Iwate Prefecture (岩手県) in the northeastern region of Tohoku (東北) in Japan has the lowest population density in the whole country after Hokkaido (北海道). Its capital is Morioka (盛岡市), a beautiful riverside city with a population of just 299,169 (as of September 2015). Even though it’s a scarcely populated city, it has a lot of interesting places to visit. The Tohoku region itself is famous for nice ski resorts, shrines, and beautiful beaches. Morioka is a peaceful city with a nice climate, warm and friendly people, delicious food, and so much more. Here are 10 nice things to do in Morioka, one of the best cities to visit in the Tohoku region:
Morioka Castle, formally known as Kozukata Castle (不来方城), was built by the Nanbu clan (南部氏) during the end of the Sengoku period (戦国時代) in the late 16th century. The castle used to be a landmark for Morioka City during the Shogunate era (江戸時代) until it got finally demolished in the beginning of the Meiji era (明治時代). The Meiji era has seen a lot of changes in Japanese society, especially in the political system of the country. The Shogunate system was banned and all the domains came under the control of the Emperor directly.
Now, there are only a few remains of the castle left in the area. The granite stone walls of the castle here attract many tourists from all around the world. In fact, these ruins are considered as one among the top three castle ruins of Tohoku. The Japanese government developed the surroundings of the castle into a park called the Iwate Park (岩手公園), which is a popular cherry blossom viewing spot among locals and tourists. The admission fee to this ruins is free for everybody.
As said earlier, the Iwate Park has been created to make the surroundings of the Morioka Castle Ruins a relaxing place. The area used to be very beautiful already with cherry blossoms and various other plants. However, the park has been designed aesthetically by Yasuhei Nagaoka (長岡安平), a pioneer in this aspect. Morioka Castle, being the only symbol of the city, is the best chill spot during any time of the year.
Iwate Park is considered as one of the most beautiful cherry blossom parks in the entire region. Hundreds of locals and tourists chill out in this park during the blooming season. It has been renamed as the Morioka Castle Site Park (盛岡城跡公園) to commemorate the glory of the lost castle of Morioka. The garden is big with a lot of ponds and well-paved walkways. Taking a stroll around the park while watching the ruins is definitely a combo that one who is interested in visiting the place should do.
Ishiwarizakura is a 400-year-old cherry blossom tree which is considered by Japan as a national monument. It came majestically from within the cracks of a granite rock. It is a wonder observing the strength of this tree and how it is able to stand for so long. During a fire mishap that happened in the past, the tree was lost quite dramatically. However, it has been restored by volunteers such as Jitaro’s family who dedicated their lives for decades in protecting this amazing tree. The tree blooms in mid-April or May like no other tree in the area with such vibrant colors and energy after a cold and harsh winter.
Morioka City is famous for its delicacy known as “Wanko Soba.” There is a unique food challenge where you can try eating as much Wanko Soba as you can. It’s not an official challenge but you can go with your friends anytime.
Azumaya (東屋) is one of the restaurants famous for Wanko Soba. Your bowl will be automatically refilled by the waiters, and whoever eats the most soba wins the challenge. Usually, the bowls are smaller in size compared to a regular soba bowl.
Morioka is famous not just for Wanko Soba, but also for their local ramen dishes. The ramen found here is unique and very tasty compared to other cities. The famous ones are the Morioka Reimen (盛岡冷麺) and Jajamen (じゃじゃ麺).
Morioka Reimen is inspired by a North Korean dish. The noodles are made of potato starch and they look shiny and thin. It is actually served cold with meat and a boiled egg. Kimchi is also added to the ramen.
Jajamen, on the other hand, is Chinese in origin. People say it came from the Chinese noodle dish, Zhajiangmian. It actually consists of udon, meat, miso, and an egg soup called “Chitantan.” Raw egg is used in this dish along with spices.
You must try these two noodle dishes when you are in Morioka. There are also different variants of ramen and udon dishes available in the area.
Biking is one of the most common activities people do in Morioka. The city’s low population density and flat roads make it one of the best cities in Japan to go cycling. There are a few rental shops in different locations from where you can rent bicycles of your choice for a very low price. The rental bicycles usually have a fixed first-hour charge followed by an extra charge of 100 yen for every 30 minutes. Riding a bicycle during the sunset at Morioka would leave a lasting impression.
Mt. Iwate is considered risky to climb due to its volcanic nature, but the hike is a must-do activity when you are in the area. Climbing this mountain provides a chance of hiking up a volcano that created beautiful lava flows like no other mountain.
Many people who visit Morioka would like to capture the scenic views of the mountain together with the rivers Kitakami-gawa (北上川) and Nakatsu-gawa (中津川) that encompass the city. So if you are just looking to capture a nice view of the mountain from Morioka, you can go to Iwayama Park (岩山公園) on the eastern side of the city.
Morioka, or Iwate in general, is a place of religious significance with many important shrines and temples. One of the famous World Heritage Sites, Hiraizumi (平泉), is situated approximately 86 kilometers away from Morioka in the Nishiiwai (西磐井) district. Hiraizumi was built by the Fujiwara family (藤原家) as a center of peace. It is, in fact, the only historical place on earth built especially to stop wars. It consists of a group of ancient temples, beautiful gardens, and other monuments that evoke tranquility.
Inside Morioka City lies the famous Sakurayama Shrine (桜山神社) and Hoonji Temple (報恩時). Sakurayama Shrine is famous among the locals who visit it regularly for praying. It is known for its ritual purification and charms. Meanwhile, the Hoonji Temple consists of 500 Buddhist disciple statues and is often referred to as the “500 Disciple Temple.” These places are less crowded compared to religious sites in other cities.
Morioka City is famous for its handicrafts, especially dolls, ironware, and lacquerware. There is a Handi-Works Square in the city where you can buy various products or try to make your own in a workshop. The Nanbu clan who built Morioka encouraged handicraft industries, especially cast ironware and stencil dyeing, that is why these products are referred to as “Nanbu Handworks (南部鉄器).” If you are looking for some nice souvenirs to bring home from the Tohoku region, Morioka is the best place to be.
Every year in June, there is a famous horse riding festival, Chagu Chagu Umakko Horse Festival (チャグチャグ馬コ), that takes place near Morioka City in Takizawa (滝沢) where at least 100 decorated horses are paraded. The bells these horses bear make the onomatopoeic sound “chagu chagu,” thus the name, and is considered as one of the best sonic cultural scenes of Japan.
There is another dance festival, namely the Sansa Odori Festival (さんさ踊り), that takes place in August where more than 10,000 drummers, flutists, and dancers wearing traditional dresses participate actively. It is conducted to bring good luck and is considered as one of the five greatest festivals of the region.
Do not miss the chance of visiting the scenic and less crowded city of Morioka if you visit Tohoku. Indulge yourself in the aforementioned activities and get the most out of your adventure!