Winter Activities in Tohoku : Vintage Winter Rides

Make the most of your winter holiday by getting away with friends and family on transportation methods exclusive to Tohoku. Every winter, local operators run old-fashioned rides that bring Tohoku’s rich cultural heritage to life. Enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere on a stove train, kotatsu train or kotatsu boat as they tour along some of the most scenic routes in Japan.

Stove Train (Tsugaru Railway)

stovetrain
Equipped with two fully- red potbelly stoves, each train car boasts a warm, cozy atmosphere where travelers can mingle freely while winding through the vast snowfields of the Tsugaru plain. Dried squid, a traditional snack from centuries ago, is cooked on top of the stoves and served comfortably warm. Be prepared in advance, though: The train operates only three roundtrip rides from December to March, so be sure to check the schedule.

Stove Train
Date: Dec. 1 – Mar. 31
Access: 1-min walk from JR Goshogawara Station (Gono Line)
Price: 950 yen (Adult), 680 yen (Children)
*The train operates three round trips per day, so make sure to check the schedule.

Geibikei Boat

geibikei
Geibikei, a 2-kilometer gorge surrounded by towering cliffs, is famous year-round for its 90-minute sightseeing boat ride. December through February is an especially popular time to visit because traditional foods, such as hot pot and rice cooked in iron pots, is served on kotatsu, a Japanese wooden table that comes with a blanket and a heater underneath. Huddle around the kotatsu, listen to the guide hum folk songs and immerse yourself in scenic splendor—life doesn’t get any better!

Kotatsu Boat Ride
Date: Dec. 1 – End of Feb
Closed: New Year’s Holidays
Access: 5-min walk from Geibikei Station (JR Oofunato Line)
Price: 1,600 yen (Adult), 860 yen (Children), 200 yen (Infant), Boat ride with meals 3,300 yen – 5,500 yen
*Reservation is required for the boat ride with meals.

Kotatsu Train (Sanriku Railway)

kotatsu
The Sanriku kotatsu train was forced to shut down temporarily after the railway was severely damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. Reopened in 2014, it not only allows you to relax while enjoying mouthwatering bento lunches—made with fresh sea urchin, abalone and scallops caught from nearby coasts—but also offers panoramic coastal views of Iwate Prefecture.

 

Kotatsu Train
Access: Train starts either from Kuji Station or Miyako Station
Date: Dec. – Mar. Operates on Sat, Sun & Holidays
Price: 1,850 yen (Adult), 930 yen (Children) + 500 yen (Reserved seat fee)
The train operates one round trip per day, so make sure to check the schedule.

God’s Creation Wonders : 4 Divine Spots in Tohoku

Here are four amazing places that will captivate not only the eyes but most importantly the heart and soul. For the locals, the grandeur of these majestic, centuries-old attractions continues to serve as a reminder of God’s omnipresence.

Hayachine Kagura

kagura_dummy
Hayachine Kagura is a traditional folk performance that features a series of 40 masked dances with live music that originated from Mount Hayachine, the highest mountain in the Kitakami Range. Originally a ritual to worship gods 500 years ago, the dance is now performed by locals who take pride in showing their rich cultural heritage.

Hanamaki City Ohasama Exchange Vitalization Center
Hours: 11am-3pm, second Sunday of every month (except Aug, Dec and Jan) Access: 30 minutes from Shin-Hanamaki Station by car
Admission: 800 yen presale, 1,000 yen at the door

Tonohetsuri Cliff

tonohetsuri_1
A popular scenic spot in Fukushima, the gigantic multi- layered rock was shaped by wind erosion over millions of years. Tonoheturi, meaning tower cli in Japanese, got its name because of its tower-like appearance.

塔のへつり秋3 (1)_R
塔のへつり秋2_R
塔のへつり秋3_R
塔のへつり紅葉2_R
塔のへつり_R

Take in the amazing suspension bridge, be mesmerized by nature’s breathtaking palette of autumn colors and enjoy a moment of peace at one of the temples nearby.

Access: 3-min walk from Tonohetsuri Station on Aizu Railway

Shirakami Sanchi

shirakami_1-2
A vast wilderness area stretching from Aomori to Akita Prefecture, Shirakami Sanchi has the largest remaining virgin beech forest in East Asia. The main attractions of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are the various hiking trails that lead to extraordinary panoramic views of waterfalls and peaceful solitude.

shirakami
Besides hiking, visitors are encouraged to spend the day shing, boating and camping around Juniko, an area to the northwest of Shirakami Sanchi.

