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Misawa: Tip of the Spear

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
1 Jan 2016

I enjoyed the trips that we've taken to Misawa, which can be summarized with two words: cold and hot. The winter weather there is grueling, slicing right through clothing, and, seemingly, layers of skin. Going inside a home protects from wind but offers little in the way of heating, as most homes in Misawa aren't insulated; however, that is slowly changing. The word hot comes to mind when I remember the local restaurants that offer steaming bowls of noodles and other delicious antidotes to winter's assault. One dish that I had for the very first time in Misawa was Shabu-Shabu. A plate of pork or beef and vegetables accompanies an enormous bowl of broth placed on a heating element in the table to keep it consistently warm. Folks at the table dip the meat and vegetables into the broth, warming then cooking the food and simultaneously creating a flavorful broth that also warms the cockles of your heart. Ah, I understood at that point how people can survive the climate challenges there, and even enjoy life.

There are challenges beyond the weather that veer into politics. I'll quickly summarize what's reported in Wikipedia to give you a background to the long-standing issues. After WWII, Japan and Russia didn't sign a peace agreement, because they continue to dispute the ownership of the Kuril Islands, NE of Hokkaido, which they both lay claim to. Even today, the majority of Japanese people are anti-Russian. Why? A Japanese fisherman was captured and killed by the Russians when he was fishing close to the Kuril Islands in 2006. A couple of years later, Japanese textbooks were changed to teach students that the Japanese own the islands. About five years ago, Russians built up military defenses on the islands. Although peace talks between the two nations continue, Misawa remains the "tip of the spear," and they host a U.S. airbase to provide protection against potential Russian aggression. This history and current political situation in Misawa makes it a fascinating place to visit. There are many spots worth visiting while you're in that area, and we'll look at some of those.

Misawa Aviation and Science Museum

One of the best places to visit when you're in Misawa is the popular Aviation and Science Museum. There are new and old aircraft, such as the Phantom and Blue T-2. There's an observation tower. Some of the aircraft parked outside in the park are open for you to sit in the cockpit or walk though. They're surrounded by a kid-friendly park, and if you go on a nice day, this area will make your visit even more enjoyable. In addition, there are lots of hands-on exhibits for all ages that need no translation to understand. A favorite for some reason seems to be the "free fall" exhibit, where people run downhill as fast as they can to slam into a padded wall. Go figure. Special exhibits have included a Japanese Zero and an aircraft recovered from the sea. To know what exhibits will be during your visit, you can go to their English website.

Terayama Shuji Memorial

If you're asking, "Who is Terayama Shuji?" you may not be familiar with his varied works, but the memorial is a must-see for his fans and those who want to become more familiar with Japanese culture. He's a bit of an icon as a writer of books, films, poetry and plays with an unusual background. After his father died in the Indonesian War, his mother went to work at an American base and sent Terayama to the Misawa countryside to live with relatives during WWII. He survived the horrific Aomori air raids, and lived to go to high school and college. However, the experiences that he had out in the world influenced him more than his years in school, as reflected in the title of his book, "Throw Away your Books, Rally in the Streets." He became an iconoclastic thinker, shaking up the established literary scene. This memorial to his life and works includes original manuscripts as well as photographs that he took.

Misawa City Shiminnomori Park

Misawa is a beautiful area to visit some wild, untamed areas—or others, such as well- trimmed Shiminnomori Park, easy on the eyes and accessible to all. It's especially spectacular in the spring when cherry blossoms are in full bloom. You can enjoy walks under the falling cherry blossoms and picnics in the pink wonderland. Or, you can get even closer to nature by using a camping site or cabin. Kids will focus on the playgrounds and the big sliding hill. For elders, there's a welfare center in the park where an open-air hot bath overlooks the large Lake Ogawara.

Lake Ogawara

Speaking of Lake Ogawara, that also offers excellent recreational opportunities, despite its ignominious use before WWII, when the beach was used to prepare for the Pearl Harbor attack. Now, however, it is warm and peaceful, well, in the summer, anyway. Beautiful cranes line the beaches. Kids play, run and bike in the pleasant park that features a gigantic "spider web" climbing challenge. On the weekends (only) you can rent boats, sailboats, kayaks or jet skis, but bring your own refreshments or buy them nearby at the next spot we'll discuss, the Road Station. You can go camping in a tent and even rent the tent there. Or, maybe even better, you can pass the night in a cabin or cottage. Although this isn't the most spectacular beach attraction in Japan, it's a great spot for some family fun and relaxation if you're in the area.

Road Station Misawa—Tonami-Han Memorial Tourist Village

Side-by-side, these two attractions offer a variety of fun activities, such as:

  • Free museum that shows the farming and ranching history of Misawa area
  • Store with fresh, inexpensive produce
  • Restaurant with Japanese/American offerings such as the popular "Air Force Burger"
  • Walking areas
  • Minature golf
  • Petting zoo
  • Ponies and carts at times
  • Dounan Clan Tourist Village memorializing the struggles of the clan
  • The fees you pay will depend on the activities that you select, which seems very fair.

    Sky Plaza Misawa

    This little bit of Americana is positioned to the left of Misawa Air Force Base. It's geared to Japanese tourists but is also nice for expats who don't have access to bases, because it provides a little taste of home. There are American goods and souvenirs of the base, including airplane models and items with base logos on them. In addition, there's a small Costco store where people can buy large packages of things such as sweets and potato chips with a Costco membership. Some military goods, such as jeans made of special military material, are also featured. This store doesn't come close to matching what similar places have in Yokosuka and Naha, but it's fun to watch the Japanese shop for American items.

    In conclusion, it's worth a trip to Misawa to experience an area that's significant in terms of WWII history and helpful in understanding a key issue in Japanese political arenas, the Kuril Islands disputes. Misawa is in a gorgeous geographical area that attracts people for hiking and other outdoor activities, but it's not tops with the beach crowd.

    Photo credits Yuichiro Haga

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