Teruto Aoki, founder of Shokudoen reimen restaurant.
IN FIVE MINUTES I’ve eaten 30 bowls of soba. “Hai, don, don!” chants my waitress, who looms over my table with a skyscraper-stack of yet another 30 bowls, urging me to eat “more, more!” No sooner have I slurped down my next small dish of noodles than she slams a new one in front of me. “This is how you eat soba in Morioka,” says my guide, Satake Daihei, breathlessly between gulps. He is very seriously trying to beat his previous record of 70 bowls, a number that seemed ludicrous at first, but now, spurred on by a deep seated competitive streak and relief that the tiny bowls hold only a few mouthfuls, has become my own aim.
the reimen noodles are slightly chewy, cooked for just a minutes.
We are at Azumaya Soba Restaurant, a 111-year-old noodle house in Morioka, the capital of Japan’s northeastern Iwate prefecture. While the rest of Japan eats their soba noodle by noodle in a Zen-like state, in Morioka, wanko soba is a fast, loud and an all-youcan-eat affair. Before there’s time to digest, I find myself neck-deep in a spontaneous slurping competition.
I have been known to casually partake in food-eating contests in the past—yep, Sydney’s female taco eating champion of 2013, no big deal—but my trip to Morioka began with less ambitious intentions: to try what the city calls its “Three Great Noodles” and learn the stories behind them. Most travelers to Iwate use the capital as merely a gateway to Japan’s quieter ski resorts in Tohoku, the fresh shellfish of the Pacific coast, or Hanamaki’s therapeutic hot springs. But Morioka’s famous noodles—towering stacks of wanko soba; chewy jajamen udon; and the icy bowls of North Korean–style reimen—are worthy attractions in their own right. I’ve just arrived and have already eaten enough for the week, but with just a few days to try them all, the competitive eater in me makes room for more.
A bowl of jajamen.
THE BOTTOMLESS local appetite is also the point of difference in Morioka’s take on zha jiang mian, the Chinese soybean noodle dish known here as jajamen. The simple bowl of udon, grated cucumber and nikumiso (a roasted miso and ground pork sauce) is similar in style and flavor to its Chinese counterpart, but the Japanese version has a surprise ending: a second helping. For dinner, Satake takes me to Pairon, a poky hole-in-the-wall near the city’s ancient castle ruins and where the dish first took root in Morioka. We arrive late to avoid the nightly queue, but its popularity is still hard to miss—the walls are scrawled like Verona with celebrity love letters from Japan, China and beyond. The 20-seat restaurant is now run by Mineko Takashina, a mild mannered matriarch, whose father, Kansho, founded the shop more than six decades ago after fighting abroad in World War II. He brought the Chinese noodles back with him, but added his own twist: chitantan. “Chi means egg and tan means soup,” Mineko says. “My father would make it for his hangover. After finishing his jajamen, he’d add hot water and a raw egg to make miso soup from the leftover sauce. It would cure him, so he added it to the menu.”
Morioka’s wanko soba competition is serious business.
Sure enough, after devouring my tangle of thick, flat udon glazed in the savory, roasted miso, Mineko’s son, Katsuo, takes my bowl, cracks in an egg, adds a dollop of the fresh, jet-black miso and a ladle of hot water. I’m not suffering from too much booze, but I have unquestionably overdosed on noodles, and the soothing, umamiloaded broth eases my bloated belly.
Reimen is based on the North Korean boodle dish, mul naengmyeon, and made its way to Morioka in 1954.
iwate is also famous for its ironware.
the Reimen dough at Shokudoen is kneaded by hand.
THE NEXT DAY, perplexingly hungry again, I venture into the steaming kitchen of Shokudoen, a 64-year-old restaurant that serves North Korean-style reimen. This cold noodle dish made its way to Morioka in 1954 via Shokudoen’s founder, Teruto Aoki, a Korean migrant from Hamhung, 300 kilometers north of Pyongyang.
After arriving in Tokyo when he was just 16 years old, Teruto moved to Morioka when a Korean friend told him about the quieter pace of the city and he began making the noodles to bring a taste of home to his new Japanese life. “My father didn’t know if a reimen shop would be popular in Japan,” says Aoki’s son Masahiko, who took over running the business when his father died in 1996. “He just liked making noodles.”
Masahiko brings out my bowl, a chilled beef broth topped with a twirl of chewy, potato starch noodles, slow-cooked beef, pickled cucumbers and a boiled egg. Shokudoen’s reimen is made the Hamhung way: spiked with house-made kimchi, adding red tangy fire to the cold, slightly sweet beef broth.
