Travel

Oshu: A semi-rural city with a major league star

Hometown baseball hero Shohei Ohtani is honored in the little ways

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

I’ve traveled 500 kilometers north of Tokyo to shake a metallic replica of Shohei Ohtani’s pitching hand.

It’s next to the information desk at Oshu’s City Hall, flanked by panels covered in newspaper clippings of his recent success in Major League Baseball (MLB). A screen sits above, looping a video celebrating the process of creating the statue. There’s no footage of Ohtani’s on-field endeavours, but plenty of him sitting in a chair as his fingers are scanned meticulously by a laser.

This shiny re-creation is one of the city’s most prominent tributes to Oshu’s biggest star. Wander the streets of this sleepy place, though, and you’ll notice smaller tributes to Ohtani, the best two-way player in professional baseball in about a century.

Older ads by Iwate Prefecture’s branch of JA-Zenchu (the Central Union of Agricultural Co-operatives) featuring Ohtani holding an oversized onigiri (rice ball) are spread around town, while his elementary school has a banner of encouragement draped across the building. And, in June, a picture of Ohtani pitching and batting appeared in a rice field.

On the sunny Wednesday I visit in early summer, the southwestern corner of Iwate Prefecture where Oshu sits is postcard pretty, surrounded by mountains covered in lush greenery. The city is a 2 ½-hour trek from Tokyo via the Tohoku Shinkansen and upon arrival the feeling of distance from the metropolis is immediate.

At Oshu’s Mizusawa-Esashi Station, a cartoon-style map details the nearby leisure activities one can indulge in, from hot springs and golf courses to the intriguingly named Cattle Museum. Most visitors at this point would rent a car and drive out to one of these spots located at the fringes of Oshu. For the general visitor, that’s probably what you should do.

Fandom makes people (me) act illogically, however. I’m here for Ohtani, who has been the most thrilling rookie in MLB this year. He also happens to play for my favorite team, the Los Angeles Angels. Had Ohtani signed with the Seattle Mariners last December, I wouldn’t be here. If he’d inked a deal with the New York Yankees, I’d shun Iwate entirely.

But he wears red in Southern California, so I patiently wait half an hour for a shabby bus that transports me to downtown Oshu, wherein I set out to walk the same streets Ohtani (presumably) did while growing up in this city of around 120,000 people.

I haven’t even boarded the bus when I find my first tribute. Mizusawa-Esashi Station boasts a local culture corner filled with brochures, a display on traditional dance and information about the proposed Tohoku International Linear Collider.

And, tucked in the corner, there is a hastily constructed Ohtani exhibit, featuring old magazine interviews with him before he even debuted with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in 2013 and large pictures from his first week in MLB, when he hit home runs in three straight games and capped it off with a dominant pitching performance.

This nook-turned-micro-museum captures how Oshu as a whole approaches Ohtani’s success. Attempts at cashing in aren’t really present, save for the convenience stores selling books about him. Rather, the atmosphere is one of a small-ish city rallying around a successful local. Numerous buildings, from a JA-Zenchu office steps away from city hall to an Oshu house inspection company, display big boards showing Ohtani’s current stats. Those numbers remain frozen after my visit — the next day, Ohtani pitches and leaves early with blister problems, revealing a more severe injury that has kept him out since (he returned as a batter last week, though, much to my relief).

The city displays all the familiar signs of semi-rural Japan in 2018. The area immediately around Mizusawa-Esashi Station paints Oshu as a bedtown, while the main Mizusawa Station area is heavy with “snack” bars and other after-work establishments. The main boulevard seems to have more stores closed than open during the morning, a trend which continues as the day advances.

Oshu still exudes small-town quirks galore. Despite most places seeming permanently closed, there is a ukulele school peddling lessons. Just past the pretty — albeit practically empty — Mizusawa Park is the area where Ohtani’s elementary and junior high schools are (when I walk by, the students on the grounds are playing soccer, as if they didn’t want to give me good baseball imagery).

It’s here that I find a Catholic church doubling as a memorial hall to Juan Goto, a Japanese Christian who helped bring the religion to the region, along with a memorial hall dedicated to Takano Choei, a scientist. Beyond that, the area comprises a lot of fields and a surprising number of home centers, mixed in with a few small temples.

It’s a quiet suburb with charming points, but which probably feels like the most boring place on earth to grow up. That’s exactly what I wanted though, to imagine what a younger Ohtani might have felt, surrounded by rice fields and ramen stores that all close on Wednesday. Oshu in 2018 feels like a place that has not yet realized that its most famous hometown talent is out there now, shining.

Ohtani’s career could go a number of ways, but the current excitement around him hints that more domestic tourists (and maybe even international ones) may one day visit the city. If things break right, maybe he will have his own museum here, in a similar fashion to baseballer Ichiro Suzuki, whose parents opened one in his hometown of Toyoyama.

But for now, support for Ohtani manifests in smaller ways. After wandering around in the heat for several hours, I stumble across a JA-Zenchu market and restaurant, the latter offering a lunch buffet featuring local fruit, vegetables and beef. The fare is delicious and the space itself hosts the most people I’ve seen gathered in one place yet in the city.

When I’ve finished, I turn for the exit and spot a corner devoted to Ohtani, with a signed Fighters jersey and a photo of him holding a bail of rice alongside other baseball paraphernalia. It feels less like a concentrated effort to bring in visitors, and more like a pizza parlor honoring a prominent Little Leaguer.

A more coordinated effort to celebrate Oshu’s star may emerge in the future. Until then, it’s surprises like these that stand out.

Oshu’s Mizusawa-Esashi Station is a 2 ½- to three-hour train from Tokyo. Bullet trains leave once an hour and cost ¥13,000 one way.