Tom Midwinter visits the historic “castle town” of Morioka in Iwate Prefecture.
Some places just seem to exude a certain aura of elegance, and the northern city of Morioka is definitely of that ilk. It possesses a beguilingly calm assuredness of where and what it is. The official English guide declares that Morioka is “the castle town of northern Japan.” And Morioka is indeed the consummate castle town in all senses of the term—except, some pedants might quibble, in the sense of a town actually possessing a castle. The ramparts in Morioka you may admire. And you may likewise gaze on its stretches of old moats. But when it comes to a castle-shaped castle, the capital of Iwate Prefecture is rather architecturally challenged.
Visitors today can view the remains of what was once undoubtedly a splendid fortress as a large green area in the center of town. Morioka does combine rather well the sense of a modern city while at the same time having nature attractively close by. The city is located in a basin and is ringed by mountains, standing conspicuous among them is the volcanic dome of Mount Iwate. The air in Morioka has a clean bite to it, and as you walk along in autumn the sound of whooping overhead reveals the ragged V of geese elegantly engaged in the business of migrating. Morioka is very much a river city, having developed at the confluence of three. Signs along the Nakatsu-gawa river indicate that salmon pass upstream in autumn, and locals crossing a bridge often pause, scanning the water for fish on the move.
The rivers are flanked with trees, but the single arboreal specimen dearest to Morioka’s heart is the Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree, which stands outside the Court of Justice. The name is certainly impressive. But cherry trees do not, of course, go splitting what looks originally to have been a 50-ton granite boulder. Over 300 years old, the cherry tree was in all probability planted between the twin parts of a purposely split boulder. From the way the trunk is constricted at its base, Rock-Strangled Cherry Tree might be rather more accurate. The tree growing out of the rock does, though, make an arresting sight, and it is a rare tourist who resists the urge to have their photo taken with it as a backdrop.
With fair reason, Morioka likes to call itself the city of water and greenery. And if Morioka’s favorite bit of greenery is the Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree, its choice piece of water is the stretch of the Nakatsu-gawa spanned by the Kamino-hashi bridge. Like the cherry tree, the bridge is a National Treasure and similarly high on most visitors’ itineraries. Its bronze-capped bridge posts and bronze ornamentation are unusual features and date from the seventeenth century. The less-elegant concrete supports of the bridge date from the twentieth.
Kamino-hashi is situated fairly close to a part of Morioka that is thick with temples and known, as elsewhere in Japan, as Teramachi (“temple town”). In Teramachi, the prime spot of interest is the old Zen temple Hoon-ji, notable for its Rakan-do. Within the Rakan-do are 500 statues of rakan (Sanskrit, arhat), described in the Hoon-ji pamphlet as “holy people.” Nine sculptors from Kyoto crafted the statues between 1731 and 1735. The statues are lacquered, and each has been carved with a different expression and pose. Truly dedicated tourists or arhat aficionados can try searching among all those wooden images for ones of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
Hoon-ji was originally constructed in 1394 by a feudal lord of the Nambu clan, which also gave Morioka its castle and its name to the fief that later became Iwate Prefecture. As a result, Nambu is a name frequently encountered in Morioka—especially among the crafts for which the town has a high reputation. Best known among those is Nambu ironware, the very solid, very black kettles and other types of ware seen at a number of specialist shops, such as Kamasada Kobo in the old Konya-cho part of Morioka. By colorful contrast, the bright Nambu dyed goods are sold nearby in Soshi-do. And farther up the road is Shirasawa Sembei, which makes the Nambu version of sembei rice crackers. Nambu sembei include peanuts and sesame, and the smell that wafts out of Shirasawa Sembei is little short of divine.
Those sembei, though, are not Morioka’s best-known food. Once you have finished chuckling at the name, wanko soba, the local variety of the buckwheat noodles, is an interesting experience. But it has less the culinary aesthete and more the culinary athlete in mind. The soba is served in a great number of bowls, with each containing just one mouthful of the noodles, and the general idea is to shovel down as many bowls inside you as you can. During the whole enterprise, you are egged on by the waitress in attendance. At Azumaya Soba, the waitress informed me that the record stood at 500 bowls. But sadly, I found I had my fill with 30. When I asked her how I had rated, she told me that was the lower end of the range for a woman—in what I took to be a voice that could scarcely conceal her contempt. For that privilege of entering the restaurant like a man and leaving like a girl, I paid 3,000 yen.
Visitors in search of evening victuals could do worse than head for the small area of convivial bars and eateries not far from the old castle. The district has the agreeably run-down air of a place that has not felt the slightest need to change its image much over recent decades. It is also around the site of the old castle that many of Morioka’s pleasanter spots are located.
Directly under the ramparts is the popular, atmospheric Sakurayama Shrine, with its large illuminated lantern at the main gate. Also nearby is the Bank of Iwate, a handsome redbrick and white-granite structure. It dates from 1911, which was the end of the Meiji period (1868–1912), when Western style combined with Japanese sensibilities produced architecture of considerable charm. The only thing, it seems, missing from Morioka is that castle. Osaka and Nagoya have done rather well out of their ferroconcrete facsimiles of former citadels. It is hard to imagine a similar reconstruction not lending an attractive historical focus to this rather pleasant northern city.
Tom Midwinter is a freelance writer and editor living in Tokyo.