Thursday, June 29, 2023

Tohoku 5-day JR East Rail Pass trip Day 3 - Geibikei, Morioka & Akita

Day 3 of our trip through Tohoku using the JR East Rail Pass! Day 2 included exploring Aomori further by going into Hirosaki and Tsuruta for the longest triple arched wooden bridge, stuffing ourselves at dinner Morioka for the wanko soba challenge and settling in Ichinoseki for the night. Check it out here if you haven't seen it yet.

Day 3 overview:
07:18 - 07:52 train Ichinoseki station to Geibikei station
08:30 Geibi river tour
10:03 - 10:33 train Geibikei to Ichinoseki station
11:27 - 12:06 Ichinoseki to Morioka station via Shinkansen
12:15 Activities in Morioka city
    Reimen & yakiniku lunch
    Morioka Castle Ruins/Iwate Park
    Ishiwarizakura (Rock-splitting cherry tree)
16:35 - 18:12 Morioka to Akita station via Shinkansen
18:30 Check into Akita hotel
    Dinner in Akita city - hinai jidori chicken, kiritanpo nabe

We had a little bit of a hectic start to our morning by running just a little late and forgetting things in the room after check out, but at least we had time for the Toyoko Inn-included breakfast in the hotel lobby! From there, we went to the station, found a locker for the large size bags, and easily found our way onto a local train headed to Geibikei. 
As we had come to expect, it was a smaller (probably 2 car, or 3 at the most) train that listed the prices for each destination like you'd typically see on a bus in Japan with variable pricing.

A slow but steady half hour ride gets us to Geibikei station where we exit with what end up to just be other people who wanted to take the river tour lol.

It's an easy 8 minute walk to where the river tour starts and you can get a glimpse of the river along the way. Since this was the only reasonably timed train to get to this area, we were very early and had to wait about 20 minutes to even get tickets for the first boat. Luckily, their gift shop was open, so we were able to browse in there while we waited.

We started loading on to the boat just prior to 08:30. You will need to remove your shoes and sit on the tatami mat (with flat life raft "cushion") on the boat during the tour. 

Since there was some rain in the forecast, the boat was already prepped with a low, translucent roof to provide some shelter from the weather. It doesn't leave a lot of head room but is fine as long as you are seated. 
Our boat only had about 10 other people on board for this 08:30 tour, and the guide spoke limited English (left, right, hello, etc) but was very animated in his Japanese narrative which unfortunately we didn't get to fully appreciate like some of the other guests. 

There are some numbered portions of the landscape to help identify points of interest. The pamphlet we were given with the tickets explained the route of the tour in English, but we mostly just looked on each side of the boat and copied everyone else when something looked interesting.

About 30 minutes into the tour, we pulled up to a bank and all got off the boat (you can leave your belongings on there but should take your shoes) to explore this part of the gorge on foot. 

The part by the boat is nice but be sure to keep walking because you have limited time and the best view is around the corner and across the bridge!

There is a little booth that is selling these "lucky stones" (each representing something different based on the kanji engraved on it) that you can buy for 3 stones for 100yen. All 6 of us carefully chose 3 stones each to throw. 

The goal is to get them into this small hole in the cliffside to secure your wish coming true! It's a lot farther than it seems lol and I was particularly bad at this haha. Unfortunately, none of us were successful but it was fun to try!

We hurried back to the boat since we were the last stragglers from our group (having spent too much time laughing at my bad throw wtf), and then the boat returned the way it came. 

There is fish food available for a fee (I think 100yen for a small bag) that you can throw into the water from the boat as you ride. The fish seemed to particularly love this but so did the ducks!

On the way back, the boat guide also serenades you with a traditional local song which really helps complete the journey. 

The tour was scheduled to be for 90 minutes (ending at 10:00) and with the next local train back to Ichinoseki supposedly leaving at 10:03, we decided to run (again!) back to Geibikei station to try to make it after ending the tour just a little early. We did jog most of the way there, but ended up looking pretty silly because we somehow would have had plenty of time to walk (as some of the other boat passengers did). 

We had been pretty determined to make it on to this train (earlier than one I had scheduled for since I didn't anticipate people wanting to run for it lol or the tour ending sooner than 10:00) since the next one wouldn't be for about an hour and there wasn't much else to do in the immediate walking area. 

This is another stop on the Pikachu/Pokemon joyful train, so even though it's small and kind of in the middle of nowhere, there's lots of new, cute Pokemon-themed decorations. 

We were happy to get on the local train when it did finally show up (about 2 minutes late - even less of a reason to have run lol). 

Since we arrived back to Ichinoseki station about an hour earlier than I had planned for, we waited at the Midori no Madoguchi to change our reserved seats to a sooner Shinkansen and then still had time to shop around the station a little bit. 

We picked up our large bags from the locker and then took all of the little snacks we bought from the station and got on the Yamabiko shinkansen headed to Morioka station. 
This was just basically reversing the route we did the previous day (Day 2) since we had only gone down to Ichinoseki in order to get a better starting location for getting to the Geibikei river tour in the morning. 

