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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Japan and Taiwan: Day 7 - Akita and Morioka

What a difference a day makes. The view from my hotel room in Akita 秋田 when I awoke on the morning of Tuesday the 17th told me that I wouldn't need to worry much about the weather following the typhoon of the day before. The TV news was showing the destruction the storm left in its wake in western Japan, but for the rest of my stay in the country, the skies would be relatively clear and the temperatures warm (and comfortably cool in the evenings). When I flew from Japan to Taiwan, another typhoon threatened to change my itinerary yet again, but that was something to worry about later. On this most pleasant of days, I checked out of my hotel and ventured outside to see what Akita had to offer. 

As it turned out, the answer was "not a whole lot, but more than I'd expected". Akita is an old castle town 城下町, one of many that existed during the Edo Period 江戸時代 (1600-1868). Today in Japan, only about a dozen original castles are still standing. Some cities have reconstructed their old feudal fortresses out of modern-day concrete in the name of tourism. Others, like Akita, have converted the sites of their former castles into public parks, and Senshū-kōen 千秋公園 was only a few minutes on foot from the hotel. There wasn't much to see in the park, but it did make for a nice morning walk.

From the park I walked over to the Kantō Festival Center ねぶり流し館, dedicated to Akita's massive Kantō Matsuri 竿灯祭り summer festival. The kanto is a kind of bamboo pole, on which are attached paper lanterns. During the festival, teams show off their skills by balancing the large poles on their heads and in the palms of their hands. The poles weigh 15, 30 and 60 kilograms (33, 66 and 132 pounds, respectively), and at the urging of the staff, I tried my hand (rimshot) at the lightest pole. The damn thing was heavy and very difficult to balance. I was told that the 15-kilogram poles were handled by kindergarten students during the festival. 

Next door was a well-preserved old merchant's shop, admission to which was included with the ticket to the festival center. The enthusiastic caretaker let me try on a traditional happi coat 法被, which helped to assuage a little the ego bruise I'd just received knowing that I was weaker than a five year-old.

Akita was nothing if not a bargain, for the same admission ticket also included entry to the Aka-renga Kyōdo-kan 赤れんが郷土館, 500 meters (0.3 miles) down the road. Dating from 1912 and originally the headquarters of Akita Bank 秋田銀行, this red-and-white-brick building had been well-preserved, and provided further evidence that the Meiji 明治時代, Taishō 大正時代 and early Shōwa 昭和時代 periods were an exciting time for architects in Japan. Taiwan, especially, has some striking buildings from these periods (more on that in a later post). 

The annex at the rear of the Akarenga-kan Museum housed an exhibition on a local artist, Katsuhira Tokushi 勝平得之, and his woodblock prints of "local scenery and people's everyday life and celebrations". 

A couple of nostalgia-inducing drinking establishments located in Akita's main nightlife area, close to the Akarenga-kan museum. There were other establishments I wanted to photograph, but this is a family blog. 

I left Akita just before noon, taking the bullet train 新幹線 to Morioka 盛岡, a little over 1½ hours away. On board I dined on an ekiben 駅弁of king salmon, washed down with a can of Calpis Soda カルピスソーダ. Say the name of the drink several times fast, and see what it sounds like.

The view from my hotel room in Morioka. After dropping off my bags, it was time to explore...

The Kitakami-gawa River 北上川. A dam upstream was forced to release a large volume of water as a result of the typhoon the day before. 

Morioka, like Akita, is a former castle town. The castle's old walls can be seen in the park, Iwate-kōen 岩手公園.

And just as in Akita, a number of interesting architectural specimens had been preserved, like the 1911 Iwate Bank 岩手銀行 building pictured above.

Around the corner from the bank were several wooden Meiji-era buildings called gozaku ござ九, such as this shop selling brushes and things made of straw and wicker. 

Another store specialized in sembei せんべい, aka rice crackers

A kura 倉. These traditional storehouses were made of plaster, and were used by their owners for storing valuables. Kura were much safer places than the wooden firetraps most Japanese lived in until relatively recently. 

The Kami-no-hashi Bridge 上ノ橋, constructed in the 17th-century and still carrying traffic across the Nakatsu-gawa 中津川.

The Ishiwari Sakura 石割桜 is a 300-hundred-year-old cherry tree that has supposedly split a large granite boulder. 

Japan's craft beer industry continues to grow, and I was more than happy to support the local brew, Baeren ベアレン. A couple of times, in fact.

My day in Morioka ended with a dinner of one of the city's local specialties: ja-ja men じゃじゃ麺 noodles. Basically, you mix miso 味噌 paste in with the thick, white noodles, and start eatin'. 

At the end of the meal, you crack open an egg and beat it into what remains of the noodles, then hand the bowl to your server. He or she will soon return with the bowl filled with broth, and you conclude your dining experience with a bowl of soup called chii tantan チータンタン.



  1. Jim, this installment was full of so many interesting things. the cherry tree and the 17th century bridge were really something. the photography was great too! already from this trip, i've learned that Meiji is not just a Japanese store chain!

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    1. Not so superbly written bit o'spam.