November 2, 2019

Autumn in Aomori

Aomori is a prefecture that is great all year round but it truly comes alive during the months of autumn when the fall foliage starts to turn.

A leaf is held up against Aomori Prefecture’s Lake Towada during the months of autumn

It’s no real secret that my favorite time of year in Japan is autumn. After all, I have been hammering this point almost daily now on social media. While spring may have its cherry blossoms and summer its festivals, these celebrations simply cannot hold a candle to fall. Not only are temperatures far more bearable than they are in July and August (a popular time to visit) but the entirety of the country comes alive with vibrant hues of red, yellow, and orange. Unbeknownst to many a poor soul who thinks that the cherry blossoms are the pinnacle of Japan’s natural beauty, the turning leaves of autumn are a treat worthy of divinity.

While all of Japan is indeed absolutely breathtaking in autumn, the proximity of many popular sites to civilization can often interfere with one’s experience of the great outdoors. Luckily, this can easily be rectified by simply getting away from the likes of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka and heading out into the rural prefectures. In recent years, Nikko has been a perennial favorite of mine but I’ve done the place to death already. So, when the powers that be invited me up to Aomori to see what the prefecture has in store for autumn attractions, you better believe that I was chomping at the bit to go.

Much like previous my adventures throughout the Kunisaki Peninsula, a rental car will be recommended for most of the following routes. While some forms of public transportation are certainly available, Aomori is very much a car culture. In my case, I had the luxury of being guided around by automobile. While you may be able to get to any one of the places that I visited via a combination of trains and buses, following in my footsteps will almost assuredly necessitate a rental car. Still, while I cannot vouch personally, I’ll try to include information on public transportation when and where I can.

Getting to Aomori Prefecture

Paper floats from Aomori Prefecture’s famed Nebuta Festival

Before I dive headfirst into my two day excursion across Aomori, let’s pause for a second to talk about where this prefecture is located and how to get there. Situated at the northern extreme of Honshu, Japan’s main island, Aomori has historically been the final bastion of civilization before reaching Hokkaido. While famed for its annual Nebuta Festival, the prefecture is often passed up by foreign tourists from Western nations in favor of places such as Kyoto or Hiroshima. This is a real shame, especially considering how beautiful Aomori is during autumn. Hopefully, the following travel log will inspire more of you to include it on your fall and winter itineraries.

Anyway, getting to Aomori is not much of a challenge logistically though you’ll still need to cover some distance. Those with coin to spend but little time to waste can opt to take a JAL or ANA flight from any major city. Alternatively, Aomori can also be reached via the bullet train in just around three hours. For JR Rail Pass holders out there, this option turns out to be far more affordable. Just remember to refer to Hyperdia or a similar service when looking up train schedules. Note that Aomori Prefecture’s bullet train station is called Shin-Aomori, not Aomori Station. Much like Osaka and Shin-Osaka Stations, Aomori Station itself is not serviced by the bullet trains.

Once you’re in Aomori, you’re going to need to get yourself a rental car. As mentioned, many of these destinations are individually reachable via public transportation. That said, while there may be access to and from any of the following spots and the major train stations, transportation between each of the attractions is sorely lacking. Do yourself a favor and just rent the car. Trust me on this one. You’ll thank me later…

Autumn in Aomori: Day One

The entrance to the Aomori Museum of Art in Aomori Prefecture

After arriving in Aomori, the first stop on my itinerary was the Aomori Museum of Art. First opened in 2006, this museum was created with the goal of introducing the world to the prefecture’s unique arts and crafts. The facility houses more than 120 works by Nara Yoshitomo, a young artist originating from the prefecture. The exhibits feature several of Yoshitomo’s drawings as well as his three-dimensional works. Perhaps the most well known of these is the giant Aomori Dog statue which is a popular spot to snap a selfie. In addition to the works by Nara Yoshitomo, you’ll also find masterpieces by many other Aomori natives such as Narita Toru and Terayama Shuji. What’s more, the museum promotes an active schedule of events and hosts a variety of concerts, workshops, and theatrical productions. Entry to the Aomori Museum of Art will run you 510 yen. The museum has been used as a shooting location for many video games and movies so see if you can recognize the architecture.

