Hirosaki Castle, Nebuta Festival, Oirase and Lake Towada
Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main Honshu island. It’s known in Japan for the huge quantities of snow that bury it in winter, for the almost unintelligible local dialect, for apples and for the annual Nebuta Festival.
Aomori City on Mutsu Bay and Hachinohe on the Pacific coast are the main gateways into the prefecture. You can catch the Shinkansen directly to Hachinohe or Aomori. The super sleek looking E-5 Shinkansen will get you all the way to Shin-Aomori Station from Tokyo in as little as 3 hours (depending on the number of stops). If you have a Japan Rail Pass or a JR East Pass, take advantage of it. Single-use Shinkansen tickets are also reasonable, and can be booked online in advance.
Aomori Airport is served by Japan Airlines for domestic flights, with a few additional international flights each week to Korea and Russia. However, it has been bypassed by the Low-Cost Carriers, so the airfares are amongst the most expensive in Japan. The approach to the airport (on top of a low mountain) in a snowstorm must be one of the hairiest landings in Japan.
|Tokyo => Aomori||Japan Airlines||¥16,789 (US$157)||Details|
The last and cheapest option is Highway Buses. Buses with regular seats (i.e. not lie-flat seats and you have to sit next to someone) are operated by Konan Buses and leave from Ueno Station for Hirosaki and Aomori for between 5,000 and 6,500 for a one way trip. For a more comfortable trip, check Japan Bus Online for more comfortable reclining seats on JR buses that leave from the Yaesu Exit of Tokyo Station for around 7,500yen depending on the season. At night, the cabin is completely sealed with velcro curtains – a strange experience when hurtling down the highway. Take note that this is a long journey. The scheduled time is approximately 10 hours, which can easily extend to 12 with a few traffic jams and a dump of winter snow.
Buses and trains reach most of the far flung settlements so going the public transport route is feasible. Don’t expect Tokyo-like frequency though. If you miss your ride you might be stuck there for a few hours before the next train or bus departs. Winter however, is a whole different proposition. Snow causes regular transport disruptions so if you need to get to Aomori Station to get the last Shinkansen back to Tokyo, you’d better not cut it tight. Traffic is generally light and routes are well marked, so rental cars are a viable option. Super cheap Nikoniko Rentacar has a branch right near Shin Aomori Station and also in front of Hirosaki Station.
Where to go and what to do
If you decide to go to one place in Aomori it should probably be Hirosaki. At the center of the Tsugaru plain in the shadow of Mount Iwaki (known as the Tsugaru Fuji) Hirosaki has twice the character of the much larger Aomori City and Hachinohe put together. As the capital of the Tsugaru Domain which covered much of modern day Aomori Prefecture, Hirosaki is blessed with Aomori’s only extant castle – Hirosaki Castle. The diminutive castle is a lot less impressive than those in places like Kumamoto or Osaka, but unlike those castles, it is 100% authentic. Hirosaki is nothing flash – the opposite in fact, but the temple district of Hirosaki, it’s many early examples of European architecture, its outstanding food and bars where you can watch the rowdy folk music styles of Tsugaru Jamisen (a local variant of the Shamisen) warrant a place on any itinerary of the Tohoku (Northeast Japan) region.
The castle and its surrounding park is one of the most famous spots in Japan for cherry blossoms. At the end of April each year, the park bustles with food stalls and partying locals.
The south central part of Aomori prefecture is home to the world heritage listed area of Oirase renowned for its beauty – especially in Autumn with the changing leaves. Being world heritage listed, the place is an enormous magnet for elderly tourists so be prepared for a large number of tour buses. If you’re not into being shuttled from place to place we’d recommend getting that car from Nikoniko Rentacar and seeing the area at your own pace. The nearby shores of Lake Towada also offer lots of unspoilt nature.