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Tohoku: August

The planets had finally aligned. An open work schedule, an available BMW R1200RT, clear skies and an intense desire to hit the open road and clear the head. And my target zone for research was the northern region of Tohoku. Tohoku, which translates simply to the north-east, is what I would call Japan's forgotten region. And I felt it was time to investigate.

Most people have heard of Kyoto, Osaka, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but not many have heard of places like Hiraizumi, Kakunodate and Iwate. These places, among others in the north, had perked my interest, and if I stood any chance of reaching these faraway destinations without being lost in the mountains for weeks, I would need to get myself onto the Tohoku Expressway and stay on it for a while.

With the big city well and truly fading out of sight in the side mirrors, I started to pass many a familiar sign; Nikko, Kinugawa and Nasu (all popular weekend getaway spots for Tokyoites), then Bandai and Wakamatsu (the gateway to Tohoku). Next, Yamagata and Mt. Zao, and on toward Sendai and finally Matsushima; my first overnight stop and staging post for the ride further north. This was not my first visit to Matsushima, and it was not the first time the famous view of the Matsushima Bay had been clouded over by the weather. Matsushima Bay, with its picturesque islands, is considered one of Japan's three most scenic spots. hmmm...but still can't verify that.

Day 02...
From Matsushima I hugged the coast for some time before venturing inland and weaving my way through the hills and valleys of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

The road into Hiraizumi

Before leaving Tokyo I'd checked for rain, but hadn't noticed we were in for a heat wave. Tohoku is supposed to be much cooler than Tokyo, but I was burning up, and by the time I reached the old historic district of Hiraizumi, I was utterly exhausted and near collapsed under the shade of a tree just outside Chusonji temple....But determined to reach Kakunodate by nightfall, I rehydrated, ate a cheap bowl of Hiraizumi soba and rejoined the freeway.

The road out of Hiraizumi

I generally make a point of staying off the highways, but with just 4 days to do everything I wanted to do, there was little choice. Mt. Iwate was my highway exit point and it wasn't long before I realized I was now really 'out there'. As I headed west, just to the south of Mt. Iwate, the landscape quickly began to transform. Around the foot of Mt. Iwate you'll find cattle and sheep grazing, which is quite unusual for Japan. Then before long, I was headed up and over a massive mountain range; steep valleys dropping away to each side. The main road cut a course straight through this impenetrable landscape. Tunnels spat me out straight onto bridges that spanned ravines hundreds of meters high. Really an amazing feat of engineering, and quite an old road, so I can only wonder how they managed to pull it off. Nonetheless, I had crossed into Akita, where the air was cooler and the roads seemed that much wider.

Mt. Iwate in the background

By now the sun had started to pass behind the rolling Akita hills, but if I was to catch a glimpse of Lake Tazawako, I would need to take a slight detour before reaching Kakunodate. It was well worth the extra ride though to see this near perfectly circular lake, which is said to be Japan's second deepest. The added bonus of riding this late in the day was that I had the roads completely to myself. I have noticed often when riding in Japan that at around 6pm the whole nation seems to stop and take dinner together. As a result, the roads are deserted and it can be my favorite time to ride, especially after the heat of a day like today.

Finally, I'd reached my destination; Kakunodate. A quick shower and then off to explore the town, or perhaps village would be more appropriate. Armed with a couple of local maps, I was determined to find out about this little northern Tohoku outpost...

Typical old building in Kakunodate

Kakunodate's main claim to fame is its superbly preserved samurai district. Established in 1620, half the town was reserved for the Samurai class and the other half was for the merchants and other ordinary folk. Much of the more affluent samurai area is still just as it was hundreds of years ago; with its wide tree-lined streets and traditional centuries old samurai homes. I wandered through the dark streets wondering how things must have been a few centuries prior....But as I made my way out of the samurai district and toward the other end of town, I was taken aback by two obnoxious buildings that held prime position at the entry point to the main samurai street. It wasn't til the light of day that I could confirm exactly how horrible these buildings were, and at breakfast I asked a lady at the hotel for an explanation. Her answer should have shocked me, but I've been here long enough to be numbed to the extremes of Japanese bureaucratic incompetence. The answer was sadly a) the municipal hospital and b) the Kakunodate town hall. Both government buildings were a complete eyesore on the landscape and were a symbol to me of how broken the bureaucracy really is in this country.

Kakunodate main street at 7am

Kakunodate town hall...ouch!

A Japanese friend recently explained how it works...The government has its budget and decides to construct a new building. Instead of having a number of competing firms bid for the project as would be the case in the private sector, the government has a more socialist/communist approach. The government hands the project to company A and lets company B and C know that they will receive the next projects that come along. That way all is fair in an extremely egalitarian kind of way. Company A 'wins' the contract by default. B will get the next one and C the one after that. 'Harmony' is maintained in the land of the rising sun, but without any competitive bidding, there is no capitalistic drive for excellence. After Company A receives the contract, it then outsources the job to another company and takes its cut for doing nothing at all except being nice and cosy with the local government officials. The outsourcing of work then continues to flow through the system. As the project is sub-contracted and sub-contracted multiple times, the actual work is finally done by a tiny company that has hardly any budget to work with. The cheapest possible building is of course constructed; with no architectural thought, no engineering professionalism, no urban planning. The building is just a roof and 4 walls. Everyone in the process has taken his cut and the real loser in the whole process is Kakunodate, which is left with an eyesore instead of an asset that adds to the overall ambience of the town. This is Japan at its corrupt and bureaucractic best. The problem is systemic and although better than it was, it is most certainly still with us.

The government often cries that the countryside is an economic wasteland and there is no industry and no hope. All the young people are leaving and heading to the big cities and there is no future for the small provincial towns. But here is a town blessed with a long and rich history and by some miracle, the heart of the town is still well-preserved. Yet the government has made no effort to capitalize on its samurai heritage. The town has just a couple of hotels and it is near impossible to find a restaurant or cafe open after dark. The hotel where I was staying brought back memories of staying overnight in Ulan Batar, Mongolia in 1998; with its Soviet-style communist design. I ate breakfast in the hotel's 'tower', that at one time I imagine used to rotate. And the interior clearly hadn't been changed since the late 60s, which put me and perhaps the other two guests (who I think worked for the electricity board) into a strangely socialist timewarp.

Inside the hotel tower

If only the government would take some responsibility. All they would need to do is introduce some architectural and urban planning regulations that ensure all new buildings are built in accordance with the original architectural design of the town. With a billion Chinese tourists just a few hours flight away, I would say that Kakunodate is sitting on a gold mine, but unfortunately it appears that the town is run by overpaid civil servants who have either given up or don't really care.

Uniquely Kakunodate

As I left Kakunodate, I felt a little sad, but in my heart I know that one day this little northern outpost will see its potential realized and its honor restored. Here's to hoping....

To be continued (in part 2)...