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Shiogama City, Miyagi prefecture, Japan

Shiogama is located just outside of Sendai City, on the 
Northeast coast of Japan.

The population of Shiogama is about 75,000, in an area of 17 sq. km.  

The population of Sendai is about 1,000,000.  

Shiogama has several train stations, which go directly to Sendai.  It takes about 15-20 minutes.  From Sendai, its about a two hour bullet train ride to Tokyo, with trains leaving every twenty minutes or less.  Sendai is the largest city in the region, so its become an important business hub.  Just about anything can be found here, for a price, anyway.  The city has mostly been built (or rebuilt) in the last 50 years, so its pretty modern and convenient.  The shopping is great.  

Shiogama is on the same latitude as San Francisco and St. Louis, 
but because of the ocean, the winters are pretty mild.  A minus 10 degrees
Celsius here is shockingly cold to the residents. 
(you do the math, 0 degrees C. = 32 degrees F.)
But, there is no central heating.  So sometime around February/ March, when the sun hasn't shone for three months, and you feel like your living in a big gray box, it really does feel wretchedly cold, you'll find yourself spontaneously proclaiming, 'Aaah! Samui!!'.  (Chapui! in the local dialect).  In early summer they have the rainy season with the rest of Japan.  It rains almost everyday and sometimes it rains straight for a couple days.  The air stays saturated with humidity and you can smell every fish dinner, every trash bag left out, every sewer drain and every wet dog for miles.

Shiogama is a port town, its main industries involve sea life.  So, lots of fresh fresh seafood.  It has the highest density of Sushi restaurants in Japan, and really good tuna sashimi.  Its most famous product is fish paste.  It comes in many forms, grilled, fried, flavored, but all a treat for the senses.  But, it's also famous for its great sake.  The name 'Shiogama' means salt mine, derived from the fact that the ancient indigenous hunter-gatherers of Japan used the area's water and beaches in a unique method of producing salt.

We are located across the bay from Matsushima, one of the three most scenic places in Japan.  But the islands in the bay which are inhabited are on the Shiogama side.  These are the Urato islands, which used to be the regions main center for shipping during the Edo period, despite their small size.  The inhabitants have been there for as many generations, they still have last names like 'fishing boat' and 'Clam digger'.  Their gene pool is getting a little shallow, though.  These islands have great, clean beaches and abundant tracks of land.  Rapeseed is harvested here, and in the spring the yellow blossoms blanket the islands.  Ancient shell middens can still be found on the beaches, containing ancient Jomon artifacts.  They still harvest clams and seaweed in the waters and during the respective seasons, the waters are filled with clam drying shelves and the tall sticks holding nets.  Wide paths are left for the ferries to navigate around the densely packed seaweed traps, while the fishermen move about in their own small boats.  They make really good nori.  The islands are reached by a half hour ferry ride from Marine Gate Shiogama.  The sightseeing ferries for Matsushima also leave from the Marine Gate, which is a complex including souvenir and food shops, as well as some little known Western style gourmet restaurants.  

Early in the mornings a huge fish market is held on the harbor side across from Marine Gate, near the local docks.  This Shiogama fish market is also well known.  If its edible and lives in the ocean, you can probably buy it here, and its definitely as fresh as it gets.  Shiogama fisherman harvest a lot of tuna, the average size of the tuna caught here is about 16 feet.  I never even realized they made tuna that big.  

Shiogama has the largest shrine in the Tohoku region, which includes all the prefectures north of Tokyo (except Hokkaido).  The shrine sits on top of a hill in the middle of the town, with a great view of the city and the ocean.  Its about a 10 minute walk down the street from Hon Shiogama station.  The shrine's usage goes back at least 1,200 years.  Large celebrations are held for every Japanese Matsuri day.  The shrine's own festival is held in April during the cherry blossom season, its worth a trip to see it if your in the area.  The city is as old as the shrine, but it is not really a quaint old town.  Buildings have continually been built over, around and between others, so now the city tumbles like a debris slide down from the hills into the ocean.  There are a few hills with trees that poke up in between the buildings, including the one with the shrine, but the city is mostly concrete and utility wires.

The town certainly has its own charm, though.  Its conveniently located for access to the city or to other parts of the prefecture, and everything in the town is in walking distance.  There are some old buildings hiding in between the new ones, like the old fashioned sake factory that gives tours.  There's also a sweet shop that Matsuo Basho visited a couple hundred years ago, and praised in his writings.  Talk about a celebrity endorsement.  The same shop still operates and sells out early whatever products haven't been special ordered or reserved.  Make some reservations in advance and you might be able to get in for some tea and cake.  

Shiogama is definitely worth a stop for anyone in the area, to see the shrine and take a sightseeing boat or a ferry to the islands.  The fresh as can get Tuna sashimi and smooth Urato sake are themselves worth the trip. 

 

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