Explore the path less travelled during winter in Japan

Created in partnership with Aomori Tourism.

My cheeks feel plump and dewy as I sit soaking in a Japanese hot springs bath surrounded by bobbing apples floating on the surface. Its winter time and I’m in the north of Japan, in the Aomori prefecture which is renowned for its plentiful, juicy Fuji apples – some, the size of grapefruits.  Other onsen guests are bathing close by but I barely notice them through the shadowy steam. It’s my third hot, communal bath since arriving in the country and I’ve quickly adjusted to the no-bathing-suit policy, learning to drop my inhibitions along with my kimono. We’re all transfixed with the view of our snow-covered surrounds, completely relaxed in Zen-like tranquillity. I’m staying at the five-star Hoshino Resort Kai Tsugaru – a contemporary expression of the traditional onsen, combining minimalist Japanese design, traditional touches and modern comforts.

My room offers a view of Sukayu Onsen. Image: Katrina Holden

Arriving from Sydney days earlier, I flew to Tokyo and then took the 90-minute flight north to Aomori. Our plane touches down as it softly snows. It’s winter time and my first stop is to the Hakkoda region where I am 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. 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.

Traditional Japanese Onsen

Approaching on the drive with my guide, the mountains and forest are covered in deep snow. Beech treetops look like they’ve been heavily dusted with thick icing sugar. The scene is magical, resembling something out of Disney’s Frozen movie.

My guide Kazumi explains the contrasts of the region in spring to autumn time, with the valley awash with green, red and gold foliage – and cherry blossoms. Aomori is considered one of the top three places in Japan in which to view the national cherry blossom flower, blooming here in dense bunches, in all their pink glory. The cherry blossom festival in April, followed by the apple blossom festival in May, attracts scores of visitors from around the world. But in winter time, you have more of a sense of having this place more to yourself.

Visiting Aomori in Winter
Towada Lake in Winter.

We visit Mt Hakkoda where keen skiers and snowboarders are churning down the mountain after taking the ropeway to the summit. Hakkoda receives the biggest snowfall dumps in the region. At the top of the ropeway, visitors are also met by ‘snow monsters’ – trees whose branches have been thickly covered in snow now resembling snow yetis. They can be seen particularly well from an aerial view afforded from the ropeway (cable car) as it moves its way above the mountain.

Visiting Aomori in Winter
Hakkoda Ropeway

We make a stop at 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.

A visit to Tsugaru Ujoyaki Misuji Studio in Kuroishi is well worth making time for. This pottery studio is owned and managed by renowned potter Rikei Imai and his wife Michiko. Imai makes his sought-after works using both a cave kiln and a climbing kiln (one of the largest in the world). We visit this climbing kiln that has no less than 52 chambers extending up a slope, capable of heating to 1300-1400 degrees Celsius. Not only are Imai’s ‘Nature Glaze’ works for sale at his Nature Glaze Gallery, including everyday items such as cups, plates, and tea ceremony cups, but visitors can also view a permanent display of ancient and antique priceless ceramics and pottery, dating as far back as the 13th century that Imai has collected over decades. The collection features stunning 19th-century ceramics, including delicate teacups, bowls and platters that were produced at that time for the export market.

In Kuroishi city, I walk down the historical Komise street – officially selected as one of Japan’s 100 greatest streets. An arcade of traditional wooden structures, built to protect citizens from both sunlight and blizzards, still stands centuries after its construction in the feudal period. In winter, the building facades are covered in snow and it’s a beautiful sight. We finish with a warming tasting of sake at one of the region’s active breweries.

Nakamachi Komise Street sake tasting. Image: Katrina Holden

Boarding a 68-year old Tsugaru Tetsudo Stove Train, we travel from Goshogawara to Ashino Park. The train line has been operational for 90 years, popular for its coal-fuelled ovens on which the conductors toast dried squid for passengers. The carriage is filled with a pungent aroma of squid, soon replaced with a toasty smell as the train begins to chug and the hot plates are lit. It’s an ideal retreat on a cold winter’s day but more importantly, it’s a fun and colourful snapshot into Japanese life. Girls moving throughout the carriage are selling miso doughnuts; and a lady pushes a cart down the wooden floorboards aisles selling the squid and rice crackers, candy, apple juice, sake and beer.

Visiting Aomori in Winter
The Stove Train

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 Hirosaki Castle, completed in 1611, we 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 spring time, 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 moat. In winter time, the trees are illuminated at night with pink lighting to reflect in the frozen water below, creating a spectacular visual display.

Hirosaki Castle moat in spring

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. I selected a grand pink kimono and headpiece before being strapped in tight, with an attentive staff member tightening my obi belt firmly around my waist. In summer, there is normally a queue formed as people wait to have their ‘brush’ with royalty, but on the winter day I visit, there’s just myself and my guide playing dress-ups like a pair of curious school-children, and taking countless photos.

Hirosaki Castle costume dress experience. Image: Katrina Holden

A must-visit in Aomori is to see one of the Neputa or Nebuta structures. These enormous, moving floats are constructed using hand-painted rice paper depicting the designs of Japanese artists. The floats are paraded daily in colourful festivals during the summer, 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. I join in with local musicians, chiming brass cymbals with vigour as we get a sense of the sounds and atmosphere of the festival as proud local teams pull numerous Neputa floats throughout the streets for two hours.

Tachineputa musicians. Image: Katrina Holden

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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