Kamaishi Kannon: guardian goddess and witness to history

The small city of Kamaishi, on the Sanriku coast of Iwate Prefecture, for more than a century a thriving center of Japan’s steel production is, these days, supported by fisheries, shellfish farms, and eco-tourism.  It was badly impacted by the 2011 Tohoku disaster, with the tsunami waters reaching 4.3 meters, easily breaching the Kamaishi Tsunami Protection Breakwater, then the world’s largest such structure and completed less than 2 years before.

But the people of Kamaishi are tough survivors, determined to rebuild.  Perhaps some of their confidence comes from knowing their city is guarded by Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

The Kannon stands atop a hill on the grounds of Sekiozenji temple (Admission JPY500).  Her pedestal is a combination visitor’s center and worship hall, the latter filled with smaller gilded Kannon images.

The statue of a standing Kannon, completed in 1970, stands 48.5 meters tall (that’s roughly the height of a 15 story building) and looks out on Kamaishi harbor and the sea beyond.  She holds a fish, and is thought to particularly watch over the fishermen of Kamaishi.

Visitors can ride an elevator (or take the stairs) to a viewing platform at the 12th level, just below her shoulders.  The views are stunning.  Although Kamaishi has rebuilt well after the disaster, it’s not hard to imagine the tsunami waters and subsequent destruction that the Kannon witnessed on that fateful day.

We rode the elevator up and walked down, which allowed us to see lovely wooden carvings of Japan’s seven lucky gods sitting in niches at intervals alongside the stairs.

There are a few little trails around the hillside on the temple grounds, with lookout points here and there.  Nearby there is also a stupa that contains another worship hall and some antique Buddhist statuary–the treasures of the temple, no doubt.

Our visit left us feeling peace and hope, exactly what Kannon stands for!

Just at the bottom of the hill below the Kannon, is the Iron and Steel Museum, with exhibits on Kamaishi’s mining and steel manufacturing history, something else to explore if you’re in the area.  If you have a car, travel 20 kilometers out of the city to the remains of the World Heritage-listed blast furnace that actually pre-dates the Meiji period development of a steel industry in Japan.

Perhaps to help Kamaishi with its efforts to rebuild, it was selected as one of the venues for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, creating another excuse to visit the area.

While tourism into Tohoku has been actively promoted especially since the 2011 disaster, tourism into the disaster zone itself seems to be only just getting off the ground.  There are wonderful little finds like Kamaishi dotted all along the Sanriku coast, making it a great destination to consider.

© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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