Iwate in general, and Oshu in particular, is a place full of hidden gems. From Maesawa wagyu beef to a plethora of brilliant thinkers and writers, or the National Observatory and of course the prospective ILC, this city has a lot of incredible features, even though locals aren’t usually inclined to brag about them. A great example of this phenomenon is the Isawa Dam Canoe Course.

The Isawa Dam is on the Isawa River, and is the largest rock filled dam in Japan. On top of providing tap water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power, this dam is also the site of one of Japan’s premier canoe courses. Built right under the dam, the unpredictable nature of this course – in contrast to artificial courses – makes it a true challenge.

Last year, when preparations were going on with the intention of holding the Olympics in summer 2020, and we were coordinating discussions about holding training camps for certain international teams at this course, I had the amazing opportunity to meet and talk with Olympic athletes and affiliates. At that time, they sang the praises of Isawa’s course for its complexity, as well as its scenic backdrop. It was thrilling to watch them take on the fast rushing water, with a strength that was both physical and mental.

I’m pleased to report, however, that this weekend class – indeed all such classes –aren’t on this intense course, but on a still water pond for people to experience paddling a canoe in a relaxed, calm atmosphere. Anyone from grade 3 and up with any level of experience can join. These lessons take place every Saturday from May to September, one in the afternoon and one in the morning.

The deep green foliage contrasted beautifully against the light gray clouds, unlike the fall colors I had experienced last time I was here in November. After a brief warmup and explanation of how to paddle, we got in our boats and set off.

From here, it was very open-ended: you could paddle in any direction, at your own pace. The instructor circled around, offering tips as needed and helping out if anyone got stuck on shore. I paddled back and forth across the length of the pond, vacillating between a quick pace and a more leisurely one, pausing from time to time to rest and admire my surroundings.

View of the pond with the dam visible on the right

There were exactly 10 participants, and we were all spread out. It’s an outdoor activity, of course, and the boats are single-rider, so it avoids the 3 C’s (or what Japan calls the 3 mitsu: crowds, close conversations, and closed-off spaces.) If you want to take extra care once it’s safe enough to visit Japan, canoeing is a great low-risk activity option.

After the class, I headed to the observation area to get a panoramic view of the dam. As I stepped onto the bridge, the view of most of the dam spread out before me was staggering. Looking closer, I could see our pond, with the canoes resting beside like little toy boats. Mountains, covered in trees of the richest green, were the backdrop of this scene. It was an easy place to sit on a bench and simply watch the water, trees, and clouds. Photos don’t do it justice.

Up close view of the rocks of the dam

Side view of the observation area

On a practical note, as for food and lodging, nearby Himekayu Onsen offers overnight stays or day trip options. In addition to rejuvenating hot springs to soak in, seasonal foods made with local ingredients are on offer, plus an attached ski hill. On both the drive in and the return trip, one notices a tunnel of trees. This is known as the Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms: in spring, lovely light pink sakura bloom for a short time. No matter the season, this place has something unique and beautiful going on.

The (presently inactive) ski hill at Himekayu, with the building itself to the right

Thanks to the Isawa Dam and the course, Oshu City and the Oshu City Community Revitalization Corps have been able to promote the sport of canoe to the entire area. An association of canoe enthusiasts helps to prepare classes like this, canoe-centered festivals, tournaments, and more.

Among Iwate’s many secrets, this is one of its best-kept. Hope to see you there!


Isawa Dam Tourism site (All in Japanese, click around for pictures of the site and past events.)

Link to Himekayu site  (Also all in Japanese, but some gorgeous photos.)