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Iwate Travel Guide Japan’s most under-explored hidden wonder

fall leaves in iwate along river with boat

Nestled in the northern region of Tohoku on Japan’s main island of Honshu, Iwate prefecture is one of Japan’s most underexplored hidden corners. Traditionally considered a remote frontier land, Iwate still retains much of its rustic appeal, complete with all the convenience of modern Japan.

Iwate happens to be Japan’s second biggest and least densely populated prefectures after Hokkaido; so, there’s plenty of room to enjoy the open air and get exploring. The prefecture contains some surprisingly magnificent natural and cultural scenery that will equally delight and stir your mind and senses!


Things to do

Snow road corridor in Iwate


Known as the place of ‘Pure Land Buddhism’ thanks to its magnificent ‘Pure Land Garden’, Hiraizumi is home to the Motsu-Ji Temple, where on the 4th Sunday in May, the Motsuji Gokusui No En takes place. This singular poetry reading recreates the elegant amusement that first originated in the 8th century. The practice involves a Shinto priest who places a small cup of sake into a sacred stream while poets sit on the lawn and write poetry. Originally, virgin princesses dressed in kimonos would guide the sake along the stream down to the poets; at which point the poets would drink the sake and read out their poem. Today the event is only a recreation since noble titles were abolished after WWII. Expect to see the crème de la crème of Japanese society while visiting this sacred spot.

Built in 850AD, Chuson-Ji Temple also forms part of UNESCO’s historic monuments designation at Hiraizumi. The site is home to the picturesque Takkokui Wa Yabishamondo Temple which is elegantly nestled on the side of a rock formation.


Hachimantai receives the most snowfall out of anywhere, not just in Japan, but the world. On a winter’s day, the snow can pile up to 30 feet high. The area is famed in Japan as a must see for anyone dreaming of snow-covered vistas cloaked in clear bright blue skies. Some believe it’s the way in which the sun’s rays shine and reflect off the canyons of snow during the winter months at this latitude, in this corner of the world, that produces a sort of snow globe effect along with the crisp clear mountain air.

Ryusendo Caves

Located in Iraizumi town, Ryusendo Caves, or Dragon Stream Caves, are perfectly lit in an array of rainbow LED lights that also serve to illuminate the Dragon Stream, through which runs some of the world’s purest underground water. The final lake at the end of the stream is over 98m deep with crystal clear clarity! While at the caves, you can also visit the peaceful bats that call the caves home; these bats are surprisingly tame and friendly, and, how should we put it simply, well, kawaii!


Known for its abundance of hot springs, sentōs and luxury bathhouses, Hanamaki is also well-known for its micro-climate wine known as Edel Wine. The town hosts an annual Wine Festival in September. Other sites to check out include: The Gohyaku Rakan; Unedori-Sama Shrine; Kamaishi Daikannon; The Tono Furusato Village; Nambu Magariya; And the Geibikei Cruise.

Events and Seasonal Happenings

Iwate’s largest festival is the Marioka Sansa Odori Festival which takes place from August 1st to the 4th in Marioka City. The event involves over 10,000 Taiko drummers and dancers that parade through the city in an extravaganza of infectious dance and entertainment. Marioka’s Sansa Festival also holds the Guinness Book of World Record for the largest Taiko drum festival in the world.

Aside from the poetry reading festival held on the 4th Sunday in May, Hiraizumi’s Motsu-ji and Chusonji temples also hold equally interesting festivals throughout the year. For a full list of events and to find out more, you can visit

Hanamaki’s most notable event is the Hanamaki Matsuri Annual Festival; held every September since 1593. The three-day festivities include a synchronized dance of over 1000 individuals, along with shrines and colorful floats. The event culminates with the famous ‘Shishi Odori’ or dance of the deer. 

Flavors of Iwate

Ghengis Khan or (Jingiskan)

Despite the name, Ghengis Khan was not devised by the Mongolian invader of lore. Ghengis Khan is perfectly seared lamb cooked in a bucket (that’s right a metal bucket). The lambs are carefully tended to throughout their lives in order to produce the best quality meat possible (and some say the best in the world). The bucket allows the meat juices to simmer and cook the vegetables that are placed closer to the edge. So why the epic name? for centuries, Japanese people tended to associate sheep herding with Mongolian people, of which Ghengis Khan is simply the most famous.  

