My Road Trip to Tohoku

Just a video I threw together sharing some things I saw. If you click through to YouTube, you can watch it in HD, so do that if you can.

On the morning of April 1, I headed out on a road trip. I used to take long road trips every Golden Week, but since moving to Tochigi, I’ve been unable to take the time off at Golden Week that I used to, so it’s been three years since I’ve been on one. This year, due to my transfer and the cheapassness of my new city, I had an extra week for spring vacation, so no time like the present, as they say.

Thought I was headed north (my first destination was Iwaki in Fukushima), the navi took me south for basically forever until I got to the coast in Ibaraki and caught R6 north. My lasting impression of Ibaraki: Seicomart. For most of my time in Ibaraki, I didn’t see any big chain convenience stores, only Seicomarts.

鵜の岬 / Cape of Cormorants
鵜の岬 / Cape of Cormorants
五浦岬公園 / Cape Gonoura Park
五浦岬公園 / Cape Gonoura Park

I ended up stopping at Cape U and Cape Gonoura as I drove through Ibaraki. First time I’d seen the sea in a long time, and definitely first time since the tsunami. I wasn’t sure how I’d react upon being so close after all the scary tsunami vids I’d seen. It wasn’t bad. My yearning for the ocean hasn’t abated.

いわき / Iwaki
いわき / Iwaki

I was running well late, and so when I got to Iwaki, only took time for a wee shopping break, then carried on. Was going to head to whatever-the-heck-that-lake-is in the middle of the prefecture, because I wanted to see Mt. Bandai. As I drove, though, it started to snow, and I realized I wouldn’t get the picture I wanted, and so I aborted the Mt. Bandai leg and headed towards Sendai. My navi thought it would take me on “fast”, “big” roads, and so it naturally assumed that any road labelled as a national highway would fulfill those criteria.  R349 through Fukushima doesn’t, really, especially the one-lane bendy bit along the bank of the Abukuma River. FFF.

阿武隈川 / Abukuma River
阿武隈川 / Abukuma River

My lasting impression of Fukushima: People play very fast and loose with the idea of driving in one’s own lane. Out in the countryside, people were weaving back and forth between both lanes whenever they wanted. It was pretty fucked up.

Finally made it to Sendai, dropped 6600yen on a hotel, and napped.

仙台 / Sendai
仙台 / Sendai
五大堂 / Godaido Temple
五大堂 / Godaido Temple

Second day, I got up early and was in Matsushima by 9 or so. Chilled at Godaido, bought a couple things, then carried on. From here, I knew, I’d be entering the inundation zone. It was about 11:20 when I realized something was amiss. My first inkling was the single, crushed, rusting, upside-down car in a field beside the road, and water lying in fields where it strictly-speaking didn’t seem like it ought to have been. I rounded a corner, and realized that the railway my navi was saying would cross the road ahead of me had been the Kessennuma Line, and that it wasn’t going to be there. The tunnel was, but blocked up. Here, a 7-11 in a temporary structure. There, a buiding that seems nearly intact, but it cocked at a very strange angle. Everywhere else, nothing.

南三陸 / Minami-sanriku
南三陸 / Minami-sanriku

I’d seen it on TV, you know. I knew, intellectually, what I would see. How far it would stretch. But without actually going to the place and driving route 45 north from Matsushima all the way to Hachinohe, you can’t actually grasp the scale. It was a bit overwhelming. I stopped in Minamisanriku for a few moments, just to try to wrap my head around what I was seeing. I had no idea how much more I’d end up seeing.

My lasting impression of Miyagi: a nice place. Shame about the north.

I think the place where it really got me was just south of Rikuzentakata. As I was approaching, I was coming along the south side of the bay, and through the trees on my right, I could just catch a glimpse of the bay. It was a sunny day, the mountains around the bay were beautiful, the water was nice. “What a lovely town this must be !” I thought to myself, completely forgetting for a moment where I was and what I had been seeing all day. As the road descended into what used to be the town, I got very sad. The fact that the maps in my navi were from February 2011, and so were providing a snapshot of the immediate pre-tsunami state of the town just made it worse. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling.

Apropos of nothing, and stepping out of chronology for a moment, I stopped at a michi no eki just south of Kessennuma, which was right at the seaside and of course is now housed in a temporary building. There, inside, there was some local produce, but not a whole lot. There were cutting boards though! Big thick spruce ones! For 1600yen? Yes plz, I’ve wanted a bigger cutting board for an affordable price for years, but to buy one the size I got there at a supermarket or online I’d have to drop 10000yen or more. I’ll use it happily.

釜石の大観音 / The Merciful Kannon of Kamaishi
釜石の大観音 / The Merciful Kannon of Kamaishi
釜石 / Kamaishi
釜石 / Kamaishi

Anyway, my last intended sightseeing stop for the day was the 42m high Kannon in Kamaishi. My navi tried to send me down a road in Kamaishi that no longer exists, and it refused to detour around it. I finally gave up and was going to head on without stopping at the Kannon, but on my way out, I saw signs pointing the way. Turns out that the road the navi wanted me to take wasn’t even the right road BEFORE the tsunami, let alone after, when the road doesn’t even exist anymore.

