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Friday, Jan. 16, 2004


Lost Nambu citadel of the North

Special to The Japan Times

With Morioka, you know where you stand from the outset. As the title to the official English guide declares, Morioka is "the castle town of northern Japan."

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Mount Iwate towers over Morioka, set on the Kitakami river (above); the city's famed Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree.
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Indeed it is a castle town in all senses of the term -- except, nitpickers may note -- in the sense of being "a town possessing a castle." Ramparts in Morioka you may admire, likewise bits of old moats. But as for an actual castle-shaped castle, the capital of Iwate Prefecture is, well, structurally challenged. The remains of what was once doubtlessly an admirable fortress stand as a large green area in the center of town.

In all, Morioka combines rather well the sense of a modern city while having nature attractively close at hand. Morioka is located in a basin ringed by mountains, dominant among them the icy volcanic dome of Mount Iwate. The air has a clean bite to it, and as you walk along in autumn, a whooping sound from above reveals the ragged V of geese flying overhead.

Morioka is very much a river city, too, being built at the confluence of three. As signs along the Nakatsu River indicate, salmon pass upstream in autumn, and locals crossing a bridge often pause, scanning the water for migrating fish. Trees flank the rivers, but the tree dearest to the city's heart is the Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree, standing outside the Court of Justice. Despite the impressive name, cherry trees do not, of course, go splitting what looks originally to have been a 50-ton granite boulder. The cherry tree, over 300 years old, was probably planted between the two parts of a purposely split boulder. And from the way the trunk is constricted at its base, Rock-Throttled Cherry Tree would be a little more accurate.

Still, the tree growing out of the rock does make an arresting sight, and rarely do tourists resist the urge to have their picture taken with it as a backdrop.

Morioka likes to call itself -- with fair reason -- the city of water and greenery. And if its favorite piece of greenery is the Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree, its favorite bit of water is the stretch of the Nakatsu River that is spanned by the Kaminohashi Bridge. Like the cherry tree, the bridge is a designated national treasure, and similarly high on the visitor itinerary. The bronze-topped bridge posts and the bronze ornamentation are unusual features dating from the 17th century. The less-elegant concrete supports date from the 20th.

Kaminohashi is fairly close to an area of Morioka that is thick with temples, and known, as is often the case, as Teramachi ("temple town"). Within Teramachi, the spot of prime interest is the old Zen temple Hoonji, notable for its Rakando. The Rakando houses 500 statues of rakan, described in the Hoonji pamphlet as "holy people." Such rakan collections are found throughout Japan, but they are a little odd. Japanese Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) school, yet the rakan (Sanskrit, arhat) represents the ideal of the very different Hinayana (Small Vehicle) and is a kind of Hinayana equivalent of the bodhisattva in Mahayana. Having statues of rakan in a Zen temple seems like putting a statue of the Madonna in a Calvinist church -- but then religion often is the stuff of mystery and wonder.

Hoonji was originally built in 1394 by a feudal lord of the Nambu family, which also constructed Morioka's castle and gave its name to the fief that later became Iwate Prefecture. Nambu is thus a name frequently encountered in Morioka, especially in connection with the crafts for which the town has a high reputation.

Most prominent among these is Nambu ironware, the very solid, very black kettles and other ware seen at a number of specialist shops, such as Kamasada Kobo in the old Konya-cho part of town. By contrast, the very colorful Nambu dyed goods are sold nearby in Soshi-do, while further up the road is Shirasawa Sembei, which makes the Nambu version of sembei crackers. Nambu sembei include peanuts and sesame, and the smell wafting out of Shirasawa Sembei is utterly divine.

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Shirasawa Sembei (above) displays its Nambu version of Sembei crackers; a Nambu ironware kettle.
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Sembei, though, is not Morioka's best-known food. Once you've got over the name, wanko soba, the local buckwheat-noodle specialty, is an interesting experience -- though one that has less the culinary aesthete, more the culinary athlete in mind. The soba is served in a large number of bowls, each containing just one mouthful, and the general idea is to shovel down as many bowls as you can, egged on by the waitress serving you. The waitress at Azumaya Soba told me that the record stood at 500 bowls. I, however, had my fill with 30. When I asked her how I had rated, she told me that was the lower range for a woman -- in what I took to be a voice that could barely conceal her contempt. For the privilege of entering the restaurant like a man and leaving like a girl, I paid 3,000 yen.

Those seeking evening victuals could do worse than head for the small area of convivial bars and eateries close to the old castle. This neighborhood has the agreeably rundown air of a place that has not had to bother changing its image much over recent decades. It is around the old castle that many of Morioka's more pleasant spots are found. There is the popular, atmospheric Sakurayama Shrine, directly under the ramparts, with its welcoming, illuminated lantern at the main gate. Nearby is the Bank of Iwate, a handsome red-brick, white-granite structure dating from 1911, the end of the Meiji Era when Western style combined with native sensibilities to produce an architecture of considerable charm.

The only thing, it seems, missing from Morioka is its castle. Osaka and Nagoya do rather well out of the ferroconcrete facsimiles of their old fortresses. It is hard to see a similar reconstruction not lending an attractive historical focus to this rather pleasant northern city.

Getting there: Morioka is easily reached in 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours by shinkansen from Tokyo.

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