Once-thriving port city that sank into the sands

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A wooden bridge leading to Nakanoshima Bridge Park. Visitors to the area can try clamming from late April to early October. The fee for one bag of clams is ¥300.

By Kenichi Sato / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer GOSHOGAWARA, Aomori — “A lake that is elegant but ephemeral, like water held in a shallow pearl oyster.”

That is how Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) described Lake Jusan in Aomori Prefecture in his novel “Tsugaru” (1944). The impression came to him while he was on a bus, gazing out at its blue waters.

Now, 74 years later, the lake with a circumference of 31 kilometers that flows into the Sea of Japan appears vast and abandoned. Surprisingly, its shores were once home to a port city called Tosaminato that prospered from the 13th to 15th century.

“It was the port of the east — equivalent to Hakata in the west,” said Shigetaka Sakakibara, 48, a member of the board of education of Goshogawara in the prefecture. I had stopped by his office to learn about the area’s history.

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    The Hie Shrine, where the Sannobo ruins were excavated

He explained that a group called the Ando clan once controlled the region, importing fur and marine products like kombu seaweed from Hokkaido and reexporting them to Kyoto.

The ruins of Tosaminato, on the western shore of the lake, were designated a national historical site in 2005 following extensive fieldwork to determine the former port’s layout that had begun some years earlier.

I asked local guide Yoshimasa Narita, 70, to take me in his car to the area’s historic sites. We first visited the Shiura History and Folklore Museum, where excavated items and modern images of Ainu people trading salmon and seaweed with the port’s residents were displayed.

Earthwork fortifications and moats from medieval days were discovered beneath present-day communities where the port once stood, and a religious structure for a merged form of Buddhism and Shintoism was found at the Sannobo ruins inside Hie shrine.

We also visited the ruins of Fukushima Castle, which was the residence of the Ando clan. The castle keep covered an area of 200 square meters, and its grounds 62 hectares. Narita proudly told me that the castle was “exceptionally large” for the Tohoku region during the Muromachi period (early 14th century to late 16th century).

However, after the feudal lord whom the shogunate installed as magistrate of the Ezo region in northern Japan lost to the Nanbu clan — which became dominant in the area in the mid-15th century — the port city faded into oblivion. As I walked through the ruins of the castle, my thoughts turned to the rich trade that once flowed through the area.

Lake Jusan, whose brackish waters reach 3 meters deep in places, is today a popular spot for harvesting a type of clam called corbicula. While looking out at the lake from my room at an inn one morning, I saw nearly 100 boats launch from the shore. It was 7 a.m., the time when clamming is allowed to start at the lake.

Clamming is nothing new in the area, as evidenced by excavated shell mounds from the ancient Jomon period. But with corbicula from the lake gaining popularity, it has grown into a lucrative industry.

Goro Kudo, 72, of the Jusan fishery union, said that 20 years ago, local fishermen had to seek out-of-town jobs to supplement their income.

“Now we’re able to make a living on just clamming. I see the younger generation coming back,” he said.

I asked how he felt about the now-lost port city.

“It seems like a fantasy,” he said. “Nobody was even living there until the early years of the Edo period.”

We drove another 30 minutes south to Shayokan, Dazai’s birthplace. The former residence of the novelist’s father, a major landowner, seemed luxurious and a far cry from the atmosphere around the lake.

I went to the Tsugaru shamisen hall and listened to a live performance of the three-stringed musical instruments. The performer, who played a Bon dance song called “Tosa no Sunayama,” said the lyrics describe how the once-thriving port city sank into the sands, and how great it would have been had those sands been rice instead.

Listening to the sad melody, I seemed to hear the voices of all the people through the ages who have prayed for prosperity in this world.

Dazai and his novel ‘Tsugaru’

Osamu Dazai was on his way to Kodomari — now a district in Nakadomari town in Aomori Prefecture — to see his childhood nurse, Take, when he spotted Lake Jusan. The scene where the two reunite is the highlight of his novel “Tsugaru,” in which he chronicled his thoughts on his hometown. A statue of their reunion stands close to the museum commemorating the novel in Kodomari. It is an ideal place to indulge in the world of Dazai.


Accessing Lake Jusan from Tokyo requires three train rides and a bus ride: a three-hour trip on the Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Shin-Aomori Station; a 30-minute trip from Shin-Aomori Station to JR Kawabe Station; a 30-minute trip from Kawabe Station to Goshogawara Station; and finally an about 70-minute bus ride from Goshogawara Station to the Tosa area.

For inquiries, contact the Local Product Promotion Department of the Goshogawara city government at (0173) 35-2111.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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