Toast to historic Cowra
IF THERE'S one town in New South Wales that proclaims peace, it's Cowra.
When we visit, it's tranquil, the Lachlan Valley stretching out before our view, the town surrounded by vineyards, farmland and waterways.
But this land holds a more troubled history. On a gentle slope overlooking the town, a camp was set up during World War II to hold Japanese, Italian, Korean, Chinese and Indonesian prisoners of war. It was an extensive camp holding more prisoners than the number of Cowra residents at the time.
About 2am on August 5, 1944, more than 1000 Japanese war prisoners attempted to escape, in the largest POW breakout in modern military history. During the escape and ensuing manhunt, four Australian soldiers and 231 Japanese were killed. The remaining escapees were recaptured.
It's chilling to stand on the site today, picturing the scenes of chaos in the darkness of night, as a replay of the events unfolds, broadcast by loudspeaker from the guard tower beside us. It's a tale of desperate men striving to maintain their honour and the few brave soldiers who tried to withstand the attack.
Not far away, the only Japanese war cemetery in Australia houses the graves of those prisoners who perished, now lying in peace beside the graves of Australian soldiers. It's a place of tranquillity, a light breeze blowing as we wander beneath the Japanese maples. The site, tended by the RSL, is often visited by Japanese dignitaries on their visits to Australia.
The area's significance to Japanese-Australian relations was further reinforced when the Cowra Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre was later built on Bellevue Hill to commemorate these events. Initially viewed as a tourist attraction, the gardens have become a symbol of reconciliation between Japan and Australia.
Funded largely by the Japanese Government as a sign of thanks for the respectful treatment of their war dead, with further funding from the Australian Government and private entities, the garden was designed by world-renowned designer Ken Nakajima and opened in two stages, in 1979 and 1986.
The "strolling'' gardens were designed in the style of the Edo period when Japan was united under one shogun.
We have just missed the annual Sakura Matsuri (cherry blossom festival held each September), a major event in Cowra's tourism calendar, but the springtime gardens are resplendent with foliage, their rocky hillsides, manicured hedges, waterfalls, lakes and streams representing the Japanese landscape.
Mr Nakajima said it was the best garden he had ever made, and upon his death his ashes were placed at the top of the garden overlooking his masterpiece.
Today, visitors to Cowra seek not only to learn about its war history and gardens, they also come to taste food and wine from the area.
The Quarry Restaurant is the only Cowra restaurant situated among the vines. Settle in and enjoy a glass of local wine with good food.
The first vines had been planted in Cowra when the first settlers arrived; however, many early settlers moved to Mudgee as it was a more prosperous town. Although you can visit cellar doors by yourself, we took the Cowra Wine & Forage Tour to enjoy a carefree taste of the region's wines. Without the hassle of driving and finding wineries on country roads, this group tour ensured that we met producers at the farm gate.
Whether you visit Cowra to enrich your knowledge of history or to further your enjoyment of food and wine, the town is only a four-hour drive from Sydney.
For more information, check out visitcowra.com.au.