Access: 55 minutes from JR Hirosaki Station by bus

Dragon Legends: Lake Tazawa and Lake Towada

Autumn foliage at Lake Towada
Autumn foliage at Lake Towada
Legends always add a touch of mystical, romantic appeal to travel destinations. Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan, and Lake Towada, the largest crater lake in Honshu, are two excellent examples. According to locals, Lady Tatsuko became a dragon after wishing for eternal beauty at Lake Tazawa.
Lake Tazawa
Lake Tazawa
Meanwhile, a boy named Hachirotaro was magically transformed into a huge dragon after drinking water from mountain streams in Towada.
Lake Towada
Lake Towada

The popularity of these legends sheds valuable light on the historic importance of water to the entire Tohoku region.

Lake Tazawa Access: 15 minutes from JR Tazawako Station by bus
Lake Towada Access: 2hr 15 minutes from JR Hachinohe Station by bus

Overnight trip from Tokyo- (2) Nostalgic Nagano

NAGANO (16)

Located to the northwest of Tokyo, Nagano is easily accessible with Hokuriku Shinkansen and serves not only as an ideal overnight trip from Tokyo, but also a great stopover on the way to Kanazawa. In this article we will bring you to Iiyama, Zenkoji Temple, and Karuizawa and show you what they have on offer. Join us and expect to discover a different Japan!

Suggested itinerary

Day 1: Tokyo Station 7:52 – (Shinkansen) – 9:32 Iiyama Station – (8 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio – (15 minutes on foot) – Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art – (10 minutes on foot) – Rokubei for lunch – (7 minutes on foot) – Tanakaya Brewing – (1 minute on foot) – Patisserie Hirano – (15 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Station 16:28 – (Shinkansen) – 16:39 Nagano – Check in at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano – (20 minutes on foot, or take a local train to Gondo and then walk 10 minutes) – Azumaya for dinner – (back to hotel) – Bar APOLLO of Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Day 2: Nagano Station – (7 minutes by bus) – Zenkoji Temple – (7 minutes by bus) – MIDORI Nagano / Nagano Station 13:05 – (Shinkansen) – 13:36 Karuizawa Station

Option 1 (love nature): Karuizawa Station 14:00 – (bus) 14:23 Shiraito Waterfall 15:30 – (bus) – 15:53 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 18:51 – (Shinkansen) – 20:00 Tokyo Station

Option 2 (be sporty): Karuizawa Station 14:15 – (bus) – 14:35 Karuizawa Ice Park 17:02 – (bus) – 17:32 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 19:41 – (Shinkansen) – 20:52 Tokyo Station

IMG_2292

Day 1: Iiyama

Tokyo Station 7:52 – (Shinkansen) – 9:32 Iiyama Station

Located to the north of Nagano city, Iiyama is a compact small town reminiscent of rural Japan. Especially suitable for a walking tour.

Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio

NAGANO (1)

Iiyama Station – (8 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio

For over 350 years, craftsmen in Iiyama have been making the durable Uchiyama washi paper. Here you can try your hand at making washi and creating your one-of-a-kind postcard.

Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

NAGANO (14)

Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio – (15 minutes on foot) – Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

Based in Iiyama, Mayumi Takahashi seems to possess an innate ability to capture the essence of countryside life in the good old days. Once you step into the museum, you will be impressed by the dolls’ amusing facial expressions and thoughtfully designed details that recreate the heartwarming scenes occurring in everyday countryside life.

NAGANO (20)

Though it was the first time I visited the museum, I had a feeling I’ve seen these dolls somewhere sometime in my life. Maybe because they are so real that I had this déjà vu kind of feeling?

RokubeiJapanese traditional cuisine with a local twist

NAGANO (13)

Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art – (10 minutes on foot) – Rokubei

If trying local food is important to you when you travel, this is the place to be. Because of the harsh winter in Iiyama, people have been using plant fibers to replace wheat in making the local Tomikura soba, which gives the noodle a unique springy texture. Another local dish you can’t miss is Sasazushi (Sushi on bamboo grass), a local variation of sushi that has its root as portable food for troops of the famous warlord Uesugi Kenshin.

NAGANO (11)
Tomikura soba and Sasazushi
DSC_3382
Miyuki pork steak rice bowl

Tanakaya Brewing

NAGANO (27)

Rokubei for lunch – (7 minutes on foot) – Tanakaya Brewing

Delicious Japanese sake made with local ingredients and by local employees. Come and sample the sake of your choice.

