When the Travel desk at The New York Times announced it was accepting nominations for its 2023 list of 52 Places to Go, Morioka, Japan, immediately came to my mind.
My first visit to Morioka was just for an afternoon in spring 2021. The city knocked my socks off — it had an unexpected vitality (particularly so in the general context of Tohoku), a walkable cityscape in healthy dialogue with the surrounding rivers and mountains. It also had great scones and excellent coffee. Perfect.
Later that year, when I planned my Tiny Barber, Post Office ten mid-sized city exploration / walk, Morioka was at the top of my places to return to. I went back. Three nights, four days. Even better. I was blown away by the youthful spirit suffusing the city — so many shops run by folks under forty. There was a kindness, an openness to everyone I spoke with. And considering I had a few days to dig around, I was further impressed by how much “baton passing” was happening — second, third, or fourth generations working side by side (or eighteenth generation, in the case of some iron studios). Some children having outright taken over their parents’ shops.
So in October 2022, when my editor at the Times emailed me asking for a recommendation for their “52 Places” collection, it was a no brainer: Morioka. Obviously. But the Times was asking hundreds of writers for suggestions. And even if Morioka was selected, 52 is a lot of places, and, well, Morioka would probably be slotted in somewhere deep in the mix, right? I filed it away in the back of my mind, assuming my suggestion wouldn’t make the cut.
In January, “52 Places” was published.
London was number one.
And number two? MORIOKA.
I asked editor, Stephen Hiltner, if this was a ranking. What does #2 mean? How was the order compiled? He responded, “The numbers aren’t intended as a ranking, exactly — though we do put some thought into which places will appear at and near the top of the list.”
Stephen continued over email:
We organized this year’s list around the question of why we travel. And London’s placement at #1 reflects its timeliness as a travel destination this year, in large part because of the coronation of King Charles III. London is a city where, this year in particular, you can not only learn about history but also witness and participate in history.
In the case of Morioka, Craig Mod, who wrote a beautiful essay for us earlier this year about Honshu’s Kii Peninsula, recommended the city. Perhaps the base way of answering why we chose to include Morioka is to consider his words:
Until this past October, Japan maintained some of the most stringent travel restrictions of any major country. Now, travelers are beginning to stream back to popular destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
The city of Morioka, in Iwate Prefecture, however, is often passed over or outright ignored. Circumscribed by mountains, it lies a few hours north of Tokyo by Shinkansen, the Japanese high-speed rail lines. Morioka’s downtown is eminently walkable. The city is filled with Taisho-era buildings that mix Western and Eastern architectural aesthetics as well as modern hotels, a few old ryokan (traditional inns) and winding rivers. One draw is an ancient castle site turned into a park.
There’s also fantastic coffee, including one of Japan’s third-wave originators: Nagasawa Coffee, whose owner, Kazuhiro Nagasawa, is so committed to his beans that he uses a vintage German-made Probat roaster, which he personally imported and restored. Azumaya serves up all-you-can-eat wanko soba, which comes served in dozens of tiny bowls; Booknerd offers classic Japanese art books; and Johnny’s, a jazz cafe, has been open for over 40 years. An hour west by car: Lake Tazawa and dozens of world-class hot springs.
Who wouldn’t love to visit such a place!
Also, in light of the fact that Japan maintained some of the most stringent travel restrictions of any major country, and that travelers may already be quite familiar with popular cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, we though Morioka might surprise and delight our readers, and allow people to learn about — and appreciate — a lesser-known part of Japan.
As for why it appears so high on the list: We loved Craig’s description of the place, as well as Andrew Faulk’s short video, and we know that readers have immense interest (especially now) in Japan, so it felt fitting to include it near the top.
So it was. Morioka, #2 for 2023.
