May 13, 2021

Meet Me in Morioka

Found between Aomori to the north and the rest of Tohoku to the south, Morioka is a convenient transportation hub that also has many attractions.

Mt. Iwate as seen from Iwate Prefecture's capital city of Morioka

Ah, Morioka — Known internationally for its three great noodles and well… not much else. What a tragedy! You see, my dear readers, the capital city of Iwate Prefecture has so much more on offer than just these famed delicious dishes. While often not a spot overseas visitors to Japan flock to, Morioka is indeed a locale that is worth your consideration. Many of the allures can be relished in the better part of a day meaning that it combines well with all sorts of other northern-bound adventures.

Now, if you’re not up to date with your Japanese geography, understand that Morioka can be found somewhere between Aomori Prefecture in the north and the other parts of Tohoku to the south. Because of this, it makes for a great centralized hub for your travels. During my recent visit, my best friend and I first made a beeline for Kakunodate in Akita Prefecture to catch the tail end of the cherry blossoms. Thereafter, we returned to Morioka to explore the city’s charms before heading off to the otherworldly beautiful Hirosaki Park in Aomori Prefecture.

All in all, Morioka is both a great addition to Tohoku travel itineraries and a convenient logisticial hotspot. Next time you’re in Japan and heading up north, consider planning to overnight in Morioka and experiencing some of the amazing attractions that I’ll cover later in this guide. I promise, you won’t regret it!

Getting to Morioka

The JR Morioka Station in Morioka Prefecture

As previously mentioned, Morioka is the capital city of Iwate Prefecture and is located between Tohoku’s northernmost reaches and the remainder of the region to the south. Since Morioka is situated on the Tohoku Shinkansen Line, all you really need to do to get to the city is hop on any of the Aomori / Hakodate-bound bullet trains. In the matter of a few mere hours, your ride will pull into Morioka Station. As always, to see departures, refer to a service like Hyperdia to do the heavy lifting for you.

Once you’re in Morioka, you’ll need to make a choice. In our case, we just opted to waltz our way around the city. That said, I realize that not everyone is a hardy walker who is willing to log 20 to 30 km per day. Should you prefer more modern forms of transportation, I know that Morioka has an extensive bus network yet this does trigger additional headaches. Were I tasked with taking the buses, I’d probably go to the furthest destination on my list and then walk my way back to the hotel or station.

What to See in Morioka

A cherry blossom tree blooms in Iwate Prefecture’s Morioka Castle Site Park

One of the facets about Morioka that I need to come clean on is that the city doesn’t have any “must see” spots. Instead, Morioka presents an eclectic smorgasboard of allures that can cater to just about any set of interests. The following is a comprehensive list of all of the many attractions in Morika that I suggest you consider…

  • Morioka Castle Site Park
    While a stronghold no longer resides here, the Morioka Castle Ruins can still be explored. These days, the former fortress grounds have been transformed into a sprawling park. Especially during the months of spring when the cherry blossoms are out, the Morioka Castle Site Park is a beautiful spectacle to behold. Be sure to also swing by the Culture and History Museum which you’ll find located within the park too!
  • The Ishiwari-zakura Tree
    This tree might be one of the most spectacular in all of Japan. Literally meaning the “Rock-splitting Cherry Blossom Tree,” the Ishiwari-zakura breaks directly through a massive boulder. Approximately 380 years-old, this specimen has been meticulously cared for by a number of residents over the years. In fact, in 1932, the nearby courthouse caught fire and a local by the name of Fujimura Jitaro risked his life to save the tree.
  • Sakurayama Shrine
    This picturesque shrine can be found on the outskirts of Morioka Castle Site Park grounds. Though comparatively small, Sakurayama Shrine is an important Morioka site that dates back to the year 1749. By far, the most distinguishing factor of Sakurayama Shrine though is the behemoth-sized boulder found behind the main shrine. This standing stone is said to resemble a samurai’s helmet thereby making Sakurayama Shrine a great protector of this former castle town.
  • Morioka Hachimangu
    This very well might be the most eminent shrine in all of Morioka. As with all Hachimangu complexes across Japan, Morioka Hachimangu is a brand shrine of Usa Jingu in Oita Prefecture. While Hachimangu can come in all shapes and sizes, the one in Morika boasts some truly sprawling grounds. You’ll find it a 15 minute walk from Morioka Castle Site Park. By the way, Morioka Hachimangu has a number of annual festivals so check to see if your visit aligns with any of these celebrations.
  • Mitsuishi Shrine
    This small shrine is one that you could easily miss if you’re not looking for it. Alas, while it may be quite modest, that doesn’t mean that the shrine doesn’t belie a hidden story. You see, this shrine is actually where Iwate Prefecture (lit. “Stone Hands”) gets its name. According to the legend, a demon by the name of Rasetsu was bound within the shrine’s three upright-standing rocks. To be released, he had to promise that he would never tourment the locals again and this oath was sworn in stone with Rasetsu’s handprint. If you visit, try to find it!
  • Hoon-ji’s Rakan
    Found a short distance from Mitsuishi Shrine, Hoon-ji is a Soto Zen sect temple is famous for its 500 statues of the Buddha’s disciples. Known as Rakan in Japanese, these statues are truly a sight to behold and Hoon-ji is therefore worth the extra little bit of effort needed to get there. You’ll find the Rakan within the Hoon-ji complex’s Rakan-do — I mean, where else would they be?

