The northern belt of the main island of the Japan archipelago, between Hokkaido and Tokyo, is called the Tohoku region, and because it sits at a high latitude, it is known as a cold climate area, with cool summers and very cold winters. The area is broadly divided into six prefectures, and its northernmost edge is called Aomori Prefecture, where aomori means blue- green forests, which is just what the region has. To its south and west, starting from the north, there are Akita Prefecture and Yamagata Prefecture, and to the south and east are Iwate Prefecture, Miyagi Prefecture and Fukushima Prefecture. In the exact centre of the Tohoku region there is a long range of mountains running north-south, which is also why the region has a dense tract of ski resorts.
The people of the Tohoku region have a propensity to work together and help each other in life, probably because of the harsh environment in a region of intense cold, and so they give the impression that they are overflowing with more human kindness than the usual.
Japan is known for its abundance of seafood products, but a particular feature of Tohoku is its delicious seafood. It is an area that is filled to overflowing with opportunities to enjoy food; there is ample opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of delicacies, from both sea and mountain.
We will choose a few areas from among those in the Tohoku region and tell you all about the attractions they have to offer.
“Zao is said to be 1900 years old and has been known historically as a hot springs gown.”
SNOW MONSTERS IN ONE OF JAPAN’S TOP HOT SPRINGS
The first popular ski area in Tohoku that comes to mind for Japanese people is probably Zao in Yamagata Prefecture. Outside Japan, many have heard of the scenery in which there are rows of hundreds of frost covered trees, known as “snow monsters”, and skiing in that magnificent setting is very appealing.
There are also hot springs boasting bountiful hot water, and in the non-skiing world, Zao is known as a resort. Compared to ski areas in Hokkaido and Nagano-Niigata, awareness of the area outside Japan is still low, but it is 360 kilometres north of Tokyo and for Australians, access is actually easy. Using the new route from Sydney to Haneda, there are direct transfers to flights to Yamagata.
The Zao ski area opened in 1925, making it one of the oldest in Japan. It has 37 ropeway lifts and is also considered top class in Japan for its big gelände ski run, in which the longest ski distance is ten kilometres. The frost- covered trees symbolic of Zao are so unusual that they are known around the world as only to be seen in this part of the Tohoku region, and skiing through the rows of ice crystal-covered trees is an experience available nowhere else. There are lots of experiences available nowhere else, including the famous Yo- kokura Wall course, a steep, 38-degree slope that is well worth taking on.
Zao is said to be 1900 years old and has been known historically as a hot springs town. In a nation covered in hot springs, the history of the area is rivalled by few and the area features in mythology and legend. The quality of the hot water and its efficacy are well known, and from ancient times it has been known as ‘the children’s hot springs’, where children
are taken to ensure healthy growth. The waters also have a disinfectant effect, and are said to be effective in treating skin conditions. The centre of Zao Onsen has three communal baths that are open from 6:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night.
There are at least one hundred places of accommodation in the town and there are restaurants, izakaya pubs and shops, which means after ski time can be gainfully spent. There is also a night bus that runs to the entertainment district in Yamagata City, getting passengers there in 30 or 40 minutes and making it possible to get away from the ski area for evening
meals and activities. Popular activi”ties to which people flock are backlit frost-cov- ered trees and evening snow sled tours among the trees.
Skiing in Japan is all about getting the most joy out of ski areas typical of the country, alleviating tiredness in historical hot springs and partaking of sake and food in hot spring towns.
Aomori faming land is also known as the cradle of art in the paddies.
AOMORI – THE PREFECTURE IN DEEPEST NORTHERNMOST HONSHU
Japanese food is the focus of the world’s attention since being designated an international Intangible Cultural Asset by UNESCO, but what many people first think of when they think of Japanese food is probably sushi and sashimi. The sushi culture is well established and the most popular ingredient in sushi and sashimi is the epitome of the cuisine, tuna. Do you have any idea where the most deli- cious tuna is caught? In fact it is off the northernmost part of the Tohoku region, Aomori Prefecture. The prefecture is in a unique position, sandwiched between the Pacific to the east and the Japan Sea to the west, so that where the ocean cur- rents from both converge, a fishing zone is created off Aomori Prefecture which produces possibly the most delicious fish in the world. The tuna caught there at a place called Ohma, are in both name and reality the best in the world, and at Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo, Ohma tuna is traded at very high prices and wholesaled to exclusive sushi restaurants.
