A small coastal city filled with literal hidden gems
Rikuzentakata lies along the Pacific coast of Tohoku, one of the small cities devastated by the 2011 tsunami. Although the devastation, and the Miracle Pine which survived it, are what the city is known for nowadays, Rikuzentakata was once a major center of gold production. It is home to the historic Tamayama Mine, once one of the largest gold mines in Japan.
During the Heian era (794–1185), the Tamayama Mine contributed greatly to the prosperity of the northern Fujiwara clan and the singular opulence of their capital, Hiraizumi. It is gold from the Tamayama Mine that adorns the golden hall at Chuson-ji Temple there. The wealth produced by the Tamayama Mine continued to play a significant role in Japanese politics even into the 1900s, when the Bank of Japan took out a loan of ¥800 million to fund the Russo-Japanese War using Mount Hikami, the mountain where Tamayama Mine is located, as mortgage.
The city is full of sites related to this gold mining heritage, which are often experiential in nature—inviting visitors to actually interact with elements of the sites. To me, that’s what makes visiting Rikuzentakata so memorable, and makes the history feel more real than any visit to a museum can.
In fact, the site of the Tamayama Gold Mine itself offers visitors an unusual experience. Because quartz is the most common gold ore, the Tamayama Mine was also known for excavating large, high-quality crystals in addition to the gold. Though the most impressive of these crystals were used as eyes in Buddhist statuary, the quartz was really just a byproduct of the gold mining. Any crystals other than the largest and most impressive were tossed aside. The mine site remains littered with these smaller crystals, and visitors to the site today are invited to paw through the rubble and collect crystals to take home as souvenirs (reservations required).
Up a steep slope from the remains of one of the mine shafts lies Tamayama Shrine, a small, quaint shrine that once housed the guardian deity of the mine. Though a deity is no longer enshrined here, it still has an air of the divine and beautiful scenery, particularly in autumn when the foliage has turned golden.
A short walk downhill from the mine site and Tamayama Shrine leads to Tama no Yu, a reisen hot spring inn. The hot spring water actually flows out from one of the former mine shafts, the only such hot spring in Japan! The water is naturally high in metaboric acid, so the baths here are said to be especially beneficial for skin health and for alleviating back and joint pain. The inn plays up the gold connection in a fun way by serving “kin no sofuto“—a glamorous novelty of soft serve ice cream draped in an entire sheet of gold leaf.
Actually, the food is one of the best things about Rikuzentakata. Seafood figures prominently into the local cuisine, as one would expect of a coastal city. Unusually though, seaweed is also treated as something special in Rikuzentakata. One of the most delicious and memorable dining experiences I’ve had in Japan was the wakame shabu-shabu at Waiwai. Fresh wakame seaweed doesn’t keep well, so this is a dish that can be enjoyed only at restaurants very near wakame farms. We swirled fresh, raw wakame in a bubbling dashi broth. After just a few seconds, it turned emerald green and was ready to eat. We also ordered a sake aged undersea to pair with the meal. The bottle emerged gorgeously barnacle-encrusted, looking like something out of Davy Jones’ wine cellar, and the sake really did have a noticeably different flavor than the same kind stored on land.
Wesley Keppel-Henry/Wesley Keppel-Henry
Though international attention towards Rikuzentakata has been largely directed towards the 2011 tsunami damage and recovery efforts, there’s more to Rikuzentakata than that. The history, food, and unique experiences here are all also worthy of attention—and a visit!