Once you’ve checked out the Aomori Museum of Art, there’s one more nearby spot that I insist you check out. Known as the Sannai-Maruyama Site, this archaeological dig site was first discovered in 1992 when the prefecture was surveying the area for a baseball stadium. You’ll find it located right next to the Aomori Museum of Art. The site has played an important role in understanding how people in the Jomon period (14,000–300 BCE) transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary one. Excavation of the site has uncovered a number of storage pits and housing that demarcate a departure from nomadic life. The Sannai-Maruyama Site was designated a Special National Historic Site of Japan because of its importance in understanding Jomon culture. Entry is entirely free.

Seeing as the Sannai-Maruyama Site is located right next to the Aomori Museum of Art, the two are best visited in conjunction. Both are serviced by Aomori City’s network of buses, specifically the sightseeing shuttle bus Nebutan-go; the museum and dig site are easy enough to reach even for those who don’t heed my advice about the rental car.

Furukawa Fish Market’s nokkedon in Aomori Prefecture

After exploring both the Aomori Museum of Art and the Sannai-Maruyama dig site, my tummy was rumbling so we headed off towards the center of Aomori City. Our destination was a fresh fish market known as the Furukawa Fish Market that has come up with a delicious option for lunch. The premise is simple. Upon entry, you purchase a set of tickets that varies in number from five to ten. Prices range from 650 to 1300 yen depending on how many tickets you purchase. Once you’ve paid your fare and procured your tickets, the next step is to head on over the the rice station. For the price of one or two tickets respectively, you can choose either a regular or large serving of rice.

After you’ve piled on your rice base, the real fun begins. While the collection of vendors at this site do indeed sell fish in the old fashion way, you can trade any of your tickets for a small plate of their freshest catch. By doing so, you can construct your own bowl of seafood and rice. Each of the individual stalls have their own variety of fresh fish to choose from. You can select from the likes or raw salmon, tuna, and octopus or instead, fill your bowl with any number of cooked options as well. Honestly, it’s really hard to go wrong here as everything is mouthwateringly fresh. Just snag whatever tickles your fancy and head on over to any of the open tables to chow down.

Interested in making a visit? Well, be sure to check out the Furukawa Fish Market’s official site for more information. For the record, this intriguing location can be found relatively close to the center of Aomori City. This means that it’s easily visited on foot. Alternatively, those coming by car will be happy to know that there’s a paid parking lot directly in front of the market.

Aomori Prefecture’s Hakkoda mountain range during autumn

After stuffing our faces on what might possibly be the best bowl of fish and rice that I’ve ever had in my life, it was time to head off to the next spot on the itinerary. My destination was the majestic Hakkoda mountains. This set of volcanic peaks is included in Japan’s top 100 famous mountains. While less well known overseas, the Hakkoda mountains are renowned among Japanese hikers and nature enthusiasts for their seasonal beauty. Due to their height of over 1,500 meters. the Hakkoda crags are one of the first spots in the nation to welcome autumn’s wonders. In fact, around the summit, you’ll find that the leaves begin turning as early as September while the base of the mountains reach their peak by mid-October.

While tangential to the topic of autumn, the Hakkoda mountains are the only location other than Yamagata’s Mt. Zao to see snow monsters. During winter, the area receives heavy snowfalls making it a popular haven for skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts. In fact, I’ve read that Hakkoda is one of the last destinations yet to be discovered by overseas fans of these sports. Luckily, the apparatuses that transport winter sports buffs up the mountain side are also operational during autumn. Particularly, the Hakkoda Ropeway is a great way to experience the mountain’s vast and impressive scenery. Though rather pricey at 1850 yen round trip, the ropeway is a popular autumn attraction and garners hordes of passengers.

After making the trek up the mountain on the Hakkoda Ropeway, it was time to wrap up the first day of my itinerary and find my lodging for the night. As luck would have it, my accommodations were also located in the Hakkoda mountain range. Here, I really need to thank Aomori Prefecture for setting me up with an awesome experience. You see, rather than sticking me in just any ordinary business hotel, those in charge of my two-day itinerary went all out and arranged a stay for me in a killer ryokan.

