At the beginning of May, Japan has a string of holidays that cluster together. At some point in time this became to be known as “Golden Week”. From what I understand, the name came about due to some movie company making extra money during the string of holidays. Then eventually became a marketing campaign and the name landed like Christmas Chicken1. We didn’t really have much planned for the break. I am keeping busy with my Japanese study and work has been a bit hectic for S. We really didn’t have much in mind. Every year, the New York Times does a places to visit article. They shoot out an email blast to some writers on places to visit. One of those writers I follow named Craig Mod has written a bit about his walks around all over Japan. He suggested town of Morioka which to many peoples surprise landed on the #2 slot2 in NYT’s final list for the year. I mention the article in passing to S and we kind have a moment of: well… we don’t have anything planned so let’s go check it out.
If you mention that you’re to go visit Morioka. Most Japanese people – even those from Morioka – will ask: “why?” It’s not the historical city of Kyoto. There’s way more stuff to do in Tokyo or Osaka. Nara doesn’t have that many more people, but Nara has the park with the bowing deer. There’s not a whole lot nearby, but it does have a bullet train stop. Craig has been interviewed by the Japanese press over and over asking why he suggested the city. Even writing a follow up piece talking about that. When S reached out for recommendations from an old college friend who grew up in the city. She didn’t even mention the NYT. Her friend just assumed –rather correctly– we were visiting because of it.
The city isn’t big. You can walk across it pretty easily if needed. If you go outside of it you’re pretty quickly looking at rice fields or mountains. When we got to Morioka we grabbed a quick lunch and checked the local train schedule to realize if we don’t make this next train there’s not another one for five more hours! When we got to the gate to enter the station we found that you had to buy a paper ticket3. We rushed to get to the platform to find a train with only one train car! A “we’re not in the big city anymore” moment. We’re so used to seeing 8-15 cars on a single train; S laughed immediately and pulled out her phone to take a picture. We take the train one stop over to the next station and find no machine to take your ticket when you get off. A station employee stepped off the train and collected tickets from people as they got off. One of the infamous unmanned stations.
For a small city, it has pretty good infrastructure. Seems there are busses to fill in the gap of the trains. S thought the some of the roads were bad, but she hasn’t driven around Texas very much. I did notice the city was pretty mixed. There were definitely some areas where things felt very new. But a few blocks over things were quite old and worn down. After our shinkansen ride, we were on the hunt for some coffee. We made our way to a very stylish coffee shop. They were roasting the beans in the shop. It was really busy. We had to wait just to get into the shop on a Monday afternoon. We had some coffee, cheesecake, and some rest. Our hotel looks like it was built out sometime last year. It was a multipurpose building. Top floor had the hotel and public bath, bottom floor had a variety of little shops. In the hotel lobby, there was a cafe; a little Jazz museum; and an area for some live music.
Morioka really gave me some Denton Texas vibes. I haven’t lived in Denton as much as some of my siblings have. Morioka reminded me of that walkable townsquare vibe that I got in parts of Denton. Some old and new buildings and shopping strips. There’s record shops. Various coffee shops; some even roasting their own beans. Small photography studios. Variety of bakeries. A new shopping center is being built. Traditional rice crackers shops. The difference I felt in Morioka compared to Denton is that it felt more family focused, which makes sense as Morioka’s population isn’t mostly college students. Since Morioka is not a typical tourist destination or a college-town, the advertising I saw seemed much more inwardly focused. Maybe it’s just as common to family focused ads in Tokyo and I just don’t notice in the noise. There’s a lot more noise in Tokyo.
I think the tough point for Morioka is the middle of nowhere aspect. You walk for an hour in nearly any direction and you’re standing in a field. Not really close to another town. If your hobbies, work, life, etc happen to fit nicely inside of Morioka. It’s a rather nice area. And having access to shinkansen does help, but you don’t have the convenience factor that you have in the bigger cities. As I’ve nearly written off driving a car since moving here4. I found a small art supply shop that happened to have a nice set of gouache supplies. For my current art interests, this shop would’ve been perfect for me. Unfortunately, they were closing the store down for good. Seems they were in buisiness for a long time, and (I’m guessing) the kids didn’t want to continue the shop. The store-closing-sale happened to start the day we arrived. I brought back a bagful of art supplies that was all 50% off.
When various shop keepers asked where we came from and why come to Morioka, they all knew about the NYT piece. I’ve been slowly checking out jazz cafe’s in Tokyo so I’d follow Craigs suggestion of going to Johnny’s. It seems that since the article was released; foreigners from US, Canada, and more were all making their way to this vinyl packed jazz cafe. It wasn’t just a wave of people right after the article, but they were surprised that it was still having an impact several months later. People finally getting their trips in and they add this little town to the list. The owner of Johnny’s, Terui-san, is an incredibly nice guy and laughs with his whole face. Despite being in his 70s, he seems like quite the busy man. They offered us some local senbei and chocolates after we ordered some coffee. His wife(?) telling us stories of their favorite local bakeries (the different shops each have a strong point) and their other projects. Turns out the cafe and the jazz museum in the hotel we stayed out is owned by them! When we had to run to catch our shinkansen, we hopped into the small old elevator and start heading out. We take a step out the elevator door to be met by Terui-san. Who apparently raced down the 4 floors to see us off and say good bye. I hope I have that much energy when I am his age.
KFC landed a marketing campaign many years back and it’s become “the thing to do” for Christmas. ↩︎
NYT claimed it’s “not ranked”, but the ordering was rather deliberate. ↩︎
In the bigger cities, you can use a train card that’s scanned by a machine. ↩︎
Curious on how e-bikes would do here. A lot of bikes seemed rusted and old. I am curious on if the colder weather and salted roads comes into play. ↩︎