Name: Brett Rawson
Location in Japan: Kisakata-machi, Nikaho-shi, Akita-ken
Name of City: Kisakata
Description: takes place on the beach, which is where I spent a lot of time reading and watching sunsets, but is interwoven with Kisakata’s history, which includes Matsuo Basho, Matsushima-like mini-islands before a volcanic eruption in early 1800s that raised the seabed and drained the water, and all the little known places that, when one finds them, will find them to be the type of restorative sight that resettles the soul by pressing pause on all the pressure and deeds of the every day.
Sitting on the seawall, book in hand, I lift my eyes and see the sun begin its final descent, a sort of day-end soliloquy, casting the clouds in a multi-chromatic solar showdown. The water receives and heaves waves of light toward the shore, slapping the sand and land with the fading brightness of a day almost done, until at last, the sun slips into a different sky’s rise.
I’m compelled to convince you that this sight—the sunset from the shore—is soul-soothing enough to place your car into park in Kisakata, Akita. However, there are no signs to this strip of sand and a tetra-pod might not be your idea of a sunset seat; but most importantly, we might not always be able to reach this beach by feet.
You see, in 2007, I was on the shore, but in Matsuo Basho’s day, I would’ve beneath the surface of the sea—in fact, much of modern day Kisakata would’ve been underwater. Kisakata was the Matsushima of the western coast, a quiet and coastal town renowned for its dozens of floating islands. But in the early 1800s, an earthquake struck the shore, shaking awake Mount Chōkai, the largest volcano in Northeast Tohoku. The eruption tossed thousand-ton boulders towards town, but most dramatically, the seafloor shift raised the coastal seabed by some twenty or thirty feet, draining the bay of its water and turning what was a lagoon of ninety-nine islands into now pastures of rice paddies sprinkled with tree-topped lumps of land. It’s said that feudal lords wanted to raze the islands in name of rice cultivation, but there was enough local momentum to keep nature in place. And so, there they randomly sit, these landlocked islands of trees, marking Mother Nature like birthmarks on the body.
The main road through Kisakata follows the coastline’s curve, cutting the town into two. At the main intersection, Kanmanji (Kanman Temple) sits to the east as the spiritual center of town. It is here where Basho wrote his haiku about Kisakata,
Seishi sleeping in the rain,
wet mimosa blossoms.
which was later published in Oku no Hosomichi, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which was the account of his five month, 2,450 kilometer trek through Tohoku. But most passersby stop on the sea side of the street, where Nemunooka, Kisakata’s Roadside Station, is located. At four floors, it is the tallest building in town and offers a panoramic view from the observatory, but more popularly, an onsen (public bath) on the third floor that faces west through a wall of windows that block the bitter winter winds but not the view of the bay and hues of blue. While some come for the sights or a dip, others come for a quick pray for fertility at the penis shrine, which stands a solid six feet by its lonesome self at the north end of the road station.
The other intersections have just as much, if not more to offer, but from the signals, you can’t see what’s at the end or beyond the bend. And so, here are a couple of little known good places that, if you stretch your time beyond passing through, Kisakata has to offer you.
Naso no Shirataki and Kinpo Jinja: a semi-steep stroll, but at the base of the hill is a constant mist from this twenty-six meter tall waterfall. The cascading sounds and wooden scents envelope you in the moment, centering your focus on the immediate beauty of this isolated area. After the ascent, duck into the ramen shop just outside the grounds and enjoy a bowl of Chōkai Ramen to rest the legs and refuel the body.
Mototaki: this thirty meter wide waterfall spills from the underside of a giant rock, which delicately sits on the side of an otherwise normal hill. Descending to the base of the small falls, you’ll feel the temperature drop decades in degrees, offering a much needed escape from the humid summer heat.
Nakajimadai Forest: take a stroll (or cross-country trek in winter) through this five kilometer loop. See the knuckle-knotted beech trees, the old coal caves, natural springs, and magical marimo moss that carpets the water in glowing greens, but don’t miss the dozens of rare plants that sideline the trails.
Mount. Chōkai: docile since 1974, Mt. Chokai is 2,236 meters tall. See it from the shore, drive half-way up to the information center, or hike to the top and watch the sunrise cast Chokai’s shadow over the sea.
Individual anaba: with enough time in any place, you’ll find your own anaba (a hidden gem or hole-in-the-wall). During a weekend walk through the hillsides of Kisakata, I came across a gazebo on the crest of the hill, overlooking the town, rice paddies, tree-sprinkled islands, and the Sea of Japan. From here, I often watched town turn off its light and turn into night.
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