Patisserie Hirano

DSC_3682

Tanakaya Brewing – (1 minute on foot) – Patisserie Hirano

NAGANO (26)

The patisserie offers a wide selection of cakes and pastries at reasonable prices, and is highly popular among local people and tourists. We had coffee with an apple tart, a matcha mousse cake, and a sakura swiss roll cake. After you tried its cakes, you will have no doubt why it’s a neighborhood mainstay.

Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

NAGANO (6)

Patisserie Hirano – (15 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Station 16:28 – (Shinkansen) – 16:39 Nagano – Check in at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

After exploring Iiyama, we headed to Nagano, the capital city of Nagano Prefecture. Tonight we stayed at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano, a modern city hotel boasts superb location (directly connected to Nagano Station), comfy guest rooms, and an elegant bar offering creative cocktails and charming night view. Certainly it is an ideal base to explore Nagano.

Azumaya – Treat yourself to a slice of Japanese high life

DSC_2937

Hotel Metropolitan Nagano – (20 minutes on foot, or take a local train to Gondo and then walk 10 minutes) – Azumaya

This was the place we had dinner in Nagano city. Hiding in an unassuming alley near Zenkoji Temple, Azumaya is a fine dining Japanese restaurant whose buildings are renovated from Japanese traditional storehouses with almost 200 years of history. Local delicacies served are as pretty as pieces of art. Recommended for those want to experience Japanese hospitality.

NAGANO (23)

Bar APOLLO of Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

NAGANO (21)

The night is long and we are not yet ready to call it a night! Bar APOLLO is located in the top floor of the hotel and offers creative cocktails and great night views. My personal favorite is the APOLLO cocktail mixing apple cidre, apple juice, and peach liquor.

Day 2: Zenkoji Temple and Karuizawa

Zenkoji Temple – Discover the mysteries of National Treasure

NAGANO (8)

Nagano Station – (7 minutes by bus) – Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji Temple is an ancient Buddhist temple worshipped by many generations. The Hondo (Main Hall) is designated as National Treasure, and also the third largest wooden structure in Japan.

NAGANO (2)
The streets leading up to the temple are lined with souvenir shops, stylish cafes and soba restaurants.

NAGANO (9)

Mystery 1: The Buddha enshrined here is said to be the oldest in Japan and no one has ever been allowed to see it. Thus it is known as the “Secret Buddha”.

NAGANO (10)

Mystery 2: Go down into the crypt passage and search for the “key to the paradise” in absolute darkness. The key to finding it is to keep faith and just move forward.

NAGANO (17)

Mystery 3: Find the plaque under the eaves of the Sanmon Gate and take a close look at the first character (善). It is stylized to look like the face of a cow due to an old Japanese saying that goes “following a cow to Zenkoji”.

Mystery 4: Take a look again. Can you find 5 pigeon figures hiding among the strokes of the three characters?

NAGANO (18)

Free guided tours are available in several foreign languages. Check out the details at http://www.zenkoji.jp/ENGLISH/guide/

Nagano Station & MIDORI Nagano – Everything under one roof

NAGANO (7)

NAGANO (22)

Zenkoji Temple – (7 minutes by bus) – Nagano Station / MIDORI Nagano

Nagano Station is not only a perfect gateway to exploring Nagano, it is also a shopping haven as well! You can get everything you need from souvenirs to a taste of local gourmet at MIDORI Nagano without stepping out of the station building. Since Nagano is most famous for its honey sweet apple, why not choose something from an array of souvenir snacks made from Nagano’s apple?

Karuizawa

Nagano Station 13:05 – (Shinkansen) – 13:36 Karuizawa Station

Before going back to Tokyo, we made a stop at Karuizawa, and propose you the following two options for a quick of the famous resort. Both options require travelling on bus. While you can follow our itinerary listed here, make sure to check the latest bus schedule (Japanese only) to ensure a smooth trip.

Option 1: Shiraito Waterfall – Artful and graceful

NAGANO (3)

Karuizawa Station 14:00 – (bus) 14:23 Shiraito Waterfall

Standing 3 meters high and 70 meters wide, the crescent-shaped Shiraito Waterfall is named so because the water off the rock surface looks like hundreds of white threads (shiraito) are flowing down. The waterfall is refreshingly cool in summer and ever flowing in winter because geothermal heat keeps the water temperature at about 11 degree Celsius even in wintertime.

