The Biggest Appeal of Iwate Prefecture-Exploring Japan’s Deep North: Discover New Experiences in Northern Japan
“What’s Iwate Prefecture’s appeal?” This is what I asked the inn’s manager on the night of my first stay. To this she replied, “the compassionate nature of its people.” Also adding, “Since Iwate’s people are born and raised enduring the cold climate of the North, you may initially perceive them as a little rough. However, once you get to know them, they are some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet. They’re always willing to help—making sure you never go hungry.”
I thought that this was quite a simple answer, but after exploring Iwate for three days on my own—I understood what she meant.
Quiet but warm—that is the appeal of Iwate’s people.
Unfortunately, people who visit Japan often overlook Iwate Prefecture. First-time travelers head straight to Osaka, Kyoto, or Tokyo while those who revisit make their way to Okinawa or Hokkaido—skipping over Iwate completely. However, this prefecture offers a side to Japanese culture and its people hard to find at any of the more popular destinations. Upon visiting, you’ll be able to share in the experience of how Japanese people really live.
When arriving in Iwate, you’ll be greeted by Japanese culture that’s been colored by history. Here awaits ruins from the Jomon period, tales of Yokai (Japanese demons and spirits), and handmade crafts using local materials. With all it has to offer, Iwate Prefecture’s culture is both alluring and profound.
Iwate’s most famous yokai is the zashiki-warashi—a benevolent but mischievous household spirit. Although zashiki-warashi come in all shapes and sizes, it’s common to find them with a bob haircut and yukata (informal cotton kimono). If you ever come across one with red skin, it’s either a precursor of death or a bad omen that your household will soon fall to ruin.
For those who want to meet a zashiki-warashi in person, try stopping by Kindaichi Onsen. The traditional Japanese inns around this hot spring facility are said to be roaming with them—enabling you to spend an unusual night with a child-like spirit. Also, why not be accommodating and put out some of the zashiki-warashi’s favorite red bean sweets?
As for my experience―let’s just say that it went well. A little too well in fact…
Goshono Jomon Museum
The Jomon period began in 14,000 B.C. and lasted for 300 years. Even now, you can find many village ruins left as cultural remnants. Starting with the Tohoku region (Northern Japan), these ruins can be experienced first-hand in various parts of the country. The Jomon people are known for making alien-like dogu (clay figurines) as well as their mud-covered homes.
At the Goshono Jomon Museum, you can find dogu, dolls, arrowheads, and several other relics. There are even craft workshops available on the second floor where you can make original crafts from the Jomon culture. These include an ocarina (egg-shaped flute), magatama (comma-shaped beads), and weaved baskets.
Outside the museum are the Goshono ruins. This site enables you to get a first-hand look at the actual mud-covered homes of the Jomon people. Stepping into one will have you feeling like you’ve tumbled into a hobbit-hole. Curiously, these mound-shaped homes also have something familiar about them. Why not take this opportunity to imagine what life was like for the Jomon people?
Tekiseisha's Joboji Lacquerware
Three months to six months. That’s how long it takes to complete a lacquerware piece. Lacquer is part of Iwate Prefecture’s traditional culture. During the extraction process, the bark of a tree is shaved, and the tree’s trunk is drilled until lacquer sap trickles down. Only miniscule amounts of lacquer can be extracted at once, so craftsmen use their techniques to acquire it over long periods of time.
Lightweight woods such as Japanese horse-chestnut and Japanese cherry birch are used to make light and solid pieces.
Before the painting process, the extracted lacquer is hardened, the temperature is regulated, and red clay as well as iron sand is added. This helps produce the bold red and black coloring that so many lacquerware-fans love. The lacquer mixture is then painted onto wood, dried, and shaped. This process is repeated for a total of six times.
Because of its low thermal conductivity, lacquered bowls remain warm when hot liquid is poured inside. It’s also easy to drink out of—making it perfect to use as a cup or bowl. Furthermore, lacquerware is long-lasting. As time passes, it only becomes more beautiful, polished, and glossy. The process of gathering materials and making lacquerware is an important part of Iwate’s culture and art.
Iwate Prefecture has good-quality snow, making it the perfect spot for winter sports and a dream for ski fanatics. It’s also great for craft lovers. You can discover the region’s natural beauty through its unique products and industries that take advantage of its natural resources. Overall, Iwate offers experiences that will satisfy the most curious and adventurous of people.
Woodworking Workshop at Ohno Campus
Ohno Campus at Michi no Eki Ohno offers woodworking workshops where you can make crafts using wood from Iwate Prefecture.
With the help of an instructor, you can make your own set of chopsticks, a traditional Japanese toy called a taketombo (bamboo propeller), or a wooden key chain. At the chopstick workshop, you can choose the type of wood you like best. Then, using sandpaper, the wood is formed into a chopstick shape. After you’ve added a design with a file or branding iron, the chopsticks are polished with walnut oil. Once this completed, you’ve got a pair of original chopsticks!
Nearby the workshop is a woodshop. Here you’ll find over 100 wood products including finished pieces from the workshop and specially-made art pieces. With participants being able to make their own chopsticks while experiencing true woodworking craftsmanship—this is an experience that’s absolutely worth it!
It’s no exaggeration to say that Japanese people love fish. Fishing is a massive industry in Japan. Iwate Prefecture has the Sanriku Coast—one of the nation’s most abundant fishing regions. Here they offer a fishing tour where a boat takes you to many of Sanriku’s steep cliffs. Moreover, as you get closer to coastline, you can participate in catching some of the ocean’s bounties with a net.
