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Publication Date : 20-06-2013
A rural town that resuscitated and inspired a Japanese poet
Built in 1930, the Ohashi bridge overlooks the Mogamigawa river in central Oishida.
Walking down the bank, I could smell the fresh grass growing beside the river. The river, which stretches about 230 kilometres through Yamagata Prefecture, ran fast and strong thanks to the snowmelt.
Standing in front of the swollen river, which flows into the Sea of Japan, I felt that early summer had finally come to northern Honshu.
During the Edo period (1603-1867), Oishida was a large shipping hub. Cargo was transported by sea from the Kansai region to Sakata at the mouth of the river, before being carried upstream by boat.
As Oishida is the last stop before the river becomes too narrow for boats to negotiate, it became a transit point for switching transportation methods and was called “Oishida kagan” (river bank).
To this day, large storehouses remain in the town and wooden commercial houses there reminded me of its past prosperity. Along the river bank, there is a 600-meter-long wall painted to resemble stone and plaster walls of that time.
On the bridge, I met Masae Ochiai, 68, a volunteer town guide for over 10 years. Ochiai also enjoys tanka poems and is well versed in the works of poet Mokichi Saito (1882-1953), who lived in the town from January 1946 to November 1947.
Ochiai showed me around places associated with the poet, such as the Chokin Shooku house where he stayed after the end of World War II, and the Josenji temple where some of his ashes are interred in a grave. The temple is also famous for a more than two-metre-long statue of a reclining Buddha.
She also took me to the Ohashi bridge, where Saito often took walks.
“I was born and raised in Yokohama. My husband was from Obanazawa, a city adjacent to Oishida, and we moved here 15 years ago,” she said.
She said their decision to move to Oishida was inspired by the Mogamigawa river.
“When looking at the river with tourists, we naturally become lost in our thoughts and become speechless,” Ochiai said. “There’s a Japanese saying, ‘Mizu ni nagasu’ (let the water carry it away). There might be something about the river that soothes our minds.”
Although her husband died two years ago, she continues to live there.
One of Saito’s tanka poems about the town reads: “Part of a disappearing rainbow remains beautiful over the Mogamigawa river. At night, whitecaps can be seen on the surface of the river, flowing in the opposite direction due to the snowstorm.”
“I have yet to be able to capture the same emotion as Mokichi when he saw the rainbow and whitecaps,” Ochiai said. “Until I can see it with my own eyes, I won’t leave this town.”
After bathing at a hot spring facility called Attamariland-Fukabori next to the river, which is a bit of a walk from the center of town, I headed to the Jinengo district in the nearby mountains.
Climbing the steeply sloped river terrace, I could see a soba shop ahead. Named Teuchi (handmade) Jinengo Soba, the shop looked like an ordinary house.
The shop cuts and grinds its own buckwheat into flour, which is cooked with fresh spring water. Mountain vegetables, such as locally grown kogomi (ostrich fern) and warabi (bracken), are served alongside the soba. Sometimes, the shop even receives customers from the Kanto region.
The noodles are resilient and thick, with a strong smell and sweet taste. The soba is so flavourful that it can be enjoyed even without the soup.
The shop’s owner also serves as the president of an association of more than 10 soba shops in the Jinengo district that works to promote the charm of the local soba.
Oishida and other areas in northern Honshu are truly a treasure trove of rivers, mountains and human lives surrounded by nature.
Saito, who was greatly affected by Japan’s defeat in World War II, regained his spirit in the town. Even during my short stay, I felt like I was able to understand why he was able to resuscitate there.
Another Saito poem that left a deep impression on me was one written while observing the Mogamigawa river as spring turned to summer. In it, Saito gives in to his deep emotions after his family evacuated to the town from Tokyo to survive the war.
The poem has been engraved in my mind.
It takes about three hours from Tokyo Station to Oishida Station by the Yamagata Shinkansen train. From there, you can reach the Jinengo district by car in about 20 minutes.
For more information, call the Oishida town tourist association at +81 (0237) 35-2111, or the Oishida Station information office at +81 (0237) 36-1515.