[From April Issue 2010]
Aomori Prefecture is located on the northernmost tip of Honshu Island, where the Mutsu-wan (bay) nestles between the eastern Shimokita, and western Tsugaru Peninsulas. It is a region blessedly surrounded by the abundant waters of the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan and the Tsugaru Kaikyo (Straits). The Aomori Nebuta Matsuri Festival held annually in August is a well-known festival. Currently only accessible via the Touhoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe station, the Shin-Aomori station is scheduled to open this December, enabling visitors to travel without transferring, directly from Tokyo station to Aomori City.
In Aomori City visitors can explore the Sannai Maruyama Site, Japan’s largest archeological dig that dates back to the Jomon Period (approximately 16,500 to 3,000 years ago). The full-scale excavation, which began in 1992, revealed that ancient residents lived communally in neighboring villages and regularly interacted with one another.
Findings considered between 4 ~ 5,500 years old reveal pit-house remains, grave sites, traces of larger buildings, Jomon-era clay pots, stone ware, clay figures, jewelry, jade and obsidian (volcanic glass) from far off regions. DNA analysis further revealed that chestnuts were also cultivated – a discovery which greatly changed the perception of Jomon-era culture.
Renown for its history, Aomori Prefecture is also known in the literary world as the birthplace of author DAZAI Osamu (1909~1948), whose works include “Shayo (The Setting Sun)” and “Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human).” Dazai, the youngest of eight surviving children, was born into a wealthy landowner family in Goshogawara City. Now, both his enthusiastic fans and the local citizens look after his home, which houses the Dazai Osamu Museum, or “Shayo Kan.” And more recently, Dazai’s work has attracted new fans through the comic book version of “Ningen Shikkaku” and the film adaptation of “Viyon no Tsuma (Villon’s Wife).”
Hirosaki is known for Mount Iwaki and Hirosaki Castle. Mount Iwaki, also referred to as “Tsugaru Fuji,” stands tall at 1,625 meters above sea level. At Hirosaki Castle, annual cherry blossoms bloom just in time for May’s Golden Week holidays (from the end of April to the beginning of May), making it a favorite viewing spot for visitors from all across the country.
The castle grounds, measuring 385, 200 square meters, were built during his reign of TSUGARU Nobuhira, daimyou (lord) of the Tsugaru Han (domain), and can hold more than 10 Tokyo Domes. The current tenshukaku, the castle’s tallest and most-central building with rooftop views, was rebuilt in 1811. Hirosaki Castle is one of last 12 remaining castles that have tenshukaku from the Edo period, along with the hori (moat) and ishigaki (stone walls).
Aomori prefecture also grows the most apples in Japan. The Tsugaru region around Hirosaki City, which is located in the Southwestern part of the prefecture, is the main apple-producing area. During typhoons it is common for apples to fall from the trees, with those that remain known as “unfailing apples” which some farmers sell to students preparing for exams.
Additionally, Aomori Prefecture is proud to have the “Shirakami Sanchi” (Mountains) designated as a UNESCO World Nature Heritage Site. Spreading over to its neighboring prefecture of Akita, it is one of the largest, primeval, beech tree forests in the world, and home to various precious flora and fauna, including black bears, Japanese Macaques, black woodpeckers, and golden eagles. All of Shirakami Sanchi, with its roaring waterfalls and beautiful landscape, is said to be a natural, living, outdoor museum, and as a Heritage Site designee, it is an invaluable and precious global asset.
Similar to Shirakami Sanchi, Towada Lake also adjoins Akita Prefecture. Surrounded by primeval forests, it is 378 meter deep, with 20 meters of underwater visibility. On its lakeshore stands the bronze statue of “Otome-no zou (maiden by the lake)” created by the poet and sculptor, TAKAMURA Kotaro.
Drained by the Oirase River, Towada Lake is such a popular spring and autumn tourist attraction, with its roughly 14 kilometer walkway, that there are often traffic jams getting to and from the area.
Another popular tourist destination is Mount Osorezan, located near Mutsu City, in the middle of the Shimokita Peninsula. According to Japanese tradition, “Dread Mountain,” where the smoky, sulfur smell always hangs in the air, is the gateway to Hell or the Pure Land, through which souls pass on their way to the underworld.
During the summer festival season, worshippers gather at Mount Osorezan from all over Japan to welcome back the itako (spiritual mediums), who return in the hopes of communicating with the departed. Popular itako usually have very long line ups. At Mount Osorezan, lodging at the temple is also available.
The three, spoken Aomori dialects are so distinct that sometimes people in Aomori prefecture can’t understand one another. Their dialects are all short. For example: asking “Ku?”, or saying “Ku.” or “Ke.” while similar sounding, all mean slightly different things: “Would you like to eat this?” “I want to eat it.” “(Go ahead and) eat it.” When Aomori people are interviewed on national television, sub-titles are sometimes included so that viewers can understand what is being said. Aomori Prefecture: pleasantly filled with unique surprises.
Text: HAMADA Miyako