Option 2: Karuizawa Ice Park – Play chess on ice

NAGANO (5)

Karuizawa Station 14:15 – (bus) – 14:35 Karuizawa Ice Park

Checkmate! No, we are not talking about moving chess pieces on a chessboard but sliding stones on a sheet of ice. This is curling, a unique winter sport in which two teams take turn sliding stones towards a circular target. A great deal of strategy is involved, that’s why curling is often called “chess on ice”. Here at Karuizawa Ice Park, the curling venue for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, basic curling lessons are offered all year round for anyone interested in learning the game. Come and give the unique sport a shot. You will fell like an Olympian! After you have experienced curling, you may try ice skating before the next bus comes.

NAGANO (24)

Information: 2,380 yen per person for a 60-minute curling lesson. Inquiry and reservation by email: [email protected]

Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza – Indulge in a shopping spree before going back to Tokyo!

NAGANO (4)

If you followed option 1: Shiraito Waterfall 15:30 – (bus) – 15:53 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 18:51 – (Shinkansen) – 20:00 Tokyo Station

If you followed option 2: Karuizawa Ice Park 17:02 – (bus) – 17:32 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 19:41 – (Shinkansen) – 20:52 Tokyo Station

NAGANO (25)

Located right next to JR Karuizawa Station, Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is a shopping heaven less than 90 minutes away from Tokyo. Find outlet shops of overseas designer brands and local specialty food and products at this huge shopping mall set among acres of grassland. If you are looking for distinctive souvenirs to bring home, head to the Souvenir Court for a great selection of local delicacies of Nagano. And of course tax-free shopping is available here!

Key takeaways

Boasting the highest life expectancy of all 47 prefectures in Japan, people in Nagano seem to exude friendly warmth as naturally as the sun gives out heat. In this article we have shown you an itinerary covering top tourist attractions and places off the beaten tracks. The rest is up to you to experience!

Previous in the series:

Overnight trip from Tokyo- (1) Countryside Gunma and Snow Country Niigata

Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku – Part Ⅱ Shirakami Sanchi

Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku - Part II

Precious heritages of the Shirakami Sanchi

A number of beech forests around the world have lost much of their ecological diversity due to the formation of continental glaciers some two million years ago; however, the beech forests and primeval plant population survive in Japan because continental glaciation did not occur here. Moreover,the Japanese didn’t cut down beech trees for centuries because they served little purpose to them.

After World War II however, Japan’s beech forests were logged gradually. This situation threatened wildlife habitats, so an active conservation movement to preserve the forests was begun. This movement garnered so much attention from the world that in 1993, UNESCO recognised the value of beech forests and declared the 16,971 ha area of Shirakami Sanchi as a World Natural Heritage Site. Today,the precious beech forests of Shirakami Sanchi remain almost entirely undisturbed.

shirakami-sanchi

This is an area of wilderness with no access trails or man-made facilities,and more than half of the heritage site comprises of deep valleys with steep slopes. Numerous kinds of plants grow in this precious beech forest, while various species of animals call this place home, despite the high altitude. Having escaped glaciation, these 8,000 year-old forests are home to 500 plant species that have been identified as those generally seen in alpine and sub-alpine zones, of which 108 have specially protected status.

There are threatened and semi-endemic species present, such as Ranzania japonica, Hylotelephium tsugaruense, and Tipularia japonica.

Ranzania_japonica_4
Ranzania japonica

The beech forests have played a vital role in the ecosystem for thousands of years. All mammals found in the Tohoku region exist in Shirakami Sanchi, including the black bear and Japanese serow. There are 87 bird species currently identified in the area, including the Golden eagle and Hodgson’s hawk eagle. There is also a particularly rich insect population, with 2,212 recorded species.

Black bear and Japanese serow
Black bear and Japanese serow

Read also : World Heritage (1): Shirakami Sanchi

The outstanding beauty of Juniko

Juniko
Juniko

Juniko, which literally means “twelve lakes,” consists of 33 lakes and ponds scattered across a 780 ha area of beech forests in Shirakami Sanchi. These were created by a big earthquake of about 300 years ago. It is said the name Juniko comes from the fact that the twelve lakes can be seen from the top of a mountain.

gr16_07_R_R

Aoike Pond, part of Lake Juniko, is known for its inky-blue beauty and clarity. The fallen beech trees lurking beneath the surface appear as ever-changing illusions. Oike, the largest of all ponds, is made up of two (eastern and western) ponds and Wakitsubo Pond is designated as one of the best water sources in Aomori Prefecture. Other drawing points here include 0’kuzure and the Nihon Canyon, a breathtaking gorge with steep, rugged rocks that are huge and dynamic.

