MORIOKA, Japan (Reuters) - Once viewed as a backward part of northeast Japan, so snowy it was known as “Japan’s Tibet,” the city of Morioka and surrounding Iwate prefecture came into their own 30 years ago, when the superfast Shinkansen train began running up north.
Just 2.5 hours from Tokyo, Morioka and its laid-back lifestyle, surrounded by mountains ideal for hiking in summer and skiing in winter, makes a good weekend getaway for anyone tired of the bustle of Tokyo.
Laced with rivers that in autumn are filled with spawning salmon, the city has lots of narrow, twisting roads perfect for strolling, with cafes and idiosyncratic restaurants - some featuring just a single item. Looming over the city is the conical Mt. Iwate (2,039 meters/6,686 feet).
Though Iwate was one of the areas hit hard by the 2011 quake and tsunami, the devastation was confined to the coast two hours east. Visitors can have the satisfaction of knowing the yen they spend is helping with reconstruction.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help you make the most of a 48-hour stay.
7 p.m. - Dinner options abound. Restaurants are concentrated in the street running down to the Hachiman Shrine on the city’s eastern side, the center of town where Odori and Eigakan-dori (Main Street and Movie Street, respectively) intersect, and the Sakurayama area, a few narrow streets clustered together between the Iwate Prefectural Government building and Sakurayama Shrine.
Try “Mass,” in Sakurayama, a Japanese-style pub that features locally produced, organic ingredients and some creative twists on traditional foods. The sashimi, or raw fish, is fresh and the assorted steamed vegetables simple but satisfying. A wide array of sake is available, and the owner’s ties to local brewers mean some of the people who made the sake could be in the restaurant. (019-651-1510)
People yearning for meat should try “Wasabi,” a restaurant a few blocks from Sakurayama that features juicy yakitori, grilled chicken on skewers with vegetables. (019-623-1519)
10 p.m. - Morioka is not known for its wild nightlife but there is a live music bar just across from the Sakurayama Shrine, and a few karaoke pubs.
8 a.m. - Head for the hills! In the winter, that means skiing. There are three downhill ski areas, each less than an hour’s drive away: Shizukuishi, Amihari and Iwate Kogen. Amihari and Iwate Kogen are tucked into side slopes that rise to the peak of Iwate-san, while Shizukuishi sprawls - at least for a Japanese ski area - across two peaks overlooking a narrow valley studded with rice farms.
Shizukuishi (here), which was the site of the 1993 World Alpine Ski Championships, has several straight, very steep slopes, while Amihari, which is favored by local cognoscenti, especially telemark skiers, blends steep slopes and crisp snow with long glides and sections studded thickly with moguls. (www.qkamura.or.jp/iwate/)
For lunch, try Amihari Ramen, noodles in steaming broth with slices of roast pork, at the restaurant below the slopes.
4 p.m. - After skiing, soak your cold, aching body in one of several local onsen, or hot springs. Arine Sanso, at the foot of the lowest Amihari lift, features a steaming outdoor bath where you can gaze out over a snowy valley as the flakes drift down.
7 p.m. - After a long, wintry day, there’s nothing like a nabe - a stew of various meats, fish and vegetables cooked on a tabletop burner, with diners dipping out what they want into individual bowls as it is cooked. Though most restaurants in Morioka provide nabe throughout the winter, some of the best examples are found at Gochi, a few blocks from Sakurayama. Their Mizutaki nabe features chicken simmered so long it slides off the bones. Other standards include sashimi and what can almost be called Japanese fusion food, blending elements of both Japanese and Western cooking. A flask or two of hot sake from the long list will warm you up even more. (019-626-2363)
9 a.m. - Stroll around Morioka, which remains a walkable city centered around Iwate Park. Once the site of the castle of the local feudal Nambu clan, the castle was razed after the clan backed the wrong side in the final war that led to modern Japan. Massive stone walls are all that remain, planted with cherry trees, red maples and flowering perennials such as azaleas, wisteria and hydrangeas.
Head either north or south from the park along the Nakatsugawa River, criss-crossed by bridges. In autumn, salmon make the long journey from the sea to mate and then to die, flapping and splashing in the shallows. Winter brings the arrival of swans.
10 a.m. - Narrow streets on the eastern side of the park hold a number of interesting shops, including Japanese paper shops, antiques stores and a bakery selling Nambu Sembei - crisp round crackers studded with black sesame seeds or peanuts. There are also a number of small, idiosyncratic coffee shops.
Noon - Iwate is known for soba (buckwheat) noodles, since in the days before cold-resistant rice strains buckwheat grew much better in the region. Oyone, just behind the government building, features thick home-made noodles in either hot or cold soups with a variety of toppings. Or gather a bunch of friends and try Wanko soba, in which people compete against each other to eat as many small bowls of soba as they can in a certain period of time. A local chain called Azumaya is famous for this.
3 p.m. - Head north to Ho-onji, a temple with a huge building holding some 500 wooden statues said to be disciples of Buddha. Each one is said to have a different face.
Afterwards, meander back south. Along the way is a large stone said to be the origin of the name Iwate, which means “stone-hand” and refers to demons who left their handprints in a stone as a pledge to not bother the locals again.
Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Patricia Reaney and Paul Casciato