The list came out on a Friday. Tuesday morning I was on one of the largest morning shows in Japan — “Sukkiri.” Once Japanese media found out who I was, and that I spoke Japanese, the interview requests came pouring in. I thought it would just be one or two and we’d be done, but I ended up doing some 20 or so interviews — with every major network and newspaper, and a smattering of magazines and journals.
I have never owned a TV in Japan, and have never watched Japanese TV outside of the odd moment in an izakaya. So I had no context for the scale of the broadcast or viewership of these interviews. I took many of them from my home studio, or from my hotel in Tokyo (a majority of them happened in the middle of my TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO² walk project — I’d be in some park in some far corner of the city and a call from Mainichi Shimbun would come in). A crew from TBS came to my hotel, squeezed between my bed and dresser, interviewed as I sat in the corner like a frozen deer. I went into the Nippon Televisions’s studio to record another interview. Journalists and TV crews descended on Morioka. Shot drone footage. Interviewed the owners and new customers of the shops I had mentioned. It was a maelstrom of interest. And the question that came up again and again and again and again: WHY? WHY MORIOKA??
You all know what I do. You know my walks. You read my pop-up newsletters sent from the countryside. You know of my penchant for salt-of-the-earth chatter. You know I’m usually going to pick a small family-owned shop over, say, going to Ginkakuji or taking selfies at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. My interest is largely in the stories of everyday people because I’m looking for answers or hints or archetypes to very basic questions: What constitutes a life well lived? How do you pull richness from the quotidian? The more people you talk with, the stronger your archetypes become. Answers are everywhere if you make the effort to look.
That a mid-sized city like Morioka would ensorcell me should be of no shock to anyone reading this. Morioka contains the foundation for a place I’d love — good people thriving.
That said, I had two prevailing worries when Morioka was announced at spot two:
Yikes! I hope this doesn’t become a nuisance for the people of Morioka.
But then: I think this is a meaningful beat — not only for Morioka, but for all mid-sized cities in depopulating countries — and I want to make sure they don’t brush it off.
The second point is why I took all the interviews. They were exhausting. At the end of TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO² — having done both the walk, written 25,000 words for the pop-up, and performed for those interviews — I was a shell of a human. Completely gutted of all life force. The Wednesday after my walk, after another two hours of interviews (the first interviewer didn’t notice they hadn’t started recording until thirty minutes in), I couldn’t speak. As in, the ability to generate sound in my throat was gone. I had so little energy all I could do was curl up in a heap on the couch. I had given it all to the interviewers and the road.
I pushed through those interviews because I felt the tug of responsibility at having thrust Morioka into the spotlight. I wanted to hammer home the point: I’ve seen a lot, I’ve walked thousand of kilometers through dozens (hundreds?) of cities and villages across the country, I’ve spoken with and listened to the stories of hundreds of people — farmers, mechanics, tatami-mat weavers, kissaten owners, chefs, horse betters, gardeners, doctors, truck drivers — so please don’t brush off this selection. Run with it! What a wild opportunity. Morioka wasn’t chosen whimsically or randomly. Morioka is — truly — worthy of rubbing shoulders with London, in its own Morioka way.
As countrysides depopulate, and children relocate to big cities, it’s these mid-sized cities like Morioka (pop. ~300,000) that offer viable alternatives. To put it in a North American context, Morioka being selected at #2 by the New York Times is sort of like if a hand descended from the clouds and anointed Asheville, North Carolina as the second most important city in the world for 2023. Japan doesn’t see New York Times with any kind of political shading. It’s simply seen as an extremely reputable (perhaps the most reputable?) international bastion of reportage. It’s a bit scary how outsized the Times’ influence is. It’s a big, big deal (which sometimes can be easy to forget; truly, the cultural sway the Times holds can feel vertiginous).
