Travel

Morioka: Crafts, poetry and Tohoku’s bleak nature

That which inspired the writings of Kenji Miyazawa still inspires today

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Mount Iwate, an active volcano, dominates the skyline of Morioka City, just as it did in the time of poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933). So inspired was he by the mountain and the surrounding Tohoku region’s bleak but beautiful nature, that in June of 1922 he penned the poem:

Weathered black, gouged

Into the sky’s dispersed reflection

Deposited filthy white at the very bottom

Of a particle series of light

Miyazawa was also a proponent and supporter of farmers, and spent his short life trying to better the lives of those who tilled his beloved prefecture’s difficult terrain. Though he was little-known in his lifetime, since his death he has been heralded as one of the most important Japanese poets of the early 20th century and one of Iwate Prefecture’s most treasured sons. Miyazawa lived in and around Morioka for much of his life and, even now, there remain whispers of him throughout the city.

In search of his legacy, I start by wandering through the desolate Iwate Park, designed on the site of the ruins of the once-great Morioka Castle, demolished in the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The original stone ramparts still stand and are at once striking and melancholic. Miyazawa thought so too and wrote a poem titled “Iwate Park” about the park and its fallen castle, published just one month before his death in 1933.

Part of a modern metropolis: One of Morioka
Part of a modern metropolis: One of Morioka’s early 20th-century Western-architecture-inspired buildings. | KATHERINE WHATLEY

Later, I cross the Nakatsu River and peek into the grand Bank of Iwate Red Brick Building, now a museum and performance venue, designed by Iwate native Manji Kasai as well as Kingo Tatsuno, who together also designed Tokyo Station. I then walk a block to the Morioka Takuboku & Kenji Museum, located in another early 20th-century bank building. In Miyazawa’s day, Morioka had a downtown filled with Western-style buildings and rows of nagaya merchant houses. These banks are some of the few remaining examples of those buildings in Morioka.

The museum showcases the lives of Miyazawa as well as Takuboku Ishikawa, another famous Iwate poet who was active slightly before Miyazawa. Within the museum’s collection are many original handwritten manuscripts of both poets, and exhibits exploring their connection to the area’s natural surroundings, as well as their childhoods in Morioka.

Next I wander past a row of Edo Period (1603-1868) nagaya houses just a stone’s throw from the grand bank buildings. In Miyazawa’s day, the contrast between the quiet, rough terrain of the rural farming villages of Iwate, the dark one-story wooden merchant houses and the new imposing Western buildings must have made Morioka seem like an exciting and modern metropolis.

In one of the streets nearby is Goza Ku, a hardware store started in the Edo Period that still occupies its original building. Iwate is known for simple bamboo baskets, made by hand, and I pop into the store to find one. These beautifully designed, functional objects are exactly the kind of thing that made Miyazawa respect and care for the local Iwate farmers. His poetry collection, “Spring and Asura” is filled with poems about the struggle and dedication of rural farmers who made such baskets.

When I leave the dark and shadowy store, I am blinded by the bright sunshine of northern Iwate and reminded of how in awe Miyazawa was of the harsh Tohoku nature.

Tohoku born and bred: A statue of poet Kenji Miyazawa, who was inspired by Mount Iwate and the Tohoku region.
Tohoku born and bred: A statue of poet Kenji Miyazawa, who was inspired by Mount Iwate and the Tohoku region. | KATHERINE WHATLEY

I make my way along calm riverbanks and through backstreets and find myself at Kogensha. The shop is a mingei (folk craft) store, and has a wide selection of traditional baskets, textiles, paper and pottery from Tohoku, across Japan, as well as a small but beautiful range of Indian and African crafts. It is worth a visit for anyone interested in craft, art or design. The shop was also the original publisher of Miyazawa’s selection of fairy tales, “The Restaurant of Many Orders.” A beautiful world in and of itself, the store is replete with the mysterious, refined, haunted feeling that occupies Miyazawa’s tales.

Kogensha is made up of several buildings, with a coffee shop, gallery and store surrounding a beautiful courtyard. The gallery features a display of prints by renowned artist and textile designer Samiro Yunoki, who has long been enamored with Miyazawa’s work. In his distinctive colorful, blocky style, he has created many prints using the motifs of Miyazawa’s poetry and stories, and a selection of them are on display in this cozy gallery.

After a visit to the gallery, I sit with my own copy of “The Restaurant of Many Orders” and enjoy a cup of coffee in the atmospheric cafe. Sitting in a comfortable chair, surrounded by beautiful old objects, drinking coffee: It’s the perfect way to end my day tracing Miyazawa’s footsteps.

Miyazawa had been sickly his whole life, and in the years leading up to his death he became less and less well. During this period, in 1931, he wrote “Strong in the Rain” the poem that came to be his most famous, a tribute to the Iwate farmers he so admired:

Strong in the rain

Strong in the wind

Strong against the summer heat and snow

He is healthy and robust

Free from desire

He never loses his temper

Nor the quiet smile on his lips

Miyazawa strove to elevate the work of farmers through his refined and challenging poetry. After my day in Morioka chasing Miyazawa, looking at Mount Iwate in the distance, at the far edge of the flat basin in which Morioka in located, I finally understand Miyazawa’s most well-known poem, and his lifework.

Morioka is connected to Tokyo by shinkansen (2½ hours, from ¥14,000 one way).

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