The enduring allure of Iwaki Japan

Gemma Lake

written by
Gemma Lake

updated 02.03.2022

Iwaki, a city on Japan's southeast end in Fukushima Prefecture, is hugged by the rugged Pacific shoreline to its east and the densely forested slopes of the Abukuma highlands to its west. Knitting together this hilly hinterland is a network of rivers fed by a constellation of distinctive mounds. Stretching for over 1230 square kilometres (475 sq. mi), Iwaki’s rambling land mass makes it one of the largest cities in Fukushima Prefecture.

The city is also among the most storied, as the location of the Nakoso Barrier – a defence gate built by the Yamato government around 708 AD, where the Yamato Imperial Court confronted indigenous Emishi peoples of the north. From ancient times to the Middle Ages, the area of Fukushima Prefecture was part of the historic Mutsu Province. After that, it came under the power of the Yamato Imperial Court.

In the early Heiin period, unable to control the more hostile iteki factions of the tribal group, whose habitation in the merciless mountains worked to their advantage, the samurai under the leadership of Emperor Kanmu (Kammu) subsumed their fighting style, enlisting members of the more trusting fushu and ifu Emishi circles to train them.

Iwaki ley lines ©

Iwaki ley lines, Fukushima, Japan © Cherise

Iwaki, a city in harmony with nature

The many relics that remain of Emishi culture suggest a lifestyle in harmony with the natural environment and changing seasons, showing how little modern Iwaki has changed. Over 500 shrines and temples persist across its craggy landscape, moulded by time.

It is thought that the city’s ley lines extend beyond its sacred sites to places that brought, or continue to bring, great wealth. One being the Joban Coal Fields, the beating heart of the city’s economy until the 1960s.

Another being Spa Resort Hawaiians, a sprawling theme park using hot springs, positioned next to Yumoto Onsen, which redefined the city as a prime tourism spot against the backdrop of the waning coal mining industry. Yumoto Onsen, thought to be one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, reportedly first piqued the interest of Iwaki’s human inhabitants around one thousand years ago.

The concept of ley lines was originally developed in early twentieth-century Europe – Stonehenge in the UK being a good case in point. In Japan, Issey Uchida, a Sacred Land Researcher, claims to have identified many different structures and networks linking the city’s shrines and temples, burial mounds, and archaeological sites, using digital maps and GPS.

These signposts, Uchida suggests, may prove useful in better understanding the cultural fabric of Japan, specifically ancient Emishi civilisation and their relationship with the mountain and oceanic vastness of Iwaki. In this article, we unravel the mysteries behind Iwaki’s fascinating past and present to discover the enduring allure of the city.

The Coal & Fossil Museum of Iwaki © Cherise

Onahamakashima Shrine

Onahamakashima Shrine is a Shinto place of worship. Its name derives from the tale of the sacred deer messengers that carried water on their backs from Kasuga Shrine. Locals gather here to venerate Takemikazuchi (kami of war and thunder), whose devotees occupy the honden.

Onahamakashima Shrine is also where locals come to observe the solar calendar. Unlike the majority of Iwaki’s south-facing shrines, Onahamakashima is aligned ever so slightly towards the southeast, in the direction of the Pacific Ocean. This means that on the morning of winter solstice, the light path of the rising sun lines up perfectly with its torii and reflects in a spectacular fashion off the window pane of the main building.

Some say its placement there was a deliberate act by ancient Jomon ancestors to channel the elemental forces. The shrine contains one of the largest taiko (drums) in the Tohoku region. Wander in its calming, lush green garden to the sounds of trickling water coming from its curious dragon fountain. Inside is an elaborate mikoshi (portable Shinto shrine) used to transport deities during a festival or when relocating a shrine.

Onahama Kashima Shrine ©

Sunrise at the Onahama Kashima Shrine, Japan © Cherise

Iwaki City Coal & Fossil Museum

The Coal & Fossil Museum (Horuru), opened in 1984, is a celebration of the history of city. Its meticulously reconstructed tunnel of Joban coal mine documents more than a century of technological and social advancement, including genuine artefacts and a detailed diorama of each period.

The museum is also where you’ll find on display fossils, including that of a futabasaurus suzukii. This Cretaceous plesiosaur is thought to have inhabited the Pacific over 85 million years ago. Its discovery in 1968 has been attributed to a 17-year-old boy named Tadashi Suzuki.

After delving into Iwaki’s past, make your way to restaurant Genya Yumoto, only a short walk away. On the menu is mehikari (variously known as goma mackerel and greeneyes) and soba (thin Japanese noodle made from buckwheat). Mehikari is a small deep-sea dwelling fish, often seen hanging on racks in the sun.

