Recommended by the New York Times! Unveiling the Charms of Morioka City and Iwate Prefecture

As travel trends gear toward the Tohoku region in northern Japan, known for its breathtaking natural landscapes and rich cultural traditions, one city stands out among the rest: Morioka. Located in Iwate Prefecture, Morioka was featured in the New York Times’ prestigious 52 Places to Go in 2023, which has brought more attention to the city than ever before. This article will unravel the reasons behind Morioka’s recognition, as well as showcase the hidden gems and culinary delights that make the rest of Iwate Prefecture an equally attractive destination. Those on the lookout for inspiration for their next Japan trip, this comprehensive guide has got you covered!

*This article was written in collaboration with Iwate Prefecture.

What Sort of Place Is Morioka City in Iwate Prefecture?

The Tohoku region is located in northeastern Japan, and comprises six prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Yamagata, Miyagi, and Fukushima. Among them, Iwate Prefecture and its city of Morioka have become hot destinations thanks to Morioka’s recognition as the second city featured in the New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2023, published in January 2023. Soon after the release of the article, the city captured the attention of globetrotters far and wide, securing its place among the renowned travel destinations of the world.

Morioka has prospered since the 16th century as a castle town, and it is now the capital and largest city in Iwate Prefecture. Located just a two-hour ride on the bullet train from Tokyo, it is a relatively comfortable distance for a casual getaway. Renowned writer Craig Mod, whose recommendations put Morioka on the map as one of the 52 Places to Go in 2023 in the New York Times, praises the city as “a walkable gem without the crowds, just a short bullet train ride from Tokyo.” The New York Times goes on to say that “Morioka’s downtown is eminently walkable. The city is filled with Taisho-era buildings that mix Western and Eastern architectural aesthetics as well as modern hotels, a few old ryokan and winding rivers.”

A Deep Dive Into the History and Culture of Morioka!

Morioka fosters a unique charm where its historical heritage as a castle town infuses harmoniously with a highly cultured atmosphere that embraces the winds of change. The city was quick to embrace coffee culture early on, and is dotted with Japanese-style cafes called “kissaten.” Moreover, it ranked second in Japan for coffee consumption in 2019!* Below are some of the destinations Craig Mod recommended, along with a few additional gems that await your exploration.

*National Survey of Family Income, Consumption and Wealth (2019) by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications

Morioka Castle Site Park

The ruins of Morioka Castle, believed to have been constructed starting in 1597, were given new life as a park in 1906. This scenic location presents ever-changing landscapes that enthrall visitors with each passing season. From the flowers of plum and cherry trees in spring to the vibrant hydrangeas of summer and breathtaking foliage of autumn, natural beauty abounds across every inch.

Within the grounds lie historical remnants that transport visitors to bygone days. Make sure to explore the stone castle walls displaying the stonemasonry styles that evolved over different construction periods. Other must-sees include the two-story wooden storehouse and the bell that rang for 280 years until 1955, serving as a reminder of the time for the townspeople.

Bank of Iwate Red Brick Building

Constructed in 1911 as the headquarters of the Bank of Iwate (formerly Morioka Bank), this building stands today in all its original splendor, flaunting its remarkable Western architecture. It was designed by a firm headed by Tatsuno Kingo, the acclaimed architect responsible for the iconic red brick station building on the Marunouchi side of Tokyo Station.

In 1994, the Bank of Iwate Red Brick Building became the first operating bank to be designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan. However, while its banking legacy came to a close in 2012, it is currently open to the public, and visitors can view the bank vault, reception room, executive room, and other areas restored to reflect their former glory.

Kaiunbashi no Johnny (Johnny’s Jazz Bar)

Kaiunbashi no Johnny is a jazz cafe that comes highly recommended by Craig Mod. For an impressive span of 49 years, the owner Ken Terui has been the maestro behind this much-loved establishment, providing coffee, drinks, finger food, and engaging conversation, all set to the backdrop of his elaborate jazz selection.

Craig recounted a memorable experience when he visited Johnny’s in the company of local bookstore and soba noodle restaurant owners and spent hours listening to one jazz record after another with Ken. Morioka has the magical ability to foster community, bringing together unique people to expand the web of connections in a warm and inviting manner.

