“Upstream People.” “Still hills.” Omaha. Shizuoka. The city names are so compatible in sound, yet so different in meaning. Their respective translations—at seven syllables—could be the second line of a haiku.
A 1965 agreement linked Omaha and Shizuoka, Japan, as “sister cities.” Both sides pledged to maintain cultural and commercial exchange, and that relationship has continued ever since.
Though striking cultural and geographic differences abound, Omaha and Shizuoka inhabitants share a kindred spirit of generosity that becomes apparent immediately. We experienced this goodwill firsthand during a winter visit to Omaha’s first sister city.
From Midwest to Far East
Located within the central Chubu region of Japan’s main island, Honshu, Shizuoka city is the capital of Shizuoka prefecture (akin to a state in the U.S.). The city is home to a population just shy of 700,000.
Metropolitan life unfolds here within a landscape overflowing with natural beauty. It is a place where the briny sea air of the North Pacific intermingles with the clamor of thriving commercial districts, and where the loftiest of municipal buildings feel demure against the backdrop of Mount Fuji.
The trip from Tokyo takes 60-90 minutes by way of the Central Japan Railway’s Tokaido Shinkansen—a bullet train—which is twice the speed of the regular train. A typical evening arrival at Shizuoka Station involves loosening of ties and shouldering of backpacks. The train cars themselves seem to exhale families, salaried workers, and uniformed students disembarking onto the platform.
With the bustle of the world’s most populous metropolitan area behind them, a sense of calm prevails. Fingers pinching computerized plastic cards (“IC-cards”) glide over payment sensors at the terminal; meanwhile, lines of incoming commuters busily deposit coins into machines for single-fare tickets.
Exiting the station to the north, disembarking commuters pass the reconstructed Higashi Gomon (East Gate) and Hitsujisaru Yagura (Southwest Tower) of Shizuoka’s historic Sumpu Castle. Centuries ago, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) retired to Shizuoka following his role in unifying the country at the end of Japan’s Age of Warring States. Once exclusive to the highest strata of Shizuoka society, Sumpu Castle remains as a space available to all in the form of a distinctive public park.
Shizuoka Station’s south exit leads to Hobby Square and O-Cha Plaza. Hobby Square bills itself “the Plastic Model Capital of the World” and showcases the city’s rich tradition of plastic model manufacturing. It is a place where painstaking historical accuracy meets sci-fi mania as replica tanks square off against battalions of Gundam robots wielding plasma swords and ray guns.
The nearby O-Cha Plaza is home to the World Green Tea Association. It is “a very special place,” says Hiroko Suzuki of the Shizuoka City Association for Multicultural Exchange, “a place to learn and participate in the tradition of Shizuoka green tea.” (Suzuki helps us to navigate Shizuoka during our visit.)
Parallels of Tea and Beef
O-Cha (Tea) Plaza is an educational hub designed and managed by the World Green Tea Association. The organization, according to its website, was “established by the government of Shizuoka Prefecture to further the development of green tea production, culture, and understanding through the spread of green tea’s traditions and knowledge of its healthful and commercial properties.”
Certified Nihon-cha (Japanese tea) instructors lead visitors through all facets of Japanese tea, everything from customs to chloroplasts. Instructor Asako Akiyama is our guide. Her passion for tea bore roots in Shizuoka.
“I’m originally from Kyushu, and traveled extensively due to my parent’s work,” Akiyama says. “When I first came to Shizuoka, I knew almost nothing of green tea, how it was produced, or its potential origins. But I became fascinated with the subject, and it’s why I’ll stay here forever.”
She carries a tray bearing 16 varieties of green tea produced in Shizuoka, each possessing distinctive coloration, morphology, and flavor based on environmental and processual influences.
The most popular and widely produced is called “sencha,” described by Akiyama as “highly fragrant, shorn thinly in the ‘needle style,’ and sometimes golden hued.” It is grown in the mountains where frequent fog cover “results in a thin, soft leaf.”
She speaks of the water temperature and its effect on the tea’s flavor profile, how allowing the water to cool below 70 degrees Celsius before steeping decreases bitterness, enhances sweetness, and in the highest quality tea brings forth savory umami, or as she puts it, “the goodness.”
And while O-Cha hosts The World Green Tea Contest every fall, one needn’t wait until then to experience some of the finest green tea in the world. Shizuoka’s passion for tea is evident throughout the city.
What beef is to Omaha, green tea is to Shizuoka. In both cases, there’s often one element that distinguishes great quality from a truly spectacular experience—setting.
Following the Tea Leaves
Nestled in the vibrant greenery of inland Shimizu-ku (one of Shizuoka City’s three wards), Green Infinity Cafe sits along a winding road at the base of the Southern Alps mountain range.
Twenty-five minutes by car from Shizuoka’s bustling Shimizu Port on the coast, Green Infinity Cafe’s neighborhood is notably more rural and rugged. Cultivated tea plants trail up the surrounding steep slopes.
This cafe doesn’t look like any we’ve seen before—it is truly one of a kind. We arrive at an assemblage of corrugated-steel structures. Instead of a storefront, we discover a processing factory. This is where green tea cultivated from the basin and mountainside is steamed, rolled, and dried prior to packaging.
Beneath a set of yellow industrial stairs, a steel door opens to proprietor Shingo Hojo. Warm tones of paneled wood cover the walls. The fragrance of green tea fills the space that once housed the factory’s office.
“I wanted to introduce tea that is grown here locally,” Hojo says when asked why he converted the space. “The fog rolling over the hills and valley naturally manages the amount of light exposure, resulting in the highest quality tea. I want the people who live around here to enjoy that.”
