Japan Trip 2018, Part 3
I absolutely adore Japan's bullet trains. The Shinkansen are always on time. Well, mostly... once a month or so someone commits suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train and that causes some really bad delays, but let’s not dwell on that. The Shinkansen are comfortable. They're rhythmic. They lull you into a sense of serenity as the countryside silently passes by.
And then a Shinkansen on the adjacent track passes by in the opposite direction and the sudden burst of air pressure shakes the train car and jolts you back to reality.
I strolled around Sendai aimlessly. I was hoping to find a bar or somewhere that I could get a cocktail but all were closed and didn't open until 5 or 6pm. Maybe I should take it as a hint that depressed degenerates like me should lay off the sauce at 10 in the morning on a Monday.
I eventually circled back around to Sendai Station and made my way up to the Sky Garden, a small 5th-floor retreat perched above the buses and trains. It wasn’t as quiet as I'd expected. Jazz music played slightly too loud to be relaxing, having to be kept a couple notches above some piece of machinery that emitted an incessant buzz. What I really wanted was to find a quiet bar with a window overlooking the city far below. In Tokyo, that'd be the bar at Park Hotel Tokyo - home base of the best bartender I've ever met, Koji Nomaku. But alas, this wasn't Tokyo and I hadn't yet learned of the sweet spots of Sendai in which I could find a cozy retreat.
After getting lost in the S-Pal mall adjacent to Sendai Station, I went across the street into an electronics store hoping to find an adapter plug so I could recharge my laptop. Yes, you can plug American electronics into Japanese outlets, but only if the cord has a two-prong plug. If it has a 3-prong plug, like my laptop, it's very difficult to find a suitable outlet. The huge electronics store with more of everything imaginable had all but naught for me. At least there was a bar next door.
I ordered a Moscow Mule at Sk7 Bar and pulled out my notebook to continue what had become something of a stream-of-consciousness blabbering that was sure to out-blabber my usual ramblings. (Note: I've excluded a ton of the nonsensical stuff so what you're reading isn't nearly as drawn-out as what I'd originally written.) I ordered another Moscow Mule and asked about some oysters that were advertised in chalk on the side of a square pillar. The waitress asked if I wanted one or two. Uh, I wanted at least half a dozen, maybe a full dozen, right? Oh, no no no, Japanese oysters are fucking huge compared to our itty-bitty American oysters. She returned holding back a laugh and said there was only one oyster left. Just one? What is going on here?
"Okay, I'll have it."
I went back to my Moscow Mule while I waited. The ginger beer didn't have much bite to it, but the bartender had put sliced raw ginger in it alongside the wedge of lime. It helped a little and was a nice touch that I might end up copying given how much I love ginger. A few minutes later the waitress came out with a tray and laughed again, saying I could have two oysters instead of just one. Well, now I know why she's been laughing at me ever since I asked for at least six of them. They were fucking huge.
The oysters were massive but I honestly didn't care much for their flavor. They tasted the way a dock smells. I could practically hear seagulls cawing as I chewed. I should have gotten them fried instead of raw. Oh well, a mojito helped wash it down and clean the flavor from my mouth.
I laid down in my room to rest and wanted to nap but knew it'd be too deep a sleep and the night would be wasted. Instead, I took a scalding-hot shower, got dressed, and headed toward Kokubuncho, a neighborhood packed full of bars, restaurants, and izakiya. Sendai's signature dish is gyutan. That is, grilled cow tongue. I was seated at the bar in Rikyu Gyutan and ordered the gyutan set meal and a Kirin beer. The set meal included gyutan, oxtail soup, barley rice, salad, and pickles.
The salad wasn't very good and I'm not sure the lettuce was still within its edible lifespan. The gyutan was interesting. The flavor was fine throughout, but the texture changed from piece to piece. I could tell that I was in different parts of the tongue as I ate each piece. Um, don’t think about that too much. If you’re ever in Sendai, you have to try gyutan. It’s different, but it’s a dish that you have to have at least once.
Even though gyutan was the signature dish, it was the oxtail soup that stood out to me. The flavor was more rich than I'd expected but still subtle. It hit the spot and I couldn’t stop going back to it. Satisfied after my meal, I went back to my hotel room. It was another early bedtime.
The train to Matsushima-Kaigan Station was short despite the numerous stops along its commuter route. Matsushima-Kaigan is a quiet little station with a view of the bay from its only platform. It has something of a resort town feel to it, like the first town visited in Final Fantasy VIII after leaving SEED Academy (don't worry if you get the reference lol). A broad sidewalk followed National Route 45, the main seaside road along the coast in Matsushima. It was lined with souvenir shops and restaurants.
I grabbed a zunda smoothie at a souvenir snack shop that looked more like a temple than a store and then went to the pier's information desk. The lady at the counter spoke perfect English and was incredibly helpful. I wanted to explore Matsushima a bit so I left to wander the town. There was enough to see in Matsushima that hastily departing would have been a mistake, and I was right assuming that. I found a temple area with beautiful, peaceful gardens and trees with autumn's rainbow of colors. It was stunning to see the leaves fade from one color to the next. I was in absolute awe of the purity of it. It was the quintessential tranquility I've longed for in wandering a foreign land.
It took me a while to tear myself away from that place. I wanted to find a bench and sit there with a bottle of wine and stare into everything and nothing. But I knew that if I lingered any longer than I did, I'd be missing out on everything else I wanted to do. After a while I eventually left the gardens and returned to the main road.
