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Travel consultant Shakira takes in the sights, sounds and (most importantly) tastes of Iwate. Luckily she arrived hungry for the wanko soba challenge…
Getting beneath the surface is a goal of many tourists who visit Japan, and what better way to do it than by exploring some of Japan’s most beautiful countryside in the northern prefecture of Iwate?
Nestled on the eastern side of the Tohoku region, Iwate prefecture is known for its vast size and small population, as well as resident volcano Mount Iwate, natural geothermic hot springs, lovely cherry blossom in the spring and fiery foliage in the fall. The eastern coast of Iwate prefecture was heavily impacted by the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011 but is doing well in its recovery.
Fall in Morioka
I first fell in love with Iwate’s capital city Morioka when I moved there in the fall of 2014. The city itself is small and rather spread out, with narrow winding streets in the downtown area and longer parkways stretching out in every direction. When I arrived then, the koyo (fall) season was just setting in, and it seemed like the trees were on fire with vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows all over the city and surrounding mountains. The people were incredibly charming and always willing to help me find my way around.
History of Iwate and Morioka
I quickly learned that Morioka is a city rich with history, from the ruins of Morioka Castle in Iwate Park, to the ancient shrine of Mitsuishi. According to legend, three rocks were spewed out of Mount Iwate in an eruption long ago and designated as a sacred site known as Mitsuishi by the townspeople.
One day, a demon came down from the mountains and began terrorising the town. But when the people called upon the spirits of the Mitsuishi to protect them, the demon was captured, tethered to the three rocks and made to vow that he would cease tormenting the town. As a mark of his oath, the demon made a handprint on one of the rocks and the townspeople have been protected since. Iwate translates literally as “rock hand,” giving birth to the name of Iwate.
Aside from interesting history and beautiful landscapes, Morioka is also known for its three different types of noodle dishes: wanko soba, reimen, and jajamen. Jajamen are noodles similar to udon and come topped with a black miso sauce. Reimen is a cold noodle dish served with kimchi and watermelon or apples. Perhaps the most interesting of them all is wanko soba, an incredibly fun all-you-can-eat style contest where you are served soba noodles until you burst!
Visiting Morioka again in October 2018, I had the opportunity to visit Chokurian, a famous wanko soba joint in downtown Morioka. This charming machiya style house-turned-restaurant has two floors with low tables atop bamboo tatami mats. Patrons seat themselves on the floor and are immediately served tea from bright kimono-clad waitresses.
My server, Ms. Natsuki Saito, works as a server part-time while attending Iwate University as a first-year student. After serving tea, she brings out a spread of fresh and lovely ingredients to add to your soba; there are brightly colored salmon eggs, thinly sliced tuna sashimi, slippery mushrooms mixed with shredded daikon radish, crunchy seaweed flakes and my favorite, chopped Japanese scallions. After setting the table with great care, Natsuki-san kneels next to me and begins to explain the process of wanko soba.
Wanko Soba all-you-can-eat contest
The object of the contest is simple: eat as many bowlfuls of soba as you can! The soba will be served by Natsuki-san to you in mouthfuls and will be placed into the bowl you hold aloft. The noodles are served with a small amount of dashi soup base and you can add ingredients from the middle as you wish.
Another mouthful of noodles will be added to your bowl quickly and you must keep eating, but if you cannot take any more, you should put the lid onto your bowl so no more noodles will be added. You will also need to keep track of your own count using the matchsticks provided.
To give a bit of perspective, a normal serving of cold soba for one person is about 8 mouthfuls. Natsuki-san informed me that the average amount of wanko soba eaten by women is about 40, but If you eat over 100 bowlfuls, you will be presented with an award detailing your achievement and a wooden keepsake to take home with you.
I am ready to go! Natsuki-san informs me that she will be back with the mouthfuls of soba shortly. Upon her return, I hold my bowl aloft and she enthusiastically says “hai, don don!” meaning “yes, quickly!” I slurp my mouthful of noodles and hold my bowl aloft again. Natsuki-san adds another mouthful to my bowl with a happy “hai, mo hitotsu!” meaning “yes, one more!” Two! I think to myself as I slurp my noodles happily. Amid Natsuki-san’s cries of “hai, janjan!” “hai, dozo!” “hai, yuusho!” my matchsticks begin to pile up and my belly begins to fill. I add scallions and seaweed to my soba as quickly as I can and hold my bowl high for Natsuki-san to keep filling.
Could I beat 81?
After about 30 bowlfuls, I think I’m going to burst! Natsuki-san adds another mouthful to my bowl and I hesitate. I am really full and the soba isn’t tasting as delicious as it was at the beginning… but with Natsuki-san’s encouraging “hai, mo hitotsu!” (yes, one more!), I slurp the noodles up and hold my bowl up again. I can do this!
After about an hour, I count my matchsticks and have, to my surprise, 75 altogether! My record from four years ago was 81—can I eat 82 this time? I hold my bowl aloft yet again and Natsuki-san says cheerily “hai, yuusho!” (yes, victory!). Only seven more—I can do this! After number 82, I slammed the lid on my bowl before Natsuki-san could add another mouthful and groggily claimed “goshiso-sama deshita!” (thank you for the lovely meal).
I did manage to eat 82 bowlfuls and boy, did I feel it! I couldn’t believe it—I ate more than TEN normal servings of soba! Unfortunately, I didn’t make it all the way to 100, so no commemorative keepsake for me, but the pictures and memories are all I need to stay full and happy for at least a day or two.
Wanko soba is a really great example of what makes the Japanese countryside so great—incredibly kind and encouraging people, spectacular food, and warm conversation really made my time in Morioka wonderful. At first, it may be intimidating to visit somewhere so seldom frequented by Western tourists, but for the adventurous traveler, it really is the best way to experience authentic Japan. Lacking the crowds, noise, and general hustle and bustle of other cities, Morioka is a breath of fresh air (quite literally).
Explore the beautiful Tohoku area on our Northern Soul Small Group Tour, or Northern Highlights Self-Guided Adventure. Alternatively, get in touch with our Japan experts to plan your own tailormade trip.