As many readers will already know, I’ve long been fascinated by Fukushima. Normally neglected by international visitors due to the stigma surrounding the March 11 triple disaster, the prefecture just can’t seem to shake its lingering bad rap. Alas, much of what you have heard in the international news is simply now nonsense. For starters, Fukushima is the third largest prefecture in all of Japan. Moreover, it is divided into three distinct sections that extend deep into the center of Japan’s main island. Honestly speaking, outside of the “no entry zone” surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, the rest of the prefecture is harmless.
In the past, I’ve covered the ever-amazing region of Aizu-Wakamatsu and the other interesting parts of central Fukushima Prefecture. I’ll leave links to my prior work in the Other Nearby Attractions section at the end of this article. Today though, I want to instead turn your attention towards the coastal city of Iwaki. Long on my radar due to my undying love of Fukushima, Iwaki is a place with a varied history that dates back to before the founding of many European nations. Moreover, the city is also home to an amazing theme park that will leave you feeling as if you were magically transported to Hawaii.
Now, Iwaki is located around 50 kilometers to the south of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant (yes, it’s totally safe since I know you’ll ask). As a result, it was subject to similar floodings due to the enormous tsunami that battered Japan’s eastern side on that fateful day. These days, much of the scarring of 2011 is gone but if you know where to look, you can still see the deep wounds that day left on Iwaki. Thankfully though, as with the other cities nearby in Fukushima, most things have gotten back to normal despite the catastrophic calamity.
While I will say that I prefer the inner parts of Fukushima to Iwaki at the end of the day, my weekend stint in town was certainly memorable. Though I couldn’t really recommend a visit for people who have never experienced Japan before, Iwaki is a great option for those of you who are looking to experience a very different side of the nation on your next visit. Moreover, unlike with the likes of Kyoto and other major sightseeing spots, you won’t need to contend with too many other tourists in Iwaki.
How to Get There
All things considered, getting to Iwaki is pretty simple. All you need to do is take one of the HITACHI or TOKIWA limited express trains that run from Shinagawa Station to Iwaki Station. As always, you should refer to a service like Jorudan whenever using public transportation in Japan but know for now that these trains leave about every hour or so. All in all, this leg of the journey to the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture should take a little over two hours. Like with the bullet trains, the HITACHI and TOKIWA limited expresses have power outlets for charging so it’s quite the relaxing trip.
From what I could gather, it seems that there are also options for highway buses too. That said, given how nice of a ride up the ITACHI and TOKIWA limited express trains are, I really couldn’t recommend taking anything else unless you’re really set on meeting some sort of budget. Even if you’re not rich, the trek up will only set you back 6,000 yen on way. Unlike other cities in the country that need to be reached via the bullet train, a trip to Iwaki on the eastern coast of Japan need not break the bank.
Around Iwaki Station
Once you arrive at Iwaki Station, you’ll need to first figure out what you’re planning to do while in town. Unfortunately, there is not much on offer in this central area of Iwaki. While you’ll find a lot of the eateries, izakayas, etc. here in this section of the city, there is little else nearby. Instead, Iwaki Station can more be thought of as a central hub for transportation. From there, you can make excursions out to whichever part of the Iwaki area you want to see. Just be sure to plan your logistics ahead of time as the public transportation in this part of the country isn’t the best.
For most people, I’ll suggest that you book your hotels somewhere around the station. Since it is located in the heart of the city, you’ll have better access to many of the major attractions. That said, the only exception to this advice would be if you’re planning to lodge at Iwaki’s iconic Spa Resort Hawaiians or one of the other ryokan with hot springs that can be found in Iwaki Yumoto Onsen. While doing so will likely increase the quality of your accommodations, staying at Iwaki Yumoto Onsen also does come with the downside of being less convenient. I’ll leave the choice of which you prefer up to you.
Spa Resort Hawaiians
Speaking of, let’s now talk about what Iwaki is possibly best known for, its Hawaiian-themed Spa Resort Hawaiians. This one-stop water park, onsen and entertainment facility was created back in 1966 and is widely considered to be the very first theme park to ever be built in Japan. In the decades since, the property has constantly been updated and thus it is still a space that is beloved by the population of Japan today. Honestly, I was struck by just how much of Iwaki’s identity and tourism appeal depended on Spa Resort Hawaiians
Due to its massive scale, Spa Resort Hawaiians is divided into several subsections. The largest of these is the Water Park area (pictured above). Here, you’ll find all of the things that you’d expect in a place like this such as water slides and whatnot. The staff have gone to great lengths to recreate the vibe of Hawaii and thus you’ll see many tree species and other vegetation that you’d expect to see in the 50th state of America. Heck, even the workers are all decked out from head to toe in Hawaiian attire as they oversee the rivers of people flowing throughout the space.
In addition to the Water Park section, there are also parts of the property that are dedicated to the spa side of the experience. Here, you’ll find saunas, hot springs, etc. Additionally, there is also a hotel on the grounds that is known as Hotel Hawaiians. As noted before, you’ll have the option to stay here if you want to get the most of the famous theme park but it comes at the cost of less favorable logistics. That said, if you happen to hire a rental car for your trip, then this is definitely something that I would suggest you do.
Of course, no mention of Spa Resort Hawaiians is complete without also talking about the facility’s hula girls. Back when Iwaki was primarily an industrial city on the decline, the resort and its famed dancers became a new beacon of hope for Iwaki City. Thanks to the establishment of Spa Resort Hawaiians, more and more people started flocking to the town and this tourism revenue helped to greatly bolster the economy of this local city. Thereafter, the hula girls also played an important part in raising the morale of Japan following the 2011 tragedy and thus are something of a cultural icon.