Cafe Bar West38

Ken Terui, the owner of Kaiunbashi no Johnny, has earned the prestigious accolade as “the craziest fan in the world” from none other than Toshiko Akiyoshi, a world-renowned jazz pianist and 14-time Grammy Award nominee. The dedicated jazz enthusiast is also involved with Cafe Bar West38, situated within the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Museum, which opened on October 4, 2022.

At Cafe Bar West38, patrons can enjoy siphon-brewed coffee and the proprietor’s signature “jazz curry.” Live performances are held regularly at the lounge for an immersive musical experience.

Nagasawa COFFEE

At Nagasawa COFFEE, every step of the coffee-making process is handled by owner Kazuhiro Nagasawa, from sourcing the green coffee beans to skillfully roasting, extracting, and serving the finished product to customers. Kazuhiro uses a vintage roaster - manufactured in the 1960s by a well-established German company - to bring out the delightful sweetness and complex flavors of the beans, resulting in a fantastic cup of coffee.

The shop boasts a wide range of coffee beans roasted from light to dark, catering to the diverse preferences of coffee enthusiasts. Customers can enjoy their choice of beans brewed in the shop or purchase them to savor later. For those who want to fully experience the exceptional coffee of Morioka, be sure to make a stop at Nagasawa COFFEE!

Behold the Beauty of Kaiunbashi Bridge and Mount Iwate

Craig describes the allure of Morioka as “a walkable cityscape in healthy dialogue with the surrounding rivers and mountains.” True to his words, Morioka is graced by the Kitakami River, which runs through the center of the city. Straddling the river is the magnificent Kaiunbashi Bridge, completed in 1890 with the opening of Morioka Station. The bridge boasts a splendid view of Mount Iwate that transforms with the changing of the seasons, making it an idyllic setting for a leisurely stroll.

Indulge in the Hot Springs Scattered Around Morioka City!

Iwate Prefecture is blessed with bountiful nature, stretching from the sea to the mountains, and there are numerous onsen (hot springs) and "onsenkyo" (regional groups of onsen) that offer a place of healing to locals and travelers alike. Here are three notable hot springs, easily accessible from Morioka, where you can soak away fatigue and unwind after a day of exploring the city.

Hachimantai Onsenkyo

Nestled amidst the Ou Mountains on the border of Iwate and Akita prefectures lies Hachimantai Onsenkyo. This village is a hot spring resort with a plethora of charming accommodations. The area is surrounded by picturesque vistas, with Mount Iwate’s ridgeline to the south and the Hachimantai mountains to the north.

The Hachimantai Aspite Line is a 27 km road that traverses Mount Hachimantai, promising a scenic journey through a magnificent volcanic landscape. In the fall, the road winds through the trees adorned by brilliant colors. The Aspite Line is closed during the winter season, but visitors can drive through a splendid corridor of snow when the road reopens in mid-April.

Morioka Tsunagi Onsen

Morioka Tsunagi Onsen boasts six unique hot spring sources, releasing a remarkable 2,000 liters every minute. The springs are rich in sulfur, known for its potential to promote blood circulation and metabolism. Additionally, the alkaline properties are said to have exfoliating benefits to promote a healthier complexion.

The temperature of the hot spring water is very high, so visitors can still luxuriate in the open-air baths even during the harsh Iwate winters.

Oshuku Onsen

The history of Oshuku Onsen can be traced back to its discovery sometime between 1573 to 1591. The name Oshuku, which translates to “Warbler Town,” stems from a legend that a warbler bird soaked its wounded leg in the hot spring which healed it. Consequently, Oshuku became known for its therapeutic properties, attracting visitors seeking extended stays to treat their ailments.

In the heart of Oshuku Onsen is Uguisu Yunosato Park, a place of recreation and relaxation where visitors can enjoy a free-flowing footbath at no charge. The park also has a trail for those that want to stroll.

Tour the Sightseeing Hotspots of Iwate Prefecture!

Iwate Prefecture is a region where iconic landmarks seamlessly blend with the breathtaking natural beauty that surrounds them. Whether you're interested in its rich history, culture, or splendid natural environment, Iwate offers a multitude of magical locations that never fail to fascinate its visitors. There are various facets to see with each passing season, and every visit is met with fresh discoveries. Here are some of the best spots that are sure to leave a lasting impression.

