A WEEK IN TOHOKU: AOMORI
Updated: May 6, 2020
When one thinks of Japan, what are the first things that come to mind? Animé and Maid Cafés in Akihabara; endless streams of sushi near Toyosu fish market; or maybe the cyberpunk space-age Toto toilets you keep on seeing on the internet. Well, sorry to break it to you, but Japan isn’t just Tokyo. Right now, the country is a beacon of tourism with all the facilities and conveniences one might expect from a first world country. However, Japan is also a country of stagnating economic growth and a shrinking population, moreso in its rural areas. This past summer I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a week in the Northeastern region of Honshu Island, Tohoku. As I said, the the Tohoku region is located northeast of Tokyo and spans several prefectures consisting of Miyagi, Fukushima (yes that Fukushima), Akita, Iwate, Niigata, and Aomori.
During our trip we were able to travel to Aomori, Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. Since the region is a bit farther north of Tokyo, the climate is a bit more temperate. If you're from more tropical countries like the Philippines, it’s a good idea to bring a nice sweater with you as depending on the region you visit, even during summer, you might still find it chilly for your liking. In fact, when we visited in June, there was still snow and ice on the ground up in Mt. Hakkoda.
Compared to navigating the Tokyo subway, getting to and around Tohoku is very easy. But, before you go, one thing that I would consider essential is getting a JR East Pass either directly from a licensed online distributor or through a accredited travel agency. The JR East Pass basically gives you a ride-all-you-can pass for five different days within a 14 day total period for the cost of one round-trip bullet train ticket from Tokyo Station to Aomori Station; the thing basically pays for itself!
From our hotel in Tokyo, we headed to Tokyo Station and activated our JR East Pass near the Marunouchi entrance. After activating, we reserved some seats and headed to our designated platform. The JR East Pass basically acts like your passport for the bullet trains so present it to the staff near the gates and they will stamp it confirming that you are using the pass for that day. After getting our passes stamped and arriving at the designated platform, we bought some ekiben bento boxes and waited for our train (A good idea for longer routes such as ours). In true Japanese fashion, our train arrived on time and we made our way into our seats.
Pro tip: DO NOT bring oversized luggages inside the bullet trains! Yes, the staff will not stop you from trying but there just isn’t enough space inside the trains. Take it from me, if you want a comfortable ride, just bring a backpack and a single carry-on luggage.
Our first destinations in Tohoku are Hachinohe and Gonohe. If you want a break from all the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Hachinohe is a great destination. It’s proximity from both the ocean and the mountains make it a great place for any kind of adventure you might want to try out. Once we arrived in Hachinohe station, we and our guides drove through the ocean side towards Kabushima Shrine or more fondly known as ‘Seagull Island’.
Pro tip: Bring an umbrella. When something is called seagull island expect the weather to be full of ... sporadic showers.
Once you reach the area near the shrine, you’ll notice that the busy ports and piers hide a more sombre mood. To be honest, we did not expect it either but there were still clear signs of the damages brought by the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami. It’s a reminder that not everything in Japan is sparkly and shiny; much like everywhere else in the world , they too have issues and problems that they’re facing. Aside from the famous shrine, the city of Hachinohe is also particularly popular for its striking coastline particularly at Tanesashi. Once you see it, you’ll really come to realise how this area has drawn in crowds of people during the summer.
Around 20 minutes to the east of Hachinohe is the quaint town of Gonohe. Unlike the striking coastline and briny aroma that hits you like a brick wall in Hachinohe, Gonohe brings more of a mountain zen atmosphere. Not surprisingly, the smell of pinewood triggers memories of places like Benguet in the Philippines or Banff in Canada. Regardless, Gonohe is still a small town. As such, you won’t see a lot of people marching about their days in the town intersections. But, don’t judge a book by its cover as they say.
What it lacks in ‘touristy’ attractions, Gonohe punches above its weight when it comes to its famous high-quality meats. In fact, the town is famous for multiple popular meat varieties such as Shamrock Chicken, Kuraishi Beef, and its most famous, Horse Meat. My dear horse enthusiast friends, please avert your eyes now! Yes, horse meat or sometimes romantically called as Sakuraniku, has been a staple protein for the Gonohe townsfolk for hundreds of years. In fact, there have been cases when local hosts would often play a prank on guests telling them that what they’re being served is beef only to find out in the end the cold but delicious truth.
Packing our bags and some snacks, we drove off to the City of Hirosaki, around a two hour drive or bus ride from Gonohe-Hachinohe area. On the way to Hirosaki,the mountains and scenery of Tohoku really start to show themselves. The famed Oirase Gorge and Mt. Hakkoda are popular destinations that you’ll come across with. Thankfully, there are several rest stops and viewpoints along the way that you can use to soak up the view and enjoy nature all around you. One particular example is the Suiren Numa Pond that gives you a particularly stunning view of the nearby mountains. Remember to bring a jacket with you as there was still snow on the ground when we visited in June!
Further along the way, you’ll spot several towns even smaller than Gonohe. One particular town, Tomiyama, has a very charming Kokeshi Museum and gift shop. Kokeshi is a traditional wooden doll traditionally made in Aomori prefecture. The Tsugaru Kokeshi Museum has a variety of handmade souvenirs and knick-knacks available to purchase; remember to bring cash as most businesses outside of large cities like Tokyo will not accept credit or debit cards as payment.
After arriving in Hirosaki, you slowly start to see the urban sprawl slowly creeping its way as the mountains make way for rice paddies and flat-lands. Despite being an urban centre, Hirosaki is actually famous for being a castle town. In fact, the castle grounds are regarded as one the most sought after cherry blossom spots in all of Japan! Note of caution though, the castle is currently under renovation, although you can still come in and enjoy the attractions inside the grounds, you’ll definitely notice a lot of construction going on around you. One cool thing you can do is enter one of the famous castle turrets and try on traditional outfits. Other than Hirosaki castle, near the outskirts of the city, you can also find an amusement park that has a rice paddy artwork field. I really don’t have any words to describe the place but see the pictures for yourselves and you can give it a try.
I guess the mountains have such an enticing call because for our last day in Aomori, we decided to drive up to Lake Towada. Much like Hirosaki, Lake Towada is located near Mt. Hakkoda. In the past, the area was a very popular tourist destination attracting thousands of travellers both local and international every year. Nowadays, the area seemed to have lost some of that popularity. Arriving in the footsteps of the area you’ll be shocked to find very few tourists. So, if you’re someone who doesn’t like crowded areas then this might be a perfect location for you. As you enter the beginning of the trail, you’ll be welcomed by the roaring Oirase River flowing through the middle of a gorgeous gorge… badumm tsss. I’m sorry, I have to do it. As an added bonus, the trek towards is speckled with multiple waterfalls ranging from small calm spouts to giant multi-storey high giants. Right at the end of the trail is the famous Choshi Otaki Waterfall.
Finally, at the end of the Oirase trail, you are greeted by Lake Towada. After trekking for around two hours uphill, It definitely shocked me to see how large this lake is. In fact, most people would take one of two ferries to cross the lake from the start-point towards the small tourist town of Yasumiya. As I said before, the town used to be very popular, and you can clearly see a lot of shuttered down businesses. We all talk about over tourism or places that are too overrated especially in Japan, but seeing places like this or in fact prefectures like Aomori, really paints a good case for more people to look past the shiny or ‘tourist-friendly’ areas like Tokyo or Osaka and try out their luck and go off the beaten path. The people are genuine, they’re helpful, and most of all, they’ll likely be as happy as you are when you visit! So why not give it a try? I mean the only thing you really need is a good sweater and an open mind.