A trip to the Japanese Riviera.
Yamamoto. Aizawa. Fukuda. As names are called off the clipboard, there is anticipation, even a bit of impatience.
The Manazuru Gyokyo Twitter feed gives daily updates on how big the catch was, what time it will arrive at the market, and if a certain fish is at its best price point of the season. It’s the town crier of Manazuru, letting locals know what seafood is on offer. By the time the fish market opens to the public at 9:30am, locals who saw something they like on have already added their names to the waitlist outside.
You can have this experience any morning you come to Manazuru, the quiet and utterly delightful fishing village less than two hours south of Tokyo. As a way of introduction to the place, I’ll tell you about one of my recent mornings there.
Let’s start with the first fish being announced on Twitter. Saba mackerel ¥200 each, ¥500 for 3; kinmedai seabream ¥800 each (mid-sized), 1100¥ (large); surume squid ¥400 each.
“Kawahagi,” my father orders.
With its flat body and funny horse face, the seasonal kawahagi (thread-sail filefish) is at its best for only a few months out of the year. He knows that the thinly sliced kawahagi sashimi, dipped in a paste of its own fatty liver and ponzu, is my favorite winter dish in Manazuru. Less dense than buttery ankimo (monkfish liver) often called the foie gras of the Japanese seas, kawahagi liver is light and creamy but still gives the delicate sashimi a warmth and richness.
Fish in hand, my father walk with me back through the wholesale market towards our climb home. Fishermen are cleaning up for the day—in this section of the market, the catch is auctioned off to local chefs, restaurants, buyers, distributors, and retailers at 6am. The fish caught today will be served at lunch and dinner as sashimi or simmered in broth at Yoi or Fuji Shokudo, sold whole as himono (dried fish), or added as toppings at Kenny’s Pizza. We can hear rubber boots squeaking about the wet floors, as two cats nap on an awning where the morning sun still shines.
When my father retired from 40 years of corporate service as a salaryman, he was ready to GTFO of Tokyo. His career had taken him and our family around the world with the expansion of the company, following the aggressive economic growth of the Japanese automotive industry in the 80’s and 90’s. We lived in a high-rise in Tokyo, amid corn and soybean fields in Ohio, in Saitama suburbia, within a gated community in Manila, tucked in a roundabout in Waterloo, Ontario. Wrapping up his career in India and China, he asked himself upon retirement: mountain or sea?
In Manazuru he found both. The small fishing village of 7500 residents sits on a tiny mountainous peninsula in the Sagami Bay. By train, it is an hour and a half southwest of Tokyo in the far corner of the Kanagawa Prefecture, just before the coastline extends south towards the Izu Peninsula. The terraced village faces the sea, so fishermen have unobstructed views of the sea conditions at first light. Setomichi—narrow footpaths—link homes with orchards of kiwis and mikan oranges throughout the village. A forest dating back to the Edo Period is home to kuromatsu pine trees that have stood for more than 300 years. This prefectural park extends to the edge of the point, feeding the sea with nutrients from its soil and foliage. Kibune Shrine, accessible by climbing 108 steps, watches over Manazuru.
The secret to this beauty is also the key to why Manazuru is such a worthy escape from Tokyo: the Manazuru City Design Code. Preservationist politicians in the 1990’s enacted a sweeping set of city planning rules, in a reaction against neighboring cities on the “Japanese Riviera” who were in the midst of a wave of often-vulgar overdevelopment. These eight standards of the Code—place, grade, scale, harmony, material, ornament, community, view—were inspired by A Pattern Language, architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander’s 1977 manifesto that aimed to provide language and authority to ordinary people to design their own towns, neighborhoods, houses, gardens, and rooms.
Now, this could sound like a condo code from hell, but it’s quite different in practice. For Tomomi Kishi and Shun Kawaguchi, the young couple behind the publishing house and homestay Manazuru Shuppan, Manazuru’s beauty standards were a reason in choosing to settle down here. They had looked at popular rural towns across Japan—Shōdoshima in the Inland Sea of Japan, Kamiyamacho in Tokushima, Kurashiki in Okayama. But after a two-week trial stay in Manazuru, they felt the Design Code at work. The layout of the town includes connected spaces—households linked to establish neighborhoods without having to cross traffic; purposeful placement of benches where one may need rest after climbing up or descending down steep paths; trees and flower pots where they can be admired and touched. The buildings feel timeless, or stuck in time… all depending on your point of view.
Now, after three years in Manazuru, the couple has not only published Yasashii Himono, an illustrated booklet about Manazuru’s famous local dried fish, but have also converted a traditional minka home to operate as homestays on Airbnb. Tomomi wants to “connect Manazuru with the rest of the world”. Come for a stay and they’ll treat you, as they do all guests, to a simple breakfast of grilled fish with rice and miso soup in the morning, and a walking tour around town. They pop into small shops and businesses along the way, as they introduce the Design Code and explain how a small fishing village turned timelessness into policy.
“You feel that something is still intact here,” says Tomomi, “and a community that works to protect that. We know that as long as the Design Code exists, Manazuru will not change.”
When I asked my father about the Design Code, he had no idea what I was talking about. He says he chose Manazuru because he likes how it looks.
TRAVEL: from Tokyo, take the JR Tokaido Line to Manazuru Station (90 minutes).
VISIT: port and fish market (20 minutes by food from station), Kibune Shrine (5 minutes by bus from station), Ohayashi forest (10 minutes by bus from station)
STAY: Manazuru Shuppan
FOLLOW: Fish shop @manazurugyokyo for the catch of the day