Last year, Japan-based writer Craig Mod put Morioka, Japan on the map when he nominated the city for The New York Times’ 2023 list of 52 Places to Go.
In the Times’ list, Mod wrote:
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.
After the list was published, Mod was mobbed (see what we did there?) by the Japanese media, who wanted to know what he saw in Morioka. In a follow-up piece for the Times, Mod wrote, “After a decade of this work I’ve become sensitive to cities and towns with strong socioeconomic foundations that elevate their residents, enabling them to live rich, full and creative lives. Cities that feel — to distill it to a single word — healthy. Morioka felt exceedingly healthy … The city of Morioka enables its residents to thrive.”
Is Morioka last year’s news? Well, if you’re going by the calendar, yes, but this year’s list has just been published, and Mod again picked out a smallish Japanese city that you have probably not visited for the paper’s readers.
Here’s what he wrote about Yamaguchi, Japan:
Yamaguchi is often called the Kyoto of the West, though it’s much more interesting than that — and it suffers from considerably less “tourism pollution.” A compact city of about 190,000, it lies in a narrow valley between the Inland and Japan seas.
With its impeccable gardens and its stunning five-story pagoda, Rurikoji Temple is a national treasure. The city’s small winding lanes offer an assortment of experiences: pottery kilns like Mizunoue, situated on the grounds of Toshunji Temple; chic coffee shops like Log and Coffeeboy, and older-style options like Haraguchi; and wonderful counter-only shops that serve oden, or one-pot dishes. Just a 15-minute walk south is the hot-springs village of Yuda Onsen.
Given the tourist crush in Kyoto, Yamaguchi has also been offering a smaller scale — but no less historic — alternative to Kyoto’s Gion summer festival for some 600 years. Yamaguchi’s Gion Festival, which features parades, costumes and dancing, also takes place in July; 2024 will be its first year operating again at full tilt since the pre-Covid era.
Many of The J Team’s clients want to see the crown jewels of Japanese tourism: Kyoto’s temples and gardens, Kamakura’s temples and buddha, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, the many excitements of Tokyo and Osaka, and so on. But there are other Japans, and we are always thrilled when clients ask us for a glimpse of them as well. Ask us!