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Enjoying northeastern Tohoku, based in Morioka (for Muslim travellers)!

Enjoying northeastern Tohoku, based in Morioka (for Muslim travellers)!

Morioka (盛岡市 Morioka-shi) is the capital city of Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken), which is one of the prefectures of the region of Tohoku. As the city is located in the far north of Japan, the city experiences short summers and long winters each year. Furthermore, unbeknownst to many people, its history stretches as far back as the Jomon Period (縄文時代 Jōmon-jidai), which dates back approximately 1,000 BC.

 

Mount Iwate in Morioka. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Morioka is located in the centre of Iwate prefecture, so visitors will find it amazingly convenient to stay here for their vacation. Like Sendai in Miyagi prefecture, its central location provides ease of access to popular sites not only within Morioka but also famous attractions in Iwate prefecture. After all, Morioka is the best location for visiting tourist spots in the northeastern area. Think Hiraizumi (平泉), one of Japan’s coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site (世界遺産 Sekai-i’san) and the country’s historical epicentre, and APPI Kogen Ski Resort, a marvellous winter wonderland that rivals others famous ski resorts in Japan.

 

Morioka’s accessibility enable visitors to visit neighbouring prefectures such as Aomori, Akita, and Miyagi easily. (Image credit: 宮城県観光課 (left), 青森県 (right))

 

Furthermore, it is home to the JR Morioka station (JR盛岡駅 Morioka-eki), so visitors can also have quick getaways by the bullet train to neighbouring prefectures such as Aomori (青森) to the north, Akita (秋田) to the east, and Miyagi (宮城) to the south. Imagine being able to experience Aomori’s famous summer festival Nebuta Matsuri (ねぶた祭), making a short getaway to Akita’s rustic Nyuto Onsenkyo hot spring (乳頭温泉郷), or Sendai’s fabulous winter special Pageant of Starlight (仙台光のページェント Sendai-hikari-no-pējento) right from Morioka! Visitors can even consider making day trips especially if they are travelling light. They can go to Aomori, Akita or Sendai in the neighbouring prefectures and visiting beautiful natural places like Lake Towada (十和田湖 Towada-ko), which lies on the Aomori-Akita border, and the Oirase Mountain Stream (奥入瀬渓流 Oirase-keiryū); all while setting base in Morioka!

 

Lake Towada (left) and Oirase Mountain Stream (right). (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture / JNTO)

 

As more visitors from all over the world increasingly visit Japan, they would like to see something exciting and novel. At the same time, particularly for Muslim travellers, they travel with a discerning mind, wanting to visit lesser known places but still having access to their needs such as halal or Muslim-friendly food, or prayer spaces. Morioka is one of those cities that has an understated charm and appeal, and over the years has been slowly rising up as one of the promising travel destinations in Japan. For this article, I will showcase some of the best things that Morioka has to offer, especially for my Muslim readers!

 

Symbolic buildings: Morioka Castle & Morioka Masjid

Morioka shares a stark similarity with Sendai: both boasts a castle overlooking their respective city. While Sendai has the Sendai Castle Ruins and the imposing statue of Date Masamune overlooking the city skyline, Morioka has the Morioka Castle Site Park (盛岡城跡公園・岩手公園 Morioka-jōseki-kōen・Iwate-kōen).

 

Walls of Morioka Castle. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

The castle was built in 1597 and was originally known as Kozukata Castle (不来方城 Kozukata-jō). It served as the place of residence for feudal lords until the buildings were demolished in the late 19th century. The stone wall remains were preserved, and in 1906 the former castle grounds were officially designated as a public park. The Morioka Castle is long gone but the stone walls that remain give the surrounding park a historical and ambient feel.

 

Preserved stone walls at the Morioka Castle Site Park. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Remnants of the former castle preserved to this day. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

The Morioka Castle Site Park now serves as an idyllic and relaxing park that visitors both local and foreign can visit throughout the year. In fact, the park is now known as a venue to showcase the city’s natural beauty for each season, serving as one of the main sites for cherry blossom viewing (花見 hanami) in spring in late April and being covered with scarlet maple leaves and yellow gingko leaves in autumn.

