Under the volcano, Iwate’s capital keeps its rich history alive

by Stephen Mansfield

The signs of boredom on this first morning in Morioka are manifest. Arriving ill-equipped for the pouring rain, there is a limit to how much interest can be squeezed from the otherwise admirable station facilities. After two hours of window- shopping and an over-surfeit of canned coffees, I’m ready for the wet walk to my hotel.

Strolling, even in the heavy rain, turns out to be a good idea, a chance to reconnoiter the city prior to what promises to be more clement weather on the morrow. For now though, I’m resigned to watching my map dissolve into a sodden ball in the downpour, listening to Iwate-ben — the incomprehensible local dialect here in Japan’s northern Iwate Prefecture — and that worst of all signs of chronic understimulation: the act of contemplating dinner.

At first sight, the contemporary city pales against the majestic backdrop of its volcano, Mount Iwate. Sometimes referred to as Nambu Fuji (after the name of the area straddling parts of Iwate, Akita and Aomori prefectures) the towering, conical peak stands omnipresent on the horizon beyond rice fields and hillside orchards.

Even in 1959, when that inveterate English travel writer Ethel Manning arrived in Morioka, her first impressions — of broken roads, neon lights, pot holes, television towers, shabby, worm-eaten houses and shopping streets bedecked with artificial pink blossoms — contained elements of both the past and future.

The private house she stayed in, with its European-style living room, retained its “indoor flushless sanitation, and a bath like a deep old-fashioned copper; it was necessary to stand on a stool to climb up into it.” This contraption sounds distinctly like the goemon, a firewood-fueled, pot-shaped iron bath, whose scalding rim was once the terror of young children.

Manning would describe the city on her first morning there as a “ramshackle conglomeration of nondescript buildings in a beautiful mountain setting” — an appraisal today’s visitor will readily endorse.

First impressions can, however, be misleading, and as Manning soon found, the city improves with closer acquaintance. Morioka’s charms, in fact, are in its parts rather than in its rather ordinary whole.

Morioka shapes its history, and the packaging of it, around its native sons — there are seemingly few standout daughters to speak of. Among those emblematic fellows with names familiar to most Japanese who are pressed into service to add cultural gravitas to the town are figures such as Kenji Miyazawa (poet and children’s author; 1896-1933), Nitobe Inazo (author of “Bushido: The Soul of Japan,” written in English in 1900; 1862-1933) and Kei Hara (prime minister from 1918-21; 1856-1921).

A stone monument in the castle park, inscribed with a tanka verse by Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912), is another of Morioka’s many homages. The plaque denotes this as the spot where the schoolboy poet, doomed to die young of tuberculosis, would sneak out through his classroom window to read and daydream in the old castle grounds. It is a rare tribute in Japan to the wayward and anti-institutional.

Morioka manages to be one of the most attractive castle towns in Japan without actually possessing a castle. The 27th Lord of Nambu, named Toshinao, had work begun on the fortress in 1597, a project that took 36 years to complete. After the 1868 Meiji Restoration, though, the castle was torn down in 1874, and only its moats, walls and a few foundation stones remain — trees and shrubs now flourishing instead where banquet halls, bedchambers and armories once stood. Nonetheless, the riverside location of the castle park, with its elevated views, stony undercrust and shady arbors, is a pleasant spot to relax and ponder the currents of history.

A block north of the castle grounds, a single rock rears defiantly from the earth around the curiously named Ishiwari- Zakura (Stone-Splitting Cherry Tree) in front of the Morioka District Courthouse. The 300-year-old tree appears to have taken root in a fissure in the rock and thence to have rent it asunder. Startled by the sight, contemporary Canadian travel writer Will Ferguson described the tree as “emerging from it like life out of stone-gray death. The power of beauty to shatter stone; as brutal and sublime as any sword.”

Morioka sits at the confluence of three rivers and its water-walks and esplanades help to soften the harder edges of the modern city. The levees may be made of cement, but there are traces of original, nicely weathered stone, old flights of stairs down to the water, with its shingle shores, clumps of wild plants that form bushy islets, boulders that divide the current, and fishermen in knee-length waders.

