TOHOKU, JAPAN - July 2020 – PART II
Hachimangu Shrine, Morioka
Day 5, Morioka
After the nice onsen experience at the bottom of the mountain after having climbed it, we leave Mount Akita-Komagatake and drive to Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture.
I’m quite excited about spending time in Morioka, and especially about our “Wanko Soba” experience planned for tonight in town. Soba means buckwheat in Japanese but often refers to buckwheat noodles, one of the many Japanese noodles available, alongside ramen and udon. Wanko means a “small, wooden soup bowl” in Iwate regional dialect. Wanko Soba is a dish from this region and, as the name suggests, is basically just portions of freshly boiled soba in small, wooden soup bowls. As soon as the guest has eaten one portion of noodles, the bowl is immediately refilled by the waitress standing next to the table. It has become a sort of game where you eat as much as you can.
Aksel enjoying his soba
Where does this custom come from?
Iwate prefecture does not always have clement weather and the winters can be very harsh. In the past, because cultivating rice was challenging, people lived on barnyard millet and buckwheat instead. Seen as poor-quality food, villagers served soba in small quantities. However, it is said that one day, a special guest enjoyed the noodles so much, that he kept on asking for more and more. Since then, eating soba noodles in small portions became a regional entertainment. The hosts would say, “Eat more and more…” as they dish the soba into the bowl. Even if the guests were already full, they would serve more.
Our Wanko Soba Experience
Restaurants still offer the possibility to eat great quantities of soba and this pastime has become one of the “must do” activities in Morioka. Knowing this before starting our trip, I booked a table at one of the restaurants in town to experience “Wanko Soba”. As we arrive at the restaurant, we are taken to our table. The table is already full of side dishes including fish sashimi, prepared chicken, mushrooms, and various seasonings. This custom has been turned into a sort of game, where people try to eat as much soba as possible.
We sit down and are served. My son, Xavier, having a gluten intolerance, cannot join us in eating the Sobe, but it’s okay, we brought some onigiri (a rice ball) for him. Although buckwheat is gluten-free, soba noodles are usually not made of 100 % buckwheat; there is also wheat in the noodles.
We start eating. First bowl, second bowl, third bowl. Each serve is very small, just a mouthful at a time. The waitress advises us that if we want to eat a lot of noodles we should throw away the liquid part of the soup into the scraps bowl provided for it. I look at the side dishes and want to try the sashimi. But I know that if I start eating the side dishes I won’t be able to eat as much soba. It’s okay I will live with it.
Ten, eleven, twelve… Aksel, my second son is following. He seems to be enjoying the experience. Guy, my husband, is taking it easy. Hardly a challenge for him!
Guy eating Wanko Soba
Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two… Although we had a light breakfast and climbed a mountain during the day, I am already starting to struggle. I don’t think I’ll go very far. Aksel, still a smile on his face, carries on eating, showing no sign of struggle. Guy, still cruising.
Once I reach thirty-three, I start thinking – maybe too much – and asking myself why I am eating more, forcing myself to eat when I’m already completely full. Then as I reach 37, I say “maitta” (meaning “enough”) and put the lid on top of the bowl to show that I am finished. The waitress smiles at me and start counting the bowls.
Aksel and Guy carry on for a while. Aksel seems so happy to be able to eat that much, but then as he reaches 50, he stops. He can’t go on! Now Xavier, Aksel and I are watching Guy who is still taking it easy. He has already reached 100 and carries on. 110, 111, 112… Guy tells us: “Well, it is not much fun doing it on my own!” 120. We say: “Okay, it’s a round number, you can stop now if you want!” Guy stops although he could have carried on for longer. As the young waitress is counting the dishes, we ask what her record is. She proudly replies 254. I am amazed. How did this petite lady manage to eat that much? It seems that the record is 570. I must point out that 15 bowls make for a normal size soba dish, so 570 means… a lot!!
And that is out Wanko Soba experience! At the end, each of us receives a wooden certificate stating the number of bowls we ate. As for Xavier, although he couldn’t take part, he receives a certificate too. Instead of having the number of soba bowls he ate, on his plaque “1 onigiri” is written. How original!
Xavier holding his certificate
We do not want to leave the restaurant yet. We want to stay a little longer and have a beer. We have not drunk during the whole meal. The waitresses are a little surprised but then ask us what kind of beer? The usual brands or a local one? We want to try the local beer called “Baeren”. It is in fact a very nice beer. The Baeren brewery is located in Morioka and brews a large variety of beers, including seasonal beers as well as unusual beers including “milk chocolate stout” and “pumpkin wheat with 3 spices”. We wanted to visit the brewery during our stay but unfortunately couldn’t find the time.
After a good night’s sleep on a (very) full stomach, we wake up the next day to a sunny summer morning. After a family jog along the Kitakami River, which flows across town and a nice breakfast with a great view of the majestic Mount Iwate, we walk to one of the Shinto shrines of Morioka, Hachimangu Shrine. This shrine is renowned for its Chagu Chagu Umakko horse parade – a parade recognised in 1978 as an “Intangible Folk Cultural Property” – and its annual Horse Archery Festival, called yabusame.
Japan as many “Folk Cultural Property” events throughout the country, which help better understand how culture and traditions are linked to everyday life in Japan. Hachimangu shrine is devoted to Hachiman, a syncretic divinity of archery and war. Most samurai worshipped him, as well as farmers and fishermen, respectively for good harvest and a good catch.
A syncretic divinity is a god that is worshipped in both Shintoism and Buddhism.
Hachimangu Shrine Entrance
After taking many pictures of the beautiful shrine and its surroundings, we carry on our tour to check out Morioka castle, known as Kozukate Castle located in the beautiful Iwate Park. The castle itself, which was built in 1611 and was the seat of the Nanbu clan, who ruled over the Morioka Domain during the Edo period, doesn’t actually exist any longer. Nowadays only the massive granite ramparts, used for protecting the town are still standing. This park is very beautiful during spring because of its sakura (cherry blossoms).
The park also hosts:
- the Eboshi-iwa, a standing rock close to the Shinto Sakurayama Shrine
- the Tsuruga-ike Pond, whose beauty is enhanced by its wisterias in spring and hydrangeas in summer
- various monuments dedicated to great Japanese literature authors and
- Morioka History and Culture Museum, where we learn more about the annual Morioka Sansa Odori, a four-day festival, known as the largest drumming parade in the world.