 

Morioka Castle Site Park for cherry blossom viewing. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

The park during the Green Season. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

The park in shades of red and yellow during autumn. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Here is a surprise that many people might not know: every February from second Thursday to second Saturday of the month, there is the Morioka Yukiakari Festival (盛岡雪あかり祭 Morioka-yukiakari-matsuri), which literally means ‘snow light festival’. During this time, the locals will build small igloos and light candles in them to symbolise the warmth of the people of Morioka despite the bitter cold winter. Visitors can see them not only at the park, but everywhere around the city!

 

Lit candles and small igloos during Morioka Yukiakari Festival in winter. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Another surprise awaits at the park: it is also the venue for the annual Ishigaki Music Festival, held at the end of every September. Rock bands and musical artistes gather for live performances at the start of the autumn season in the city. This is something different for a change, a more contemporary experience held at an otherwise historical site!

 

The Morioka Castle Site Park is a shoo-in for anyone visiting Morioka, especially for the first time. Muslim visitors (or just all visitors) can easily visit this park without any hassle, but they can also make a trip to another lesser known symbolic place.

 

Finding a place to pray is one of the main concerns for any Muslim traveller, more so when Morioka (and Iwate in general) is more rural than cities with bigger Muslim communities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe.

 

Morioka Masjid in Morioka. (Image credit: Morioka Masjid Facebook @masjidaltauheed)

 

Thankfully, there is a mosque in Morioka named Masjid Al Tawheed, or more commonly known as Morioka Masjid (盛岡モスク Morioka-mosuku). This unassuming mosque is the common gathering site for Muslims living in Morioka and neighbouring cities, and regularly conducts sessions such as Friday prayers and Quran classes.

 

Morioka Masjid upon completion in March 2015. (Image credit: Morioka Masjid Facebook @masjidaltauheed)

 

Completed in 2015, Morioka Masjid serves the local Muslim community whose people originated from countries such as Malaysia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. It maintains its rental fee from donations from the community, and they are currently planning for a bigger mosque in a different location.

 

Prayer spaces inside Morioka Masjid. (Image credit: Morioka Muslim Community Blog)

 

Morioka Masjid (盛岡マスジド)
Address: 2-23 Abetatecho, Morioka City, Iwate 020-0126
Opening hours: 24 hours

 

Festivals galore in summer and autumn!

The region of Tohoku is particularly known for their larger-than-life festivals. After all, it is home to ‘Tohoku’s Three Great Festivals’ (東北三大祭り Tōhoku-Sandai-Matsuri), namely Aomori’s Nebuta Festival (ねぶた祭り), Akita’s Kanto Festival (竿燈祭り), and Sendai’s Tanabata Festival (七夕祭り). Iwate also has its own fair share of festivals, most of which are held in Morioka!

 

Sansa Odori is Morioka's largest summer festival. (Image credit: Iwate Prefecture / JNTO)

 

The Morioka Sansa Odori (盛岡さんさ踊り) is Iwate’s largest summer festival, held every 1–4 August each year. With over 10,000 taiko drummers and dancers parading the city, it is also recognised as the world’s largest taiko drum festival according Guinness Book of World Records! Advice for all participants: the weather can get extremely warm during this period―temperatures can go as high as 40°C even in the evening―so better drink up and stay hydrated!

 

Sansa Odori Festival is the world's largest taiko drum festival. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

After summer, it is autumn, which in Iwate takes place earlier than in most other places, the foliage turning red and yellow as early as mid-September. It is in this time that the capital city’s own Morioka Autumn Festival (盛岡秋祭り Morioka-aki-matsuri) takes place, ushering the end of summer and the arrival of autumn season.

 

Morioka Autumn Festival takes place in mid-September. (Image credit: yisris / CC BY 2.0)

 

During this festival, many ostentatiously decorated floats parade through the city along with 200 participants for each float while playing taiko drums and other musical instruments. The festival features other activities as well: there is a horseback archery ceremony at the Morioka Hachimingu Shrine (盛岡八幡宮), and even a night parade takes place from evening onwards!

