Ninohe City in Iwate Prefecture is just a little over two hours away from Tokyo station. Special for its food, culture, and history. Below you will read about Iwate’s: delicious hitsumi soup, Naked Fire Festival, and Jomon cooking.
| Kunohe Village – Furusato Sozo-Kan Food Tasting Experience
We started our trip going straight towards Furuasto Sozo-Kan for a tour of a 100+ year old historical community hall located in Kunohe village, Iwate City. We saw various tools that were used before digital technology came into existence. Parts of Iwate have heavy snow and rain so people would cover themselves with a make-shift straw blanket to keep warm.
After taking a tour of the building we feasted on a Japanese traditional dish with a side of juicy steak and pork.
The chef was talkative and had the nicest smile that made the food even more enjoyable.
We also ate a traditional vegetable soup boiling on a hearth called Hitsumi. We rip apart dough into tiny balls and throw it into the pot to add some texture to the soup. When you came close to the hearth, you only had a few seconds to throw in as many balls as possible before your body would burn from the blazing heat coming from the pot.
After stuffing ourselves we still had the Chef’s special dessert that he created himself, matcha ice cream in an edible apple skin with whip cream and a cherry on the top. He showed us how to do it and then after we proceeded to make our own. A perfect dessert to end lunch.
After lunch we gathered around the hearth that lost most of its heat by that time and talked about the impact that inbound tourism has on Ninohe City. It’s important for cities like Ninohe to be able to open their doors to tourists from all countries so that the history of Ninohe City lives on.
| Ninohe City – Naked Fire Festival (Saitogi)
Saitogi festival, or “Naked Fire Festival ” in English, has been going on for over 400 years. It’s used to figure out the quality of the harvest for the current year. The Naked Fire Festival is open to anyone brave enough to wear a thin loin cloth, throw cold water on themselves and use a log to bash four meters of blazing hot fire.
The festival is broken down into four small rituals: okomori, mizugori, hadaka-mairi, and himatsuri.
| Naked Fire Festival – Okomori / Small Sword-shaped Grain
Five okomori, or small sword-shaped towers of grain in English, are made and left outside one day before the main festival. Their condition is checked upon the next day as a way to determine the city’s harvest for that year.
| Naked Fire Festival – Mizugori / Cold Water Cleansing
On the night of the festival, you strip down and wear only a thin loin cloth called fundoshi, which looks like an adult diaper. You pair up with another member and stand on stage in front of a large crowd throwing freezing cold water on yourself.
| Naked Fire Festival – Hadaka-mairi / Respects to The Gods
You take off your fundoshi and exchange it for a sarashi, a five-meter strip of wide cloth. It starts below your stomach and ends just above your thighs. To prevent from any funny accidents form occurring I had to tighten it as much as possible. You put on a headband, festival socks called tabi, a straw skirt called mino, and a pair of straw shoes.
We prepared five, ten-yen coins by wrapping them up with small pieces of paper, and put them inside our sarashi. We quickly formed into groups again. From here, the whole group walks in pairs. We ate a pinch of salt, drink a shot of sacred sake, and clamp a white paper our mouths. We couldn’t speak until the paper left our mouth. The festival truly begins here.
The person in the front leads the way, swaying a bell from left to right. We are led down the side of a hill with only about an arm’s length of visibility. Once all the members gather together, we walked up the stone stairs, lit only by small lanterns, to pay your respect to three individual shrines. Make sure to drop five-yen coins for every visit. Lastly, we walk near the edge of the burning pile of stacked logs that has been lit two hours prior to the festival. We pay our respects to about fifteen smaller Gods.
| Naked Fire Festival – Himatsuri
After giving our respects, we position ourselves around the loud crackling inferno. While the ritual horn and drums sound, we bash the top of the fire tower with four-meter-long wooden rods. As we our hitting, and pray to our own God to not burn to death. A rain of ash starts falling on our bodies, singeing, if not incinerating our hair. All participants use the nearby snow to cool off during rest periods.
The direction of the flames also indicates the quality of the upcoming harvest. Flames point towards the shrine for a poor harvest
, and away from it to predict a bountiful harvest. Himatsuri finishes after four rounds of fire tower bashing. We take off our straw shoes, and tie them to the shrine.
Nothing ends a festival quite like the brave participants partaking in beer and a special soup with vegetables and tofu called kenchi-jiru. Legend has it that joining the festival three years straight will bring you happiness.
| Ichinohe Town – Jomon Site
Have you heard of the Jomon period? No, not the board game Jumanji. The Jomon period is part of Japan’s prehistory and dates back to about 16,000 to 3,000 years ago. The name Jomon comes from the straw rope pattern found from this time. Even now, There are constantly new discoveries of Jomon artifacts. In Ninohe City, Iwate, there is an abundance of Jomon artifacts, so much so that there is a whole building dedicated to it. This museum is packed with various exciting activities, from cooking to making necklaces the Jomon way.
| Jomon-style Cooking
There were no knives or even chopsticks during the Jomon period. People cut their own food with a sharp edged rock and started fires without matches. You, too, can do exactly that in Ichinohe’s Jomon Museum. Along with some friends and a Jomon expert, we learned how to make our own fire and experienced first-hand the Jomon way of cooking. We used the sharp rocks to cut mushrooms, potatoes, herbs, and lamb, which we cooked in a tall, black pot.
We also used replicate Jomon tools to make our own fire. The ingenuity of the Jomon era was astoundingly advanced. A pulley-like system was used to bring the wooden handles of the fire making contraption up and down. With the right amount of speed and a steady rhythmic hand motion, small particles of burning wood are made by the friction from the tools.
The fire would then be transported to a small bowl with bigger wood chips that were incorporated into a fire pit. Overall preparation took about an hour and a half, with another hour for the soup to fully cook.
Hot soups during cold winters in northern Japan were an essential survival tactic. Another essential item was clothes. It would be hard to imagine living in Tohoku without clothes or a house. Walking around the museum we saw different types of clothes that were used for various activities.
| Jomon Accessory
We noticed that each pair of clothes had a pendant on them which we had the opportunity to create our own out of a special, thinly cut piece of bark. The native Jomon community would place thinly cut bark in water for a few days. These wet pieces of bark became soft enough to shape into whatever item you needed.
| Jomon Museum
The museum wouldn’t be complete without various attractions of pottery, weaponry, and image mapping. There’s a ten-minute image mapping video that portrays how the Jomon people possibly lived. This interactive museum has plenty of activities for all ages to enjoy without having to travel to multiple sites.
Check out our other articles in Iwate :
A Taste Of The Northern Sea: Greater Kuji area, Iwate
Get Haunted To Riches
Gourmet Tour, Iwate Town