Misadventures in Akita, Japan
After a full morning of traipsing around Kakunodate’s soggy samurai village, we found ourselves on yet another train toward the town of Akita. We had barely enough time to get comfortable and rest our feet before the train arrived at the station.
We offboarded, weighed down by our heavy bags, and trekked the few blocks to our hotel. Akita’s downtown feels vaguely familiar like it could be any small American city. We walked past convenience stores, restaurants, and parks, with minimal signs of traditional Japanese architecture. Our western-style hotel loomed amongst the surrounding buildings.
After checking in, we headed to Senshu Park a few blocks away; we started at the southeastern corner of the park where a still pond sat, covered in a blanket of lily pads, their large fronds held up like stilts by long and straight stems that rose gracefully out of the water. I thought they looked like beautiful glowing handkerchiefs with the light shining through their leaves, exposing the veins extending from the stem toward the ruffled brims.
We continued onward up the gentle slope admiring the trees flanking the path. The front gate commanded attention with a short flight of steps leading up to its entrance. We wandered over to the guardhouse at the right and peered inside. Cold and damp darkness greeted us and pulled us into the empty vacuum of the room. We took one step inside before a groundskeeper appeared and attempted to tell us something about the site in Japanese. We smiled and nodded, having no idea what he was saying, but thanked him anyway and bowed before retreating.
We marveled at the grandness of the gate as we passed beyond into the courtyard. The park was silent save for the throaty uproar coming from a boisterous murder of crows darting from branch to branch overhead in a nearby clearing, their deep caws reverberating off the canopy in a tumultuous echo chamber.
Senshu park is also home to the Lyataka Shrine, an impressive site, completed with a red tori gate tunnel, menacing stone lions, foxes, and dragons taking watch over the grounds. What is equally remarkable is its tenure; the shrine has stood at Senshu for over 100 years.
As the sun was dropping fast in the sky, we headed back toward our hotel, with rumbling stomachs. After a few google searches, we discovered many restaurants in the area were closed. We spent the better part of an hour walking through the now ghost town, completely baffled and anxious to find food.
Finally, after more googling, we found an open restaurant within a few blocks from us. It was advertised as a conveyer belt sushi restaurant, and it would be open for the next two hours. As we approached the address, we quickly realized it was inside a mall. We were sure Google had made a mistake when we saw that all the lights inside were off and it appeared to be closed. We tried the door handle, expecting it to be locked but Instead, to our surprise the door opened and we timidly entered, now aware of just how eerie an indoor strip mall is without any people.
Off to the left, the restaurant was ablaze in light. We regained hope when we could see people inside. As we pushed the door open and stepped inside seven pairs of eyes immediately snapped on us. We realize we may have just made a colossal mistake. The restaurant was empty, except for two people sitting on the far side of the conveyor belt bar.
I looked around, eyeing the still conveyor belt, devoid of little plates of sushi. Bright fluorescent lights hung from the ceiling and cast an un-natural daylight glow over the whole establishment. Off in the kitchen, we heard clanging pots and the woosh of water rinsing the dishes. One chef stood stoically with his arms folded, his station clean. A waitress greeted us and beckoned us to sit at the bar. Jeremy and I exchanged nervous looks, unsure of why it was dead at 6 pm on a Sunday night. It was too late to turn back, so we shuffled to the bar and sat down.
The waitress brought us two menus, and the chef pointed to the combination meal, making a recommendation to try a little of everything. We weren’t ready to commit to that much food, so we decided to order two items to start.
I pointed to our desired sushi on the menu and said, “Kore hitotsu to kore hitotsu onegaishimasu” meaning (One of this and one of this, please). With a short “Hai” and a head nod, he began to prepare our dish. Within a minute, two small trays with different patterns appeared at the edge of the bar.
“Arigato gozaimas,” we said taking the food. He returned back to his spot behind the bar, crossed his arms, and watched us while we ate. I became suddenly aware of his eyes silently judging how I picked up and ate the Nagiri. I remembered that dunking sushi rice down in soy sauce was a no-no, so I attempted to flip the fish and rice combo upside down and lightly dab the fish in the soy sauce before shoving it awkwardly into my mouth. My face reddened as my eyes met the chef. We ate our meal and spoke in hushed voices. The couple across the bar suddenly got up after paying their tab, leaving us utterly alone and the sole focus of everyone in the room. We became even more painfully aware of just how quiet it is in a closing restaurant when you’re the only reason it is staying open. After gaining confidence in the quality of food, we felt guilty about leaving so early, so we ordered more and more until we finally realized we had ordered the recommended combination meal.
After filling our stomachs just enough to stave off hunger pains, we paid our tab and thanked the chef with a bow. We exited the mall, wondering what the hell we had just experienced, and laughed about it the whole way back to our hotel.
Before heading back, I insisted we stop at Lawsons and pick up some drinks and snacks to enjoy without an audience in our room. I picked out this pre-packaged soft serve ice cream, thinking it would be a refreshing dessert choice, but found it to be hard and almost chewy, like eating a stress ball. Jeremy picked out a can of highball, thinking it to be a brand of Japanese beer but instead discovered it was a strong and un-appetizing alcoholic soda. We spent the rest of our night in our room trying our mystery snacks and passing out just before 10 pm.
The next morning, we took the long train ride back the way we came and found our way to our next reservation in Asakusa, Tokyo. The contrast between the relaxing moments in Kakunodate and the bizarre ghost town we experienced in Akita bring smiles to our faces every time we remember that day. Akita served as a lesson for us to always say “yes” to those weird moments in hopes that some amazing stories come out of them.