What a year 2020 has been. Country areas have fought a horrific bushfire season, along with drought, floods and the pandemic. The one resulting message that resonates through all of this is the one that implores us to "Support Regional Australia". Country folk have certainly been affected more than anyone.
With this message in mind and the beauty of spring upon us, I set out on a road trip to do my bit. Cowra was my destination, a 4hr drive west of Sydney. I have had the Japanese Garden & Cultural Centre in my sights for some time and, even though the Cherry Blossom Festival wasn't running this year due to Coronavirus, I decided to visit the garden.
After all, a pandemic does not stop flowers from blooming and this garden has everything you can expect from a Japanese garden, from gorgeous flowers to waterfalls, cascading streams, lakes with resident koi carp, ducks and a variety of birds, a pergola and arbour, a tea house and a bonsai house, viewing platforms and lookouts. In main buildings, you'll find an education centre, the cultural centre, a café-cum-restaurant and a gift shop.
It certainly didn't disappoint. There's a lot to love here, from the cherry blossoms to the wisteria, the magnolias and golden trumpet bushes, trees and so much more. Beauty abounds in this landscape created by world-renowned Japanese architect, Ken Nakajima. It's a strolling garden and the ultimate tranquil experience with clear paths taking you around the entire 5 hectares (12.5 acres).
The cultural centre provides much interest, showcasing exhibitions from local and regional artists as well as an extensive collection of Japanese artworks and artifacts in the two galleries. Some highlights are the traditional Torii gate, porcelain dolls dressed in kimonos, and the decorated vases and urns.
I came for the garden but found there's more to meet the eye in this country township, than first expected, as follows –
There's an abundance of art here in various forms. There's changing exhibitions at the Cowra Regional Art Gallery, Aboriginal murals in the streets and on the pylons of the Cowra Bridge, and sculptures in Cowra Sculpture Park, all adding to the beauty of this town with a population nearing 10,000.
Cowra has a lot of history too. You may have heard of the Cowra Prisoner of War Breakout in 1944. It was the largest (over 1,000 escapees) and one of the bloodiest prison escapes of WWII with 5 Australian soldiers and 234 Japanese soldiers killed. The remaining escapees were re-captured and imprisoned. There's a powerful hologram presentation about it in the Cowra Visitor Information Centre as well as displays of items from the war. You can also visit the Prisoner of War Campsite with its replica guard tower and visible ruins, and stroll or cycle along The Garrison Walk where interpretive signage brings the history of the site to life amongst the scenic views.
Apart from the war history, you can also find some railway history in the open-air museum at the Lachlan Valley Railway Heritage Centre. Wander through the extensive collection of steam, diesel and vintage railmotors, amongst carriages and wagons. The sleeping cars with their preserved cedar panelling and original fixtures and fittings evoke memories of a past era of train travel. A roundhouse, historic buildings and gardens add to the experience of this site that also memorialises local railwaymen who gave their lives in WWI and WW2.
From the violent beginnings of the POW Breakout, a journey of reconciliation and a growing friendship has developed between the people of Cowra and the nation of Japan. In 1992, the World Peace Bell Association recognised Cowra's long-standing commitment and contribution to world peace and international understanding with the presentation of a Peace Bell.
The bell is a symbol of hope and was made from melted down coins donated by 106 member countries of the United Nations. Australia is one of around 16 countries with a World Peace Bell and we're the only country with one that is not in a major city. Other peace bells can be found in New York, Osaka, Berlin, Christchurch and Warsaw.
In 2018, Australia received a second peace bell (it resides in Canberra), making us one of the few countries in the world to have two of these bells.
Public Parks and Open Spaces
For an overview of the town, head up to Bellevue Hill Lookout and Reserve. Explore the walking tracks, take in nature and let the kids run wild in the playground at this pretty spot. You can picnic here or at one of many parks in Cowra.
It's also nice to throw down the picnic blanket beside the Lachlan River, under the Cowra Bridge (south side) near the aforementioned murals on the pylons. Lots of trees and wide open spaces, it was very peaceful when I was there.
More of nature's beauty can be found at the Cowra Rose Garden. There weren't many roses blooming during my visit (they come out later in spring and in summer), however, it was still a place of beauty with its trellises of greenery and well-kept garden beds.
In and around Cowra, the drought is over for now and the hues of the country landscape are vibrant with green pastures, fields of golden canola crops and purple flowers. Well, I thought they were purple flowers until someone told me they were actually weeds, those known as Paterson's Curse. I would happily have these pretty purple weeds in my garden.
Camping, swimming, fishing and canoeing are popular here with holiday parks and waterways to tempt you.
Cycling is easy with a network of interconnecting concrete paths that lead you to spectacular views and many of Cowra's attractions.
For something more adventurous, head to Canowindra for some hot air ballooning. It's only half an hour away.
For those that love to shop, you won't be disappointed as Cowra has boutique shops as well as big-name stores like Millers, Bunnings, Helloworld Travel and The Reject Shop.
Smaller local businesses include Paws n Tails for pet supplies, Lamps n Things for lighting and kitchenware, French's Store for camping and workwear, Bushman's Boots & All with clothing and accessories, and Rare Pear Studio for gifts, to name just a few.
Markets with country flair also run on most Saturdays.
Cowra boasts a number of bakeries, casual cafes, fine restaurants, pubs and clubs using local produce. Some of interest are the Cowra Hot Bake (loved their curry potato pie), the very busy Rose Garden Coffee House, Café Ruze, Breakout Brasserie, Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant, the Imperial Hotel with its old-world charm and the Cowra Services Club.
If your food needs to come with exquisite wine, then you may want to visit the Quarry Restaurant & Cellar Door in town or one of the region's nearby wineries. In Nyrang Creek, Wallington Wines is a unique straw bale winery (open by appointment) offering wine tastings with the winemaker, wood-fired pizza and grazing plates.
Wine lovers can also purchase local wines from the region at the Cowra Visitor Information Centre. They have 40 varieties to choose from. Produce is also available and they can even put together a hamper for you.
Fantastic article and photos Irenke. We visited Cowra many years ago and was amazed at the beauty of the Japanese garden. It was pleasing also to see the well kept cemetery where the Japanese POWs were buried. It shows Australians can not forget the past, but forgive it. A lesson that could be learned by many other countries.
Cowra is one of New South Wales country towns best kept secret.
I spent four days in COWRA a few years ago, doing a road trip for my seventieth birthday. YOUNG - GRIFFITH (town of my birth )- COWRA
All the attractions highlighted here in your article are in my photograph album, especially the Indigenous artwork on the bridge trestles.
At the Japanese War Cemetery there was only one grave which had a floral tribute, which saddened me. We should remember them all.
August / September the best time to visit when all the spring blossoms are in bloom.