I would like to take a moment, if I may, to paint something of a picture of the town in which I spent a year and three months of my life.
Image: Kitakata’s main street.
Kitakata is located on Japan’s main island of Honshu. The northern part of Honshu is known as Tohoku (literally ‘East North Area’; highlighted in the image to the left), within which can be found Fukushima Prefecture on the eastern coast. Kitakata (the roseate area in the image to the right) sits to the western side of this Australia-shaped prefecture. If you have been following thus far, you will have realised that the town is in the south of the north and the west of the east, an area known in geographical terms as the middle.
In the past ‘Kitakata’ was written as北方 meaning ‘northern direction,’ but at some stage the spelling was changed to 喜多方 which roughly translates to ‘direction of much joy.’ Although the name is read as ‘key-tah-kah-tah,’ to English speakers it does sound like someone saying Kit Kat in some sort of hammy Italian accent. Interestingly (to me) the name is also mildly chuckle-worthy in Japanese. ‘Kitakata’ (喜多方) sounds an awful lot like ‘Kitakatta’ (来たかった) which means ‘I wanted to come here.’ I did not notice this pun until a teacher at a drinking party asked if I had wanted to come to Kitakata; a joke which was sadly lost on me until explained.
The town is small, though not completely rural, and is famed primarily for ramen, a noodle dish allegedly sold in the town originally by merchants from China. Kitakata ramen is distinguished from other types throughout the country by its curly noodles and soy-sauce broth, which is meant to be particularly delicious thanks to the local spring water. Within the humble town stands in excess of one hundred ramen outlets. I have sampled an incredibly small percentage of these, because I do not find the cuisine to beparticularly tempting, being, as it is, noodles in oily water with a bit of spring onion and pork. A source of great pride and income, there is even a modestly sized Ramen Museum. Fronting the museum is a traditional torii gate, imaginatively modified to resemble chopsticks holding noodles, while inside visitors may stand at the shrine and pray for good ramen.
The aforementioned spring water is also credited for the superior sake boasted by the area. There are several breweries in Kitakata (such as the one pictured below, which was practically next door to me), some of which offer tours and free sampling. Safe to say, I have consumed much more sake than ramen. Becoming inebriated on sake, I have discovered a posteriori is a process which differs from other alcoholic beverages. With the unreserved intake of, say, wine or cider, one usually feels the steady decent from merry to tipsy to hammered with reasonable clarity, and I would argue that at some stage between the latter two, the drinker in question will reach a metaphorical T-junction. To stop drinking is to follow the sensible path of moderation; to continue is to stumble down a dark road littered with adventure and hidden landmines of regret. With sake, contrariwise, the crossroad is replaced with a cliff edge. Our hypothetical drinker might insidiously guzzle litres of the rice wine and feel as sober as the stones in a monastery, only to later discover in a dizzying second that they are utterly shitfaced, and have a fucker of a hangover as a corollary.
This large sign proclaims that Kitakata is the town of ramen and kura. Kura are old warehouse buildings with a distinctive architectural style, reflected in the sign itself. Although the chunky edifices are not unique to Kitakata, there are apparently around four thousand one hundred still standing in the area, resulting from a massive spike in construction between 1868 and 1912 (the Meiji and Taisho periods).
Once used to protect stock from fire and thieves, a number are now in a state of decay, and most have been converted into more contemporaneously useful facilities like homes, restaurants, breweries and souvenir shops. Still, a great amount of pride is afforded to these oddly charming storehouses, and copious homage is paid in the more recent design and construction of other things, such as:
As well as crumbling kura, quite a lot of Kitakata’s structural furnishing is in a state of dilapidation. My colleagues were often quite critical of the town’s dishevelled appearance, regarding it as illustrative of unprogressive hinterland. What I saw in the rusting metal and vine-choked homes, however, was an area that accommodated a thriving community, but which lacked funding from larger powers. Moreover, I find evidence of decay and the image of nature unmanaged to be aesthetically exhilarating, and so thoroughly enjoyed my environs.
However, it was the scenery beyond the town which was truly enchanting.
Kitakata is surrounded by mountains, washing every horizon with contrasting waves of ever-changing blues, greens, purples and greys, shadow upon shadow. My mood would lift with each summit, and it was a joy to witness them majestically holding aloft the sky, draping themselves in clouds with a regal grace, or vanishing into mist like grey silken dreams. On clear days it was possible to make out their intricate grooves and the varied shades of their textured faces. Mountains are quite often used to connote that which is fixed and enduring, but in reality there are few things more changeable than the mountains. An alpinescape will alter with every shift in light, weather or season, and can look completely different at two ends of the same day. A majestic mountain range called Ide (ee-day) lay in the distance, yet was not always visible, making its appearance all the more striking, particularly as it seems to be capped with snow for most of the year.
Many Japanese people will quite proudly tell you that Japan has four seasons. It’s difficult to imagine any layperson from the UK, or the West at large, speaking with the same enthusiasm about annual weather patterns. However, the contrast between the seasons in Japan, at least in the North, is far sharper than that of the old island. In England, there may be some snow in the winter, and you might get sunburned in summer; in Tohoku both the heat and the cold are intense. Through summer the humidity is stifling and one sweats merely sitting still, which is followed soon enough by a winter of apocalyptic snow. Any foreigner in the area will be told, repeatedly, about the metres of snow they will be buried under by the end of the year. It’s like living in Winterfell. Of course winter is bloody coming; seasons are cyclical. No one, however, is exaggerating, and it’s great to live in a place that embraces the winter by holding snow festivals, and decorating the town with snow sculptures. Although, just as the English are not accustomed to clouds enough to stop grumbling about them, people in Japan suffer none the less in the sweltering heat, and do not appreciate the need to continuously shovel snow just to have a clear path to their front door.
The winter that I spent in Kitakata was actually unseasonably mild, and the snow should have been much deeper.
The distinctive seasons also bring with them different wildlife. After many species have taken a prudent nap during winter, one harbinger of warmer climes is the hairy brown caterpillars of varying size urgently rippling across scorching country roads. In spring, ducks are a pleasant sight on the flooded rice fields. Cicadas start making an appearance around May, sing a deafening tune through summer, then perish around August. Joining in the choir are cuckoos in the trees and frogs in the rice paddies.
Occasionally people ask me what I found surprising about Japan. This question becomes increasingly difficult to answer with acclimatisation, but one of my stock responses is the visibility of animals. While any excursion into the British countryside will invariably involve prospects populated by sheep, birds, cows, horses, dogs, or all of the above; in Japan both domestic and wild animals are fairly well hidden. Milk, beef and horse meat are all consumed here, but the animals are kept in buildings and do not wonder across pastures. Monkeys, bears, snakes and birds meanwhile tend to keep their distance, though not entirely through their own volition, particularly in the case of bears. This area of the world has plenty of species diversity, it seems I have just been untalented at finding it.
Living in Kitakata gave me the freedom and opportunity to meet new people, stumble upon the extraordinary, and find the magical among the mundane. I have managed to visit lamentably few times since moving away, but when I drive back into town my sternum floods with adrenaline and I experience a powerful sense of returning home.