From Aomori to Morioka on a “Sick Day,” and Exploring Morioka (still sick!)

We both woke up today feeling sick – for Tali, it’s the second day in a row she’s been under the weather, and for me, the first – my nose is running, and my throat is also a bit sore.  But of course, we do want to move on, so we took a taxi to the JR Station from the Richmond Hotel, and caught the 10:12am Shinkansen train to Morioka, where we will spend the next three days.  

We walked over to the Kumagai Ryokan, perhaps a five or ten minute walk from the Morioka Train Station, and met the owner, who very kindly checked us in early, at noon, as our room was available.   After we had tea and chatted with her, a little in Japanese, a little in English, about our travels in Japan, we went upstairs to our room, and then both of us took naps, until almost 4:00pm.    

We’ve read on the Internet, and seen on the tourist map we were given at the TIC at the Train Station, that Morioka has a lot to offer the visitor, so we’ll take one day of our stay here to visit the Samurai town of Kakunodate, and one day to explore Morioka.  We don’t have any expectations at all for the rest of the day today, except to take it easy and rebuild our strength a bit.  

We’re going to try and get out before the dinner we’ve arranged for tonight here at the Ryokan (dinners and breakfasts are not included in the rate of 4000 yen per person per night), to take one of the six walking tours recommended in the TIC map, or, more realistically, to wander around the downtown area for a few hours, to get a feel for this charming city.  Our first stop, I guess not surprisingly, was the Morioka Starbucks, located just a few blocks from the Ryokan, where we had tea and began writing on our iPads.  Before we knew it, it was already time to head back to Kumagai for dinner.  It was very good, although there was too much fish for our current tastes – we’ll try to find more vegetarian food for tomorrow’s meals.  

The new day found me still getting sicker, and Tali now improving a little.  We had breakfast at the Kumagai, and changed rooms to a much larger one that had became available. This new room comes complete with a couch for comfortable relaxing, and a separate Japanese-style sleeping area – perfect for two sick people who might be spending more time than usual in their room!   Besides, it has been raining all night long and into the morning, so we are in no hurry to go outside too quickly.  

When we had finished our spiritual study and morning meditation, we discovered that the rain had mostly stopped, and so we left for our walk around Morioka.  Our first stop was for hot tea and a chat at the Starbucks, but along the way there, we also used an ATM, and we spied two possible vegetarian candidates for dinner tonight, one Nepalese and the other Korean.  

Because neither of us feels very well, the idea of participating in a famous tradition of Morioka – eating wanko soba – hasn’t even occurred to us!  Since I haven’t experienced it personally, thanks to the Iwate district tourism website for its excellent description, which I have edited, and am including here just for fun:  

“Wanko soba means that all-you-can eat portions of Buckwheat noodles (soba) are served in special restaurants as a fun eating contest that began almost 400 years ago.  Count your bite-sized bowls as you down them, but beware! Slide the lid on your bowl quickly when you’re done, or one of the servers will slide in a new portion for you to eat.

Wanko Soba Noodles are served with various condiments, such as: tuna sashimi; nameko, mushrooms with a slightly gelatinous coating, simmered in soy sauce; daikon radish pickled in miso with crushed walnuts; and harako, or salmon roe. In Morioka, there are many soba restaurants, each with its own version of soba, condiments, and dipping sauces. 

Wanko Soba Noodles is said to have begun when Nambu Toshinao (1599-1632), lord of the Nambu domain that encompassed Morioka,  visited the nearby town of Hanamaki around 380 years ago. Soba was a local specialty, but afraid that Toshinao might consider it too rustic, his retainers served an elegantly arranged bite-sized bowl of noodles first. Toshinao was delighted, and ordered seconds. Then thirds. And so on. This style of serving small portions until guests were satisfied became the accepted etiquette for hosts in the region, and evolved into the Wanko Soba Noodles we know today. The spirited calls of the servers and the element of competition were later additions, but have become irreplaceable parts of this unique experience.

Wanko Soba Noodles is now mainly served in the cities of Hanamaki, Morioka, and Ichinoseki. Additionally, Hanamaki and Morioka host annual timed Wanko Soba Noodles competitions, the former in February and the latter in November. The 2009 Hanamaki champion downed 218 bowls in just five minutes, while Morioka saw an amazing “three-peat” by 2007-2008’s defending champion, who put away 383 bowls in just ten minutes!”

Next we walked to Morioka’s municipal symbol of forbearance in the face of all obstacles, and a national treasure of Japan – the 400 year old cherry tree that took root under a massive granite boulder, and has split this rock in two!  The tree (“Ishiwarizakura,” meaning, “Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree”), fittingly located in front of the district courthouse, still bursts into bloom with gorgeous flowers every spring.  How petty are our worldly obstacles, compared to what this tree has overcome over the centuries, including the destruction of the courthouse, just a few meters away, by fire in 1932!

We then began the temple walk that was on our TIC map, by visiting the  “Hands of the Demons” rocks.  During the Edo Period, demons committed an outrage against Morioka villagers, who then prayed to the god of the Mitsuishi Shrine to get rid of the demons. Their request was granted. 
The god caught the demons and forced them to make prints of their hands in the three large rocks grouped one next to the other on the grounds of the shrine.  Local people pray for good fortune here by jamming coins into the cracks in these boulders.  Because the passage of time has erased the original demons’ handprints, the town has helpfully placed a plaster cast of two very large handprints on the wall of the small building next to the three boulders, so that visitors can compare the size of their hands to that of the demons!

Our final stop of the day, just twenty minutes before its 4:00pm closing time, and just before the rain returned with a vengeance, was by far the most moving, and more than ample reason by itself to have visited Morioka – we are very grateful to have been guided, just in time, to Hoonji, a Zen temple that was built in 1394, and moved to this site about 400 years ago.  

Hoonji is the family temple for about a thousand local families, and is also both a Zen Training temple for monks, and a place for the public to come and practice Zazen (sitting zen meditation).  It is a huge place, with many buildings and large grounds, but the most important is the Rakando, the home of the wood sculptures of about 500 holy enlightened priests, arranged on floor to ceiling shelves running the length of the left and right sides of the Rakando building.  The 500 sculptures were completed by ten master craftsmen in Kyoto in just four years, and then shipped here in time for the consecration of the Temple.  

The sculptures are incredibly lifelike, with gestures that are quite human  – some are laughing, some sleeping, some drinking sake, some are stretching, and so on.  This is a profoundly spiritual Temple, and this hall 
reinforces the idea that enlightenment is the final state for all of us, not just the province of the most devout priests.  And the beautiful carvings of each of these sculptures – Amazing!  Well worth the walk back to town in the steady rain….


About juleslandsman

I live, when not traveling, in Sweetwater, Colorado, located in between Vail and Aspen, and in Kohukohu, a small town on the Hokianga Harbour in New Zealand. I write travelogues, memoirs, and reflections when I'm not skiing, biking, or otherwise outdoors. I retired recently from a career in the financial services industry that spanned more than twenty-five years.
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