Hojo’s fervor for reclamation isn’t limited to his wares; practically everything within the Green Infinity Cafe is reused or repurposed, from the sequenced rice paper doors serving as ceiling panels to the large wooden doorframe salvaged, bisected, and lain horizontally to seat customers. The one exception is the brewing equipment.
It’s hard not to admire the sleek glass decanters used by employee Momoko Asano as she works. Carefully blending and steeping the loose tea leaves, she wields the glassware like a master chemist. Meanwhile, Japanese pop-punk spits off an old Panasonic stereo.
“I don’t think the quality of the tea should suffer for the sake of aesthetics,” Hojo says. “That’s why our equipment and the packaging of our tea remains distinctly modern despite the homey setting.”
The ambiance, the aroma, and the perfect sip of tea evoke not only elation, but an obliging confidence in Hojo’s approach. In this tiny pocket of Shizuoka, it seems, satisfaction may very well be infinite.
The Gaze of Mount Fuji
Mount Fuji smolders blue in the distance, with bolts of alpine tundra streaking down its summit to the timberline below. The rich water of Suruga Bay breaks white against dark sand. Children laugh and scatter backward from the pursuing froth.
There is a man painting on the beach. The mountain looms above. Pine needles surround his feet. Peeling back his brimmed hat and adjusting his sunglasses, he leans forward on a squat folding chair to survey the scene.
“I need to spend more time on the pine trees,” he says. “Getting the texture down is tricky, but the contrast looks amazing if you get it right.”
Fellow Shizuoka resident Akio Takeshita shares the painter’s appreciation for the pines of Miho-no-Matsubara (Miho Pine Beach). Takeshita is a member of the National Council on Fujisan World Heritage. He works to maintain the sanctity of the area through education and stewardship.
Located on the coastal side of Shizuoka’s Shimizu-ku ward, the 7-kilometer stretch of beach moors nearly 31,000 Japanese pine trees along its narrow coast.
“Even 500 years ago, people enjoyed the view from here,” Takeshita says as the limbs of ancient Japanese pines coil overhead. “The connection between Miho-no-Matsubara and Mount Fuji has been recognized throughout history,” he explains, “in legend, in art, and now as part of a World Heritage Site.”
Indeed, Mount Fuji’s 2013 induction by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site extended to Miho-no-Matsubara, affirming an aesthetic magnetism known to poets and artists over half a millennium ago. For example: master Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506), and at least one artist on the day we visit (the unknown artist sitting in contemplation of the perfect pine).
Snow-capped mountains and glimmering ocean shores may sound about as far from Omaha as one could get, never mind the 6,000-plus-mile distance between the cities. However, there is one cherished pastime common to both cities—going to the zoo!
Artwork by Jun Kaneko, a Japanese transplant to Omaha, helps to emphasize this connection at the Shizuoka Municipal Nihondaira Zoo. The sculpture is a 7-foot-tall raccoon dog known as a tanuki. Kaneko’s sculpture was born in Omaha and traveled to Japan as an anniversary present in 2015. It commemorates 50 years of being sister cities.
“The statue once stood on natural grass,” says zookeeper Soichiro Hirata.“But it’s so popular for photos that the grass died and we replaced it with artificial turf.”
Though clearly a hit, Kaneko’s polka-dotted beast faces stiff competition from nine smaller cuties. “For the last six years we have successfully bred red pandas,” Hirata says. “We are responsible for providing them to zoos all over the country.”
Red pandas are an endangered species with approximately 10,000 individuals left in the wild. The Nihondaira Zoo’s red panda husbandry program is as vital as it is impressive.
The red panda exhibit at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is far from the only connection between the institutions; the two became “sister zoos” in 2002. This relationship prompted an exchange of animals.
Seventeen years later, Nihondaira Zoo hosts the oldest puma in all of Japan. Arriving in Shizuoka as “Elizabeth,” the puma has become a staple of the zoo’s popular “Fierce Creatures Area.” She is now the sole remaining Omaha resident of Nihondaira.
Perhaps the upcoming 20th anniversary will be just the occasion to renew exchanges between the zoos in Omaha and Shizuoka.
Continuing Cultural Exchange
The premise of exchange is central to the sister city relationship; the exchange of knowledge, culture, and various other resources fosters mutual understanding and a high ceiling for personal and societal growth.
With this in mind, the city of Shizuoka offers a generous student exchange program with subsidies for transportation, lodging, and educational activities that anyone looking to broaden their global perspective should consider.
Back in Omaha, those wishing to sample a taste of Shizuoka can head to The Tea Smith at 78th and Cass streets where owner Tim Smith has connected with Kazuma Mori of the Japan Agricultural Cooperative and Wada Masayuki of Shizuoka’s Agricultural Policy Division to stock a variety of green teas from Shizuoka.
Recently debuting at The Tea Smith from Shizuoka is an award-winning tea described as “possessing the essence of cherry blossom.” The tea initially received a generic identifier, “Shizu 7132,” but it was renamed “Machiko Sencha” in honor of a woman who picks the leaves. It’s now available from The Tea Smith’s limited-supply Expedition Series. Rumored to “elicit a smile with every sip,” the tea is also called “Shiawase-no-Ocha” (i.e., “Tea of Happiness”).
Thank you, Shizuoka. Until we meet again, here are a few words of gratitude:
Our sister cities.
Upstream people. Quiet hill.
Forever in peace.
Shizuoka was Omaha’s first sister city in 1965. Omaha has since added five more: Braunschweig, Germany; Šiauliai, Lithuania; Naas, Ireland; Xalapa, Mexico; Yantai, China. In 2019, Omaha has been courting a seventh sister city with France’s Isigny-Omaha Intercom (the region where Omaha Beach is located).
Visit omahasistercities.com for more information.
This article was printed in the May 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.