Nihon_Kyanion_R

Please note that if you prefer touring all 33 ponds,it will take a full day and you would need a car. However, visiting the major ponds and forest area along the hiking trail will take just about an hour.

“Resort Shirakami” train

kumageratrainIf you travel to Tohoku, riding a train on the Gono Line is recommended. The line, stretching 147.2 km, was first opened in 1908 between Noshiro (now Higashi Noshiro) and Noshiro City (now Noshiro) as a branch of Japan National Railways’ Ou mainline. In 1936, the railway line fully opened when the final section between Mutsu Iwasaki and Fukaura was completed. Today, the railway line is known for providing one of the most scenic views in Japan.

Debuting in 1997 at the same time as the Akita Shinkansen, the Resort Shirakami is a train that operates in three configurations, named the Aoike, the Buna and the Kumagera. These limited express trains run from Akita along the Gono Line to Hirosaki, and then turn around before continuing northward along the Ou Line to Aomori. The train trip offers alluring vistas of the Japan Sea and the Shirakami Sanchi highlands, as well as expansive panoramas of the Tsugaru Plain. Specialty bentos (lunch boxes) are popular among passengers and if you are lucky, there will be local events taking place. You can also stopover to enjoy a soak in an onsen.

As the train trip is popular, seats may easily be sold out during some periods of the season, thus making a reservation in advance is recommended.

More information for Resort Shirakami or Gono Line:
https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/joyful/shirakami.html

More attractions around Shirakami Sanchi

There are a lot more attractions to draw tourists along the Gono Line.

Ajigasawa, situated on the west coast of Aomori Prefecture, connects the Sea of Japan in the north and Shirakami Sanchi. There are rich beech forests along the headwaters of Akaishi and Nakamura rivers to provide a freshening breeze. The town has highly-reputed onsen facilities and fried squid is a popular local food there.

Kikusui-breweryNoshiro in Akita Prefecture has a unique background, known as the “the town of basketball,” thanks to the success of the Noshiro Kogyo High School team. You will see a hoop at Noshiro Station. The town is also famous for its pine forest, which is one of the largest in the country. For sake lovers, there is a Kikusui Brewery that uses an old railroad tunnel.

How to get to Aomori

japanmap AomoriTo Shirakami Sanchi
It is a 5-hour train ride from Tokyo via Hachinohe (Tohoku Shinkansen Line) to Hirosaki Station on the JR Tohoku Line, and a 50min. bus ride from Hirosaki Bus Terminal to Tashiro. Alternatively, it’s 3 hr 55min. from Tokyo to Akita by Akita Shinkansen Line, then 50min. from Akita to Higashi-Noshiro station by JR Ou Line, and 33min. from Higashi-Noshiro to Akita Shirakami by JR Gono Line.

To Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Center
A 5min. walk from Nishimeya Murayakubamae bus stop. The Nishimeya Murayakubamae bus stop is approx. 50min. by Konan bus (to Tashiro) from the Hirosaki Bus Terminal near the JR Hirosaki Station.

To Lake Juniko
From the JR Juniko Station on Gono Line,it’s a 15min. ride by Konan bus bound for Juniko. The Juniko Yogyojo bus stop is in front of the Juniko Visitor center.

Special thanks to: APTINET AOMORI Prefectural Government, JR East, and JNTO

Discover the beauty of Northern Tohoku – Part I Aomori

Discover the beauty of Nothern Tohoku

The best way to travel to the Tohoku region is to take advantage of the Shinkansen (bullet train). It will take just 3 hours and 20 minutes from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori station in Aomori prefecture, which is best known for its marvellous Nebuta Festival, one of the Japan’s most famous and beloved festivals. It also has distinct cultures rooted in local communities, as well as an abundance of seafood and sansai (mountain vegetables). It is also an all-season resort: in spring, beautiful cherry blossoms bloom; in summer, verdant forests and lakes are found; in fall, leaves turn brilliant red or yellow; and in winter, snow blankets towns and mountains ranges.