We arrived back at Morioka station but since we got there in the middle of the day, a lot less lockers were available (and Morioka is the meeting point between the Akita and Tohoku shinkansens so I'd expect a bunch of people to consider a quick stop here like us!). We ended up piling up all of our bags into one large 1000yen locker. 

We arrived just at lunch time, so we immediately headed over to Seiroukaku for lunch which is in a building right near the station on the second floor. There was a bit of a wait, but even with 6 people and no reservation on a Sunday at 12:20, we were able to be seated within 15 min which was great.

Seiroukaku is a yakiniku restaurant which also serves reimen which is a inspired by Korean naengmyeon and another of the 3 great noodles of Morioka (beside wanko soba - Day 2 and jajamen). 

In addition to reimen (you can pick the level of spiciness), we also ordered some ala carte yakiniku items to share and a lunch set. The yakiniku items arrived to the table fairly quickly but it took some time for the reimen to come out (closer to halfway through our meal). 
It's a very interesting dish (much different than most ramen dishes in Japan) and everyone seemed to enjoy it! The yakiniku meats were also quite good as well and overall it was an enjoyable meal. It was nice that were were easily all able to sit together without being squished too. 

Since it was raining and we were still by the main station hub, we opted to catch the bus out to our next destination (would otherwise be about a 11-15 min walk). 

The rock-splitting cherry tree (Ishiwarizakura) is a landmark in the city and even has its own directional street sign near it. Of course, it's much more fabulous earlier in spring when it actually has cherry blossoms, but honestly it was still really neat to see a whole tree growing out of a rock in the middle of the city lol.
It's located in front of the district courthouse, but it didn't seem like much activity was going on on the weekend, and we were the only ones in the area at this time (on a Sunday). We were able to take whatever silly pictures we wanted to without any fuss lol. 

We moved through the neighborhood and ended up at one of the entrances to Iwate Park. There are several entrances, but the closest one to Ishiwarizakura seemed to be under renovation, so our options were a bit more limited.

With the rain and the renovations, the park was pretty empty, but we still enjoyed the landscaping where they weren't making changes/rebuilding. 
We ended up just doing a small lap around the park. There wasn't a ton to see (that we could tell) and the muddy ground wasn't ideal. Because of the renovations, we ended up just exiting where we had entered and retraced our steps. 

There was some sort of traveling dance festival going on throughout the city area despite the rain, and we were able to catch portions of it while we made our way back to the station. Each group was pretty large and seemed to have a variety of participants and different styles, so it was interesting to watch. 
We also made the decision to opt out of the remaining great noodle of Morioka (jajamen) because we were just too full - but hopefully one day we'll come back to try it!

Back at the station, we did get a small snack on the way out after collecting our bags and ensuring we had enough time to get to our next shinkansen. 

This was our first Akita Shinkansen (and first time headed to this part of Japan), and I was excited to see the red Komachi train! 

We rode all the way to the terminal stop (Akita station) and were greeted by two large namahage masks!

First stop is our hotel. We decided to try a different hotel chain for this area and the Comfort Hotel Akita was super reasonably priced and still located in close proximity to the station. 

It's still raining at this point, so we don't spend too much time exploring and just head out for dinner. I chose Mugendo because it was nearby and the menu had all the different options we wanted!

Akita regional specialities are: kiritanpo (nabe) which is mashed rice in a cyclindrical shape and then toasted a bit, hinai jidori (chicken) which is local to Akita and handmade inaniwa udon. We were able to get all of them and even try some Akita beef as well!

This day involved more moving around and a bit less activities than the other days of the trip. I think spending about half of it in the rain does put a bit of a damper on how much time we want to spend outside, but we did accomplish our main objectives, so I don't think I would have changed anything given the circumstances we were dealt.

    ‣ Geibikei river tour - but ideally with better weather/without the roof for the boat so you can get the best view of the gorge. We did the 08:30 tour which wasn't busy but we saw the 09:30 one on the way back and it was PACKED.
    ‣ Reimen/3 great noodles of Morioka - we had wanko soba the previous day and tried reimen this day. Unfortunately was too full for the jajamen, but I'm sure it's excellent as well.
    ‣ Rock-splitting sakura tree - not as ideal in an off season, but still cool to see and not super out of the way. 

What we'd change: Iwate Park/Morioka Castle Ruins was right next to the rock-splitting tree so it made sense to just check it out since it was nearby, but because a lot of the areas were being renovated/under construction, it was raining and an off season, there wasn't much there for us except mud. If you have more time in Morioka, you might consider just shopping through the streets a bit!

Overall, a little bit of a bummer due to the weather, but at least it was only a slight drizzle during our river tour (despite roof regardless), and we were excited to end the day in a whole new area on the west edge of Japan with lots more to explore on Day 4!