This is going to be a review of my trip down to Tohoku last week – pictures and fun stuff, but a bit of a travel guide as well.*
My friend and I left on the 9th from Hakodate, our nearest large city. Since Hokkaido doesn’t yet have a shinkansen (bullet train), we took the Super Hakucho express train to the tip of Hokkaido, under the Tsugaru Strait to Shin-Aomori. A lot of places that have gotten the shinkansen in recent years have set up separate shinkansen stations away from their usual main station, mostly because the main station, having sprung up in the center of town, has little room to expand for the extra long tracks needed by the shinkansen. These new stations are often named “Shin-Main Station Name”, the equivalent of “New Main Station Name”. For example, when the shinkansen pulls into Hakodate sometime in 2015, it will be coming into Shin-Hakodate station, rather than Hakodate station (which has no room to expand, being right on the bay).**
At Shin-Aomori, we transferred to the Tohoku shinkansen, bound for Morioka. We’d picked a destination for each day, but decided to stay in a more central location to make traveling easier. We stayed at the Toyoko Inn (there are two basically across the street from the station), which is a very good, basic chain of hotels across Japan. If you pay a one-time membership fee of 1500JPY, their rates become very reasonable indeed. Free breakfast included.
More train blather – the Tohoku shinkansen has a very special quirk that might trip up the seasoned Japan traveler. On the shinkansen, you can buy a reserved seat (shiteiseki) ticket or a free seat (jiyuseki) ticket. Reserved gets you a guaranteed seat on a train at a particular time, i.e. seat 4D in car 12 on the 12:10 to Tokyo. Free is more flexible, you can take any train during a particular period bound for that destination, as long as you sit in one of the ‘free’ cars. The Tohoku shinkansen is all reserved cars, no free cars.
But you can still buy a free ticket. And stand in the space between the cars. Sounds like fun, eh? Between Tokyo and Morioka, you have to stand there if you have a free ticket (and I have), north of Morioka, you can sit in any open seat…if there is one. And if the person with a ticket for that seat comes by, you have to give it up. Fun, no? Being cheap, Carlee and I ended up hopping around seats for most of the trip, then standing for the last twenty minutes.
Anyway, we arrived in Morioka midday, abandoned our bags at the hotel, and set out. After perusing the brochures available at the hotel, we decided on Iwachu, an ironworks, and wanko soba for dinner (more on that later).
Morioka station is a transport hub for the area, with trains and a bus station right in front of the building. In the building, the information office has a very helpful staff that was willing to hand us a variety of English language maps and brochures. Also on the second floor was a tourist kiosk happy to provide directions to anywhere we wished to go in the city. They provided the bus information we needed to get to the ironworks.
The area is famous for its iron mines and from the products created from the ore. Iwachu Casting Works was part museum, part workshop, and part gift store. The museum had examples of the more spectacular side of the workshop’s products, from a teapot big enough to bathe in to a set of iron chimes, to beautiful cut out designs mounted on the wall. Due to the sturdy nature inherent in iron, there were signs inviting patrons to touch almost anything they’d like.
The workshop is open to the public, so that you can view the craftsmen at their work, creating the molds, trimming pieces, and applying lacquer. There are signs on the wall explaining the process in Japanese and English and you’re free to take pictures. The shop is wonderful, with all sorts of traditional teapots and iron cookware, along with more decorative items. The teapots range from around $50-$600 (eep), but if you’d just like something as a souvenir, there are teacups, bells, and figurines for less than $15, or even mini-teapots for less than $5.
After the ironworks, we returned to the station for dinner. We’d heard of something called wanko soba from our students, along with remarks that they’d never respect us again if we went to Iwate and didn’t try it. We ended up at Azumaya, due to its proximity to the station.
It turned out to be more of a production than we had anticipated. Wanko soba is an all-you-can-eat noodle set-up – with a twist. The soba is delivered by the waitress on a tray, many small bowls, each filled with just a mouthful of noodles. She dumps the mouthful into your main bowl as you eat and she won’t stop until you set the bowl down and cover it with a lid. We got the cheapest set menu, which comes with sides dishes for your soba – typical things like sliced onions, sesame seeds, and toasted nori (seaweed), but also tuna sashimi, and chicken soboro.*** This is definitely a tourist thing to do, and the staff loves to make a fuss over it. They have bibs for the customers to wear, explanation booklets to read before hand (available in English), and a certificate at the end stating how many bowls we’d managed to put away.
Well, I was planning on writing about Tono as well, but I see I’ve already written a book. I’ll save that for next time.
Finally, if you happen to be passing through Morioka station, a few recommendations right in the station.
Craft Ichigoya – in the basement directly under the station, next to the Family Mart convenience store. Sells crafts by Japanese artists, with a focus on pottery, though there are also postcards and jewelry, plus some textile works.
Aunt Stella – a cookie shop in the basement of the Fesan department store, which is next to the station. Right across from the McDonalds. Huge variety of cookies, available by the gram or in sets. I highly recommend the cornflake cookie.
Jupiter Coffee – next door to Aunt Stella. If, like us, you’re coming in from the boonies, you might want to check this out. Jupiter sells coffee, yes, but also a large variety of foreign import food. They’re especially good for your candy or baking needs. Don’t trust the Cheetos though, they’ve been reformulated for sale in Japan. (That should concern me, but it doesn’t)
*I know I promised you a wedding entry. There have been set-backs.
**This has some people grumpy, because as it turns out, the best place to put the station was further out in the sticks. In fact, it’s not going to be in Hakodate at all, but in Hokuto City. Which wants some naming privileges. Which they’re highly unlikely to be granted.
***The chicken soboro was a revelation. I’ve had beef and pork soboro before, even made some myself, using this recipe, but never chicken. It was mild and excellent, especially with the toasted nori.