Majestic nature and Exciting Festival

The northernmost prefecture on Honshu island, Aomori is endowed with abundant nature, including the well-known Mt. Hakkoda, Lake Towada, a large dual crater lake surrounded by beech forest with wild animals, and Oirase Stream, a striking mountain stream with over a dozen waterfalls. Also, the Shirakami-Sanchi (Shirakami Mountains), a World Natural Heritage site, is spread across 130,000 hectares on the border between Aomori and Akita prefectures.

Facing both the Japan Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Aomori is blessed with various seafood which never fails to draw gourmands. Its most popular attraction is the Nebuta Festival, which brings in about 3 million visitors each year. For history enthusiasts, the Sannai-Maruyama Ruins – the largest archeological site of the Jomon Period (about 10,500-300 BC) – is a recommended destination.

sannai-maruyamaSannai-Maruyama Ruins

cooltrekoirase5Oirase Stream

Things to do in Aomori

Enjoy spectacular view of rich nature

Aomori has a number of tourist spots, including outstanding natural sites such as Mt. Hakkoda and Lake Towada. Roads for buses and cars, as well as climbing routes and paths have been improved in recent years. Mountain cable cars are built so that children and the elderly can explore them too. However, note that it is a heavy snowfall area and you need to wear suitable winter clothing.

hakkodaMt. Hakkoda

Experience the tradition through festivals

Nebuta Festivals are celebrated in several northern regions, mainly in Aomori prefecture. The Aomori Nebuta Festival, which is celebrated annually from August 2-7, is the most recognised. Over 20 gigantic three-dimensional Nebuta (papier-mache dolls) depict ancient warriors, legendary creatures or Kabuki characters that illuminate the night with bright colours. Today, the Nebuta floats are made of a wood base,carefully covered with Japanese paper and lit from the inside with hundreds of light bulbs. Quite a few spirited dancers (called “haneto”) in native Nebuta costumes, surround the floats and dance to the tune of flutes and beating of drums.

For those who missed the Aomori Nebuta Festival, there is an exhibition hall, Neputa No Yakata, that displays three floats all year around in Goshogawara city. Situated 25km west of Aomori city, Goshogawara is another site of the Nebuta Festival – this one is called “Neputa.” It is said that the name came from the local direct “neputai,” which literally means “sleepy,” and the festival itself is a “sleepless festival” that prays for safety and a good harvest.
The 3 displayed Neputa, at 22m high and weighing of 16 tons, will be moved for 1.5km around the city from August 4-8. There is also a studio where visitors can see the work in progress and have a hands-on experience. Visit the official website (in Japanese) at www.tachineputa.jp.

In Hirosaki city, a central part of Tsugaru district, crowd-pleasing events include the Hirosaki Neputa Festival (characterised by 60 small and large fan-shaped floats) and Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival. Throughout the year, there are several flower festivals held in different cities throughout Aomori.

nebutaAomori Nebuta Festival
P1070284-760x507
m_105215_R

Where is the most famous Onsen in Aomori?

There are a number of onsen (hot springs) with good reputation and high spring quality in Aomori. Koganesaki Furofushi Onsen is one of the most popular and is often featured in magazines and TV programs. Its name “furofushi” means “immortality” in Japanese. Bathers can see the wild waves of the Japan Sea while soaking in their outdoor spa, with a view of the distant horizon and a splendid sunset. For more information about the onsen, please visit www.furofushi.com.

hot-springKoganesaki Furofushi hot spring

Taste the season’s best

Enjoying local delicacies is a must during your journey. Aomori is known for its abundance and high quality seafood. Ohma tuna, one of the best grade tunas, is caught at Ohma Port facing the Tsugaru Strait that connects the Japan Sea with the Pacific Ocean. These tunas feed on fresh Pacific sauries, sardines and squids, and are sold almost exclusively to high-end sushi restaurants. Other seafood like squids and scallops caught in adjacent sea are also tasty.

Aomori Prefecture is Japan’s largest apple producer – there are approximately 60 kinds of apple varieties, thanks to its significant difference in temperature and improved cultivation methods,which are shipped seasonally. You can try apple picking in several farms, but there is a charge.

kaisen-donhotate

How to get to Aomori

From Tokyo to Aomori
From JR Tokyo station, take the Tohoku Shinkansen (Northern Shinkansen) “Hayate” to Shin Aomori station. Hayate is the fastest train category on the Tohoku Shinkansen and it takes 3 hours 20 minutes to there.

