|About two and a half hours from Tokyo Station via the JR Tohoku Shinkansen and the Tohoku Main Line is a city called Date in Fukushima Prefecture, which was created in 2006 when five towns merged together. It’s an area that has the perfect balance of urban conveniences and rural natural beauty.
For this article, we spoke with Tony and Shannen, two Americans living in Date. As Coordinators for International Relations, they participate in local events, teach English to kids, and live a life that is deeply connected to the local community.
Both of them said that Date was the perfect destination for people who wanted more out of Japan than the usual tourist spots. We asked them to tell us their favorite things about living in Date, and about the real joys and wonders of Japan that can only come from being an intimate part of the local community.
Foreigners are uncommon around here, so the locals often try to talk to us
—When did the two of you come to Japan?
Tony: I first came here in 2008. At the time it was for work. I later returned to the US for grad school for two years, but other than that I’ve always lived in Fukushima Prefecture. So I guess I’ve been here nine or ten years now.
Shannen: I came as an exchange student in 2012, and then later came back in 2017 as a Coordinator for International Relations.
—What are your impressions of Date?
Tony: It’s a fascinating place if you’re the sort of person that misses the chance to interact with Japanese people when you just go to the usual tourist sites. I think foreigners are common in big cities, but here, everyone is interested in you.
Shannen: When I go to cafés or other places on my own, staff members I don’t know often ask me what country I’m from. Foreigners are rare here, and I also think it’s because the locals aren’t very shy.
—It must be much different here than in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka. Do you ever find it inconvenient to live in a rural area?
Tony: It’s really convenient and easy here compared to living in rural parts of the US. The trains run every hour through the northern part of Date, and there are convenience stores all around.
Shannen: It has those conveniences, and then if you go a little further you’re in this vast natural beauty with rivers and mountains. I think that’s one of the best things about Date.
No matter where you look, it’s as beautiful as a manicured garden
—What are some of the highlights of the natural parts of Date?
Shannen: Definitely Mt. Ryozen, which is a symbol of the city. You can tell just by looking at the shape of it, but there are lots of interesting rock formations, and it’s beautiful throughout the seasons with the fresh greenery, fall leaves, and so on. The roads are really well laid out too, so even beginning hikers and families can easily get to the top.
There was also a temple at the top of Mt. Ryozen that dated back to the ninth century, and there was a samurai castle up there too at one point during the 14th century. I know that because I’m a huge history fan, and have been studying up on Japanese history since I got here.
Neither the castle nor the temple are there today, but the ruins are, and there are also the mountain trails that the monks traveled for hundreds of years. Knowing all this history makes the climb up that much more interesting.
Tony: I definitely recommend that people get some cycling in if they come here. My dad loves to ride, and he had a blast when he came here to hang out with me.
It’s amazing how quickly the scenery changes if you cycle for just an hour. You get mountains, rivers, farms, little hamlets, wide-open streets… My dad was so impressed with it that he said it was like looking at a manicured garden wherever you turned. Most of the US is basically flat, so if you drive for an hour you’re typically just looking at the same scenery the whole way.
Tony: Once you’re tired from cycling, you can stay at an inn with a big bath and drink some sake in the evening. That’s the best way to do it. There’s a restaurant at the foot of Mt. Ryozen called Ryozen Kosaikan with delicious food and beautiful mountains all around, and a bath that’s filled with water from the Mt. Ryozen springs. I love staying there.
Summer festivals are the perfect way to immerse yourself in the energy of the local community
—What other experiences would you recommend to travelers?
Tony: There are countless local festivals around Japan—to the point where there may be something going on every day of the year. If you come here, you should definitely experience one.
The Nagaoka Tenno Festival takes place every year on June 24 and 25. It’s a big event for Date, with a really traditional feel. On the day of the festival, the locals spend the whole day pulling eight floats (which are actually portable shrines used for the festival) on a parade through the streets. Then when the sun sets, they gather around them to celebrate.