Magisterial bridges crossing the Nakatsu River add graceful transitions to the city, where the imposing, Renaissance-style Bank of Iwate stands a respectful distance from Naka-no-hashi Bridge. The entire ensemble of this fully functioning structure dating from 1911, with its redbrick and white granite facing, intricate woodwork, high plastered ceilings and stone-flagged floors, remains remarkably intact since it was built at the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

A little upstream, meanwhile, the Kami-no-hashi Bridge is unquestionably Morioka’s foremost. One of the few decorated spans in Japan, it has the date Keicho 14 (1609) incised into its metal posts. The structure features eight original bronze railings and 10 bronze posts added in 1611, while 18 bronze topknots, called giboshi, crown the railings.

The river was once used by craftsmen from the dyers’ district of Konya-cho to rinse paste-resist from their cloth. The area is smaller than it once was, though several old stores remain in business selling hand-baked crackers, stenciled and dyed cloth, traditional washi paper, fine bamboo objects and iron teapots.

A block or two south, Gozaku, another old quarter, is one of the best places to find nambutetsubin — as the prefecture’s cast-iron craft items are called. The region’s high-quality deposits of iron ore have long been smelted not only to make everyday objects such as pots, pans and skillets, but also small wind chimes, statues and the distinctive cast-iron water boilers used in the tea ceremony.

However, metalwork of a martial nature was also fashioned here, including swords, armor and cannons. During Japan’s militaristic period in the first half of the 20th century, the area became the country’s main production center for weaponry, its foundries making bullets and parts for rifles and battleships. Then, as news from Japan’s war fronts grew more desperate, temple bells and cast-iron Buddhist statues were melted down and converted into war-related items.

It is its distinctive double-skin teapots, though, that most people associate with Iwate Prefecture. The thin space that separates the teapots’ two layers is created using an in-between mold of porous clay. The clay absorbs the searing gases released by the molten iron during casting and is then removed. Then, in the final stages of production, the teapot is filed, tempered and burnished with lacquer before being coated with vinegar, green tea and a brown rust mixture once used to blacken teeth. Finally, decorative touches are added in the form of pine-branch patterns and raised knobs. If the cost of one of these teapots seems high, pause to consider the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into the creation of these functional objects that will surely last a lifetime.

Aside from all this, in Morioka, prominent temples and shrines confer authority and status. Hachiman-gu, founded by the 10th-century warrior Minamoto no Yoriyoshi, is Morioka’s mother shrine. Consecrated to the god of war, its wooded grounds are as big as a battlefield. Follow the points and lines that crisscross the city south of the shrine like a spiritual grid and you will arrive at a small park replete with 16 imposing rakan images. Carved from granite by a priest over a 12-year period beginning in 1837, these disciples of the Buddha were created to console the victims of a famine, one of the many visited upon this region during the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867).

Maintaining the religious theme, a section of Route 455 running through the city is represented on maps as Temple Street. However well tended and maintained the establishments here are, it’s hard to escape a strong impression that the main business at hand is death. The prevailing smell is of incense and masonry dust. The most notable house of religion is Hoon-ji Temple. In 1731, eight sculptors from Kyoto took up a four-year residency, devoting themselves to carving and lacquering 500 wooden rakan statues. Each is facially quite different. The Japanese believe that if you look closely enough, you will find a face that matches your own.

Unlike the famous rakan figures carved by the master sculptor Li Guangxiu at the Bamboo Temple in Yunnan Province, China — where figures act out their assigned personas and human desires (a disciple roars with laughter, another greedily eyes a bruised peach) — the hands of the rakan at Hoon-ji are empty, form suggested by inference. Among the assumed actions, though, we see one man cradling a musical instrument and another holding a package or tray above his head. As if to stress the magnanimity of the faith — that we are all eligible to become Buddhas — there are, among the images, the improbable figures of Kublai Khan and the Venetian explorer Marco Polo.

Morioka is a JR Shinkansen train terminus, with regular connections to points across Japan. Long-distance night buses operate from Tokyo. A little east of the station, there is a friendly bicycle-rental shop beside Kaiunbashi Bridge. The Northern Tohoku Information Center, on the second floor of the station, has good city maps and other data. Hotel Ace ([019] 654-3811) in the downtown area is a comfortable business hotel with good Internet booking deals. Ryokan Kumagai ([019] 651-3020) is a welcoming traditional inn.