From the Kannon, you can only see the bay. You can’t see the devastation that bay wrought last year — the angle is just a bit wrong.  Anyway, it was a nice place to stop. Thereafter, I thought I’d drive an hour and a half, and then stop and find a hotel. This was the plan every day. Take a short break every 90 minutes at least, and drive until about an hour after sunset, then stop and book a hotel from the smartphone app I was using.

Heading north out of Kamaishi, though, this turned out to be a problem, because there was nowhere to stop, and there was no cell phone signal for like 200km. And then, when I finally did get signal 3 hours later and stopped to book a hotel, there were none around, and I had to book a place in Hachinohe. But even then, the app was dumb and showed me hotels from Towada when I asked for hotels in Hachinohe, so I had to drive EVEN FURTHER.

Anyway, most of the drive north from Kamaishi, maybe it’s nice in summer, or in daytime. In late winter, at night, there’s nothing to see at all. It’s just bendy tree-y mountain roads that go on forever. When I finally found a place to stop, it was at a Mini-Stop in Rikuchuunakano, north Iwate. It was strange, because I’d been driving through endless dark and curvy forested roads for so long, it was very much like that was just what life was now. There was nothing else in the world. And then, out of the darkness, a single lit storefront. It was all very surreal, to be quite honest.

Lasting impression of Iwate: Surreal. In the early part of the day, driving through the inundation zone? That was surreal. Even though it was there, in front of me, it was still ever so hard to believe what had happened. The evening interminable drive up R45 north of Kamaishi to the Aomori border? Surreal for another way. It was very Twilight Zone/Scary Door. I didn’t see anyone for hundreds of kilometers.

Eventually, I made it to Towada, and checked in to my hotel and went to sleep.

蕪島のウミネコ / The Sea Cats of Turnip Island
蕪島のウミネコ / The Sea Cats of Turnip Island

The next day (Tuesday, April 3), I got up and backtracked to Hachinohe to visit Kabushima, and see some black-tailed gulls. It was pretty impressive. More impressive is the way neither I nor my car got shat upon by the massive flock. Result!

After that, the plan was to head north to Cape Oma, the northernmost point of Honshu. This was accomplished mostly by driving north on R338 out of Hachinohe to Mutsu, and then continuing further north from there. Pro-tip: you can also get to Mutsu by taking R279 from Aomori, and this is a superior road, and the one you’d want to use if you were the least bit worried about the weather. The weather that day was “early spring”, so 338 was fine, but had it been “late winter”, it would have been white-knuckle scary at points.

沢の黒海岸 / Coast of the Black Swamp
沢の黒海岸 / Coast of the Black Swamp
まぐろ一本釣 / One-hook Tuna Fishing
まぐろ一本釣 / One-hook Tuna Fishing

The weather was on the turn when I got to Oma. It had been cloudy all day, but now the wind was picking up, and there was a little bit of rain now and again. The final stretch from Mutsu to Oma, the road was good, but it was just so bleak. It very much felt, not as if I was driving to the end of the island (which I was), but rather that I was driving to the end of the world. It was definitely worth it, and it’s an experience I’m glad I had once, by myself. It’s not often on road trips that I’m glad I’m alone, but it just seemed right to drive that solitary road to that isolated location on my own.

When I got to Oma, I took some pictures, none particularly special, and then bought some souvenirs at the store. As I’ll be starting a new job next week, it should help smooth things over to bring sweets with me for everyone. And then if they treat me like shit like I reckon they will, I’ll just be like I DROVE TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH TO BUY YOU TUNA SABLE, AND THIS IS HOW YOU TREAT ME?? Though I’ll just say that to myself to be honest.

On the road back from Mutsu to Towada (this time, I took the aforementioned R279), at one point I turned a bend and there, towering above the forest, was a stand of giant wind turbines. It was really impressive for some reason. No where to stop for a photo tho. :/

Lasting impressions of Aomori: Potholes. R338 is basically a giant pothole. My particular favourite was when the pavement just ended for 2km with no prior warning, so I’m cruising along at 60, round a bend and have to slam on the brakes to keep myself from dying as the pavement ends.

十和田市 / Towada City
十和田市 / Towada City

Stayed that night in Towada (though, at a different hotel, as I had gotten a first-time-stayer hyperdiscount at the Monday hotel, and i couldn’t get that again — but this other hotel had a “let’s commemorate the arrival of the shinkansen!” discount, so I took that). It was meant to be an early night, as I was exhausted, and I expected Wednesday to be a long day, but I didn’t sleep well, worried as I was about the windstorm that had hit the rest of the country Tuesday and was gonna hit Aomori on Wednesday.

朝食 / Breakfast
朝食 / Breakfast

I woke up to a snowphoon. I ate breakfast quickly, and then headed off. Plan was to head to Kakunodate in Akita, and then on to a place in Yamagata. I reckoned I’d probably sleep in south Akita/north Yamagata on Wednesday, and then get home Thursday. The snowphoon switched shit up pretty quickly though.