Abashiri Ice Breaker Cruise

Abashiri is a major tourist destination in winter. Its shores by the Okhotsk sea are the southernmost point where the ocean freezes.

Ice creuise2_R

icebreaker cruiseOne of the most popular attraction is the Drift Ice Sightseeing Icebreaking Ship Aurora that takes passengers out amid the outstanding whiteness of the ice. Departing from Abashiri Port, a highlight of the trip is when blocks of ice strike the bottom of the boat and cause its entire body to shake as the Aurora ship proceeds at a constant speed of 3 knots. But don’t worry! The boat is very safe and sturdy, and the sailing is overall very smooth.

ice-breaker-cruise2_R
ice-breaker-cruise_R
ice-breaker-cruise4_R

Be astounded by the sight of drift ice stretching across the ocean horizon and see the ice shift and churn while being greeted by sea birds and seals. Recommended for all nature and scenery lovers.

Seagull resting on the ice
Seagull resting on the ice
Seagull (Umineko)
Seagull (Umineko)
Black-tailed gull (Kamome)
Black-tailed gull (Kamome)

The 491-ton, 3,000-horsepower ship usually operates from late January to March. Hope for fine weather as the ships do not sail when the weather is bad.

[ Information ]
Address: Minami 3, Higashi 4-5-1, Abashiri city, Hokkaido
Fare: 3,300yen (Booking required)
Phone: 0152-43-6000
Web: ms-aurora.com/abashiri/en/

 

Hokkaido By Rail and Car: Day 3 – Kamikawa, Sounkyo

Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island, is also referred to as the “The Big Land in the North” by the locals. Blessed with picturesque nature and bounty from the sea and land, it is a favorite getaway destination for the Japanese and tourists alike. WAttention flew in to Sapporo and did a 5D4N rail and rental car tour through the big land. Follow our trip and train details here!  

IMG_5645
L’EX Okhotsk No.2

Day 3:
7:21 Board the L’EX Okhotsk from Kamikawa Station
9:41 Arrive Kamikawa Station

BEAR PARK AND ICE PAVILION

sounkyo
Feed the bears and experience minus 21 degrees all in one venue!

Bears roam freely on some mountains in Hokkaido, but you don’t have to head to the deep forests to see one. In fact, you can see 12 huge bears at the Asahikawa Bear Park at the Daisetsu Mori-no-Garden and watch how they try to charm you for cookies (provided by the park). After that, find out why the bears decide to hibernate in the Hokkaido winters by entering the Ice Pavilion, literally the coolest entertainment place in Japan with temperatures going below minus degrees Celsius.
Around 15 minutes by car from the station.

LUNCH @ FRATELLO DI MIKUNI

mikuni
Set lunch at Mikuni, a fine dining restaurant by Mikuni Kiyomi

Within walking distance from the Daisetsu Mori-no-Garden, is a fine dining restaurant with a view of the Daisetsuzan Mountain Valley, run by renowned chef, Mikuni Kiyomi, who is also known as the Food Ambassador of Hokkaido.  Enjoy the tastiest food of the season here at prices that won’t break the bank!

KURODAKE ROPEWAY 

????????????????????????????????????
Autumn foliage from the ropeway

Mt. Kurodake is the highest peak in the Daisetsuzan National Park at 1,984m and is easily accessible by ropeway which leads to the 5th Station halfway up to the peak. From there, one can take a chairlift further up to the 7th Station. The view of the carpet of autumn foliage on the dramatic mountain ranges is simply stunning.
Around 30 minutes by car from Fratello Di Mikuni.

GINGA WATERFALL AND RYUSEI WATERFALL

sounkyo

Two minutes’ drive from the ropeway are two waterfalls around 80m high, with water that comes from melted mountain snow. Ginga (silver river)  is meant to be a “female” waterfall for the way it falls in several strands and Ryusei (meteor) is thought to be a “male” waterfall for its powerful straight stream.

SOUNKYO ONSEN

露天風呂06

What better way to end the day than to soak in an outdoor hot spring, with autumn foliage and the background soundtrack of the gushing river?

dinner

 

And the onsen experience of course wouldn’t be complete without a kaiseki meal featuring foods of the season such as river fish!

DAY 4 brings us to Furano!

