation. 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.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Although the Sanriku Railway Rias Line is not covered by the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), Sanriku Railway offers a variety of 1-day and 2-day passes for use on weekends and public holidays, which you can check out here.

 

Header image credit: 東北観光推進機構

 

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