Getting to Spa Resort Hawaiians is pretty easy, even if you don’t have your own set of wheels. The aquatic getaway offers a free shuttle service from Iwaki Yumoto Onsen every hour. While waiting, you can consider checking out the Iwaki Coal and Fossil Museum. This industrial and sightseeing center chronicles the city’s past from when coal mining was the primary industry. If you want to learn more, I’d advise that you check out the Wikipedia page as I skipped this one.
If the aforementioned theme park is the most well known allure in town, Aquamarine Fukushima comes in at a close second. Situated right on the coast of the Pacific Ocean to the east of the city center, this site has a extensive collection of various fish species. The aquarium does a truly wonderful job of demonstrating the various ecosystems that can be found in the waters of both Fukushima Prefecture and different parts of the Japan. Admission can be a bit steep at 1,850 yen but the experience inside is more than worth it.
Just to the north of Aquamarine Fukushima, you’ll also find Misaki Park. Should you be planning a visit to the aquarium, I suggest you also swing by here. Located only a few minutes walk away, Misaki Park is home to a spire called Iwaki Marine Tower. For the price of just a mere 300 yen, you can ascend to the top of the structure and enjoy a killer view of many of Iwaki’s beaches and the Pacific Ocean. Just be sure not to miss the observation platform down by the coast!
The trek over to Aquamarine Fukushima can be a bit tricky as you’ll need to take a bus. The easiest way if you’ve visiting on a weekend is to take one of the shuttle buses that Aeon Mall Iwaki Onahama operates for its customers. These depart from Izumi Station a little ways to the west and will get you down to where Aquamarine Fukushima is in around 15–20 minutes. There are also buses going from central Iwaki and Iwaki Yumoto Onsen as well so do a bit of digging to see which works for you.
More to This Populous City
While it’s hard to tell these days, Iwaki City was actually a place of high historical importance. Throughout its many districts, you’ll encounter a number of hidden gems that hint at this legacy. Of the spots worth seeing perhaps none are more appealing than Shiramizu Amidado. Found to the northwest of Iwaki Yumoto Onsen, this temple hall stands in the remains of a paradise garden. Amazingly, Shiramizu Amidado was constructed in 1160 by a member of the Fujiwara clan and was later designated a national treasure in 1952.
One of the interesting things about Shiramizu Amidado is that it is one of only a handful of surviving examples of a Buddhist Pure Land garden. These were quite popular during the Heian Period (794–1185) and attempt to recreate the Buddhist idea of everlasting paradise. While there are no totally intact gardens of this variety still left, you can see what remains at Kyoto’s Byodo-in in Uji and Motsu-ji in Hiraizumi. If you’ve been to either of those before, you’ll recognize the style when at Shiramizu Amidado.
While the area around the small pond at Shiramizu Amidado is free, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of 500 yen if you want to march on up close to the main hall. If you’re going to make the effort to come all the way out to this temple complex though, you should do yourself a favor and pay up. Inside the main hall, you’ll find a host of amazing Buddha statues. Know that the main objective of worship at this temple is the effigy of the Amida Buddha, the deity that is said to save humanity from endless suffering in Pure Land Buddhism.
One other cultural spot of note in Iwaki is Rokkakudo. This hexagonal hall sits right on the side of the ocean and was constructed in 1905 by the influential scholar and artist Okakura Kazuko. The uniquely-shaped building was designed to be a refuge for his artistic activities. Tragically, the original was washed out to sea by the March 11t tsunami but the structure was rebuilt in 2012. Should you want to see the Rokkakudo, you’ll have to hoof it 45 minutes from Otsuko Station if you don’t have a car.
Other Nearby Attractions
Within the confines of the Iwaki area, there are still a few more things to do. I’ll link some handy sightseeing resources here but one spot you definitely ought to consider is the Abukuma Cave. While technically not within the city limits, the impressive network of limestone caverns can be found on the outskirts of Iwaki, halfway towards Koriyama. The nearest station is Kanmata Station on JR’s Banetsu East Line. Should spelunking just happen to be your shtick, definitely consider adding the Abukuma Cave to your trip to Iwaki. Entry to the museum-like grotto will cost you 1,200 yen.
If you’re not into limestone stalagmites and whatnot, one other alternative is Oiwa Shrine (pictured above). Situated a little to the south of Iwaki in Ibaraki Prefecture’s city of Hitachi, this ancient sanctum has existed in this part of Japan for longer than we have any real written records for. En route, you’ll pass through some enchanting, countryside villages making the journey there a bit of an adventure unto itself. What’s more, the shrine grounds are home to a sacred trail that leads into the Hitachi Alps. Should this strike your fancy, add it on to your trip.
Finally, know that Fukushima Prefecture itself is home to all sorts of amazing allures. In the interest of not making this piece any longer than it already is, I’ll just elect to link to where you can find my prior work. Seeing as Fukushima is already so underrated as is, I highly suggest you to spend a bit more time in the region after you’re done with Iwaki City.
See Tsuruga Castle, the Sazaedo & Ouchijuku
- Nishi-Aizu & Kitakata
Diving Deeper into Fukushima Prefecture
- Ashinomaki Onsen’s Okawaso
Real Life Kimetsu-no-Yaiba
Finally, know that the historic city of Mito and the gardens of Kairaku-en are also on the way back to Tokyo. If you’re not heading further north into the Tohoku region, this might also be a good addition too. Just take one of the HITACHI or TOKIWA limited express trains back towards Shinagawa and hop off at Mito Station. Especially if you time things right for the plum blossoms at Kairaku-en, Mito makes for an awesome compliment to Iwaki!
Until next time travelers…