As mentioned, Morioka is also a great hub for your Tohoku adventures. Because of this, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to try to hit ALL of the spots above as I did. Instead, simply pick and choose what works for you and your travel companions and skip the rest.

Morioka’s Legendary Noodles

Alright, so thus far I’ve covered all of Morioka’s many attractions but as mentioned in the prelude, the real reason travelers often come to Iwate Prefecture’s capital is to eat. You see, Morioka is famous for three variants of noodles which are known as jajamen, reimen, and wanko soba, respectively. Of these, the wanko soba is the most notorious due to its associated challenge. As can be seen in the video by Abroad in Japan embedded above, for just the price of a few thousand yen, you’ll be continually served small bowls of soba noodles until you keel over in pain from a stomach ache.

Now, generally groups of friends will take on the wanko soba challenge and try to outdo one another. While I do encourage you to go hog wild and eat your fill while traveling in Japan, do try to keep in mind that you’ll have more sightseeing to cover. I know several groups of comrades who ended up making themselves sick from eating too many bowls of soba noodles. There’s just something about the buckwheat that really fills you up so if you’re looking to take on the challenge, ensure that you have a pair of loose pants and a relatively empty itinerary after.

If you’re like me and eat a relatively carnivore-ish diet when not fasting, consider sampling the local wagyu. Known as Maesawa beef, Iwate’s cows have won 11 titles at Japan’s National Beef Carcass Competition. Unique among other wagyu variants, these shorthorn cattle are distinct from the standard Japanese Black cattle. As a result, Maesawa beef contains less fat and more meat than other wagyu brands while still remaining tender and flavorful.

If you’re looking for a place to enjoy this tasty but expensive treat, check out a restaurant by the name of Wakana. Though pricey, it’s definitely worth it for enthusiasts of wagyu!

Attractions Near Morioka

A Hayabusa Shinkansen Train heads to northern Tohoku from Morioka

Like I mentioned a few times in this piece, Morioka is a great spot for exploring the rest of northern Tohoku. For starters, the bullet trains heading for Akita uncouple from the others heading to Hakodate at Morioka Station. This means that Morika is a great jumping off or returning point for those looking to explore either of these areas. Below, I’ll include a list of places that are easy to access from Morioka Station.

Even if you just go to Iwate’s capital city for the wanko soba, it’s worth planning your logistics around a stay in Morika. In my case, I first went to see the tail end of Kakunodate’s cherry blossoms directly from Tokyo then headed back to Morioka for the afternoon. On the subsequent day, my travel companion and I took off to Aomori Prefecture to see Hirosaki Park in all of its cherry blossom glory. These few days will be memories I’ll treasure forever and highly encourage anyone visiting Japan during late spring to consider a similar trip for themselves.

Until next time travelers…