 

Numerous floats during Morioka Autumn Festival. (Image credit: yisris / CC BY 2.0)

 

Festivals are a great way to know a city in Japan, and Morioka’s plentiful festivals throughout the year showcases the city’s warmth and hospitality. The festivals are all open to public, and all visitors―local and foreign, including Muslims of course―can join in the fun!

 

Delicacies abound: the 3 big noodles of Morioka

Morioka is also known for one thing: they are big on noodles. It even has ‘3 Big Noodles of Morioka’. One of them is the wanko soba (わんこそば), which has become synonymous with Morioka. Why? It is not the food itself that people would imagine first; instead, it is the piles of empty bowls that come with the meal! In fact, the name derives from the bowls themselves: wanko is the Iwate dialect for ‘wooden bowl’, which is used to serve the soba noodles.

 

Wanko soba. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

The objective of eating wanko soba is simple: eat as many bowls of soba as possible. When the guest finishes a bowl, the food server will top up the noodles into the bowl and chant “hai dokkoi, jan-jan!” (trans. “Okay done, one more!”). This is a practice called otebachi (おてばち), a polite expression of gratitude to the guest. The server will continue this process until the guest gives up by covering his bowl with a lid. The bowls are stacked up to showcase how much the guest has finished. For the record, the greatest number of bowls finished stands at 500 completed by a man from Osaka, and 570 by a woman (from Morioka, no less!).

 

Eating wanko soba is about who can consume the most number of bowls. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Best of all, Muslims can also join in the wanko soba-eating competition! Azumaya (東家) is a famous restaurant established in Morioka, and here Muslim guests can enjoy halal wanko soba! Guests must call the restaurant to make a booking first (and get mentally prepared)!

 

Azumaya serves halal wanko soba . (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Azumaya Main Branch (東屋本店)
Address: 1-8-3 Nakanohashi-dori, Morioka City, Iwate
Nearest station: JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅)
Opening hours: 11am–3:30pm, 5pm–8pm

 

Wanko soba in Morioka. (Video credit: JR East)

 

The other famous noodle dish in Morioka is the Morioka reimen (盛岡冷麺). This cold noodle dish has its origins from North Korea, and was introduced into Japan by Aoki Teruto, a native of North Korea who moved to Morioka in the 1950s. What separates reimen from Pyongyang cold noodles, which already existed in Japan, is the distinct flavours concocted by Aoki when he mixed flavours from North Korea with those in Morioka. Soon, the dish became a hit and has now become an identity of the city itself. The dish typically features stewed beef or chicken, and comes with a dash of kimchi.

 

Reimen. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Curious Muslim diners can also try this dish! There is a restaurant named Seiroukaku (盛楼閣 Seirōkaku) close to JR Morioka Station that serves reimen, and Muslim guests can request for meatless version of this dish. But an important note for our Muslim friends: the stock used for reimen is commonly made from beef (and in other restaurants, a mix of beef, chicken and pork). Kindly check with Seiroukaku first if the stock used here is meat-based.

 

Seiroukaku near JR Morioka Station serves meatless version of reimen. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Seiroukaku (盛楼閣)
Address: 15-5 Moriokaekimaedori, Morioka City, Iwate 020-0034
Nearest station: JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅)
Opening hours: 11am-2am

 

The last great noodle is the Morioka jajamen (盛岡じゃじゃ麺), might seem familiar to some people. It draws inspiration from zhangjiangmian (Chinese: 炸酱面), a Northeastern Chinese dish which literally means fried sauce noodles, and jjajangmyeon (Korean: 짜장면), a Chinese-Korean dish known for using black bean paste. Jajamen uses meat-based miso paste with firm noodles, and diners mixed them up before eating. The unique thing about jajamen however, happens at the end of the meal: with the remaining noodles in the bowl, diners can request for egg and broth to make egg soup to finish off the meal!