Despite repeated requests from across Japan to franchise the restaurant into other cities, Masahiko says he’s not interested. “My father told me he didn’t want to expand. He just wanted do one thing well,” he says. And although most reimen shops, including Shokudoen, also offer the classic Korean yakiniku barbecue, Masahiko still says: “Reimen is best.”
WHILE REIMEN has Korean origins and jajamen is from China, wanko soba is proudly Iwate’s own—even the prefecture’s mascot is a superkawaii (cute), smiling noodle-bowl named Sobachi.
Soba has been the staple carb here since the 1600s, as the cold, unfertile fields of Iwate made rice farming impossible and buckwheat the grain of choice. The prefecture is divided on wanko soba’s genesis. Hanamaki locals say it began with them 400 years ago—embarrassed to serve a visiting feudal lord such a rustic dish, they gave him just a tiny serving, but he loved it and asked for bowl after bowl. Moriokans, however, are adamant it started here 100 years ago, with a local politician who preferred the smaller portions.
The hangover-curing chitantan.
But no matter where you eat them, the noodles are always the same: cut short to make them easier to swallow and coated in a simple dashi stock. “Don’t drink the soup, it will fill you up,” Satake warns back at Azumaya, dumping his excess in a small barrel in the middle of the table. Satake is brimming with strategies to winning this food war—eat quickly, avoid liquids—and it’s serious business: the record at Azumaya is 570 bowls and the city has held official eating competitions since 1986. I bow out at a commendable 67 bowls—my waitress says the female average is 30—and Satake, who has grown mysteriously quiet, quits at a valiant 130, before bolting to the bathroom. This noodles lurping tour of Morioka is yet another notch in the belt of Japan’s celebrated cuisine culture, but has also shown me a different side to the country, colored with a foreign influence and, refreshingly, not afraid to laugh at itself.
“Too many noodles,” Satake says, somberly, on his return. No guts, no glory, I guess.
You’ll need to queue for a taste of Pairon’s jajamen.
It’s a two-hour ride on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka. Hanamaki airport is 50 minutes south of Morioka by train, and has direct flights from Taipei and other cities in Japan.
The Grand Resort Hanamaki
This sprawling resort is composed of three hotels and a high-end ryokan. Guests can use any of the hotels’ onsens filled with the healing water from Hanamaki’s hot springs. hanamakionsen.co.jp; doubles from ¥12,038.
Located on the Kamaishi coast, this elegant ryokan is owned by Iwasaki Akiko, a proud survivor of the Tohoku tsunami that devastated Iwate in 2011. Rooms are spacious, and the outdoor baths have ocean views. houraikan.jp; doubles from ¥17,280.
This family-run inn near Morioka station is welcoming and newly renovated. There’s a bath, and an attached bar and restaurant that serves up a hearty traditional breakfast. kumagairyokan.com; singles from ¥5,000.
Hotel New Carina
The basic rooms in this business hotel are compact, but the location on Morioka’s main street is ideal. 2-3-7, Saien, Morioka; singles from ¥5,000.
Azumaya Soba Restaurant
While there is also an a la carte menu, the draw here is wanko soba. So come with friends and an empty stomach. wankosobaazumaya.co.jp; wanko soba ¥3,460.
This cowboy-themed jajamen restaurant is known for its different kinds of miso toppings, including onion, red or white miso. pyonpyonsya.co.jp; mains from ¥550.
The birthplace of jajamen is in this cozy restaurant near the Morioka castle ruins. Don’t forget to ask for chitantan after you finish your noodles. pairon.iwate.jp; mains from ¥450.
A popular reimen and yakiniku chain found all over the city—there’s even one in large flagship in Inaricho on the outskirts of Morioka has private rooms. pyonpyonsya.co.jp; mains from ¥1,100.Tokyo’s Ginza. The large flagship in Inaricho on the outskirts of Morioka has private rooms. pyonpyonsya.co.jp; mains from ¥1,100.
The reimen at this 64-year-old traditional restaurant is flavorful and fresh: the noodles cooked to order and the kimchi made according to the season. Grill a side of yakiniku barbecue to complete your meal. 1-8-2 Odori, Morioka; 81-19/651-4590; mains from ¥900.
Morioka Handi-Works Square
Learn about Iwate’s traditions at 15 different craft workshops that teach visitors how to make local products such as reimen, senbei rice crackers and traditional ceramics. tezukurimura.com/main; classes ¥1,400.