Smaller old towns in Japan may seem a dime a dozen to some, but to the more thoughtful observer, they may present a plethora of special quirks and fun facts.
I'm often captivated by old shopping streets. There is something wonderful about walking around shops that have been in the same spot in some form since before the US had states, even when progress has led some buildings to be modernized while others maintain their more historical feel. These little places, the streets lost in time, are more enjoyable outside of the larger cities, where historical districts are constantly packed with tourists.
One such street is Motomachi in the town of Shiogama, Miyagi. Motomachi doesn't look like much when you turn the block at the Matsuya building, which has been shuttered since before I started walking this road. Sidewalks are nonexistent, but the shoulder is marked and generally safe as traffic tends to favor the main street, a block over. Most pedestrians can walk without much worry or care and do so freely, visiting the slightly aged stationary store or the barber shop next door with ease.
Soon after these, the walls change from the cold modernity of glass-metal-concrete to a latticework of black painted wood in fence form, protecting the pristine white walls of the more architecturally interesting buildings beyond. Then comes the kanji-laden sign and storefront, with one easily readable kanji repeated among others - Sake.
Inside, each wall and shelf of a warmly lit showroom displays some great glass and ceramic work by artists from a variety of areas. Along the bar at the back, tourists and locals alike can enjoy a sampling of several of the area's best sake beverages in a take-home glass for just 300 yen. The atmosphere on a slow day is one of unique opportunity, making more imaginative patrons feel that they could be time travelers, stepping back a few hundred years just to enjoy a little drink.
Back outside, the beauty of the sake brewery continues down to the next building, which is connected to the sake gallery. In this second building, groups of tourists meet to tour the sake making facilities, though these tours are mostly limited to the storage areas to avoid the loss of company secrets.
Across the street from the sake brewery and show room is more of a sign of the times - Tanyo, a box-shaped building of concrete and metal which houses the biggest toy store in the area. Nowadays, people mostly drive to the Toys R Us in nearby Izumi or other shops inside of modern shopping malls, and it shows in the slightly run-down appearance of the building. It isn't exactly falling apart, but it obviously has not been renovated in a while, either. The old, funky font on the sign says as much.
More of these box-buildings separate the sake brewery from its closest pretty neighbor, but these shops are not without value. Beside the store front of a small ceramics shop sits a bright splash of captivating yellow. The lemony space belongs to Fruits Laboratory, easily the best gelato shop in town. With flavors ranging from hazelnut to raspberry, chocolate chip to watermelon, it is easy to find something anyone can enjoy.
The best place to enjoy this decadent midday dessert is not the shop's tiny storefront, where only a few seats are open for waiting patrons. Instead, it is better to cross the street and head for the big red tori gates just a few steps away. Just past the tori and to the left, a few metal benches wait to be graced by any passing person, even one with ice cream. Further in, the grounds of Okama shrine offer a glimpse into the historical value of the Shiogama itself.
In a wooden structure about the size of a small garage, the much smaller Okama shrine houses the equipment used by the priests at nearby Shiogama Shrine for making salt from sea water, a ritual that takes place every summer. While the making of salt may not seem essential now, it was such a huge part of the town's contributions that the name for the town came from this process. Shiogama in the original kanji - 塩竈. Salt furnace.
Article by 'JTsuzuki' at www.city-cost.com