In the same way that Asheville is a kind of magnet for southern creatives that maybe don’t want to go all the way to New York City, Morioka has similar vibes. There’s a vibrant community of designers, architects, musicians, craftspeople, chefs, and coffee connoisseurs. In my Times piece followup I wanted to highlight the city’s future-facing energy:
Generational batons were being passed all over Morioka. Hirasawa, a barbershop run for nearly one hundred years, is run by a father and son (forth generation), clipping side by side. Rieber, a teahouse run for nearly 50 years, is helmed by Chiyoko Koyama and her son, Ryoichi. Clammbon, another kissaten (Morioka loves coffee), was started in 1976 by Masaaki Takahashi and is now run by his daughter, Mana, 39. She took it over in 2019 after her father died of cancer. “I want you to come back in 30 years,” she said. “You’ll see me as an old woman hand roasting beans in the corner.”
Here’s a photo of Mana Takahashi holding a photo of her father:
Again, on my choice of Morioka: I’m drawing from my personal database of having walked through so many cities that aren’t thriving, that aren’t passing batons, that are essentially disappearing in real-time as citizens age, parents have fewer kids, and the kids that are around, run off to bigger cities with more opportunity as soon as they can. Morioka feels different.
Two weeks ago I went back. How could I not? I had become friends with the shop owners over Instagram DM as the media frenzy picked up. (On that Tiny Barber trip I only chatted for a few minutes with Hayasaka-san and Nagasawa-san, and didn’t meet Baba-san of Azumaya.) We were all texting back and forth. It was gripping. How far would this go? The energy was positive and life-affirming. I wanted to hit up the shops and say hi in person. (And to make sure everyone was OK.)
NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, announced my return. I was invited to meet with the mayor. And also the governor. (Note: The mayor’s office offered to pay for my trip; I declined, this was all done out of pocket.) As I walked the streets, people’s eyes went wide with recognition (my face had been seen by probably tens of millions of people in the last month?). Folks stopped their cars, rolled down their windows, yelled “Craig-san, arigatou!” Someone shouted, “Hey it’s you!” as they power-walked past. Folks bowed as we made eye contact at red lights. As I wrote in the Times piece, an old man tried to get me to eat his friend’s half-finished cheesecake once he found out I was “the New York Times article guy.” Everyone wanted a selfie. I posed with groups of women in their 70s enjoying tea, with a man who made a jacket that said, “CRAIGU MODOKI” or “Pseudo-Craig” because he thought he sort of looked like me and it made a good pun. One retired local fancied himself a paparazzi, kept popping out of bushes and from behind buildings wherever I went, giant Canon DSLR and zoom lens in hand. It all shimmered in a Truman Show-esque kinda way.
At city hall:
One of many, many articles that came out about the visit:
I thought the meeting with the mayor was going to be a quiet affair. No such luck. I arrived at the office to a packed press room of maybe thirty people. Everyone stood and clapped when I entered. DSLRs fired off like snare drum rolls. Mercifully, I remembered to pack a suit. The mayor and I briefly chatted, shook hands, and then he left and I ran the press conference alone (!!) — just me and all the journalists. A mic was placed in the corner, reporters raised their hands. Why why why why why??
Because your city is beautiful. Because your food is delicious. Because your people are kind and committed. Because your streets face nature in a way that buoys the spirit. Over and over I said: Thank you for making this city. I am honored to walk your city. I am healed by your city, by what I see and the archetypes I feel all around. Thank you for making this place and letting me be here.
Ken Terui, the owner of Johnny’s, put on a record by the Japanese bassist Isao Suzuki. Mr. Terui had operated a record label out of Johnny’s in the 1980s. He ran around, pulling boxes off his shelves, finding original pressings, flinging them on the table and in our laps. Mr. Baba and Mr. Hayasaka were record aficionados and knew them all. Mr. Terui began to tear up, saying he felt recognized.
Talk of collaboration burbled between Booknerd and Terui-san. The room was energized — feverish with potential. Terui-san’s catalog deserved formal treatment. Hands were shaken, hugs doled out. Later Baba-san — the managing director of Azumaya — told me, “I’ve never seen Terui-san like that before.”
