Dramatic landscapes abound in Aomori prefecture and Mt Hakkoda is yet another striking example. Like its southern cousin Zao, Hakkoda’s famous for its winter ice monsters and endless powder; whilst in summer, with the song of hummingbirds cheerfully filling the air, she’s a photographer, sightseer and hiker’s paradise; come autumn, she’s saturated in colour as the virgin forest and alpine flora turn crimson, gold and orange in preparation for their eventual hibernation in the white season.
The grandness of nature makes way to grand design as we hit Aomori City, with a population of just under 300,000, it punches well above its weight in the architectural and art stakes. There’s the monolithic stark white Aomori Museum of Art designed by Jun Aoki featuring the mammoth 8.5 metre tall ‘Aomori-Ken’ dog statue by Yoshitomo Nara and a cavernous 8,379m3 space housing three gigantic backdrops for the ballet ‘Aleko’ created by Marc Chagall. The fun-filled Nebuta Festival Museum, ingeniously skinned in burnt red steel vertical louvres, contains a colourful array of illuminated festival floats and interactive displays which has me dreaming of seeing the annual parades that take place every August. Then there’s the landmark Aomori Tourist Information Center, a 15 storey triangle-shaped building representing the letter “A” for Aomori that glows apple green in the evening and the iconic cable stayed Aomori Bay Bridge that itself glows iridescent blue. The edgy Aomori night life complements this slick urban centre as Tohoku’s rich history and traditional culture makes way for cutting edge design and fun times in its northern most capital.
Across the border in Akita prefecture, a sense of heritage and tradition is restored at the historical castle town of Kakunodate established in 1620 and its prestigious samurai district. The half-a-dozen finely preserved samurai houses, set amongst 400 weeping cherry blossom trees, are a picture of dignified architecture, tranquil grounds, grand gates, austere black fences, interesting artefacts, antiques and museum pieces. Along the bank of the Hinokinai River the renowned 2km Cherry Blossom Tunnel is a nationally designated scenic spot that I can only imagine must glow pink in the spring and adds to Kakunodate’s reputation as “Little Kyoto”.
As we venture further north, the winding roads spiral through the breathtaking Akita mountainside which lead to pictures of natural beauty and amazing hidden gems such as Tsurunoyu Onsen and Tamagawa Onsen. Tsurunoyu, dates back to 1638 and was frequented by samurai and their escorts as a place of healing and relaxation. The thatched roofed tatami lodgings, churning water wheel, communal onsens, including a mixed onsen, of this tiny resort transport us back in time. By contrast Tamagawa Onsen’s deafening fissures whistle jets of sulphurous steam and a bubbling hot spring of 98˚C feeds pools of wellness in a cloud of mist for the many sick and elderly taking respite in this most unique somewhat harsh environ.
Sheer beauty in these parts are also found lakeside, riverside and in the local legends. Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest at 423.4m, is both a lovely place and the setting of the evocative story of the lovely Tatsuko who prayed to the gods for eternal beauty and upon drinking the waters of Tazawa-ko transformed into a water dragon and submerged into the lake. Ironically, a glorious golden statue of the enchanting Tatsuko a few metres off the lake’s western shore immortalises her beauty and saw her dream come true.
Not too far away the gorgeous Oirase Mountain Stream in Aomori prefecture is home to another legendary lovely, former geisha Omatsu, who would ambush young samurai in order to rob and sometimes kill them. This 400 year old tale is almost as enthralling as the crystal clear cascading rapids and spectacular white waterfalls surrounded in every direction by a thick wood of verdant lime green maple trees, white cedar and Japanese beech along with a blanket of furry moss covered boulders and felled timber. The 14 km nature trail is stunning, whether on foot, by bike, car or public bus and to quench my thirst a well-earned craft beer from Oirase Brewery certainly hit the spot.
Life is an odyssey to be undertaken with gusto, an open mind, light heart and empty stomach. Which is easy enough said, though not always possible in our frenetically connected ‘always on’ fast food world. Taking time to travel Tohoku’s treasures and sample her flavours provided a well needed tonic for the pressures of the day to day with a delightful dose of tranquillity, warmth and beauty that serves as yet another reminder of the genuine joy of journeying to Japan. In reverence to mother nature and all the people, poets, artisans, designers, craftspeople, gardeners, story tellers, architects, iron chefs, legends and samurai that have influenced this treasureland I dedicate a haiku of my own
– “Tohoku green land, water rich built legends breathe, spiritual oishii”.