Tofu Dengaku

While in Marioka, be sure to try Tofu Dengaku; which is a large tofu square, glazed in a miso sauce and cooked over charcoal. This is essentially the Japanese version of meat on a stick (kind of like a tofu hot dog). While some tofu can be gelatinous in appearance and bland in taste, Dengaku tofu has a thicker consistency that makes it resemble non-melting cheese in taste and texture when served alongside the savory miso.

The Wanko Soba Noodles

Part challenge and food-eating contest, Wanko Soba Noodles are known throughout Japan as an Iwate specialty and a must try. Originating almost four centuries ago as a way to resolve disputes by demonstrating who could eat the most and hence who was the manliest, the challenge has evolved to the biggest noodle slurp-off in the world. Wanko Noodles involves eating bowl after bowl of soba noodles served in small red bowls that just keep on coming. It is said that a real man can eat 100 bowls of these “all you can eat” soba noodles at the very least!

Maesawa beef

While in Iwate, be sure to try Maesawa beef, one of Japan’s highest rated cuts of beef (move over Kobe). You can try this delicacy at one of the city’s famed Teppanyaki restaurants, including Iwate’s most acclaimed, Wakana. The experience is considered to be one of the greatest forms of culinary entertainment anywhere in Japan.

The Sanriku Coastal Fish

With the Sanriku Coast along its eastern flank, eastern Iwate is a perfect place for some of the best sushi in the world. The Sanriku Coast is revered as one of the best fishing grounds anywhere on the planet. The deep oceans provide some of the most valuable catches sold daily further down south in Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market. Make sure to try the delectable sea urchins and abalones, the region’s specialties.

What to Bring Back

Iron teapot from Iwate


In 1975, traditional forms of cast ironware from Iwate were nationally designated as traditional crafts of Japan. Of which, two are the most famous. The Nambu Ironworks refers to the Nambu clan who built the region’s largest castle over 400 years ago. As men of culture, the Nambu lords invited artisans from Kyoto in order to promote the tea ceremony; where these specialty teapots can trace their origins.

The Iwachu Casting Works in Marioka City is also famed for their quality work. Their factory has been designed as a sort of theme park factory where you can observe the production process of cast ironware, and pick up a souvenir on the way out.


While Japan hosts a millenary tradition of lacquerware, most of modern Japan’s lacquerware is manufactured cheaply and imported. Even so, Iwate still retains the highest quality lacquer production in all of Japan and produces about 75% of the country’s home-grown lacquer. As such, Iwate lacquer products are prized for their quality and for the beauty in their intricate designs. You can pick up the best of the best at Nihone City and Hiraizumi Town.

Kin no Bekokko or Golden Ox

The Kin no Bekokko or Golden Ox, are cute oxen figurines made of Japanese paper which are then glued with sap on a carved wooden model and coated with an enamel finish. The traditional oxen are seen as symbols of good fortune and luck. The carefully decorated and one of a kind oxen are painted in gold and are also equipped with miniature treasure chests, bells, and mini-saddles. Equally cute as they are lucky!

Where to Stay

If you’re looking for rest and relaxation and the best in traditional Japanese service, the Kashoen Hotel and Spa in Hanamaki is a stylish and traditional five-star hotel that is suited to meet even the biggest expectations. The Kashoen is a traditional Japanese spa or ryokan that boasts luxurious accommodations set in a superb location.

The Marioka Grand Hotel is centrally located and offers great amenities in a stylish setting. This well-equipped hotel offers great service and larger than normal rooms which are carefully decorated in a modern Japanese style. There are also traditional Japanese sitting rooms available in some rooms for those seeking a (semi) complete cultural immersion.

Wrap up

Iwate Mountain, train and fields

Iwate, along with Tohoku, are known throughout Japan as places of the deeply spiritual through contemplative elements in its landscapes and temples. While sometimes overlooked by travelers, Iwate’s internationally renowned cultural and natural heritage offers a uniquely rewarding experience that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

Getting there

Although traditionally viewed as a remote frontier land, getting to Iwate today is simple and easy. From Tokyo Station, you can take the JR East Shinkansen Hiyabusa Line. You can also fly into Hanamaki Regional Airport direct from Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Bangkok, and Taipei (although surprisingly not from Tokyo since the Shinkansen service is the most popular way to travel).

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