Zibby Mag

The Webby Award-winning literary lifestyle destination.

Reflecting on My Two Visits to Japan

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

By Cristina Slattery

As a teenager, my father lived with his parents on an American military base in Okinawa, an island one thousand miles south of Tokyo. When we were younger, my sister and I discovered a book of Japanese-English phrases in my grandparents’ ranch house. We saw commands such as “Hands Up!” among other orders; that book was the first clue I had that my country’s relationship with Japan had not always been cordial.

In 2005, my father and I took a trip to Japan together. I’d been invited to a friend’s wedding and didn’t want to travel alone. When I told my dad, he said it was an amazing opportunity and that the two of us should go together. The wedding was in Tokyo. We spent a few days there and then headed down to Kyoto and finally ended up in Hakone, an area that is known for its hot springs.

We visited a Buddhist temple high up on a hill. This was Kiyomizu-dera. Reverently, my father and I joined the crowds. The leaves of the trees were bright orange and gold, matching the temple itself. Beneath us lay the historic city. An expansive feeling of vitality filled me as the warm sun shone softly on my face.

When I got the chance to visit Japan again, much more recently, I jumped at the opportunity. I traveled with a group of writers and a chef from D.C., and we visited the northern region of Tohoku. On March 11th, 2011, this region was devastated by an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, and a tsunami that followed, destroying infrastructure and also taking the lives of more than 18,000 people.

In the Miyagi prefecture, one of six prefectures that make up the region of Tohoku, there are ruins of an elementary school that have been converted into a museum to memorialize the destruction. Everyone in the region has a story about that day. The school is on a grassy plain that leads to the ocean. People used to live on that stretch of land, but building restrictions now prevent habitation.

What was amazing about visiting the three prefectures of Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate—the areas that were closest to the epicenter of the earthquake—is how they have recovered. Their industries—the production of sake, cattle raising for Wagyu beef, and fish processing, among others—are now using the talents of the younger generation, some of whom were just kids when the earthquake and tsunami occurred, to grow their businesses and offer these products to the world.

As I stood on the boat of acclaimed fisherman Takayuki Atsumi, a warm summer breeze ruffled my shirt. Very few tourists have been allowed into Japan during the pandemic, and I felt extremely privileged to be with our small group and this expert sea pineapple-harvester as we sailed out to the area where they were growing. The landscape of that part of the Miyagi prefecture reminded me of the Pacific Northwest, with mountains rolling into the sea.

When we stopped, Takayuki Atsumi pulled up a large number of sea pineapples from the water and handed us fresh chunks of the delicacy. I savored the flavors—tart, sweet and sour, bitter, and salty. Sea pineapples are supposed to improve brain function and the wellness industry is using them in supplements now, but the taste itself was delightful.

A trip to Tohoku makes a more convenient getaway from Tokyo than Hokkaido, the northern Japanese island that is perhaps more well known. The three prefectures are approximately two hours from Tokyo by bullet train. The ski resorts of Iwate are filled with fresh powder throughout the winter and there is a hiking trail that runs along Iwate’s coastline—a great activity for families in the spring, summer, or fall.

Chef Masateru Imamura has been profiled by CNN in the past, and his restaurant, Imamura, in Ishinomaki, is exceptional. The sashimi comes from fish purchased each morning at the Ishinomaki wharf. The price of a meal is also a fraction of what it would be in Tokyo. The small cities in Tohoku—the largest is Sendai with one million people—allow inhabitants to live close to nature. Visitors will experience this too.

The nearby hot springs, or “onsens,” are full of minerals. My local friend Ayai explained, “Getting soaked in a tub has become part of our lives; there is a tub in almost every house and apartment unit, even if the rent is cheap.” According to Ayai, “Soaking in a tub also raises your body temperature, which elevates your mood. It is said to be good for your immune system and mental health.”

A ritual like this allowed the Americans among us to settle into a Japanese way of life. The language barrier was formidable, especially with the older generation, but I think the locals understood our gratitude for sharing their beautiful country with us. “Thank you” is a long way from some of the hostile phrases in my grandfather’s military book.


Cristina Slattery has written for publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek Japan, Forbes Travel Guide, Harvardwood Highlights, Roads & Kingdoms, The Winter Film Awards, FoodandWine.com, Words Without Borders, AFAR.com, Travel+Leisure.com, several airline magazines, and other national and international magazines and websites. She currently lives in the New York area.