Hokkaido is known for delicious sea- food, but Tohoku is not to be outdone in the seafood stakes. Hachinohe is a nationally recognisable port in Aomo- ri’s southeast and the catches of squid and mackerel there are said to be the largest in Japan.
Aomori, with all of it attractions, also has lots of ski areas, one of which, Hakkoda, has been working hard to attract international tourists and has for the last few years grown in popularity as a result. The frost-covered trees of the area are massive and said to be bigger than those of Zao. The dynamic course, which starts from the mountaintop station of the ropeway, maximises the natural topography and is basically an uncom- pacted off-piste. For those skiers wanting to enjoy powder in a natural environment, it is highly recommended. There are not a lot of lifts, but the course length is seven kilometres, and as a ski area that lets skiers ski between trees and enjoy the magnificence of nature to the full, it is revered by many ski fans. Another reason for its popularity is that it is possible to ski for almost six months, from December to May.
A little off topic, but Aomori also has lots of places to see outside the ski sea- son. The Tohoku region has a lot of rice growing areas and farming is generally prolific, but Aomori farming land is also known as the cradle of art in the paddies. Art in the paddies involves likening a rice paddy to a canvas and planting different coloured rice plants to create massive pictures and characters. The practice is now prevalent across Japan, but it had its origins in 1993 in the village of Inakadate in the Minamitsugaru district of Aomori, when the village initiated the event in rice paddies behind the village council build- ings as a village invigoration event.
In summer in Aomori there is the famous Nebuta Festival, in which over-sized papier mâché nebuta dolls are placed on carriages and pulled in procession. The dolls depict scenes from Japanese kabuki theatre and mythology, and are very popular with international tourists with an interest in Japanese culture. There are many attractions throughout the region outside the ski season, so to spice up your ski trip, make sure you go to a visitor centre and search them out.
FAMILY FRIENDLY HOTEL AND BIGGELÄNDE
There is in fact another major ski area in Tohoku known to have the biggest gelände ski run. The Appi Kogen ski area has a reputation for convenience. It comprises a large resort hotel at the base of a ski run and is surrounded by several hotel-style accommodation facilities. The area has 21 courses with a total length of 45.1 kilometres, which alone would make it notable, but it is also highly regarded for the fact that in pursuit of good quality snow, the courses have been laid out on the northern slope of the mountain. The result is premium quality ‘aspirin snow’.
Appi resort life has lots to offer besides skiing. There are major facilities associated with the hotel; the ubiquitous big onsen hot springs, and happily, a full range of other facilities including a heated pool, an athletics gym and squash courts. The hotel also houses many restaurants and bars, so there are lots of opportunities for fun after skiing. Appi Kogen ski area is in Iwate Prefecture, which is adjacent to and south of Aomori Prefecture. As a region of intense dairy production, when the ski season finishes it begins to show another face. For example, at the Koiwai Farm Makibaen Park, a farm-based tourist facility, there are sheep dog trials and sheep shows, the opportunity to enjoy horse riding, archery and horse-drawn wagon rides, and tours of operating cow sheds and a milking factory. The farm building, which has a silo-shaped observatory, also houses a restaurant and kiosk. Flavours for visitor enjoyment include the famous Mongolian barbecue and fresh milk. There is also no shortage of things to see in the area, with many famous sites steeped in ancient Japanese tradition, including temples such as Chuson-ji Temple, famous for its Konjikido golden hall, and Motsu-ji Temple, known for its beautiful gardens.
Another very interesting food tradition in Iwate Prefecture is wanko soba noodles. First up, a small amount of soba noodles sufficient for a single mouthful is placed in a bowl, owan, which the guest consumes. The minute the bowl is empty, a server adds another single mouthful. As each mouthful is consumed the server adds another to the bowl, so that unless the guest puts a lid on the bowl or gives some other indication they have had enough, they can just keep on eating soba. As people often have fun competing to see how many bowls they can eat, wanko soba has a reputation as being something to be eaten in large quantities, but it is a rustic dish that the guest was originally meant to enjoy slowly, savouring the flavour, until replete. You should give it a try.
We turn now to three areas that we have selected from the Tohoku region which are up and coming new ski destinations. All have very good quality snow, are large and will definitely satisfy ski fans from outside Japan. There are many ski areas other than these in the Tohoku region. We look forward to introducing you to those on another occasion.
While we have bundled the ski areas in the Tohoku region into one, each offers significant differences in food, climate and natural features unique to that destination. Take the time to look at aspects of Tohoku other than skiing. You will undoubtedly find a fascinating depth to the region.