Akita marked the end of the first leg of this particular part of my travels, and with some nasty looking mountains, and some even nastier looking weather, between there and Morioka, it was time to disassemble my bicycle, bag it up and take the train. I love cycling, but I draw the line at anything actively perilous.
While people in Akita seemed extremely conscious of their city’s isolation and economically run-down reputation, this is perhaps also reflected in a pride and eagerness to show themselves at their best to outsiders. In a way, this comes across as a microcosm of the way Japan as a whole tends to run itself down as a “small country” whilst being conversely over-eager to be seen as one of the big boys. However, in the case of Akita, where the unemployment, income and suicide rates really are eye-watering, there’s no false modesty and so the pride doesn’t have the same obnoxious air of smarm. Akita really does get a rough ride, and it deserves credit for what it does produce.
After leaving town, I received another email from Ritsuko expanding on some of the things we had talked about the previous night and emphasising the town’s musical and cultural diversity. Want a hippy music festival full of folk and world music? Check out Midori Matsuri. For jazz, there’s the live venue Cat Walk and legendary jazz bar Rondo. Club music fans have Jam House and Honey Bee. In the meantime, she cites Mabataki, DJ Shun, Wood Blue and Maru-Chan as examples of bedroom trackmakers, creating ambient, abstract hip-hop music to some acclaim, while remaining close to their roots in Akita. I didn’t get a chance to go, but rock bar Power House sounds like one of those marvellous, tiny, rickety old places, packed to bursting with obscure old records collected over decades of dedicated stack-riffing, run by an old avant-garde theatre veteran. Next time.
I arrived in Iwate Prefecture’s main city, Morioka, amid a downpour, and immediately had a fight with my bicycle. Still, it was instantly noticeable how much more lively the city seemed. The second leg of my trip would see me cycling down from Morioka, through Sendai and Fukushima. This is an area that has had troubles of its own as a result of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, but perhaps as a result of its position at the tip of a string of large urban areas strung out down a long line all the way to Tokyo and beyond, there was something recognisable, something familiar in its atmosphere. I’d said at the start of this trip that Tokyo is not normal, but such is Tokyo’s size and influence that it has the power to impose something of its own sense of normal on places.