Into the Woods: Discovering the charms of Northern Japan’s ‘Blue Forest’

by Sarah B. Hodge
Stripes Guam
Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on Honshu Island. A land of dramatic coastlines, dense forests, and a high percentage of national parks, it also boasts a unique culture, dialect (Tsugaru-ben), and many charms to offer visitors. Major cities include Aomori City (the capital), Hachinohe, Hirosaki, Misawa, Towada and Tsugaru. The northeastern coast (particularly Hachinohe) sustained damage in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, but today Aomori is ready to welcome tourists from around the globe. Compared to the rest of Japan, Tohoku tourism is relatively low, making it a great place to escape the crowds and explore off the beaten path.
 
Aomori City
 
Famous for its colorful, larger-than-life Nebuta festival every August 2 – 7, in which giant illuminated paper floats are paraded through the streets to the chanting of “rasera, rasera!,” Aomori City offers visitors several attractions within convenient walking distance of Aomori Station. Aomori Bay Bridge is a striking addition to the city’s skyline, along with A-Factory, which includes a cidre (European-style alcoholic cider) factory, market, and several restaurants serving super-fresh local seafood and other specialties. You can find lots of great English-language maps and resources in the Aomori Prefecture Tourism Center in the distinctive ASPAM building (the pyramid shape symbolizes the “A” in Aomori). 
 
Nebuta Wa Rasse, located one minute from Aomori Station, is dedicated to Aomori’s vibrant Nebuta Festival and does a fantastic job of explaining the intricate process of designing, building and painting the massive paper-and-wire floats used every year, including interactive exhibits and demonstrations. The larger-than-life Nebuta characters are taken from local history and folklore, including samurai warriors, demons, and gods. In addition, there are live performances of ohayashi music where visitors can try out the massive taiko drums and cymbals and learn the steps to the Haneto dance. In addition to Nebuta-themed goods, the museum’s gift shop offers a wide range of local Aomori products including Tsugaru blown glass, lacquerware, embroidery, and local food products.
 
 
 
Address: Aomori-shi Bunka Kankou Kouryuu Shisetsu, 1-1-1 Yasukata,  Aomori City,  Aomori Pref. 
Tel: 017-752-1311
Admission: 600 yen 
Hours: May - August 9 a.m. - 7 p.m., September - April 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.
 
 
Address: 1-4-2 Yanagikawa, Aomori City, Aomori Pref.
Tel: 017-752-1890
Hours: Shopping: 9 a.m. - 8 p.m.
1F Restaurants: 11 a.m. - 8 p.m.
2F Restaurants: 11 a.m. - 9 p.m.
URL: www.jre-abc.com/ (Japanese)
 
Oirase Stream
 
 
This dramatic river gorge stretches 14 km through Towada Hachimantai National Park and Oirase, perhaps Japan’s most beautiful mountain stream, is marked by rushing rapids, dramatic rock formations and over a dozen waterfalls ranging from thin threadlike falls to the thundering Kumoi Falls near the stream’s halfway point. Hiking the full length of Oirase Stream takes about 5-6 hours, or you can hike the most popular part (the upper passage between Nenokuchi and Ishigedo) in about 2.5 hours one way. JR Tohoku buses stop along the highway at reasonable frequency (be aware the highway runs alongside the stream, so there can be a great deal of bus / vehicle traffic, particularly during peak seasons). 
 
A sensible option is to make Oirase at least an overnight at the stunning Hoshino Resorts Oirase Keiryu Hotel, the only hotel located inside the national park. Situated directly on the banks of Oirase Stream, roughly half of the 189 rooms as well as the common areas overlook the river, there are several indoor and outdoor hot springs (some guestrooms also have private onsens), numerous available activities and hands-on crafts, rental bikes, and free shuttle bus service between JR Hachinohe as well as Aomori and Shin-Aomori Stations. 
 
The resort features warm woods, numerous touches of nature, and local crafts and design incorporated throughout, including two impressive lounges with massive central hearths designed by Taro Okamoto. I stayed in a gorgeous Japanese-style tatami room overlooking the river; the clean, simple lines incorporate traditional Japanese aesthetics and motifs, but the main focus is on the stunning scenery outside your window. 
 
The hotel’s free sightseeing bus makes hourly stops at four points along Oirase Stream, making it a convenient (and time-saving) way to see the highlights (the farthest shuttle bus stop is Kumoi Falls, which is a good starting point to hike the rest of the way to Lake Towada). The next morning, I signed up for one of the hotel’s moss walks and my guide introduced me to several of Oirase’s 300 moss species with the aid of a loupe and a special smartphone lens. Guests can also make their own moss ball to take home.
 
