Zao Machi, Miyagi
One of the great things about Japan is the diversity in local culture. Japan’s long and isolated history due to geography and limited transportation technologies has led to one of the most unique and recognizable non-western cultures in the world. Those same historical forces also led to the many differences in language, beliefs, and culture throughout parts of Japan. While modernization has eliminated many of the gaps, there are still plenty of differences to experience and enjoy.
This past week I had the opportunity to travel to Miyagi prefecture for the first time. Like many prefectures in the north of Honshu, Miyagi was hit by the 2011 tsunami with Sendai in particular being hard hit. The differences between small-island Okinawa and the plains and mountains of Miyagi were instantly obvious. From Sendai airport, the ground stretches away in all directions. Mostly farm land, the flat basin is nearly devoid of buildings so that I was astounded by the open spaces I hadn’t really experienced since being in the States.
In Okinawa, space is at a premium; so many areas are highly urbanized. Where there are fields, they are usually in smaller pockets hidden among urban settings. The few areas of low-lying land are taken up by sugar cane which disrupts the horizon, unlike rice fields which stretch away as far as one can see. From the flat areas, however, the geography shifts again, climbing quickly into valleys and forested mountains. Everywhere was rustic and green, with the road snaking past hidden villages that reminded me a lot of Sedona, Arizona.
We stayed in Zao Town, Miyagi for two days for the Daido-ge Festival. I’ll cover the festival in-depth next week, but I was travelling with a group of Eisa performers who go each year to perform during the two-day festival. It was a great experience.
There are two Zao Towns in Tohoku. One is in Yamagata Prefecture. This town was small and is known for skiing and kokeshi. The former is a small wooden doll with thin, rounded body and larger head. The dolls are said to have originated from Zao Town’s local onsen and then spread to other parts of Japan. Since the weather is far cooler there in the mountains than far in the south, the onsen is a welcome way to warm up and relax. There is a popular foot bath outside the onsen where travelers can stop and bathe tired feet in a stream of hot water.
Miyagi Prefecture is known for its beef tongue (gyu ton) dishes, but I found another local specialty right across the street from the onsen. Konyaku is a root based starch without much taste or a lot of nutrients, but it is a cheap way to fill the belly. It’s usually served in other dishes as a kind of filler. In Zao Town, specifically the To-gatta area, they served konyaku balls that had marinated in a sauce of dashi, roots and other ingredients to give it a golden color and hearty taste. These tabakon were served on skewers and were popular throughout the festival (they were 100 yen for a stick of 3).
There were other unique differences as well, especially among architecture, yet there were a lot of similarities as well. Everyone I met was warm and welcoming despite the fact I was only there to photograph and was not a performer. I was welcomed to all the post-festival events and the locals were as warm and curious as any I’ve met in Okinawa. I would have loved to stay longer, see more of the surrounding areas, and explore the famous sights, but it was also very interesting to spend two days on essentially one stretch of street. If you have the chance, take a drive through this area of orchards, you’ll be glad you did.