Chuson-ji Temple

Built in the early 12th century, Chuson-ji Temple is home to six National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. In 2011, the temple was registered as a World Heritage Site along with Motsu-ji Temple and Mt. Kinkei in recognition of its outstanding value to the world. A must-see is the Konjikido, a National Treasure covered entirely with gold leaf. Its intricate craftsmanship and elaborate adornments will leave you in awe of its grandeur.

The expansive temple complex is perfect for a stroll to admire its history and natural charms. Visitors can also delight in matcha tea and traditional Japanese sweets in a tearoom, as well as experience “shakyo” (a meditative practice of tracing Buddhist sutra) or “zazen” (seated meditation).

Geibikei Gorge Boat Cruise

Situated along the Satetsu River, a tributary of the Kitakami River, lies Geibikei Gorge. This scenic landscape designated as a Natural Monument of Japan is roughly 2 kilometers long and surrounded on both sides by limestone walls towering over 50 meters high. One of the most popular activities to do here is the Geibikei Gorge Boat Cruise, where skilled boatmen entertain passengers with traditional folk songs while navigating the waters with a single pole in traditional long wooden boats.

Allow yourself to float leisurely along the river as you surrender your eyes and ears to the beauty of the gorge's natural surroundings and the soothing melodies of the singing birds.

Hanamaki Onsenkyo

Hanamaki Onsenkyo is a hot spring resort area in the west of Hanamaki City, Iwate Prefecture that boasts a total of twelve hot springs, such as Hanamaki Onsen, along with Dai Onsen, Shidotaira Onsen, Osawa Onsen, Namari Onsen, and more. Collectively, the hot springs are called the “12 Hot Springs of Hanamaki.”

Each hot spring is steeped in rich history, with records of their discovery dating back to over 300 to 400 years ago, and some locations coming with even older folklore. All of them also have their own distinct characteristics. For example, Hanamaki Onsen is known to be gentle on the skin and body, making it great for the elderly and small children. Dai Onsen is home to many old-fashioned inns, allowing for plenty of onsen hopping. Shidotaira Onsen’s main feature is its magnificent 25-meter-long bath, and Osawa Onsen is famous for its idyllic open-air bath placed along the riverside. Which of these onsen would you prefer?

Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum

On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami claimed countless lives and shocked the world. The Iwate Tsunami Memorial Museum was founded to ensure such a sorrowful event would not be repeated through sharing the wisdom of those who experienced the tsunami firsthand and the lessons learned from then. The museum also stands as a show of gratitude and appreciation toward those who extended their support both domestically and abroad. Furthermore, it also serves as a medium for communicating the collective efforts to overcome the disaster and pave the way for recovery.

The museum exhibits a collection of articles damaged by the disaster in addition to images and footage of disaster sites. The displays also showcase Japan’s disaster response system while paying tribute to the resilience of the people of Iwate as they continue to overcome and recover from the immense destruction they suffered. Another notable aspect of the museum is its emphasis on sharing knowledge gained from the earthquake and tsunami. Visitors are offered access to invaluable information on evacuation procedures, assisting others, offering support, and saving lives during emergencies.  A part of the exhibition is available in multiple languages (Japanese, English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, and Korean).

Treat Yourself to the Delicacies of Iwate Prefecture!

One of the highlights of traveling is experiencing the local food culture. Prepare to discover the regional delights available around Morioka City.

The Three Great Noodles of Morioka and Iwate's Wagyu Beef!

In 2022, Morioka City was crowned as the top consumer of Chinese-style noodles in Japan*, a testament to the locals’ undeniable passion for noodles! There are three kinds of noodle dishes that constantly top Morioka's list: wanko soba, Morioka jajamen, and Morioka reimen.

*No.1 consumer of Chinese noodles (2022) / National Survey of Family Income, Consumption and Wealth (Statistics Bureau of Japan)

Wanko Soba

Wanko soba is a unique style of eating that started out as a gesture of hospitality in order to please a large number of guests. When partaking in wanko soba, the soba noodles are served in small, single-mouthful portions. These are swiftly replenished whenever the bowl becomes empty by a dedicated server who will often say fun phrases like “Hai! Janjan! (Here! More for you!)” This carries on until you have placed the lid on your bowl, signaling that you are fully satiated and unable to continue. It is accompanied by an array of condiments and seasonings so that you can enjoy it however you like.