The buffet restaurant Aomori Ringo Kitchen includes a generous assortment of both Japanese and Western dishes that incorporate local Aomori seafood, produce, and abundant Aomori apples in everything from appetizers to desserts. The Lounge Mori no Shinwa (“Forest Myth”) serves coffee, tea, and unique Oirase-themed desserts, including the gorgeous crystal apple (limited to 10 servings a day) and the kokedama “moss ball” ice cream. From the moment I stepped off the bus until my departure, I experienced Japan’s legendary omotenashi (hospitality) and the stunning setting and range of activities already has me planning a return trip next summer.
 
Oirase Stream access
Be aware that JR Tohoku buses suspend operation from November to late April, so be sure to check the JR Tohoku website first as Google Maps will list the JR Tohoku bus regardless of whether it is actually operating (your other option is to take a hotel shuttle bus if you are staying in the park; see above, or to drive).
 
 
 
Address: 231 Tochikubo, Okuse, Towada-shi, Aomori City, Aomori Pref. 
Tel: 
0570-073-022 (Hoshino Resorts Reservations Center / Domestic Calls Only) 
+81-(0)50-3786-1144 (international calls)
 
Guest rooms from 19,000 yen including service fee, tax, and complimentary breakfast and dinner, free shuttle bus to/from JR Hachinohe / Aomori / Shin-Aomori with advance reservation. Additional activities require advance reservation through the hotel website or at the activities desk. bus to/from JR Hachinohe / Aomori / Shin-Aomori with advance reservation.
 
Hachinohe
 
Hachinohe is the second-largest city in Aomori and serves as the prefecture’s industrial and commercial center. Despite the vast swathes of industrial parks, there is much natural beauty to explore as well; the Tanesashi Coast (a nationally designated Place of Scenic Beauty) stretches 12 km and offers fantastic vistas over the Pacific, including Samekado Lighthouse (voted one of the top 50 lighthouses in Japan), the former military lookout Ashigezaki Observatory, the pine-lined promenade of Yodo no Matsubara, and Kabushima Island. A convenient sightseeing bus runs from JR Same Station to Tanesashi Station, or you can also rent a bicycle or walk along the seaside trail. On my brief stop in Hachinohe, I decided to hike the Yodo no Matsubara (Pine Grove), a beautiful coastal path lined with wavy century-old pines bent by the winds. The dramatic rock formations off the coast are home to large colonies of black-tailed gulls and other birds and there is ample signage in English and Japanese. Be aware that that the coastal area is quite remote (about 40 minutes by car from Hachinohe Station) and that there can be lapses in bus and train service in this area, so be sure to check current train and bus timetables before setting out. 
 
 
 
Address: Aza Akako, Oaza Same-machi, Hachinohe City, Aomori Pref. 
Access: 
By train: 10-minute walk from Tanesashi Kaigan Station on JR Hachinohe Line
By bus: 5-minute walk from Tanesashi Kaigan Sightseeing Bus Umineko - “Tanesashi Kaigan Information Center” stop
 
 
Address: Aza Hikagezawa, Same-machi, Hachinohe City, Aomori Pref. 
Access:
By car: 35 minutes from Hachinohe Station, 25 minutes from downtown Hachinohe, 30 minutes from Hachinohe IC on Hachinohe Expressway
By train: 40-minute walk from Same Station on JR Hachinohe Line
By bus: Tanesashi Kaigan Sightseeing Bus Umineko - “Ashigezaki Tenbodai-mae” stop
 
Hirosaki
 
 
Hirosaki developed as a castle town ruled by the Tsugaru clan. The castle was completed in 1611 but many of the original walls and structures were torn down in the late 1800s after the castle was surrendered to the Meiji government, where it was used for various purposes including an Imperial Army garrison. In 1895, the castle grounds were opened as a public park, and since 1903 over 2600 cherry trees of several species have been planted. Today Hirosaki’s cherry blossom festival (2018 marked the 100th anniversary) attracts more than a million visitors annually. In winter, the castle grounds host the four-day Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival. The stone walls are currently undergoing a lengthy restoration, so the castle was moved into the center of Honmaru while investigation and restoration is underway.
 
The castle grounds are also home to Neputa Village (not to be confused with Aomori’s Nebuta Museum), where visitors can see Neputa floats as well as experience Tsugaru Jamisen playing (including lessons), try their hand at local handicrafts, and sample local foods. 
 
Rock and roll, The shamisen was originally introduced to Okinawa from China in the 16th century, but is also a staple in Aomori. The shamisen used in Tsugaru is called futazao and features a thicker neck and thicker strings than a standard shamisen. The unique fast-paced, highly percussive Tsugaru Jamisen style allows players great improvisation and skill. Several restaurants in Aomori and Hirosaki feature live Tsugaru Jamisen performances, and you can also take a hands-on Tsugaru Jamisen lesson at Neputa Mura in Hirosaki.
 