The navi took me to Lake Towada, first of all. This was fine, except I had to drive the Oirase Gorge. This may be a nice drive in summer. It may be a nice drive in parts of winter. In this late-winter snowphoon weather, it was kinda white-knuckle bullshit. Twice I got stuck behind large trucks who couldn’t make it up hills because the roads were so bad. Also, very little in the way of guardrails. If you can’t see, or if you lose control, you will die. That is how the Oirase Gorge portion of the day was. “But it’s okay, I’ll get to Lake Towada, I’ll stop at a convenience store and I’ll try to map a better way with my handy dandy map book.”

Except that wasn’t going to happen. The weather wasn’t getting better, as I had been promised. It was getting worse. Add to that the fact that there is nothing AT Lake Towada, and an issue starts to arise.  There was basically ice falling from the sky, insta-freezing on my car, in typhoon-force winds. Visibility was bad. The roads were kinda shit to start with, and bendy, and I couldn’t see because my wipers and windshield had iced up. The car wasn’t happy either, because the front grill had iced over. There was nothing for it, so I pulled over, put the 4 ways on, and hoped the bit of road I was on was straight enough that ppl could see me far enough away. Got out, deiced the front of the car at great personal peril, and continued.

It became clear that there was no option but to continue when the road the navi suggested would take me on to Hirosaki, and would be a not-bad road turned out to not-have-been-plowed-in-months. My only option was continue south through the Hakka Pass.

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that, in summer, the Hakka Pass is probably a lovely drive. But in a late-winter snowphoon? Pro-tip: Don’t do it. I did, so you don’t have to. It was a steep, bendy, poorly maintained mountain road. If you lost control, you would fall of the edge and you would die. There was one point when I had to slam on the brakes cuz I came around a corner and found a truck reversing down the hill because it couldn’t make it up. This broke my momentum, and I found myself unable to continue up the hill either, though a wee run-up got me past that.

The other terrible thing about this stretch of road was the bumpiness. There was a thick compacted layer of icy snow on the road surface that had been gouged out by the snow plow’s tire chains all season. The shaking was driving me fucking mental. Things were falling out of cubbies and glove boxes and visor pockets, and I can still remember the mind-numbing sound. “I’ll stop at the first convenience store goddammit,” I said to myself. Then the downhill started. If you go too fast, you will die. If you use your brakes, you will die. If you cannot see, you will die. It was all a bit white-knuckle again.

When finally I got to a convenience store, it was in Oyu in north Akita. I pulled into the parking lot and had a good cry. It was so fucking stressful! I got out, availed myself of the facilities at the convenience store, and bought a cookie, which I sat in the car eating while I cried a bit more. This is a part of the trip where I kind of wish I hadn’t been alone. With the right person, it would have been better. Not the sort of panicky ninny who’s going to be OMG U R GOING TOO FAST, OMG WE ARE GOING TO DIE every three seconds, but the kind who would just sit there when you were focussing on not dying, and chat for distraction when you needed it. Twitter was very quiet that day, and it was all very upsetting.

Anyway, it was at this point that I decided to abort. From the very beginning, I had told myself that if, at any time, I wanted to quit the trip, I could do that, and it would be okay. I wasn’t going to force myself to achieve the trip’s goals if I decided I wanted out. This was the point, after the Hakka Pass, that I decided, no, fuck this, I’m out. I’m going home now.

I was close to an expressway interchange, so I thought, perfect, I’ll hop on here, and be home in 6 or 8 hours. Except, the highway was closed at this point. So I could either stay there, huddled in the car, sad and stressed and upset, or I could continue driving, and maybe get to where the expressway WAS open. I decided to press on.

This decision took me on R282 over the mountains between Akita and Iwate. This was like the Hakka Pass, only LONGER, with worse visibility, slippier roads, and even rougher road surfaces. I was gripping my steering wheel so tightly for the entire time I was on that road that I think I did myself some mischief to my right wrist. Every time there’d be a chance to stop (not often), I would, and I’d try and I’d eat and I’d continue on. Like Monday night had been surreal in a “there is nothing but darkness and forest now, there is nothing but this anywhere in the world” sense, Wednesday became very much the same, only with snow, wind, and bumpy roads.

Finally, I found a portion of the highway that was open, and I got on and I aborted that trip like a champion. Even now, when I drive over bumpy roads (all the roads in my town are bumpy because cheap stupid bastards or something), I get flashbacks to that day in Akita, and I don’t like it. Not one bit.

Lasting impressions of Akita: FUCK YOU AND YOUR SNOWPHOONS AND YOUR SHITTY ROADS AND YOUR IMPOLITE PEOPLE WHO JUST STARE AT ME WHEN I ASK IF THEY KNOW THE CONDITION OF THE ROAD AHEAD OR HOW FAR IT IS TO AN OPEN PORTION OF THE HIGHWAY. Akita: Fuck off and die.

I didn’t get to Yamagata, so I can’t say I’ve bingoed Tohoku, as was the plan when I set out. Yamagata’s close enough, though, that I could make it a weekend trip in Golden Week or in summer.

You can follow the entire path I took by looking at a Google Map I made. For some reason, it has split the route over several pages, because dumbfuckery, so do be sure to use the page links at the left.

I have rambled. I am finished. TEH END.