A room in a ryokan at Aomori Prefecture’s Sukayu Onsen

Truth be known, normally, I am not much of a fan of staying in traditional Japanese inns when flying solo as they come with their own set of rules. Still, there some ryokan that are essentially attractions unto themselves and are well worth the extra hassle. For example, the amazing and historic architecture of Ginzan Onsen’s 100 year-old buildings easily makes up for any additional challenges. In fact, it’s the type of place that you travel to just to stay there. Should you be interested in learning more about whether a ryokan is right for you, refer to my guide on traditional Japanese inns. The resource has helped many others in making their decision.

Anyway, my ryokan for the night was a joint called Sukayu. This place is quite famous within the regions and has over three-hundred years of history behind its name. That said, Sukayu’s real claim to fame is its legendary Hiba Sennin-buro (lit. “1,000 Person Bath”). Housed in an atmospherically rustic wooden hall, this relic of a gone-by-age is charming in and of its own right. While I am not sure if the bath can actually fit up to 1,000 people or not, it surely can accommodate a good sized crowd as can be seen in this picture. The piping hot, highly sulfuric waters come from deep beneath the Hakkoda mountains and are so saturated with minerals that one can barely see their own knees. Allegedly, this does wonders for your skin too so be sure to take an extra long soak.

Now one of the strange things about Sukayu’s Hiba Sennin-buro is that it is one of the last few remaining gender-mixed facilities. Before any of you Peeping Toms out there get excited though, know first of all that the majority of the clientele are in their forties or older. Moreover, the mineral-rich waters and copious amounts of steam make it all but impossible to see much of anything. Try as you might, it’s hard to even make out the gender of your fellow bathers. Still think you’re too bashful for mixed bathing? Fret not! Sukayu makes the Hiba Sennin-buro available for women only between 8:00–9:00 AM and again at 8:00–9:00 PM. Alternatively, Sukayu also has two auxiliary bathing facilities that are separated by gender.

Rather stay somewhere else? Don’t worry! You can still experience the Hiba Sennin-buro. For just under 1,000 yen, Sukayu opens its facilities for day use too between the hours of 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM. If you do stay at Sukayu though, make sure to check out the Jogakura Ohashi Bridge. This 255 meter-long arch is the longest of its kind in Japan and provides spectacular views of the autumn tinged mountainside below.

Autumn in Aomori: Day Two

A leaf is held in front of a stream during autumn at Oirase Gorge in Aomori Prefecture

After getting a good night’s sleep, and of course hitting up the Hiba Sennin-buro again, it was time to set out on the latter half of my journey. My first destination for the second day was the Oirase Gorge. This 14 kilometer-long stretch runs from the foot of the Hakkoda mountains all the way to the shores of neighboring Lake Towada. Centered on the crystal-clear Oirase River, this gorge leisurely winds its way through a deciduous forest. In autumn, this spectacular wood with its icy stream becomes nothing short of a stunning tunnel of color. Best explored by car, the Oirase Gorge has a number of captivating photo vistas to choose from such as a collection of waterfalls. If you’d rather hike it though, there’s a charming path that runs parallel to the rushing river.

Though I could have gleefully spent the better part of the day just admiring the Oirase Gorge’s foliage, I regrettably had a strict timeline to adhere to. My next stop for the day was the beautiful Lake Towada. This body of water is part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park and is the largest caldera lake on Japan’s main island. Like with the neighboring Oirase Rorge and stream, it is quite the spectacle to behold in autumn. Lake Towada has a bit of an odd shape as the body of water sports two large peninsulas that extend nearly a third of the way across. The lake is surrounded by a steep, forested caldera rim. Because of this, the area is rather undeveloped with the sole exception of Yasumiya where I stopped for lunch.

