Although Japan’s northern slopes of Niseko and the party-loving heart of Hakuba are some of the most well-known destinations in Japan, if you’ve travelled here before, you’ll know this country has an incredible amount of diversity, especially when it comes to the snow season.
One of the most unique features of the country’s ski season is also one of its least well-known features, and that is spring skiing.
In the middle of Honshu, Japan’s main island, where many of the country’s most well-known cities sit, catching cherry blossoms (known locally as Sakura) March to April can be a race against time and crowds. Each year the enigmatic blossoms make their fleeting appearances before coating the footpaths and grass in their soft pink petals.
However, up north, in the prefectures of Iwate, Aomori, and Akita, where the climate is cooler and the scenery equally – if not more – spectacular, the blossoms arrive at a more leisurely pace, during the crisp weeks of late April. Simultaneously, snow lingers on the northern prefectures’ ski fields, offering visitors to combine two of the nation’s most loved attractions, skiing and sakura viewing.
As a bonus, it’s also a time when peak travel costs are down as it sits outside the main tourist calendar, making it the ideal time to explore.
The cherry blossom highlight of this adventure is hands-down Hirosaki Park in Aomori. The city is built around 17th-century Hirosaki Castle, and its sprawling, spectacular park, that in spring is practically overflowing with cherry blossom trees heavy with full blooms.
The town’s Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival is held annually between April 23rd and May 5th. It typically sees around 2 million guests enter the grounds to take in this picturesque site and marvel at the iconic views from Hirosaki Castle Honmaru Observation Deck, which includes the neighbouring snow-capped mountains all framed by perfectly blossoming sakura. Be sure to stroll under the famous Sakura Tunnel on the way out.
Just outside the Hirosaki Castle grounds is Tsugaruhan Neputa Mura; Aomori Prefecture is known for its colourful summer Nebuta Festival where gigantic paper floats – artfully crafted by the local residents – are paraded throughout the city. The neighbouring prefecture of Akita also has a similar event, known as the Kanto Festival, which admittedly overshadows Aomori’s event in terms of size and fame. But that’s no reason not to visit this delightful museum and try and catch one of the museum’s regular taiko and occasional shamisen live performances.
For a unique stay in Aomori, book a stay at Aoni Onsen’s Lamp no Yado, a secluded onsen retreat nestled along the Aoni River. Founded in 1929, not much of this onsen guest house has changed since its incarnation. The biggest drawcard of this place is not its facilities but in fact, its lack of them. The guest house has no internet, no telephone service, and most rooms have no electricity (apart from the occasional power outlet spotted in a public bathroom). The entire facility is illuminated after dark by kerosene lanterns and heated by gas heating. There is, however, a delicious dinner, breakfast, a wide selection of excellent baths, both indoor and outdoor, gender-segregated and mixed, and the secluded scenery, especially in spring, is spectacular. According to the owners, it’s a popular escape for high-flying, stressed-out CEOs and the like trying to escape their high-pressure lives.
Just outside Hirosaki City sits the area’s premier spring ski destination, Hakkoda Ski Area. Another gem practically untouched by foreign tourism, Hakkoda Ski Area’s biggest appeal is its rugged northern ranges that offer excellent ungroomed, power-snow coated off-piste skiing. Visitors are welcome to explore these spectacular natural runs with the assistance of a local guide who knows the area like the inside of their living room. The resort’s main area also offers a humble selection of slopes that run long and offer incredible sweeping views of the surrounding area.
Finish up your Tohoku escape with a visit to Kuroishi, a picturesque little city nestled in the centre of Aomori Prefecture. Here you’ll find Nakamichi Komise Street, an arcade lined with wooden houses and sake stores running as they have been for the past 100+ years. After, head on over to Aomori City, the prefecture’s capital city and home to some of the best seafood in the area. At Aomori’s Furukawa Fish Market, you can create your own seafood donburi (called nokkedon), by picking up a bowl of rice and a sheet of tickets. Throughout the market, stallholders offer their seafood for a ‘ticket price’ for which you exchange your pre-bought tickets.
Finish the day with a visit to Aomori’s impressive Nebuta Museum WA-RASSE, an impressive piece of architecture that showcases Nebuta floats from the most recent Aomori Nebuta Matsuri summer festival parade. From here, you have the freedom to continue exploring the great northern landscapes like Iwate and Akita, or continue to other areas of the country to enjoy the post-sakura glow!
This article was produced in collaboration with JNTO.
For more information head to japan.travel/en/au
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