There is a secret in the rural town of Ishinomaki: You are welcome anytime.
Japan is an island nation. People here like to say this by way of explanation, as if to excuse their quirks and customs. Shimaguni dakarane. The implication being, this is why we are the way we are. But look closer at a map of Japan, and it is no longer just an island removed from the rest of East Asia. Suddenly more islands appear. This island nation calls several thousand more its own. Most are uninhabited, or in danger of losing its population altogether. Many are little but glorified rocks with a few desultory pines and patches of scrub. Some thrive as tourist hotspots. A few in the south are marvelous subtropical ecosystems, home to fantastical species of moss and ferns. Some, like Naoshima, have been transformed by human intervention and a healthy dose of cash into gorgeous open-air art museums.
In the centre of downtown Ishinomaki, between the station and the sea, lies a hill called Hiyoriyama. Though it rises just fifty-six metres above sea level, it is a striking feature of the city’s profile. It is home to a maze of well-appointed houses, and the old castle ramparts these days host a shrine and Hiyoriyama Park. The park is a charming criss-cross of walking paths, stone steps, and stands of gnarly cherry blossom trees. I visited on a rainy weekday afternoon and had it mostly to myself. Looking south, over the Kadonowaki and Minamihama districts, the emptiness stretches out to the sea. Close to the base of the hill, clean new builds dot the ground, while the vast flatness beyond crawls with heavy construction vehicles moving earth and concrete. The Pacific Ocean sparkles and shifts in the distance.