A komainu lion-dog guards Lake Towada’s Towada Shrine in Aomori Prefecture

Now allegedly, Lake Towada is best explored by boat. In the more populated areas, you’ll find a number of options for sightseeing cruises. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I did not have the chance to partake of one myself but those on more leisurely schedules are encouraged to do so. Not in the mood for boating? Fret not. Lake Towada has a quaint but scenic shrine to check out as well a small nature museum and a statue depicting a pair of young women. From what I’ve read, the work was commissioned to commemorate the area’s designation as a national park. Note that parking in this area can be a bit of a hassle and the attractions are by no means what I’d call must visits.

For my explorers out there, there sits one more oddity in the area that you may consider checking out. While not a part of my pre-planned itinerary, about 25 kilometers east of Lake Towada, there’s a REALLY peculiar site. Here, in the remote town of Shingo, atop a small wooded hill, are two inauspicious earthen mounds. What makes these worth visiting? Well, a rather bizarre local legend claims that these are the grave sites of Jesus Christ and his brother Isukiri. Although almost certainly fabricated, “ancient religious papers” unearthed in the 1930’s recount how Jesus traveled to Japan in his youth. As if this weren’t far-fetched enough, these papers also claim that it was actually Isukiri who died on the cross. As for Jesus himself, he is reported to have fled to Japan where he lived until his death at the age of 106. Can I get a WTF anyone?

Anyway, after visiting Lake Towada and chowing down on some delicious Towada Barayaki, it was time to make the one-hour trek to Hirosaki for my final two destinations. Though a bit of a hike, even by car, the trip was less about the long drive as the journey took me through many spectacular scenic autumn landscapes. Honestly, the beauty of this area alone is enough of an attraction unto itself to simply warrant a visit. You could literally spend hours on end just driving around in humbled wonder of nature’s majesty. In fact, if you have the time to spare, I highly suggest you budget plenty of time to do exactly that.

Once in Hirosaki, my first objective was to make my way to the town’s historic castle. Sadly, this structure has been plagued by bad luck. First completed in 1611, the castle’s original five-story keep burnt down shortly thereafter in 1627 when it was struck by a bolt of lightning. The fortress was later re-built in 1810 though this time with only a three-tiered keep. Strangely, Hirosaki’s castle is the only one of its kind in northern Japan that is not a reconstruction produced in the modern era. As such, it has a far more authentic air to it than something like Osaka Castle despite the fact that the interior has been transformed into a museum.

Note: The former castle grounds of Hirosaki Park are one of the most beautiful places on the planet during the cherry blossom season!

A ripe apple being picked by the branch in Aomori Prefecture’s Hirosaki Apple Park

After visiting Hirosaki Castle, it was time to wrap up my stay in Aomori Prefecture. For my final destination before heading home, I made a stop at the Hirosaki Apple Park. This impressive facility is home to over 1300 apple trees representing 65 different varieties. Visitors to the Hirosaki Apple Park are welcome to tour the grounds and learn about the process required to produce top-notch apples. There’s also a gift shop to explore which stocks every kind of apple goods imaginable. Do me a favor and try the ice cream that I had to pass on due to time constraints!

Of course, the best part of the Hirosaki Apple Park is that you can pick your own apples straight from the trees. For the cost of only a few hundred yen, you can take home what have to be some of the best tasting apples on the planet. The fact that you’ve picked the apples directly from the trees yourself only enhances the flavor. Note that the harvest season for apples at the Hirosaki Apple Park runs from August to mid-November. Luckily, this coincides perfectly with autumn so there should be no scheduling issues.

There’s Still More to Aomori Prefecture

The otherworldly Mt Osore (A.K.A Osorezan) in northern Aomori Prefecture

While I certainly covered a lot of ground while up in Aomori, the prefecture has even more cool spots to check out. One of my favorites is an otherworldly place called Mt. Osore. As can be seen from the gloomy shot above, the place is literally an incarnation of the Buddhist afterlife on earth. In the mood for something a little more cheerful? Consider hopping on over to Hachinohe, Aomori’s second largest city. The area has an amazing nightlife scene and legendary morning market that are very much worth the visit.

Additionally, over by Hirosaki Castle, you’ll also find Mt. Iwaki’s venerable Iwakiyama Shrine. While the buses there are rather infrequent, it’s quite the locale. To learn more, head on over to my stand alone article on this hidden gem in Aomori Prefecture!

Until next time travelers…