While the amount of a single portion may vary by store, it is generally accepted that 15 servings of wanko soba are the equivalent of a single serving of standard soba. However, in the past, there was a challenger who succeeded in finishing 632 bowls within 15 minutes!**

**Top 10 Award Winners of All Time in the Japan Wanko Soba Championship

Morioka Jajamen

This beloved local cuisine was first introduced by the founder of a now-famous Morioka jajamen shop, who encountered the dish during their time abroad and was inspired to start up a food stall selling it after returning to Japan. The noodles are flat and bear a resemblance to udon, and they are topped with “nikumiso” (ground meat seasoned with miso and mashed into a paste-like texture), cucumbers, and green onions. You can add chili oil, grated ginger, grated garlic, vinegar, and other condiments to taste. Make sure to mix before digging in!

Pro-tip: you can experience the dish twice over if you leave some of the noodles and toppings. Simply crack a raw egg into your bowl and order chitantan (chicken egg soup). The hot soup will cook the egg and turn the mixture into a savory egg soup boasting a fusion of flavors and textures!

Morioka Reimen

This dish was first introduced to Morioka by a Korean immigrant and restaurant owner, and eventually became a local specialty. The chilled broth, made from beef bone and chicken stock and seasoned to perfection, goes deliciously well with the amazingly chewy noodles and spicy kimchi. The level of spiciness can be adjusted to your taste by the amount of kimchi you incorporate. A typical reimen dish is often presented with a colorful array of toppings such as boiled eggs and cucumbers along with watermelon, pears, and other seasonal fruits, resulting in a delightful combination of textures and tastes.

Iwate Beef

Wagyu beef has made its way overseas and gained high acclaim from prominent chefs around the world. Among the wagyu brands, Iwate Beef is one of the finest, claiming 11 top prizes - the most of any brand - at the National Beef Carcass Competition held at the Tokyo Meat Market. Marked by its exquisite fat quality and fine marbling, Iwate Beef boasts a melt-in-your-mouth texture and deep, rich aroma. If you’re looking to satisfy your appetite, make sure to visit the establishments recommended below, where you can savor the authentic flavors of Iwate Beef.

Recommended establishments for Iwate Beef in Iwate Prefecture (English)

Festivals in Iwate Prefecture

Japanese festivals serve various purposes, from fostering community bonds to offering prayers for good harvests and honoring the deities. However, what truly matters is the enjoyment of the participants and spectators! Iwate Prefecture holds many festivals, but here are the three major ones. Are you ready to experience these lively festivities?

Kitakami Tenshochi Cherry Blossom Festival

Kitakami is home to one of the most illustrious cherry blossom spots in the Tohoku region. With the coming of spring, a spectacular cherry blossom festival unfolds, showcasing the beauty of approximately 10,000 cherry trees of about 150 species throughout the 293-hectare park. The wonderland of cherry trees is a sight to behold and attracts countless visitors from across the nation.

During the daytime, the blue sky serves as a backdrop for the brilliantly colored koinobori (decorative carp streamers) that dance gracefully in the wind above the Kitakami River. As the night falls, the riverbanks are illuminated to create an enchanting atmosphere, with rows of cherry trees casting their reflections off the surface of the river. In short, visitors are treated to remarkable springtime views regardless of the time of day.

Morioka Sansa Odori Festival

This festival is believed to have originated from an interesting legend that, summarized, goes something like this: there was once a mischievous ogre that was tormenting the people, but a benevolent deity came to vanquish it. Overwhelmed with joy, the people danced and played music with chants of “Sansa! Sansa!”

Don’t miss the festival's grand parade in which dancers, flute players, and drummers, totaling an astounding 20,000 participants, perform in unison. In fact, the Sansa Dance Committee holds a Guinness World Record for the largest Japanese drum ensemble! The rhythmic sounds of the drums can be heard throughout the city at night. The festival is held near Morioka Station, which makes it very accessible for visitors eager to join in the festivities. Don’t miss the opportunity to dance with the locals and be a part of this unforgettable experience!

