Iwate’s Ichinoseki: a way station worth checking out

Travelers bound for Hiraizumi, with its World Heritage sites dating back a thousand years, usually change from the Shinkansen to the local train at Ichinoseki and are often so intent on their final destination that they miss the delights Ichinoseki has to offer. But spare a few hours to explore; you won’t be disappointed.

Ichinoseki’s principal economic driver is local agricultural produce. Perhaps, then, it stands to reason that sake is also produced at Ichinoseki. Sekino-Ichi is a sake brewery that was developed almost exactly one hundred years ago. The current buildings, built in 1918, are registered cultural treasures, since brewery complexes like this one don’t exist any more. As a cultural treasure, the complex must be preserved and has been skillfully renovated to enable ongoing sake production as well as other visitor-friendly uses. Now known as “Sake no Ihatov”, the buildings include a museum, a shop, an event hall, a formal restaurant and a casual cafe.

Since 1996, Iwate Kura craft beers have also been brewed here. The variety and quality of their beer is astounding. And it has garnered a number of international awards.

With advanced reservations, it is possible to tour the beer brewery or take their 30 minute “night tour” of the entire complex (phone: 0191-21-1144). There is a small fee for either tour, which finishes with a tasting.

Sekino-Ichi makes several varieties of sake, relying especially on local rice. In an homage to Konjiki-do, the famed golden-roofed temple at nearby Chusonji temple, their Konjiki-do sake contains flakes of gold.

Kuramoto Restaurant Sekino-ichi offers not only the beers and sakes of the brewery, but also dishes featuring mochi pounded rice cakes, a local specialty. The decor deliberately preserves the Taisho-era (1912-1926) atmosphere. If you don’t want a tour, how about lunch and a turn through the museum?

The Sake Folk Culture Museum (admission: JPY300–also included for free with the night tour) contains displays on traditional sake production, including tools and implements of a century ago, some of which are still in use today.

Craft beer is a relatively recent phenomenon in Japan. Iwate Kura produces a wide variety of beers, fermented at room temperature and not pasteurized or filtered during the brewing process. They brew ales, lagers, pilsners, and stouts, sometimes with surprising ingredients like oyster, pumpkin, persimmon, raspberry, tomato and chocolate. It seems the brewmeister is playful and loves his job. As he explains it, local farmers started the trend by suggesting that he try to make beers using their local produce. So far, it seems to be working well.

Less than 9 km. from Ichinoseki Station and easily accessible by bus or taxi is Genbikei Gorge, a narrow cleft in boulders through which the Iwai River tumbles as it makes its way towards Ichinoseki, eventually to join the Kitakami River and the Pacific Ocean.

There are trails on either side of the gorge, which is only about 2 kilometers long. A suspension footbridge crosses the river at the bottom of the gorge where the river broadens and slows, changing personality completely. Hard to believe it’s same river.

A popular treat for visitors to the gorge is the “flying dango”, sweet rice balls, that are delivered to a gazebo atop the boulders of the gorge via a flying fox (a/k/a zipline) across the gorge. Put your money in the basket, knock on the wooden panel with a mallet, and the basket is pulled across the river, returning with your dango, which you can enjoy while watching the swirling water of the river below.

genbikei gorge 7

These two highlights of Ichinoseki make a fun side trip for visitors to Hiraizumi, which is also easily accessible by bus from Genbikei. Or combine a visit to Ichinoseki with a stop at Geibikei gorge, another of Iwate’s amazing offerings.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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