A couple blocks away was the Masamune museum. The signage looked like some cheesy tourist attraction. The museum itself wasn't much better. It was interesting to go through, though. It had a bunch of scenes from Masamune's life and descriptions to explain each one, but nothing along the lines of historic artifacts.
The Matsushima Museum was a block away from that but I decided to return to the pier and head to Shiogama. I was warmly greeted by an English-speaking gentleman who asked which boat route I would be taking. I said I was going to Shiogama and he walked me to the ticket booth and told the lady what ticket I'd need.
After two days of loathing the space my Lime Rock Park jacket took up in my suitcase, it finally had a chance to redeem itself.
Too bad I didn't bring it.
It wasn't freezing by any means but a few extra degrees of warmth would have been a blessing. I kept active enough to stay warm by moving around the deck of the boat, taking pictures of Matsushima Bay. What an amazing sight to see. The idyllic natural beauty was mixed with impossibly-shaped rock formations and abruptly-edged islands that seemed to have no natural reason for being there.
It was the perfect setting to take pictures with someone, and I did just that.
Oh no, not of me and someone else. I was lonely as fuck. Rather, a couple had asked me to take pictures of them and I happily obliged. Then I went back to taking selfies, trying to get the right balance of lighting between the shaded boat deck and the brightly lit bay. The two days I'd been in Japan had felt like a week and I still wasn't any better. I still felt utterly alone. I started to cry.
"It's the salty air," I lied to myself.
Shiogama's corner of the bay was entirely different than that of Matsushima. It was industrial. The vast arrays of posts, nets, bouys, and other placemarkers scattered throughout the bay were clearly meant for Shiogama's crane-covered ports.
It was interesting to see the two distinct draws for tourism between Matsushima and Shiogama. The former has ties to an important historical figure, Masamune, and souvenirs aplenty paid tribute to him. (Is tribute the right word?) It also had its stunning temple area and view-laden shoreline. It was a lovely, though somewhat touristy, seaside town. Shiogama, on the other hand, seemed to use its status as a seafood juggernaut as its appeal, proudly showcasing its industrial wares. It wants you to know its role in Japan's fishing industry.
Shiogama has the largest number of sushi restaurants per capita in all of Japan, so I thought I’d be drowning in the stuff. Uh, I didn’t. I wandered around a bit to see if I’d stumble across something interesting. A hidden gem of a sushiya, perhaps. Or maybe someplace serving the most exotic of fish. No, no I did not find those things.
But I did find a sake brewery.
Urakasumi Sake Brewery is less than 10-minutes on foot from JR Hon-Shiogama Station. I was greeted warmly, but I could tell the young lady was uncomfortable. It didn’t take long to realize why. She didn’t speak any English whatsoever and didn’t know what to do to communicate. She quickly left to get someone else to help. She brought out a man who I later found out was Koichi Saura, the 13th generation owner of the sake brewery.
His English was limited, but it was just enough for us to talk through a quick tour of the facilities. I always enjoy seeing these things because I’m so fascinated by how complex the systems are that deliver to us the things we so often take for granted. The sake brewery was founded in 1724. The family-owned business provides sacred sake to Shiogama Shrine. Even the very stone under my feet had a story, which Saura-san was apt to point out and demonstrated its unique qualities by pouring water across it so I could see how beautiful it was. But what stuck with me in this particular tour was an incident that took place there several years prior.
In 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami laid waste to the entire region. This event was known in the US mostly for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that it caused, but here in Shiogama it was the tsunami that hit hardest.
I would have never known had Saura-san not pointed to a white line on a wall.
That white line was how high the water reached when the area was flooded by the tsunami. I made sure I was understanding him correctly and then had to take a step back to take in what that meant. I looked at my surroundings and tried to imagine everything covered in so much water.
Saura-san helped me do that. He pulled out a picture and showed it to me. The water had mostly receded when the picture was taken, but white lines were drawn through it to show how high the water had been at its peak.
Seven years ago the whole place had been flooded, yet now it was a perfectly immaculate brewery producing some of the best sake I’d ever had. After tasting their range of sake, I bought a couple bottles as souvenirs and headed to a sushi restaurant around the corner that Saura-san suggested to me. There I was met by an eager lady that wanted me to know I was welcome - even so far as to give me a sushi-themed calendar. It was a bit much, but I graciously accepted.
Like the sake distillery, the sushi restaurant had also been flooded and they had pictures to show me as well.
What you’re looking at in this picture is the sushi bar in the restaurant. The far end, at the right side of the picture, was the place I was sitting when they showed me the pictures.
Same as I did at Urakasumi Sake Brewery, I had to stop and look around to take in just how perfectly the place had been rebuilt after its near-annihilation. It made me realize how much I take for granted… how do I say this… not being wiped out by a giant wall of water. These disasters happen around the world, including in the US. I’ve been fortunate to not have experienced one first-hand.
After a short but pleasant chat via Google Translate with the sushi chef, I finished my meal and headed back to the train station, trying to ignore a gold chrome wrapped Chevy Camaro along the way.
Back in Sendai, I grabbed a bowl of ramen to warm myself up. It’d gotten a bit chilly and my body demanded noodly goodness.
My takeaway from the day was a pair of surprises. Matsushima surprised me with its beauty. Shiogama surprised me with its resilience. Each was a surprise for a completely different reason, but both left a mark on me because I know I’ll go back to see them again.
Next up, Tokyo.
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