Known for its striking geography composed of rocky oceanside cliffs, two striking mountain ranges, and the fertile Kitakami River basin, Iwate Prefecture is an ideal destination for those seeking to experience one of the most tradition-rich regions of Japan. Cultural attractions like historic Buddhist temples are complemented by bountiful opportunities to interact with and experience the nation’s natural landscape. The Iwate Prefecture is an area in which blooming cherry blossoms and sandy beaches are not even a day’s journey from high alpine slopes and active volcanoes. For those seeking less leisure and more adventure, hiking and mountaineering opportunities abound.
While sightseeing, skiing, and basking in hot springs are certainly some of the most popular activities one may enjoy in Iwate Prefecture, there are also a wealth of culturally and politically important attractions. The city of Hiraizumi, for example, has long been one of the most important in the Tohoku Region and at one time rivaled even Kyoto, the national capital, in sophistication and power.
No description of Iwate would be complete, however, without mentioning the capital city of Morioka and its famed, varied styles of noodles. Known as the “Three Great Noodles of Morioka,” Wanko Soba, Reimen, and Jajamen can be enjoyed at numerous specialized restaurants and local food establishments.
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The Geibikei is a towering gorge and a popular destination for guided boat tours and sightseeing. Flat-bottomed boats take visitors on a relaxing, 90-minute ride through the verdant slopes and stark cliff formations. In the middle of the cruise, passengers disembark to take a short hike and view a large rock shaped like a lion’s nose that is the gorge’s namesake. Another popular tradition among tourists involves purchasing small, lucky stones and attempting to throw or skip them into a small opening on the opposite side of the river. While the Gorge is beautiful year-round, keep in mind that the boat tour is especially stunning in the fall because the autumnal colors come out and when the wisteria flowers are in full bloom in May.
Hiraizumi is known for its opulent past of wealth, grandeur, and significance in terms of Japan’s history of feudal rule. Today, visitors may still catch a glimpse of the city’s past in the form of attractions like the Chusonji Temple. Founded in 850 CE, the temple complex eventually grew to encompass some 40 buildings in the early 12th Century after significant expansion by the Fujiwara. Among the buildings, perhaps most impressive is the Konjikido Golden Hall — a Buddhist altar space adorned with with gilded imagery and mother-of-pearl inlay. Other temples worth visiting include Motsuji Temple and Takkoku no Iwaya. Motsuji is known more for its beautiful strolling gardens than for its architecture or decoration. Takkoku no Iwaya is notable for the fact that it is partially set in the rock face of a cliff.
A nod to Japan’s rich history of farm culture, the Tono Furusato Village is a reconstruction of a traditional farming village. Among activities available at the Tono Furusato Village are hands-on farming chores such as straw making and bamboo crafts. There are some 20 unique activities to choose from, and guests can also sample various traditional dishes of Tono like hittsumi, kanenari, and keiran, as well as jingisukan. In winter, you can try dobekko (home-brew sake), and watch a kagura (shinto dance) performance. Because of its authentic appearance and presentation, the village includes many buildings that have been awarded the designation of National Tangible Cultural Property. For these reasons, the facility is often used as a shooting site for TV shows and films. Some of the building types on the property include Daikudon (carpenter houses), Kawamae Bekke, Onodon, and a watermill that is still functional.
Another must-see cultural spectacle when visiting Iwate is competitive noodle eating. This activity usually incorporates the Iwate Prefecture’s famed Wanko Soba noodles. According to legend, the practice dates back to the 17th Century when a local lord checked into an inn and found no food to be had aside from cold buckwheat noodles. As a result, he ate numerous bowls in rapid succession, leading to a longstanding tradition of wolfing down several small noodle bowls. Competitors typically pile their emptied noodle bowls to the side of their eating area as a means of displaying how much they have finished. One likely expects a large number of bowls consumed to count as impressive in this competition, but the number consumed by serious competitors often numbers in the hundreds and is something that needs to be seen to believed. Competitors are often rewarded with a wooden plaque at the end of competitions stating how many bowls they managed to down.
One of the most beautiful, scenic coasts in Rikuchu Kaigan National Park and situated along the southeastern part of Kuji Bay, the Kosode Coast, a sightseer’s paradise, is home to one of Japan’s more interesting cultural phenomena: female ama freedivers. The ama typically catch sea urchins and abalones in the course of their dives. An experienced ama can dive for roughly one minute on a single breath of air, catch about ten sea urchins per dive, and reach a depth of over 30 feet per. This culture developed out of necessity, as fishermen’s wives saw the need to support their families and households while their husbands were away at sea. “Ama,” in Japanese, translates to “woman of the sea” and was recorded as early as the year 750 CE in ancient Japanese poetry. Visitors may experience this unique culture along the Kosode Coast via diving demos, which occur some 8-9 times daily. There is also the Toba Sea-Folk Museum, which features both a short film on the Ama divers, along with a full exhibit on the trade.
The Tohoku Region’s leading ski resort, Appi Kogen is located in the Appi Highlands, north of Morioka. One of the country’s top ski resorts, it offers all kinds of skiing courses and terrain, including wide-open groomed runs and ungroomed ones as well. There are moguls and a terrain park complete with rails and other snowboarder-geared features. The resort’s two main ski courses are located mainly along the slopes of Mount Maemori, with two runs on the adjacent Mount Nishimori. Rental equipment, shops, and food establishments are available at the resort, and instructors at the Appi Kogen Ski School offer skiing and snowboarding lessons.
Japan is home to numerous limestone caves, and they are a highly sought-after destination on account of their gorgeous, natural formations, improbable high-ceilinged galleries, and mysterious underground lakes. The Ryusendo Cave is an extensive limestone cave in the mountains of Iwaizumi Town. The fact that at least a third of the cave’s roughly 16,000-foot span has yet to be explored is particularly fascinating. Some 2,300 feet of its inner network of caverns have been opened to the public and are accessible via walkways, bridges, and stairs.
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