Tony: What’s interesting about Japanese festivals is that the floats will come right in front of your house even if you don’t go to the festival location, so they become an intimate part of the local people’s lives. I think these grassroots festivals are a unique cultural phenomenon that only happens in Japan.
—Are they fun to participate in even as a tourist?
Tony: I think so. People come from around Japan for the Nagaoka Tenno Festival, and there are lots of people who film it with these big cameras. I’ve personally been to other local festivals, and it’s fun just being there and feeling the energy of them.
Shannen: Ryozen Shrine at the foot of Mt. Ryozen holds a big festival every spring and autumn with different performances. They have lion dances (folk performances where people wear lion masks), taiko drumming, sword dances, and so on.
I love going to the Hobara Summer Festival, which is a little more casual, every August. It’s typical at summer festivals in Japan to see people doing bon-odori dancing in a circle, and you can do it at the Hobara Summer Festival, too.
Even if you don’t know the dance, you can look at the pros and copy them. The bon-odori movements are really simple. It’s so fun to get in those lively circles of locals and dance with them, and it’s really interesting to see the people dressed up in costumes like it’s Halloween. I’ve been four times now.
Shannen: There are also street stalls out for the festivals, and it’s really great to get to eat things that you wouldn’t normally get to.
Tony: Definitely. There are salty dishes like okonomiyaki (savory pancakes made with eggs, flour, and cabbage) and yakisoba, and you can also get sweets like chocolate-covered bananas. It’s a lot of fun.
You can really experience the kindness of the local people in the little pubs and old cafés
—What are the best places to go if visitors want to interact with the locals?
Tony: If you go to the little locally-operated pubs (izakaya), you’ll definitely experience the kindness of the local people. Japanese pubs serve all kinds of little dishes that everyone shares, so you get to eat a bite of this and that over drinks. It’s a great piece of Japanese culture to experience.
There’s a pub I like called Banban. The tuna there is so delicious that it melts in your mouth, and when I asked the owner about it, he told me that he makes a point to order the semi-fatty tuna (chu-toro) with the highest fat content. They’re also famous for their kamameshi, which is seafood and other flavorful items served over rice.
Shannen: There’s a pub I love called Suzu-no-ki that’s run by an adorable little old couple. They mostly serve grilled chicken skewers, but their fried chicken bites are really delicious also.
Tony: Shannen loves cute little old people.
Shannen: And I’m not a drinker, so I also like to go to cafés. There are lots of locally-run kissaten in this area that have been around forever. Some of them you walk into and think you accidently wandered into someone’s house, but that’s what makes them so comfortable to relax in.
One of my favorites is called Kissaco Kura. It’s in an old storehouse that was built in 1899. The coffee is of course great, but they also have wonderful homemade cakes and lunch items.
—What’s it like around here eight years since the Great East Japan Earthquake?
Shannen: As a Coordinator for International Relations, part of what I do is send information on Date to other countries via social media and other channels. In doing that, my sense is that information on Fukushima is not always delivered correctly to people outside of Japan.
As someone who lives in the local community, I want to get the word out more about topics like the ones we talked about today—the things that make this area so wonderful.
Tony: I have lived in Fukushima since before the earthquake, and I’ve never once wanted to live anywhere else. I was living in a town called Kori when it happened, and we weren’t given orders to evacuate the area, so I stayed there with the rest of the local people.
The people of Fukushima are strong. I’ll always be just another part of the local community, fighting alongside my neighbors to get through the earthquake and bring this place back to life. I truly love my life here.
Address: 9-1 Hoshizawa, Ishida, Ryozen-machi, Date, Fukushima Prefecture
Nagaoka Tenno Festival
Address: 29-1 Okamae, Date, Fukushima Prefecture
Address: 33 Miyashita, Hobara-machi, Date, Fukushima Prefecture
Address: 4-19-5 Hobara-machi, Date, Fukushima Prefecture