A City That Enables Its Residents to Thrive

From an Inside the Times story by Craig Mod headlined “A City That ‘Enables Its Residents to Thrive'”:

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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. I have lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years as a writer and photographer, and I spent four days in November 2021 doing book research in Morioka, in the north of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The city’s combination of kindness, cuisine, walkability and history enchanted me.

The 52 Places list was published in January. Morioka — not Tokyo, not Kyoto — was No. 2, just after London. Japan was in shock. Sure, Morioka — a city of almost 300,000 — was cool, but was it rubbing-shoulders-with-London cool? It became national news.

“Why Morioka?!” I was interviewed by journalists from nearly 20 Japanese television programs, newspapers and magazines who wanted to know the answer. It made no sense to them why I had suggested visiting there. It was “just” another midsize Japanese city. What meal, what building, makes it so special? But there was no building, there was no meal. It was bigger than that.

I’ve walked thousands of kilometers across the Japanese countryside on long research tours, some lasting up to 40 days. I’ve seen firsthand the effects of an aging population and of the flight of young Japanese to big cities such as Osaka or Nagoya or Tokyo. I’ve interviewed and photographed hundreds of older people — including farmers, loggers, cafe owners and barbers — left behind in their shrinking villages.

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.

On Feb. 6, I traveled back to Morioka from my home south of Tokyo to see how the selection had affected the city and its businesses, and to again experience that feeling.

As I walked the streets, residents’ eyes went wide with recognition. People stopped their cars and yelled out the windows, “Thank you, Craig-san!” A retired patron in one of my favorite cafes, Waltz, realized I was “the New York Times Morioka guy” and tried to get me to eat his friend’s cheesecake. “Take it as thanks!” he said, pointing to his friend’s half-eaten plate. “It’s delicious.”

Akihiko Baba, the managing director of the Azumaya soba shop, told me that a family from Tennessee showed up soon after the 52 Places list was published. Kazuhiro Nagasawa, the owner of Nagasawa Coffee, told me his online sales had jumped tenfold. New patrons were streaming in from neighboring prefectures. Australian skiers were adding a night in Morioka onto their itineraries. Everyone who lived in Morioka seemed to be getting congratulatory texts from friends and family on the selection of the city. A copy of the print edition of the list sat in a glass case in the city’s tourism office. Mr. Baba’s mother, Yoko, said to me, “This recognition is a gift, and now it’s our duty to nurture it.”

Hataya, a stalwart Morioka kissaten — a midcentury Japanese-style coffee shop — thrummed with business. It’s owned by Motohiro Seki, and by chance, his daughter Yoshino, 25, who works at Maruyama Coffee in Tokyo, was visiting. I asked if she planned to move back to Morioka someday. “Absolutely,” she said.

Generational batons like this were being passed all over Morioka. Hirasawa, a barbershop run for nearly one hundred years, is run by a father and son, 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.”

The city wasn’t overrun by the increase in visitors, people told me. Shops, hotels and restaurants simply felt a healthy bump of new patrons. Covid was not easy on Morioka’s modest tourism industry, and this economic boost was welcome across the board.

I managed to get Mr. Baba, Mr. Nagasawa and Daisuke Hayasaka of Booknerd — the owners of the shops I recommended in the list — into Johnny’s, a jazz bar I also recommended. They had never been in the same room together. I wanted to photograph them and ask them about their experiences over the past month.

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. From this removed northern perch, he has nurtured a corner of Japan’s jazz scene. I asked if he could have done this in Tokyo. “I don’t think so,” he said. “There’s a power to being a bit on the outside.”

The city of Morioka enables its residents to thrive. The more I spoke with them, the more inspired I felt. Morioka is a city to which its youth return. I, too, plan to visit again. To say hello to everyone, of course, but also to finally try that slice of cheesecake.

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