Cowra is a town of 9500. Settled in the early 1820s, it sits on the Lachlan River in the Lachlan Valley and is the commercial and administrative centre of a shire busy with livestock trading, wool scouring, vegetable growing and processing, vineyards, furniture making and tourism.
But perhaps Cowra is best known for the "Cowra Breakout", when Japanese prisoners of war made a dramatic attempt to escape.
When Australian forces began taking prisoners of war during WWII, 20 regional locations were selected. Cowra and Hay were chosen because of their distance from the coast, allowing minimum chance of escape or even orientation for POWs. They were joined by a large number of Italian POWs who, unlike their Japanese counterparts, were well liked by the locals some were even given jobs to do outside prison fences.
According to Japanese culture, being taken as a prisoner of war incurred unbearable shame. So much so, that the families of prisoners were told by government officials that they had been killed in action, a much more honourable fate.
On Friday, August 4, 1944, an order in accordance with the Geneva Convention, decreed that all Japanese POWs below the rank of Lance Corporal would be moved from the very crowded Cowra prison to the Hay facility. The next morning at 1.50am an unauthorised bugle sounded and up to 900 Japanese prisoners rushed from their huts and headed straight for the barbed wire fences. Using blankets, baseball gloves and layers of thick clothing to protect themselves from the barbs, some flung themselves on the wire allowing compatriots to climb over them to freedom. Others set fire to eighteen of the camp's twenty huts and some prisoners who were less mobile hung or stabbed themselves and were cremated in the burning huts. Any who resisted involvement were chillingly murdered by their own comrades.
The escape attempt resulted in the deaths of four Australians and 231 Japanese POWs. They are buried in Cowra and 800 cherry trees connect the cemeteries to the town's cultural centre.
The story of the breakout is told at the information centre in a nine-minute hologram presentation in a small tin hut which is a replica of those found at the camp. This facility recently won a NSW State Tourism Award. A young woman tells the story from a local perspective while interacting with artefacts from the camp. It is aimed at raising awareness of Cowra's historical significance.
While Cowra is bound forever to the history of war, it now promotes the values of pacifism and internationalism and the town has become the centre of the annual Festival of Understanding. They have a replica of the peace bell that hangs in the UN Headquarters in New York. The original was cast from coins donated by delegates of the then 65 member nations of the UN and is inscribed with the words: Long Live Absolute World Peace. Cowra's bell was cast from coins provided by 103 member countries of the UN.
Cowra's major tourist attraction is the Japanese Garden, opened in 1979. Designed by landscape architect Ken Nakajima, the five hectare garden follows the Kai-yu Shiki style of the Edo era which flourished in the 1600s.
Streams form cascading waterfalls into two large ponds, and paths with wooden bridges meander through the garden. There is a traditional tea house, arbour, pottery house, bonsai house, Bonsho temple bell and sculptured hedges. Irises, cherry blossoms, camellias, wisteria, azaleas, Asiatic lilies and magnolias spread their beauty, colour and fragrances in dramatic display.
The Bonsai House contains many fine examples of miniature Japanese gardens and trees, while the Pottery House has a resident potter producing a range of Japanese inspired tableware and gifts for purchase.
Each September the garden celebrates the cherry blossoms with Sakura Matsuri, a festival which brings hundred of visitors to admire the flowers and enjoy demonstrations of Japanese arts and crafts.
Chill Restaurant serves Japanese and European cuisine, and you can dine either in the air-conditioned restaurant or on the terrace.
Just four kilometres from the centre of town, Cowra Fun Museum has an extensive collection of war, rail and rural memorabilia housed in a large covered complex. There are fourteen working steam engines, a massive model train layout and antique shop.
320km west of Sydney.
Cowra Fun Museum entry is $7.70. They offer free guided tours, fire engine ride, carousel and hay rides.
Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre entry is $8.50 for children and $22 for a family. They open from 8.30am to 5pm each day, except Christmas day.
The hologram display is free.
Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.
Cowra Visitor Information Centre
Mid Western Highway, Cowra 2794
Ph: (02) 6342 4333
Fax: (02) 6342 4563www.cowratourism.com.au
Japanese Garden and Cultural Centre
Binni Creek Road, Cowra 2794
Ph: 02 6341 2233
Fax: 02 6341 firstname.lastname@example.org
Cowra Fun Museum
Mid Western Highway, Cowra 2794
Ph: (02) 6342 2801
Fax: (02) 6342 email@example.com