 
Address: 61 Kamenoko-machi Hirosaki-shi, Aomori Pref.
Tel: 0172-39-1511
URL: www.neputamura.com/ (Japanese)
Hours: 9 a.m.  - 5:30 p.m.  (entry until 5 p.m.)
 
Traditional Art Crafting Experience:
Visitors can experience making various traditional art crafts such as Kingyo Neputa (Goldfish neputa), Tsugaru tako (kite), Hirosaki Kokeshi (wooden dolls), apple bell drawing, Tsugaru lacquer and Kogin-zashi (Tsugaru needlework).
 
Craft Shop
Fee: ¥1,000 ~ *Varies by the type of craft
Time Required: Approximately 60 ~ 210 minutes
 
Tsugaru-shamisen Experience:
Under the instructions of a professional shamisen player, visitors can learn and experience Tsugaru-shamisen. The lesson difficulty is adjusted to each participant’s ability, so even beginners are welcome to apply. 
*Prior reservation required at least seven days in advance.
Fee: ¥1,500 (A Ticket for Neputa Village is included)
Time Required: 60 minutes
 
 
 
Admission: 310 yen (Fujita Garden only), 510 yen (Fujita Garden, Hirosaki Castle and botanical garden)
Hours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. (entry until 4:30 p.m.)
Access: 15-minute bus ride west of JR Hirosaki Station by the Dotemachi Loop Bus
 
Across from the Hirosaki Castle grounds, you’ll find the delightful Fujita Memorial Japanese Garden; the garden was created in 1919 by a gardener from Tokyo and it is the second-largest Japanese garden in Tohoku. Named after its first owner, local businessman Fujita Kenichi, the garden is divided into upper and lower parts and also contains several Japanese and Western-influenced buildings dating to the Taisho era. The Western House contains a delightful tearoom serving Aomori apple-themed desserts and light meals; expect a 20-30-minute wait during peak season, especially if you want one of the tables overlooking the garden.
 
 
 
Home to what many consider the most beautiful five-story pagoda in Tohoku, Saishoin also has the unique distinction of having guardian rabbits. The 31.2-m pagoda was constructed between 1656-1667 by the 3rd Tsugaru Lord Nobuyoshi. The temple complex is small but beautiful, particularly in late April when the pagoda is flanked by weeping cherries. Admission is free.
 
Address: 63 Doya-machi, Hirosaki City, Aomori Pref. 
Hours: 9 a.m.  - 4:30 p.m.
Access: 100-yen Dotemachi Loop Bus Get off at Honcho stop About 5-minute walk
 
Getting crafty
 
Aomori is home to several unique craft traditions. Koginzashi embroidery originated in Tsugaru City, where farm women would compete to produce the most beautiful geometric designs. Originally koginzashi used white cotton thread on indigo fabric, but today you’ll find koginzashi embroidery adorning a variety of everyday items in a wide range of thread and fabric colors and designs, and you can even take a hands-on embroidery class at the Hirosaki Koginzashi Institute. 
 
 
Address: 61 Zaifu-cho, Hirosaki City, Aomori Pref. 
Tel: 0172-32-0595
Hours: 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Closed Saturdays, Sundays, & public holidays
 
Another prized local handicraft is Tsugaru Vidro, blown glass with intricate colorful “confetti” patterns. Like koginzashi embroidery, Tsugaru Vidro has expanded to include a wide range of products, and you can take a factory tour to see firsthand how this beautiful glassware is made (advance reservations required):
 
 
Address: 4-29-13 Tomita, Aomori City, Aomori Pref. 
Tel: 017-782-5183
Hours: 7:50 a.m.  - 4 p.m. Closed Fourth Saturday, Sunday and national holidays, year-end and new year holidays, Bon holidays, Golden Week holidays
 
Tsugaru nuri lacquerware dates back to the 17 or 18th century and is adorned with vibrant speckles. There are four main Tsugaru nuri techniques. The speckles are applied with lacquer on a flat foundation, with additional colored lacquer applied in layer after layer, requiring each layer to be applied, dried, sanded, and finally polished to reveal the hidden layers underneath. This labor-intensive process makes Tsugaru nuri unique and you’ll find it in a wide range of items and prices, from traditional lacquerware chopsticks and bowls to picture frames, smartphone cases and even elegant geta for wear with yukata and kimono. You can even make your own Tsugaru nuri chopsticks at Neputa Mura as a unique souvenir of your trip to Aomori.

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