 

But another note to our Muslim friends: the meat mixed with the miso paste is commonly ground pork, so if you like to try this out, you may need to find a place that serves a vegetarian version.

 

Jajamen. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

3 Big Bonuses: Koiwai Farm, APPI Kogen Ski Resort, and Geibikei Gorge!

There is one more surprise that awaits near Morioka. For fans of something more pastural and idyllic, they can make their way to Koiwai Farm (小岩井農場 Koiwai-nōjō), a sprawling 3,000-hectare private farm located at the base of Mount Iwate.

 

Koiwai Farm near Mount Iwate. (Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization)

 

The farm is immensely popular among locals and foreign visitors, drawing as many as 750,000 visitors every year! Visitors here can engage in various activities, such as milking cows and riding horses. It is also known for its amazing dairy products, and during winter, it serves as a venue for the Iwate Snow Festival!

 

But the most captivating feature of the farm? A lone cherry blossom tree with Mount Iwate in the background. People flock here simply to capture this picturesque scene, which looks like an artpiece in real life. Better yet, the scene changes according to the season, so people would come here periodically to get a view of it!

 

Lone cherry blossom tree and Koiwai Farm. (Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization)

 

Koiwai Farm (小岩井農場)
Address: 36-1, Maruyachi, Shizukuishi-cho, Iwate 020-0507
Opening hours: 9am-5pm (high season)
Tel: +81-19-692-4321

 

It would not be complete to talk about travel in Iwate without mentioning skiing! When it comes to winter activities in Iwate, one should look towards APPI Kogen Ski Resort, a winter wonderland not far from Morioka that is a must-visit for winter lovers! In fact, it is located near Mount Iwate, the very mountain that oversees the entire city of Morioka!

 

APPI Kogen Ski Resort. (Image credit: Iwate Prefecture / JNTO)

 

The resort has all winter equipment available for rental, so visitors need not worry about bringing or buying them before coming. And, with over 20 skiing routes available, the resort caters to all levels of winter skiers and snowboarders, from the novice to the veteran!

 

Skiing routes at APPI Kogen. (Image credit: APPI Japan)

 

APPI Kogen Ski Resort welcomes local and foreign visitors all the time, and it witnesses more Muslim guests in recent times. But something separates APPI Kogen Ski Resort from the others: it specially offers halal menus for them and prayer spaces! The restaurant Nanashigure in Hotel APPI Grand serves halal dishes from beef bowls to tempura for all meals. Prayer rooms are available for Muslim guests too, but strictly upon request.

 

Halal menu at Nanashigure restaurant in Hotel APPI Grand. (Image credit: APPI Japan)

 

Last but definitely not least, there is Geikibei (猊鼻渓), a gorgeous gorge where a 2-kilometre stretch 50-metre tall limestone cliffs flank a peaceful Satetsu River. It goes without saying that this perhaps one of Iwate’s best natural tourist attraction, listed as one of the 100 Landscapes of Japan (日本百景 Nihon-hyakkei). Although Geikibei is located nearer to Ichinoseki than Morioka, it is an obligatory tourist attraction for all foreign visitors must include in their itineraries!

 

Geibikei is one of the 100 Landscapes of Japan. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Visitors can enjoy river tours through the gorge, as boatmen regale them with traditional folk songs, and they can make a short stop to a limestone formation at the end of the river resembling a lion’s nose, where they can throw lucky stones into them for good luck charm (in fact, a lion’s nose translates as ‘geibi’, hence the name Geibikei which means ‘lion’s nose gorge’).

 

The name Geibikei comes from a limestone formation that resembles a lion's nose. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Good news for Muslim visitors: Geibikei is also Muslim-friendly! At the Geibi Resthouse (main / east buildings), halal menus are offered, where pork and alcohol-free dishes are prepared with halal-certified seasonings. Better yet, there is also a prayer room available at the Higashiyama Tourism Hotel, which is a three-minute walk from the pier. There are different sections for men and women, and facilities such as cleansing area and Qiblah wall are prepared for use.