I was invited to an on-stage discussion at a kind of town hall meeting for creatives — the audience of 50 or so was all musicians and chefs and designers and artists. We talked about a bunch of stuff, including:
Redistribution of wealth via fairly aggressive inheritance (and other) taxes
Liberal zoning / a lack of NIMBY-ism that allows for ample development, pushing costs of living down, lowering rents for homes and shops
The general sense of peace (low violence, no guns, no opioid / drug issues) — which helps create mental space to do creative things
It was exciting to see young entrepreneurs and artists thinking about this stuff, talking about this stuff. It’s easy to forget how many brain cycles can be burned worrying about things no human living on earth should have to worry about in 2023. And how a kind of permission can come from something as obvious as national healthcare. Permission to take a risk, run a shop, become a community or cultural hub within your city. This kind of small business texture is the antipode to mega-developments in Tokyo by developers like Mori — huge structures with all the same shops, inaccessible to small business owners, without any kind of grain or patina.
Morioka is all grain, all patina.
I spent the days chatting with folks on the street, in shops. Were they OK with Morioka’s selection? Mainly, yes. Well, mainly enthusiastically, yes. But they were also a bit embarrassed — Really? Us? This place?
Is Morioka the only place in Japan like this? There are many cities like Morioka. Strong, fair social contracts have made these places and the lives lived within them possible. But Morioka is, in its own right, archetypically unique. The number of youth not just returning, but vigorously returning is remarkable. It’s thrilling. In the context of all the chaos happening in the world, I walk a city like Morioka and think: Yes, this is possible.
The media frenzy has largely died down. I’m behind in all my work. My head is still spinning. This edition of Roden is three weeks late. I was supposed to launch Year Five of SPECIAL PROJECTS at the start of February. I’m trying to find a publisher for the Japanese edition of Kissa by Kissa. I am buried in emails, behind in so much correspondence. Apologies to everyone I owe a reply to.
The headline for the print edition of the Times piece was, “Morioka, a city that ‘enables its residents to thrive’.” To which you might think: Don’t all cities enable their citizens to thrive? Absolutely not. So many cities actively subvert the thriving of their citizens.
As for the fear of Morioka getting overrun by tourists — I don’t think that will happen. It’s just perceptibly onerous (but not actually onerous) enough to get to (and far enough away from the hotspots like Kyoto) that those who choose to go will be curious and adventurous. Still, when you run the numbers, it’s wild. Even just 30,000 additional tourists a year, spending a few hundred dollars, unlocks 100+ million dollars in revenue over the next decade. Tohoku only gets a fraction of the total tourist pull in Japan. Redirecting hundreds of million of dollars up there feels wholly good.
Even more wild, this was all enabled by my membership program, SPECIAL PROJECTS. I went to Morioka because SP gave me permission to do my pop-up walks. Over the last five years, I’ve walked and explored as much as I have because of SP. And so when the Times came calling, my ability to passionately advocate for Morioka was SP-enabled. And I didn’t feel like a complete fool doing all the interviews because, like I said, this wasn’t an arbitrary choice. It was an opportunity to take the vast amount of pattern matching I’ve done across the country, and collimate it into a beam pointing towards the goodness of Morioka.
So thank you to all the SPECIAL PROJECTS members over the years. I suspect this will be one of the largest-impact projects to come out of our program (certainly if you think on the scale of 100s of millions of dollars).
And thank you to Morioka for all the grace in the face of this attention, for all the (unnecessary) thank yous, the kindness of your citizens (especially Baba-san and his guidance throughout this 🙏), and most importantly, for being such an incredible archetype for what’s possible in this world of ours.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the companion Ridgeline piece — full of portraits of people I met along the way.
Hope you’re all having a good winter. The weather here just turned — spring is gale-force barreling into our lives. I’ve only ever visited Morioka in the winter. I look forward to a summer trip later this year. Iwate-san looks like a fun mountain to climb.