Aomori: the apple of Japan’s north

Created in partnership with Aomori Tourism.


Have you ever wanted to view Japan’s lauded cherry blossoms, but avoid the heavy crowds? The lesser-visited region of Aomori in Japan’s north is one of the top three places in the country in which to see cherry blossoms in their majestic full bloom – but with only a fraction of tourists who visit the more well-trodden Tokyo or Kyoto.

Hirosaki Castle Park view of Mt Iwaki

Aomori is reached by a 90-minute domestic flight from Tokyo. Touch down in winter (December to February) and there’s snow on arrival – everywhere – as this region records high levels of snow, making it a mecca for keen skiers in the winter.

But come springtime (March to May), Aomori is dotted with the pinks and reds from the petals of its lauded cherry blossom and apple blossom trees. The cherry blossoms here form dense bunches, making the annual cherry blossom festival in April a photographer’s dream. This is followed by the apple blossom festival in May.

In winter, the mountains are caked with snow but in spring and summer, the region is popular for trekking and hiking with its hot springs trails.

Thriving apple orchards in spring also lend a splash of colour, with Aomori prefecture renowned for its plentiful, juicy Fuji apples – some, the size of grapefruits. This region alone supplies 60 per cent of Japan’s apples. So proud is Aomori that their railings lining the streets depict green and red apple motifs in the metalwork.

At Hirosaki Castle, completed in 1611, you will find the oldest Somei Yoshino cherry blossom tree in all of Japan. Throughout the castle and surrounding its water moats are more than 2,600 cherry blossom trees of different varieties. In springtime, their delicate petals fall into the moat’s water, casting the illusion of a blanket of pink set against the red wooden fence railings of the four bridges that cross the moats.

Hirosaki Castle

Visitors wanting to experience dressing like a Japanese princess or feudal lord can also seek out the costume dressing experience located in the grounds of the castle. On my visit, I selected a grand pink kimono and headpiece before being strapped in tight, with the lovely, kind staff member tightening my obi belt around my waist.

In Aomori city itself, the impressive Aomori Museum of Art holds an eclectic collection of Japanese art. It’s here that visitors can walk through large, white cube rooms that contrast with earth-coloured rooms with exposed floors. The museum was completed in 2006 by architect Jun Aoki who won the design competition, drawing inspiration from the nearby archaeological site of Sannai-Maruyama where the remains of a civilised Jomon-period settlement have been found, dating back 4,000 to 5,500 years.

Aomori Museum of Art. Image: Katrina Holden

At the Aomori Museum of Art, new exhibitions rotate every three months – but the popular permanent exhibits include a room dedicated to the works of Japanese print artist Shikō Munakata (1903-1975); enormous paintings in the Aleko Hall by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) measuring 19m high x 21m wide; the works of renowned Pulitzer prize-winning Japanese photographer Kyōichi Sawada including his iconic image ‘Flee To Safety, September 6, 1965’ in Loc Thuong, Binh Dinh during the Vietnam War; and the very fun and much larger-than-life white dog sculpture titled Aomori-ken by Yoshitomo Nara.

A must-visit in Aomori is to see one of the Neputa or Nebuta structures – or better yet, attend one of the three festivals held each year in the region during summer in August.

Locals take incredible pride in their ‘Nebuta’ –  enormous, moving floats constructed using hand-painted rice paper depicting the designs of Japanese artists.

Each year, the colourful floats are paraded daily during the festivals, the largest of which is the Nebuta Matsuri festival in Aomori City, held every year from August 2 to 7, attracting more than three million visitors over six days.

The tallest Neputa can be viewed at Goshogawara at the Tachineputa Exhibition Hall. The 22-metre high and 17-tonne Neputa is quite a sight to behold. Visitors can watch films of what takes place during the Tachineputa festival each year between 4-8 August. The custom-built museum to house the Neputa literally has a ‘side door’ which opens, allowing the Neputa to be ceremoniously wheeled onto the streets to begin its two-hour journey around the town, accompanied by joyous singing and dancing.

The tallest Neputa stands at 22 metres high. Image Katrina Holden

During my visit, we make a stop to the Tsugaru Kokeshi Museum to see how traditional wooden kokeshi dolls, distinct to northern Japan, have been made since the 1850s. Visitors can watch as the artisans make dolls from a single piece of maple wood.

At Tsugaru-han Neputa Village I listen to the distinctive sounds of the Shamisen as musicians expertly play the traditional stringed instrument. In a former storehouse built 300 years earlier by the Hirosaki clan, I view a number of Tsugaru local crafts where an artisan is sitting and filing red, lacquered chopsticks with sandpaper. We stop at the grocer for a tasting of the region’s famous apples. The red Fuji apples are not only large in size but incredibly juicy.

At Aomori Gyosai Center (also known as Furukawa Fish Market), fishmongers stay busy trading their catch and serving ‘Nokke-don’ (rice bowl and toppings) at the local’s kitchen.  Customers select their seafood topping from a wide range, which will be placed on top of their rice. Visitors buy a ticket and then take it to the shops to receive their bowl of rice and begin choosing their topping ingredients from sashimi, meat and side dishes.

No trip to Japan is complete without experiencing a traditional hot springs bath. On my first night in the region, I’m staying at the 300-year old Sukayu onsen, the most traditional onsen in all of Japan. It is known for its large, 1,000-person mixed bath, and is also the snowiest inhabited place on earth. My guide Kazumi tells me that it was here, hundreds of years ago, that a deer hunter, after shooting its prey, noticed the injured animal writhe in the stream and eventually trot away. The hunter realised the water must have healing properties – hence, ‘Suka’ (deer) and ‘yu’ (bath) was born.

At first, I admit, I’m a little nervous about the bathing etiquette, but before long I’m dropping my inhibitions as quickly as my kimono because the water feels so incredibly relaxing and the atmosphere is completely devoid of any vanity or embarrassment – everyone goes about their bathing minding their own business.

A more luxurious onsen experience is found at five-star Hoshino Resort Kai Tsugaru – a contemporary expression of the traditional onsen, combining minimalist Japanese design, traditional touches and modern comforts.

Rooms have traditional tatami matting and all guests are encouraged to slip into the elegant eggplant-coloured kimono set to completely relax.  The dining experience here is refined and polished, with dishes beautifully and artfully presented. At breakfast, staff light a small burner on our table in order to cook shellfish simmered with miso in the shell with scallops, shimeji mushroom, green onion and egg. 

My stay ends with a hot springs bath, naturally, where apples float on the water’s surface emanating a sweet, natural aroma. 

Car hire is recommended if planning to cover the region in depth. Small tours or private guides are also available.

For more information, visit the official tourism site in English at en-aomori.com

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