The fish has become Iwaki’s symbolic culinary specialty, celebrated for its succulent white flesh and silky skin, such that it is often eaten whole. Deep-fried and sprinkled with salt is how it tends to come at the local izakaya (traditional Japanese bars). Locals also eat it grilled, doused with lemon and served with radish.

Fossil and Coal Horuru ©

Discover what lies beneath the city of Iwaki at the Coal & Fossil museum of Iwaki © Cherise

Jofuku-ji Temple, Akaidake Yakushi

Not to be missed on a trip to Iwaki is Jofuku-ji: a Shingon Buddhist temple sprawled on the foot of Akaidake. It’s reached along a path flanked by 88 Kannon statues, which climbs steeply beneath a canopy of trees, the temple’s magnificence unfurling with every step. Those who make it to the top will be richly rewarded with views of Iwaki’s striking skyline.

Yakushi Buddha (Buddha of healing) is the resident deity, whose effigy is kept hidden in the main building, attended to by the resident monk. Guests are welcomed to copy sutras (Buddhist writings) and eat shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine).

In spring and on the morning of autumn equinox, light shines directly into the main hall and the pine trees that line the temple’s east-facing stone path stand in silhouette against the rising sun as the afterglow settles over the hill.

A mysterious legend called Ryuto is connected to this temple. This tells of the dim firefly-like light that emerged from the sea and followed the Natsui River that runs through the city, connecting the temple to other buildings of significance. The temple is where the holy fire practice (goma-gyo) takes place, which sees adherents attempting to purify and ward off evil spirits by walking across smouldering embers of cedar, all the while chanting sutras.

Jofukuji Temple ©

Jofuku-ji Temple at the foot of Akaidake © Cherise

Haryu-ji Temple

On the mornings of the vernal (spring) and autumn equinoxes, the sun puts on a spectacular display behind the small wooden torii of Haryu-ji Temple: a Buddhist temple reachable only by a sea-slapped footbridge as red as the sun. Perched on Benten-jima Island – a jagged, weather-beaten islet off the main bay – this quaint east-facing ocean temple cuts a fine form against the burnt orange skies of dawn.

The garden abounding with big, blousy hydrangea flowers in various shades of mauve is at its best around June. The eponymous island and temple pay homage to Benten, the biwa-playing sea goddess of everything that flows, whom many attribute to its staying power on this splintered pinnacle sculpted by the sea.

Next to its niomon (Buddhist temple gate) are tokens of Ko-Shintō – the original animism of Japan with beginnings in the Jōmon period (a time oft-associated with the Emishi), considered to be the basis of modern Shinto. That and its orientation towards the mountains have left many wondering whether it, too, sits on ley lines.

Don’t forget your shuin (a seal stamp given to worshippers and visitors to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan), typically collected in books called shuinchō, sold nearby.

Haryu-ji Temple ©

Haryu-ji Temple, Benten-Jima Island, Japan © Cherise

Ino Hachiman Shrine

A 10-minute car journey from Iwaki Station will get you to Ino Hachiman Shrine, an old, venerable shrine which was built around the same time as Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura in the eleventh century. Beckoning from the track is its enormous red torii gate set against a rich tapestry of colourful foliage. Across its wooden taiko (drum) bridge, a cobbled path enveloped by nature leads through a magnificent karamon gate in the direction of this charming Shinto place of worship.

The shrine was designated as an important cultural property of the prefecture in 1958. Relish the silence that rings in its spiritual garden between April and May, when cherry trees perfuming the air with the fragrance of their pearl-white blossom soften the shrine’s stark red exterior.

Typically, Hachiman shrines are dedicated to three deities. Besides Hachiman (or Hondawake no Mikoto – the deification of Emperor Ōjin and the syncretic god of archery and war), the trio includes Empress Jingū (or Okinagatarashihime no Mikoto – Hachiman's mother) and the goddess Himegami. As well as a place of worship, Ino Hachiman Shrine is where Iwaki locals bring in the new year and celebrate Shichi-Go-San (coming of age).

It’s also where Yabusame, a 400-year-old archery ritual, takes place in September, inspired by Emishi horse archers. Ginger sellers patrol the path to the shrine during this festival, as the fragrant root is said to have cured the head of a famous local clan. While you’re there, don’t pass up the opportunity to make your own lucky charm or amulet – an activity offered all year round.

Find out more about this enchanting region at Iwaki City Tourism and Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organisation.

Ino Hachiman Shrine ©

Create your own lucky amulet at Ino Hachiman Shrine © Cherise

This article is brought to you in partnership with Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization, Iwaki Tourism and City Plannning Bureau.

Gemma Lake

written by
Gemma Lake

updated 02.03.2022

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Ready to travel and discover
Japan?

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