Ichinoseki City is the second largest city in Iwate Prefecture (after Morioka). Located in the southern part of the prefecture, it is the main hub of access to some of Iwate’s most popular natural attractions and cultural treasures. Stationed on the Tohoku Shinkansen line, many visitors from Tokyo and Sendai rarely see the outside of the station before they hurriedly change to local trains and buses to other more well-known locations such as World Heritage Hiraizumi, Genbikei Gorge and Geibikei Gorge. As such, the charming historical downtown area is sadly often left overlooked.
We decided to give Ichinoseki a chance to woo and show us exactly what we’ve been missing out on…and it didn’t disappoint!
The local cuisine of Ichinoseki is based on one of Japan’s best inventions prior to the tamagochi – mochi! Or sticky ‘rice cake’. With lunch as our ultimate goal, we set off to explore the city on foot (all main sights in the downtown area are within walk-able or cycle-able distance from the station).
Our starting point was Ichinoseki Station, specifically the tourist information centre located just outside the station to your left as you walk out.
At the information centre, you can rent Ichinoseki’s useful Audio Guidebook & Pen system: a helpful handbook with a map and information about various sights around town, instantly translated into seven different languages (Japanese, English, Chinese, Spanish, French, German and Korean) at the touch of a sensor-pen! You can rent the book and pen system for 500 yen for a day and return it to the information centre whenever you are ready to move on to your next destination.
And we were ready to go!! The only question…where to head to first?
Our first destination was a short 10 minute walk away – the Former Numata Samurai Residence. Stepping 300 years back in time, the friendly staff guide did his best to explain to us some of the unique architectural features of the house that give clues as to how the samurai of Ichinoseki lived in the Edo Period.
Not too much further down the road (we discovered, after becoming lost a few times) was the picturesque Urashima Park. A peaceful little corner of the city, with manicured gardens that we can only imagine will look stunning in a few weeks time once the Autumn leaves begin to change (usually around mid-October).
It would have been the perfect place for a late-morning nap in the sun, but the thought of our mochi-lunch compelled us to keep going; on to a rather intriguing destination which had piqued our interest: Basie Jazz Cafe (pronounced base-ee)!
Jazz cafes are pretty rare to come by in the countryside of Tohoku, so we were anxious to see if this was the real deal, or perhaps just a family-owned restaurant or hair-dresser with a misleading name (a common pitfall in these parts)! What we found was simultaneously very exciting and heartbreakingly disappointing…
As it turns out, Basie Jazz Cafe is the real deal – a real Jazz cafe! – and a world famous one at that!
Named after legendary bandleader Count Basie, Basie has been run by Jazz-fanatic owner Shoji Sugawara since the 1970s. It is an unexpected oasis for Jazz outside of Tokyo, visited by huge names in both the local Japanese and international Jazz scene. Run less as a business and more of a shrine to Jazz music, the posters hanging outside the front door tell us that live music events are held throughout the year, more or less when Mr. Sugawara wants to. (For more details about Basie, check out this article! A little dated but a nice summary!)
The disappointment, however, was that Basie was closed that day!! Reflecting the laid back style of its owner, the opening hours of the cafe are somewhat irregular (usually in line with performances) so you will be lucky to catch it open if visiting on a whim! Ah, well. We will be back for you, Basie!
At least we had time for some solid #gramming with the surrounding retro buildings.
Just around the corner from the Jazz Cafe lies another unique little complex of buildings which stand out from their comparatively demure surroundings. Welcome to Sekinoichi Brewery! Sekinoichi has been crafting Japanese Sake for hundreds of years since the Edo Period. These days, it is also famous for its delicious selection of craft beers, often infused with some unique flavours such as oyster or ‘sansho’, a kind of Japanese spice or pepper.
As well as bottle your own sake in the shop, you can take a guided tour around the stunning old storehouses that boast a fusion of Japanese and Western architecture. The largest storehouse is actually the biggest of its kind in Tohoku and currently houses a museum explaining the sake brewing process and old machinery. You can also pretend to be sake yourself and jump inside a giant barrel to ferment for a while.
But don’t stay inside for too long – lunch is on its way!!
The process of making sake and mochi actually begins from the same step – steaming the rice in huge pots. At Sekinoichi, alongside the sake brewing process, some of the steamed rice was also used for making mochi. We had the chance to try pounding the steamed rice ourselves – it is not as easy as it might look!
But our efforts were well rewarded with a mochi buffet lunch!! The mochi that we pounded was made into bite sized dumplings and presented to us with our choice of 10 different toppings: red-bean, walnut, zunda (crushed edamame), kinako powder, white sesame, black sesame, grated daikon raddish, spring onions, tiny shrimp and (for the brave) natto (fermented soybeans).
Much mochi was consumed!! It was a mission to try all the flavours, as the mochi is quite filling, but most of us were up to the challenge. My personal favourite was the black sesame and zunda varities but others prefered the savory options. I am still not convinced that natto deserved to be on the table (waste of good mochi!!) but for the natto fans among us, they couldn’t get enough!
Mochi-making experiences are available at Sekinoichi Brewery if you call ahead in advance. Otherwise, there are some super delicious looking mochi lunch sets which will give you ample taste of the best toppings and other local dishes.
It was a fantastic morning in Ichinoseki – there is definitely more than enough there to coax transiting travelers out of the station and into a new cultural experience or two! Next time you are passing through be sure to stop by and tell us what you discovered.
We will be hanging out in Basie.
Getting to Ichinoseki
Ichinoseki is incredibly convenient to access, serviced by both JR local lines and the Tohoku Shinkansen. Ichinoseki is also the main transport hub to change to buses and local trains to some of Iwate Prefectures main highlights, such as World Heritage Hiraizumi, Genbikei Gorge and Geibikei Gorge.
From Tokyo: Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Ichinoseki (around 2.5 hours).
From Sendai: Take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Ichinoseki (around 30 minutes), or the local JR Tohoku Line (around 1 hour and 20 mins).
Exiting the station, to your left you will find the tourist information centre. Here you can rent the Audio Guidebook and Pen system for 500 yen, to assist you in getting around the town.
Sekinoichi Sake Brewery:
Hours: (Open every day of the year!) Museum 9am~5pm; Restaurant 11am~9pm; Cafe: 10am~5pm
Museum Entry: Adults 300 yen; Children 200 yen.
Address: 〒021-0885 岩手県一関市田村町5-42