The fisheries in this region use fishing nets (handmade by fishermen) that span 200 to 300 meters and drop 30 meters into ocean. With the fishing period lasting from March until January, the fishing tour also offers net-pulling experiences. Seeing your catch as the net rises is exciting. Since there’s so much variety, it might be fun to count the many different kinds of sea bounties you catch.
Once back on land, it’s time to help the fishermen remove the fish from the net. After this is done, the fish are put in pails filled with water. During this process, the fishermen will teach you how they keep the fresh fish from the time they’re caught until the time they’re shipped to the markets.
In total, the whole experience can last up to two hours—causing you to be filled with admiration for all the fishermen’s hard work.
Noda Village’s Cave Wine
Last but not least is a highly-recommended experience for wine and adventure lovers. Noda-Tamagawa Mine was once a mineral vein for the mineral’s manganese and rhodonite. However, it’s now used for a completely different purpose of storing Noda-Mura’s wine! Try to imagine large barrels of wine in a chilly cave―aged to produce perfectly fermented flavors. These are the flavors of Iwate’s Marine Rouge. Although, Noda-Tamagawa Mine isn’t just for storing wine. Inside the chilly and damp cave awaits a boy band! Named the “Mangan Boyz”—this band is made up of mannequins that explain the mining process.
Members were selected through votes made by the mine’s visitors. Each mannequin has their own unique name, background, and relationship to one another, It’s also fun to see how many votes each member got. Because members of the band change periodically, the boys always exude a vibrant energy! Additionally, the cave offers a display of precious jewels and stones from mines all over Japan.
Now, let’s get back to wine. Nodamura Village’s wine isn’t popular just because the mining cave keeps it at a regulated temperature and humidity. Another contributor is that their Marine Rouge is a wine made from wild mountain grapes.
Wine made with such grapes are more acidic and offer a unique depth.
Though Japan has many regional ramen and soba noodle dishes, why not try something slightly more unique? Iwate Prefecture offers a myriad of standard Japanese meals. I highly recommend experiencing these authentic flavors.
Hitsumi is a word part of Iwate’s dialect meaning to “pinch” or “twist.” Coupled with the Japanese word for hot pot “nabe,” “hitsumi nabe” translates to “pinching hot pot.” However, this leaves you with no clue to what this dish actually is.
In the hot pot are udon-like (thick noodles made from wheat flour), ravioli-shaped noodles that are eaten with chopsticks. It was given the name “hitsumi nabe” because the noodle dough is shaped into a ravioli shape through pinching or twisting. Other ingredients of this dish include, chicken, carrots, burdock, shitake mushrooms, and occasionally seasonal delicacies.
On a cold day in Iwate, it’s the perfect dish to warm up with. The hitsumi noodles also have a firm, chewy texture that’s satisfying. This is a beloved dish that helps Iwate’s people withstand the cold.
Japanese BBQ (Yakiniku)
Not many people dislike beef yakiniku (Japanese BBQ). That is, except for maybe vegetarians (unfortunately, yakiniku establishments usually don’t have a vegetarian menu). Iwate has many yakiniku restaurants offering Japanese shorthorn beef.
Shorthorn beef is a lean meat with less fat than other varieties such as the fatty Japanese Black. Although this might cause you to think it’s of lower-quality, it’s absolutely not the case. After one bite, you’ll experience the beef’s refined texture and flavor. It’s fattiness and tenderness meld perfectly―deliciously melting in your mouth.
I also recommend eating this beef sanchu-style―yakiniku wrapped in lettuce and flavored with Korean fermented soybean paste. The combination of the lettuce’s leafy aroma with the spices from the soybean paste make for a deep flavor profile that can’t be experienced with just the beef alone.
Those who have read this far will already know—Iwate Prefecture has too many sites to see, experiences to have, and food to eat for just a one-day stay. Upon looking for accommodation, choosing a traditional Japanese inn is sure to provide an incredible experience.
Kindaichi Onsen is not only abundant with hot springs, but it’s also famous for having several zashiki-warashi hot spots. What do you think? Are you courageous enough to spend a night with a spirit?
The Japanese inn, Sen'yokan, has a long history. With rumors that at least five yokai live in the facility—it also has a long-standing relationship with zashiki-warashi. The zashiki-warashi at Sen'yokan are said to appear as orbs of light.
Everything at the inn seems placed to accommodate these child-like spirits. This includes bookshelves lined with manga, toys, and stuffed animals. The inn’s manager, Ms. Okami, is a lovely, quiet-natured lady who embodies the warm and peaceful qualities of Iwate’s people.
A little past the main road of Kindaichi Onsen is Obonai Ryokan. This inn is like a secret hideaway—greeting you with its antiquated exterior.
Obonai Ryokan’s simple interior design, enjoyable hot springs, great service, and cuisine (several kinds of cuisine are available) resulted in one of the most friendly and comfortable stays I’ve had at a Japanese inn. The inn’s young manager, Ms. Momoko, will provide the best hospitality—enabling you to experience Iwate’s warmth.
Also, fans of the hit anime series “Haikyu!!” should know to ask Ms. Momoko about the “Haikyu room.” Upon your request, she’ll take you to a temple of Haikyu merchandise! Strange you say? Not for those who are familiar with the area. Karasuno High School, where the “Haikyu!!” series takes place, is actually modeled after Iwate’s Karumai High School.