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Iwate is one of the six prefectures located in Tohoku, the huge northern expanse of Japan’s mainland Honshu. Described as ‘Japan’s best kept secret‘, Tohoku was not necessarily on the itinerary of most international travellers, but this has started to change. Iwate is Japanese Hidden Gems.

Iwate – Japan’s Hidden Gems is the key game changer. Go to: (1) Hiraizumi, (2) Amachan, (3) Wanko soba, (4) Nanbu-Tekki ironware, (5) Nanbu-Sumizome charcoal dyeing

1. Hiraizumi – UNESCO World Heritage Site

In 2011, Hiraizumi, a city consisting of temples, gardens and archaeological sites from late eleventh- and twelfth-century, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the only Cultural World Heritage Site in Tohoku.

The main temple Chuson-ji, Hiraizumi, World Heritage site

The main temple Chuson-ji, Hiraizumi, World Heritage site

The news of Iwate’s successful bid for Hiraizumi to be listed as a World Heritage Site was most welcome by the region as, earlier in 2011, a vast area of the Sanriku Coast, the coastal area on the Pacific Ocean, was devastated by 3/11 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.

2. Amachan – NHK morning drama series set in Iwate

In 2013, Sanriku quickly became a popular tourist destination after NHK began broadcasting a morning drama series Amachan. Set and filmed in small town Kuji on the coast, Amachan was about a young girl who moved from Tokyo to Sanriku and became a diver. Four years on today, effort to reconstruct the Sanriku area is still ongoing and tourists have begun to return in support for the region.

NHK Morning Drama Series

NHK Morning Drama Series Amachan was set and filmed in Iwate

Here is a friendly reminder – Iwate is not a day-trip destination from Tokyo. It covers 15,280 km², roughly the sum of areas covered by Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama Prefectures. Iwate is thus home to a wide range of traditional cuisine and handmade crafts. Have a look at some of Iwate’s local products below and plan well before you begin your trip.

3. Wanko Soba

To be able to boast your trip to Iwate back home, you have to try wanko soba. Wanko soba is more or less ‘all you can eat’ noodles contest. You hold a small-sized bowl into which a server keeps adding a small portion of buckwheat soba as you down them until you announce your ‘defeat’.

For men, the average number of servings is 70, while it’s 30 for women. Restaurants issue a certificate if you achieve a certain number of wanko soba. This amazing tradition started four centuries ago, and continues to be Iwate’s most famous food experience. Naturally, Iwate’s iconic character is wanko soba Sobacchi and his family.

Wanko soba at Azumaya in Morioka, Iwate

Wanko soba at Azumaya in Morioka, Iwate

4. Nanbu Tekki Ironware – Green tea lover’s’ dream kettle and teapot

If you are a green tea lover, you should own a Nanbu-Tekki kettle and teapot. They will definitely enrich and authenticate your tea experience at home and here is why.

Nanbu-Tekki developed some 900 years ago, originating in Morioka City and Mizusawa, Oshu City, in Iwate. Each piece is handmade by skilled craftsman using traditional techniques and materials that are sourced from local areas.

Colorizing process of Nanbu-tekki

Colorizing process of Nanbu-tekki

Nanbu Tekki requires a process of 64 to 68 different steps to completion. To become an ironware maker, they go through 15 years of apprenticeship, and the title of master craftsman requires 40 years of practice.

Nanbu-Tekki is not only beautiful but also highly durable – it’s said to last 100 years. If a piece breaks, you can have it repaired or remade into another object. Nanbu-Tekki can thus be a family treasure passed down to off springs.

5. Nanbu Sumizome – Coal Dyeing

Dyeing is also an old tradition in Iwate. The latest addition to this tradition is Nanbu Sumizome, charcoal dyeing. Iwate produces the largest amount of coal, but it is only recently that coal is ‘discovered’ as wonder ingredients for dyeing.

It was born out of Keiko Takahashi’s passion to create a unique Iwate product using local charcoal. Keiko’s factory is located in Ookamafurin, Takizawa City, where bears and residents co-exist and share local produce such as chestnut.

Nanbu Sumizome result in calming light grey and protect products against odor, mold and bugs and blocks out 89% of UV rays. Nanbu Sumizome won the 2006 Iwate Industry Festival Mayer Award and 2008 Iwate Industry Festival Iwate Governor Award winner.

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Nanbu Zumizome’s signature scarf

How to get to Iwate

Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Morioka from Tokyo Station:

  • 2 hours and 20 minutes by Hayabusa
  • 2 hours and 23 minutes by Hayate
  • 3 hours and 11 minutes by Yamabiko

Morioka Dream-go Bus is 7,800 yen one way and takes 7 hours and 20 minutes. If you rent a car, get onto the Tohoku-do Express from Tokyo and head north. On the way to Morioka, it’d be fun to get off at several expressway exists such as Hiraizumi (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Hanamaki (great hot springs).

Visit Iwate and discover Japan’s hidden gems.