Hanamaki Festival

This festival has a longstanding history spanning over 430 years, and even today continues to offer a glimpse into Hanamaki’s traditional culture. The highlight of the festival is the parade of over 100 portable "mikoshi" shrines, which has achieved a world record for the largest display of its kind. They are accompanied by beautifully adorned floats, lights dancing in the night sky. Delight in the traditional dances, such as the shishi-odori (deer dance), kagura gongen-mai (sacred lion dance), and Hanamaki-bayashi-odori (Hanamaki’s original music and dance), that have been preserved and passed down from ancient times. All these elements add to the grandeur and sanctity of the festival to create a captively powerful and festive atmosphere.

Helpful Information to Make Your Journey to Morioka City a Breeze

Access from Tokyo and Osaka

<From Tokyo>
・Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Morioka Station (Approx. 2 hours 10 minutes)

<From Osaka>
・Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport) to Iwate Hanamaki Airport (approx. 1 hour 20 minutes), then bus (approx. 45 minutes) to JR Morioka Station
・Tokaido Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka Station to Tokyo Station (approx. 2 hours 30 minutes), then Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Morioka Station (approx. 2 hours 10 minutes)

Public Transportation in Iwate Prefecture

<Ichinoseki bound>
・Tohoku Shinkansen (Morioka to Ichinoseki)
・JR East Japan Tohoku Main Line (Morioka to Ichinoseki)
<Shizukuishi bound>
・Akita Shinkansen (Morioka to Shizukuishi)
<Hanamaki bound>
・Tohoku Shinkansen (Morioka to Shin-Hanamaki)
・JR East Japan Tohoku Main Line (Morioka to Hanamaki)


Buses offer a convenient and efficient means of transportation within Morioka City. Among them, the Morioka City loop bus, named the DenDen Mushi (Japanese only), is an excellent choice to explore the city’s major landmarks. The All Day Pass (350 yen for adults, 180 yen for children) is highly recommended if you’re planning to make occasional stops as the pass grants you unlimited access to the bus throughout the day.

●Bicycle Rental

Bike rentals are handy when touring the city, and while the fees may vary depending on the location, they are available from 200 yen an hour to 1,000 yen a day. There are rental locations called Iwate Cycle Station (link to Japanese site) dotted throughout the city for your convenience.

Weather and Clothing

Iwate Prefecture boasts the second largest land area in the nation, and due to its oblong shape that stretches from north to south, the climate varies by region. Snowfall is relatively low compared to its neighboring prefectures within the Tohoku region.

Spring: A coat is required even in March as the cold lingers during the gradual transition from winter to spring. As April arrives, temperatures begin to rise, and the weather becomes ideal for outdoor activities. Cherry blossoms bloom later compared to most areas of Japan, reaching their peak around late April.

Summer: The onset of the rainy season, a phenomenon unique to Japan, tends to be later, with rainy weather frequent between late June to early August. A good item to have on hand is an umbrella that can be used in both the sun and rain, just in case.

Fall: The region is heavily affected by typhoons, making September often the month with the highest amount of rainfall throughout the year. Moreover, as it is located in the northern area of Japan, the colder months in Iwate arrive earlier compared to Tokyo, Osaka, and many other regions. The first frost is typically seen in October, followed by the first snow in November. It is advisable to carry a lightweight coat during this season.

Winter: The overall weather is cold, and the inland and mountainous regions tend to be colder than the coastal areas. In some parts, temperatures can plummet as low as -20℃!  Although snowfall is not abundant, the temperature in Morioka City may drop as low as -10℃.  Do make sure to prepare yourself for the cold weather.

Don't Miss Out on Morioka City and the Rest of Iwate Prefecture!

Morioka City as well as Iwate Prefecture as a whole offer a delightful experience in every season, and any time of the year is the perfect time to visit. The region’s rich natural environment has fostered traditional events and local cuisines that are wonderfully unique. Once you have experienced their charm, you’ll find yourself longing to return for more! No matter how many times you visit, Morioka and Iwate will never fail to amaze you with their remarkable treasures.


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Tohoku Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Stefania Sabia
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