 

Prayer room and halal meals at Geibikei. (Image credit: Geibikei)

 

I personally have not visited Morioka before, but I have visited the prefecture Iwate many years ago. It was in August 2011, a few months after the earthquake and tsunami had severely affected the prefecture, when I went as a disaster relief volunteer. It was very unfortunate that I did not get to visit Morioka, and I make it an imperative to go there whenever I have the opportunity. And now that the city is gradually becoming more Muslim-friendly, it has become a travel destination that I earnestly implore my readers (Muslim readers, especially) to explore!

 

More details on Morioka

Morioka is the capital city of Iwate prefecture, located in the north-eastern region of Tohoku. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train to JR Morioka Station (JR盛岡駅 Morioka-eki), which should take around 2 hours 20 minutes.

(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the bullet train and make seat reservations for free!)

 

Morioka Castle Site Park: Visitors can take the loop bus service (Central Loop Bus, counterclockwise direction) from JR Morioka Station’s East Exit Boarding Area 16 to the castle grounds (takes around seven minutes). Alternatively, visitors can take a 15-minute walk to the park from JR Morioka Station.

 

Morioka Masjid: Muslim visitors planning to pray here can call in advance to the mosque for language assistance. Admission is free.

 

Morioka Sansa Odori / Morioka Autumn Festival: the Sansa Odori festival takes place on 1-4 August every year. The main parade takes place between 6pm and 9pm, at the main road within walking distance from JR Morioka Station. For the Autumn Festival, visitors can take the bus from JR Morioka Station’s East Exit Boarding Area 5, and get off at Hachimangu-mae (八幡宮前) bus stop (the trip takes around 13 minutes).

 

Azumaya Main Branch: to reach the restaurant, visitors can take the bus from JR Morioka Station (20-minute ride). It is located behind the Morioka Castle Site Park, beyond Nakatsu River. For Muslim guests, they must book in advance for halal preparations.

 

Seiroukaku: the restaurant is located near Exit B5 of JR Morioka Station. Visitors can take a 2–3-minute walk to the restaurant from the station. Muslim guests are encouraged to make a booking with the restaurant first for prior arrangements before arriving.

 

Koiwai Farm: the farm is located in the town of Shizukuishi, to the west of Morioka. Visitors can take the bus from JR Morioka Station’s East Exit Boarding Area #10 (Koiwai Line), and get off at Koiwai- nōjō Makiba-en bus stop. The bus ride takes around 30 minutes and costs ¥710 per adult.

 

APPI Kogen Ski Resort: the ski resort is connected to JR Morioka Station by bus. The bus departs every 1–2 hours, and the journey takes 50 minutes. The one-way ticket costs ¥1,130 per adult. Alternatively, visitors can take the Iwate Galaxy Railway Line (IGR, 岩手銀河鉄道線 Iwate-ginga-tetsudō-sen) from Morioka Station to Kōma Station (好摩駅), and then switch to JR Hanawa Line (JR花輪線 Hanawa-sen) to JR Appi-Kōgen Station (JR安比高原駅 Appi-Kōgen-eki).

(INSIDER TIP: if you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), your train rides on both the Iwate Galaxy Railway Line and JR Hanawa Line are free!)

 

Geibikei: the gorge is located in the city of Ichinoseki, south of Morioka. Visitors coming from Morioka can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Morioka Station to JR Ichinoseki Station (JR一ノ関駅 Ichinoseki-eki), and then transfer to JR Ofunato Line (JR大船渡線 Ōfunato-sen) to JR Geibikei Station (JR猊鼻渓駅 Geibikei-eki). Upon reaching JR Geibikei Station, visitors can walk to the boat launch for five minutes. The journey from Morioka to Ichinoseki takes 40 minutes, and from Ichinoseki to Geibikei, it is another 30 minutes. The total train fare is ¥4,380 per adult.

(INSIDER TIP: if you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), your whole train ride from Morioka to Geibikei is free!)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travelers (e.g. the return fare from Tokyo to Morioka is approximately ¥30,420). Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Header image credit: 岩手県観光協会

 

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