Iwanuma-shi, Miyagi-ken – Living in “rural” Japan.
When Shana and I received our contract offers to work in Japan in a town called Iwanuma we looked up Iwanuma on the internet and well, didn’t really find out much. The wiki article about Iwanuma is basically a “stub” and most of the information on the internet was in Japanese (available for hilarious translations by Google but not very informative). The little we found out amounted to: a town of 40,000 people in the Miyagi prefecture that was adversely affected by the 2011 earthquake. We could definitely tell what Iwanuma wasn’t. Iwanuma was not a big city, it was not a major tourist destination, and it was not a cultural center of Japanese life.
After living here for two months, I finally feel equipped to comment a little bit on living in “rural” Japan.
First and foremost rural in Japan and rural America are going to mean different things. Japan has excellent transportation infrastructure and just isn’t big enough across to really isolate some place like say the Arizona Strip or West Texas. There is an interesting dichotomy of living in Iwanuma in that it feels very rural and yet I am only 20 minutes from a major metropolitan center. I would compare it to living in Chicagoland and taking the train into the Loop, if Chicagoland were entirely composed of rice patties instead of suburban homes.
Iwanuma is surrounded by farmland on 3 sides. From city hall to the sea wall on the eastern coast of Japan is about 12 kilometers of almost entirely farmland. I have to bike through a large portion of this to get to one of my junior high schools. To the North and South is also farmland save for a narrow strip of developed land that hugs the JR rail lines (Tōhoku & Joban Lines) and the main freeway (Rikuzenhama Hwy) that runs North and South along the East coast of Japan. There are small towns that hug the toll-way and the railroad tracks. To the South are Watari and Yamamoto. Heading North is Natori (location of the Sendai Intl Airport) and Sendai, the capital of the Miyagi prefecture. Sendai is about 20 minutes by train from Iwanuma. Finally heading westward are foothills, small tracts of farmland and the Oū Mtns.
Iwanuma proper is reminiscent of downtown Petaluma, CA the Orange Cir in Orange, CA or downtown Auburn, CA but not as charming as any of those places and all in Japanese. Central Iwanuma is crammed with little specialty restaurants, “snack” bars, retail stores and an unlikely concentration of, convenience stores, grocery stores and gambling facilities. While having the characteristic narrow streets and concentration of bars and restaurants it is immediately forgettable due to the ant-like conformity of its utilitarian architecture. There is no antique Japanese charm to Iwanuma at all save for Takekoma Shrine.
I mentioned the concentration of grocery stores because it does strike me as a very odd thing in that there just aren’t that many people here in Iwanuma and yet there are about as many grocery stores as there are in Sacramento. Within walking distance alone there are seven large-scale grocery stores and I haven’t even bothered counting all the convenience stores. They all predominately sell the same things and for the most part are relatively inexpensive. There is no Whole Foods or Nugget market in Iwanuma; it’s Savemart, Albertsons or Ralph’s.
Even more interesting is that even in the very developed areas of Iwanuma there are little plots of farmland (more like overgrown gardens) between all the houses. This begs the question, if many people are growing their own produce; how do all these grocery stores stay in business? I am very puzzled by this fact. Only about 20% (about 19,000 sq/mi) of Japan is suitable for agriculture and cultivation but I think its great that the locals here create truly local produce for local consumption.
These “gardens” are found in the more residential areas surrounding the small downtown center of Iwanuma. Here is where Iwanuma becomes a great place to walk around. These older neighborhoods have very unique housing and many people have great looking actual gardens next to their mini-farm plots. Also off the main drag of Iwanuma are all the good little sushi shops, yakiniku spots and all in all great food. While the storage locker like apartments and the newly built “Pana-Homes” steal from the general aesthetic most of the homes here are very beautiful. Off the beaten path is the best place to be in Iwanuma.
Restaurant culture here is very interesting. There are actually several Italian and French restaurants in the city, as well as a Korean restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a Gyu-kaku (all you can drink and eat in 70 minutes for about $30), several McDonald’s-es and a Big Boy. However for only about three dollars we can catch the train to Sendai and hit up all kinds of different restaurants. We are definitely not lacking in available culinary experiences. Restaurants are kind of expensive in Japan, especially if you want to have a drink with dinner. Our local favorite is a place called Jon Bran that makes fusion Italian, Malaysian and Japanese food. They make great hand tossed margherita pizza, tuna carpaccio and this fried chicken that is just stupid good. The local sushi chain Kapa makes some of the best french fries I have ever had. Also 7/11 has fantastic food. Seriously.
Speaking of convenience the locals have multiple options for “pachinko” palaces. These are gambling dens that pop up mostly along the Rikuzenhama Hwy. I have yet to indulge in any of the gambling. Much of the highway if you don’t want to pay tolls resembles a large boulevard more than a highway. I think of Fair Oaks Blvd. in Sacramento, 19th Ave. in San Francisco or any street in Orange County.
One of the best things about living in a “rural” area is riding my bike everywhere. Most of the time. Well… When I need to carry anything larger than what fits in my backpack, it rains, snows, is really windy, its hotter than a metaphor from a Rob Thomas song; then riding your bike everywhere sucks. Bad. I feel in some ways I am repaying my debt to the environment for driving a V8 Silverado around for 4 years and then buying the least economical vehicle possible when I bought a Jeep Wrangler as a commuter car. I miss my Jeep. On the bright side my carbon footprint is nil, my maintenance bill on the bike is non-existent and I’m getting a lot of exercise. Grocery shopping is fine because we can’t fit too much in our apartment anyway and there really isn’t a place to buy in bulk. Costco and Wal-Mart are nowhere to be found.
Since there are very few English speakers in Iwanuma we haven’t really made an effort to try and enjoy nightlife. Also we can drink at home for much less than we could at a bar. A 4 liter bottle sojū only costs about fifteen dollars. I will dedicate an entirely separate post to bars in Sendai and bars in Iwanuma. Until then I will continue to enjoy my “rural” lifestyle.
There isn’t much different between living here in Iwanuma and living in Sacramento. Sacramento is surrounded by farmland and is often referred to as a cow town. Sacramento is called “The City of Trees” and so is Sendai. Most of the shops that are in Sacramento are found here in Iwanuma or Sendai, even Starbucks. Takekoma shrine is a lot like Sutter’s Fort in that its old and in the middle of the city. There is a river that goes through Iwanuma just like Sacramento.
It’s mostly the same…except for all the Japanese signs, none of our family or friends, a public transit system that actually works, and really cheap seafood.