A number of small cities and towns make up a sightseeing region in Iwate Prefecture called Morioka-Hachimantai. In addition to historic sites, hot springs, pristine wilderness, etc. – there are many local experiences that can be enjoyed by visitors.
Rinzai-ji is a lovely 360-year-old temple in the town of Shizukuishi. The head priest, his wife, his daughter, and son-in-law welcome visitors warmly – flags representing the countries of the members of my group even greeted us at the entrance!
As we sat on cushions in the main hall, the jushoku (head priest) introduced the basic concepts of Buddhism and, in particular, the Rinzai Sect to which this temple belongs. He then led us in a short session of Zen meditation.
Afterward, we talked about the experience and asked questions, before being invited into a connecting room to enjoy tasty treats and tea. The conversation continued and we were able to learn about the family and they learned about us. Most of the experience was translated by an interpreter, but the family does understand some English and the priest’s wife, in particular, speaks some English herself.
Also in Shizukuishi, the Amihari Visitor Center offers a variety of sports-related activities – depending on the season. In winter, English-speaking staff can lead you on a snowshoeing adventure through the beautiful surrounding natural growth forest. On our walk, our guide taught us about the local environment as we came across black bear claw marks, flying squirrel droppings, and a number of other animal footprints. Visitors can rent snowshoes, boots, and winter wear on-site, and various fitness levels can be accommodated.
Back inside the Visitor Center, there are excellent multilingual displays on the various types of plants and animals that exist within the national park surrounding Mt. Iwate. There is also an attractive relaxation space where one can read, rest, and/or look out a glass wall of windows at the surrounding countryside. In warmer weather, the center also offers forest bathing, firefly observation, and more.
Just a couple of minutes from the Amihari Visitor Center is Kyukamura Iwate Amihari Onsen. Ski slopes covered in powdery snow sit just outside the hotel and it is completely off the radar of almost all non-Japanese tourists. As this is a simple Japanese-style ski area and hotel (no frills), prices are reasonable and lift lines, especially on weekdays, are shorter than you’ll find at larger resorts. They have both Japanese-style and Western-style rooms.
In addition to staying overnight, it is also possible to do a day ski visit here from central Morioka. After snow-skiing, we enjoyed the combination of a fantastic kaiseki lunch followed by an outdoor hot spring bath (must be reserved in advance).
For tourists who prefer to create something with their hands, there are various options. At Big Roof Takizawa, we sat down with a lovely older woman, Nishida-san, who helped us make our own traditional Japanese brooms. As making one of these items takes quite a bit of time, she had started the process for us in advance, and we worked for an hour to finish them.
At the Shizukuishi Asa-no-kai, a group of friendly female artisans introduced us to kikko-ori, a special traditional weaving technique that began here in the Edo Period. In this experience, we sat down at traditional looms to weave our own placemats. As with the broom-making, our placemats were already partly created upon our arrival. Completing them was especially enjoyable and when finished, they were quite beautiful.
The Morioka Handiworks Square offers classes in many traditional crafts. Making pottery, dyeing textiles, woodworking, weaving, painting, making items from bamboo or straw, and more. Classes last approximately 30-60 minutes and are very reasonable.
On our visit, we sat down with Mr. & Mrs. Shina to make zori. The couple have been making these sandals (and many other items) from straw for over 60 years. Again, the zori had been started for us, but it still took quite a bit of time to finish them. The work was challenging, but the finished product was a wonderful souvenir to take home.
An on-site exhibition room displays items made by local industries, how those products are made, and the history behind them. In separate workshops, visitors can also get a close look at artisans creating (and selling) items themselves. There is also a large souvenir shop selling over 4,000 products made in Iwate Prefecture, a cafe, a traditional L-shaped thatched roof home, with an adjoining horse stable – that is now a multi-use facility.
For tourists more interested in eating and drinking, a visit to the town of Shiwa is recommended. At the Shiwa Fruits Park, tourists can make Japanese-style pizza, soba noodles, or fruit tarts – from scratch. Then, afterward, sit down to enjoy their creations.
Although a variety of fruit was grown on the property in the past, Now the main focus is on grape growing for their o-site winery. Not only did our host and instructor, Miyama-san show us how to make pizza in English, we also browsed the winery shop and did some tasting. He also took us a tour of the winery and the surrounding vineyards. Miyama-san was very passionate about the work being done there, including the fact that all of the wines they produce are made from grapes grown in their own vineyards.
In warmer weather, visitors can enjoy a BBQ on a hillside overlooking the grape vines. And, during the first week of October, they have a wonderful wine festival.
Fifteen minutes by car from the Fruits Park is Hirota Shuzo, a sake brewery founded in 1903. With prior reservation, and with an interpreter, visitors can get a private tour of the brewery followed by a tasting. While sitting around a large wooden table, we sampled a wide variety of sake and a couple of food items made by sake-kasu, a byproduct of the sake making process.
Click here for more information on the Morioka-Hachimantai region.
Click here for activities in the town of Shizukuishi.