Sendai to Morioka

The art of accidental adventure and immersion into train travel culture of Japan. Sometimes you never know what you are going to encounter.

The item on the agenda today (in 2015) is to transport via JR from Sendai to Morioka in order to have a day trip to Kakunodate. We left the extreme hospitality of the hostel - Guest House Umebachi (see this blog post for more info) and took the short walk to the train station. I really love walking in new places so you can observe and take in the sites. I can often remember a place upon return even after long periods of time. In fact, that's what happens later in this sabbatical trip, but for now let's talk about happenstance and train travel culture.

Happenstance today indeed. Cheerleaders for a baseball team! It is spring after all. I grew up watching baseball as my dad was an athlete and then became a youth coach and scout. I learned to keep score and spent many days in my youth at the little league field with the family. As an adult, I gave up on baseball and found other sports that interested me more as a spectator. However, I think it would be super fun to sit in the stands at a Japanese baseball game. I love how much they love this game. I love how interesting aspects of culture get borrowed and adapted. There are no cheerleaders for baseball in America.

So what do you do when you stumble on something in the art of accidental adventure? You stop and observe. In more research now after the fact, the Sendai team is called the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Their mascots are “Clutch”, “Clutchina” and “Switch” - so fun! Growing up my family watched the Philadelphia Phillies and the mascot - the Philly Phanatic was the absolute best as a child I guess to break up the game and bring joy. This article gives more information, but basically Clutchina is in pink and she likes to make things. Apparently Clutch, the brown eagle, is an artist that likes to draw. Check out their cheer!

If you time your journey well, you can see the local culture in their typical daily routine as commuters or school kids wait for their trains. Access to this form of transportation is just a dream in America so I just really drool over the time I get to spend in stations like this. From the quiet of the evening to the rush hour in the morning, there are still spots of solitude and beauty in the industrial form as I took this first image. In contrast, you'll see the stained glass window in the next more crowded image, but last night there were only a handful of people lined up along the wall there. The ebb and flow of society through these portals is such a fascinating thing to observe.

Like many other cultures, Japan transitioned from agricultural society and became industrialized so people moved to cities. When this began to occur they also opened up their borders and began to look towards the west. The Meiji period describes this time of modernization which is often depicted in Ukiyo-e prints (also known as the floating world). Edo became Tokyo as the capitol permanently moved with Emperor Meiji. Over a hundred years later in contemporary society, the economic boom created wealth and lots of jobs so even more people fled the outlying small town life to the bigger cities. Sendai by no means is at any scale close to the megalopolis of Tokyo, but it has a nice vibe as a city that you get a glimpse of at the train station.

The salary man in Japan is a part of the culture dating back to the 1930s (サラリーマン, sararīman) describing white collar workers who are typically recruited directly from school and are offered a guaranteed job until retirement. This means long hours with total loyalty and devotion to the company. You'll often see groups of men in suits after work hours in restaurants, karaoke, and other night life prior to taking the last train home. Consuming alcohol is also part of this culture as the lowest person in the employment ranks is not allowed to leave the group until the boss does and is also the person responsible for pouring the drinks.

Office and business culture in general can be seen in the fashion even of the women wearing khaki trench coats. I don't have a khaki trench coat and neglected to investigate the fashion trends prior to packing for my trip which included factors such as weight of the bag and varying temperatures from snowy winter to tropical island.


Gift giving is a tradition in Japan and even if one goes away for a weekend it is expected that you bring everyone gifts from your trip. That is why there are so many gift-wrapped food items from the various locations. There perhaps is a specialty item in the place you visit that is so well-known you have to take a box of it back to your office when you return.

In general, it is frowned upon to eat or drink on the streets or while walking. There are convenience stores all over the place that sell take-away items and even hot bottled drinks. They may have seats in their shop or in super busy areas you may notice people huddled off to the side of the entrance. It's rare to even see a trash receptacle anywhere except in the train stations or on trains. The Japanese know this and bring their trash home with them because of the generations of trash management and recycling. So if you read this before you travel to Japan, please remember to respect the culture and not walk and eat or drink.

On the other hand, it is totally amazing and customary to eat on the trains. For longer rides on the Shinkansen (aka bullet train), a person will walk through the aisle and sell food or drink items. You may also consume alcohol on trains. In this image below, you can see my bottled green tea and my morning breakfast consisting of onigiri (this one has salmon) and a sweet rice cake along with a specialty item from a cream cake store. Notice the napkin which is a wet-nap provided in the sack they hand to you after your purchase is complete.


I think I dream about traveling on the train in Japan. My first visit to the country as an adult was a few years prior to this and we took the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto where it goes so fast you have to be careful about motion sickness. This is an engineering marvel. Even the Japanese are fascinated with this cultural object of transportation. There are other trains in Japan, but the bullet train is identifiable by it's bullet shaped nose for the purpose of high speed. The top speed is at 320 km/h or 199mp/h. Not all trains on the JR are the Shinkansen. If you are interested in traveling to Japan using the JR Pass, check out my how to video here.

Please remember to pay attention to two things in your train travel. One is the time and number of the train. The train system is very efficient. Do not line up or get on a train that is not almost at the exact time scheduled to depart. You will board the wrong train! Also please be conscious of the cue line culture. It is important to stand in the designated areas and form a reasonable line. Do not crowd. Do not rush the door and fight your way on. Be mindful of the people exiting and then proceed. If you are traveling with a tour group and there are more than 10 or 20 people, you should divide up to enter multiple doors. If you all try to enter one door instead of other doors on that car and adjacent ones you will hold up the efficiency of their schedule and it will upset the train workers that stand on the track to make sure everything is okay. He will be dismayed guaranteed. I noticed this once and made sure to hop on a different car. If you have an assigned seat you can board a different car and just walk to find your seat.


Of course being a graphic designer and someone interested in imagery of life, I am always fascinated by the design, packaging, and other advertising materials found here. In this particular case, there was an onboard magazine like you would find on an airplane and I found some of the products interesting, amusing even.

The other aspects that are fantastic are finding design in the landscape of the train station from the posters and advertising in the spaces you walk, the warning signs near the rail and boarding areas, and even decor in the tunnels or when you exit. Design culture is top notch here. The contrast between public art installations of customs and the vibrant fun illustrations in advertising provide a broad array of visual interest.

We arrived in Morioka to be greeted by this visual fanfare as spring is arriving soon. Today we will venture to Kakunodate and then head to our overnight accommodations at hotel near the train station.

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