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Noodles are a national favorite in Japan and nearly every area of the country boasts its own regional version. Morioka, however, has not one but three traditional noodle dishes, which coexist amicably in Iwate Prefecture’s capital city. Known collectively as the “Morioka sandaimen” (“three great noodles of Morioka”), each dish features a noodle with distinct cultural roots: wanko soba from Japan, jajamen from China and reimen from North Korea.

One reason behind Morioka’s particular affinity for noodles is the climate. “Rice did not grow well in cooler conditions, so in areas with cooler summers, other grains, such as wheat and buckwheat — which were resistant to the cold — were grown as staple foods instead,” says culinary researcher Keiko Nagasaka, who teaches in the department of life science at Morioka Junior College (affiliated with Iwate Prefectural University).

“The fact that these three diverse dishes can coexist in this small city speaks to how adventurous the Japanese palate can be, and at the same time, how adaptable noodles are to the local conditions,” says Cody Mizuno of Ramen Guide Japan, where he writes about Japan’s noodle cuisine for an international audience. “The way these three dishes exemplify these characteristics is what strikes me the most about Morioka.”

Wanko soba is served in tiny bowls, each containing a single slurp of noodles, with a variety of condiments on the side. The entertainment value of the service is a big drawcard. Servers, known as “okyūji-san,” dole out the soba, engaging in cheerful banter and urging you to down another bowlful while chanting “hai jan jan, hai don don.” They’ll continue serving until you put the lid on the bowl to indicate you’re full.

Mixed dish: Zhajiangmian-inspired jajamen was brought back to Morioka before World War II by Kansho Takashina, who spent time in Manchuria. | LOUISE GEORGE KITTAKA
Mixed dish: Zhajiangmian-inspired jajamen was brought back to Morioka before World War II by Kansho Takashina, who spent time in Manchuria. | LOUISE GEORGE KITTAKA

The custom of serving soba in miniscule portions dates back to a time when many in the region led a relatively impoverished life, and was a way to turn a simple dish into a feast. “Nobody is certain of the exact origins of the wanko soba tradition, but it is thought to have developed around 400 years ago as a way to display hospitality. Soba was a food that could easily feed a crowd. Kitchens were not large, so when people gathered for a wedding or festival, for example, guests would be served bowl after bowl until everybody was full,” says Akihito Baba, fifth-generation president of Azumaya, a family wanko soba business established in 1907.

Fifteen bowls of wanko soba roughly equate to one standard serving of noodles. The record at Azumaya’s main branch is 570 bowls. “It was set by a woman — the men’s record is 530. I can’t hold a candle to that, as my top is only 222 bowls,” Baba says with a laugh.

Like wanko soba, jajamen had humble beginnings. It is based around flat, udon-like noodles from the Chinese zhajiangmian and was brought back to Morioka before World War II by Kansho Takashina, who spent time in Manchuria (present-day China). Takashina started a food stall, which later developed into the Pairon restaurant chain. Today, his daughter and grandson carry on the family business, where the shops still retain a down-to-earth vibe reminiscent of their street food beginnings.

Jajamen is topped with a meat-miso sauce with cucumber and scallions, to which you can add condiments such as grated ginger, garlic and vinegar to taste. It’s almost like getting two dishes for the price of one: After consuming the noodles, you crack a raw egg into the remaining meat-miso sauce. Servers will add some hot water to the dish, creating a warming soup called chintantan.

Not quite ramen: Reimen (chilled noodles) were adapted for Japanese tastes by using potato starch instead of buckwheat flour. | LOUISE GEORGE KITTAKA
Not quite ramen: Reimen (chilled noodles) were adapted for Japanese tastes by using potato starch instead of buckwheat flour. | LOUISE GEORGE KITTAKA

Reimen (chilled noodles) also arrived in Morioka shortly after World War II. Teruto Aoki, a first-generation Korean who was born in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, started the city’s first reimen restaurant in 1954. While the idea was based on Korean noodles, Aoki tweaked the recipe for Japanese tastes, using potato starch instead of buckwheat flour to make the noodles. This resulted in translucent noodles with a smooth, slippery texture, which are served with spicy kimchi in a beef-based broth. A seasonal piece of fruit, typically watermelon or nashi pear, is included to refresh the palate.

“As the people in Morioka grew to enjoy reimen, more Korean people opened noodle restaurants. However it wasn’t until 1986 that the dish became known as ‘Morioka Reimen.’ That was the year Morioka held the first Japanese Noodle Summit as a way to promote the city,” says Byun Yong Ung, the CEO of Nakahara Shoten, which manages the Pyonpyonsha restaurant chain, and president of a local business association for noodle shop owners. An earlier incarnation of Pyonpyonsha made and served reimen at the Noodle Summit.

“One could say that the three noodles of Morioka exist as friendly rivals. Our collective strength enables us to promote all three kinds as branding for Morioka,” Byun says.

The author received assistance from East Japan Marketing & Communications Inc. while researching this article.

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