Here’s the rest of the series:
Hokkaido By Rail & Car: Day 1,2 – Sapporo, Lake Toyako
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 4: Biei and Furano
Hokkaido By Rail and Car Day 5 : Feasting at Furano

World Heritage (5): Shirakawa-go & Gokayama

shirakawago

Shirakawa-go & Gokayama: Fairy tale-like farmhouse villages 

Like a scene straight out of a fairy tale, the twinkling towns of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama possess a magical beauty that moves with the seasons.

l1-016
Ogimachi village, the largest village in Shirakawago

Surrounded by steep rugged mountains and isolated along the Shogawa River, the quaint village communities of Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go (Gifu Prefecture), and Ainokura and Suganuma in Gokayama (Toyama Prefecture) were registered as cultural world heritage sites in 1995. Known particularly for their steep-roofed gassho-style houses which design reduces snow buildup, 88 of these farmhouses within the three villages are listed as World Heritage sites.

gokayama03

Gassho literally means “praying hands”, as the slanted roofs so resemble. And like an answered prayer, this creative architecture helped these villages dating back to the 11th century to survive the unique environmental challenges through the present. As only .04% of the land in this area is cultivatable, residents relied on mulberry trees, silkworms, and gunpowder manufacturing for their livelihood.

白川郷にある合掌造りの民家の屋根裏です

These four-story buildings not only allowed for warm storage of silkworm beds and mulberry leaves on the upper floors, but could sustain massive snowfall with its sharp-angled roofing. As a result, you won’t find this picturesque townscape anywhere else in Japan. Such resourcefulness is what earned it its UNESCO registration, even though the oldest original house is but a few hundred years old.

l2-058

While an open-air museum and several of these houses are available for touring, the panoramic views from the Ogimachi Castle platform or Tenshukaku platform in Ogimachi village offer the most breathtaking scenery. With re-thatching of the roofs in the spring, vast green forestry in the summer, and a water-spraying exercise in the fall, this area’s seasonal events extend far beyond its iconic winter illumination.

l1-012
The water-spraying exercise held on the last Sunday in Oct. for these highly flammable gassho-style houses.

So for a setting that mixes fantasy world with folk town, you couldn’t pray for a better site to visit than here.

gokayama

Access:
Shirakawa-go: A 50-min express bus ride (Nohi Bus) from JR Takayama Station.
Gokayama: A  40 min bus ride (Kaetsunou Bus) from JR Johana Station.

Picturesque Japan: Unkai Terrace

Heaven in Hokkaido

Tokyo’s towering skyscrapers – not to forget about the Tokyo Skytree – might take you up high in the sky, but Hokkaido’s nature takes you above the clouds. A 13 minute gondola ride in Tomamu goes up to an altitude of 1,088 meters, which is just high enough to surpass the clouds.

tomamuA-016
The Unkai Terrace is located near the endpoint of this gondola, and trust me, you will understand why this terrace was named Unkai, or “sea of clouds”.

雲海テラス2009-1
Tomamu has been a popular ski resort since the early eighties. However, the amazing summer view remained a secret only known by the gondola staff until a summer service started in 2005.

kisetu
Tomamu in summer and winter

From the Unkai Terrace, you can see one of Hokkaido’s most stunning views, but only if it’s your day. The endless sea of rolling clouds that conjure the illusion of heaven can only be seen if the right amount of clouds appear at the right time of the day.

DSC_4161 のコピー

As Tomamu is not easy to reach and the gondola and terrace are only open from 4:30 am to 8 am and from 11 am to 2 pm, staying at Hoshino Resort is highly recommended.
Hoshino Resort Tomamu consists of The Tower and Risonare Tomamu, and both feel just as close to heaven as the Unkai Terrace itself!

resort

If you are in luck and get to see this phenomenon of heaven in Hokkaido, sitting down on the terrace with an “Unkai Coffee” while gazing at the clouds like a lookout staring at the sea from a crow’s nest might very well become the highlight of your trip to Hokkaido, or even to Japan in general!

coffee

Next in this series: Picturesque Japan: The Oki Islands

Spot information

Name: Unkai Terrace
Address: Nakatomamu, Shimukappu-mura Yufutsu-gun, Hokkaido
Access: From Tomamu Station (JR Hokkaido), call for a pickup bus with the telephone on platform 2 that takes you to the resorts.
Period: From May 16 to October 13 (check the website for time schedules)
Gondola Round Trip Fares: 1,900 yen (adults) 1,200 yen (children)
Official Information: http://www.snowtomamu.jp/unkai_terrace/index_en.html