[From July Issue 2013]
Facing the Sea of Japan, Akita Prefecture is located in the Tohoku region of Honshu Island. Because daylight hours are shorter there than in other prefectures, there are many beautiful women with fair skin; the expression, “Akita bijin,” refers to attractive women from Akita. In Yuzawa City, a legend persists about the incredible beauty of ninth century poet, ONO no Komachi.
Hachiko (Sir Hachi), the loyal dog who continued to wait at the train station for his dead master to return, is from Akita. Although the bronze statue of Hachi in front of Shibuya Station in Tokyo is famous, Odate City also has numerous monuments and plaques honoring Hachi. Recently, Akita was featured in the popular Korean drama series “Iris,” and an increasing number of tourists come to visit locations used for the show.
In Akita you can enjoy the changing seasons. In spring, you might want to visit Bukeyashiki-dori in Kakunodate, Semboku City. The avenue is lined with shidarezakura; these weeping cherry trees are often seen in tourism posters. It is said that these trees grew from three seedlings that were part of the trousseau of a Kyoto noblewoman 350 years ago; now 153 trees line the avenue. In Kakunodate you can also find cherry trees growing for about two kilometers alongside the Hinokinai-gawa River.
A forest of beech trees formed about 8,000 years ago, ranging from the north of Akita Prefecture to Aomori Prefecture, covers the Shirakami Mountains. The mountains were designated as a World Natural Heritage site in 1993. The symbol of this area is a 400-year-old beech tree. Normally beech trees live for about 300 years, but this one has survived much longer than that. To better appreciate the scenery, a guided tour is recommended. There are some guides who speak English and Korean.
Besides Shirakami Mountains, there are numerous other mountains and waterfalls where it’s possible to go trekking. Shishigahana wetlands are a 40 minute walk along a trail from Nikaho City. Large patches of “choukai marimo” moss are worth a look. You can also see “mototaki fukuryuusui,” which is the sharp contrast between the rich green moss and white spray on the river bed, as well as “Agariko-daiou,” a deformed beech that is the thickest tree in Japan.
Yasuno-taki (Yasu Falls), located in Kita-Akita City, was designated as “one of the top 100 waterfalls in Japan.” There are many other small and large falls in this area. The Kazuno Forest Therapy Road in Kazuno City is paved with woodchips, making it easy to walk on. It’s come to be recognized as a therapeutic forest.
Akita has two large lakes. Straddling the border between Akita and Aomori prefectures, Lake Towada is known for its picturesque fresh green leaves and autumn foliage. At 423.4 meters, Lake Tazawa is the deepest lake in Japan, and its iconic landmark is a statue of Princess Tatsuko, who is believed to have been transformed into a lake goddess, as a result of her search for eternal youth and beauty.
Summer in Akita is short, but to make up for this, numerous festivals are held and people get quite fired up. Drawing over one million visitors each year, the Kanto Festival, held annually from August 3 to 6 in Akita City, is one of the three great festivals of the Tohoku region. Kanto poles, each with 46 lanterns hanging from them, are lifted up in the night sky by performers called “sashite.” The sight of more than 250 poles rising up all at once is spectacular.
Other festivals attracting huge crowds are Noshiro-yaku-tanabata, held in Noshiro City in early August and Hanawabayashi in Kazuno City on August 19 and 20. At either festival you can hear flutes and drums and see beautiful street stalls and lanterns lining the streets. The All Japan Fireworks Competition takes place on the fourth Sunday of every August. First-class pyro technicians from around the country compete to be the best in Japan.
In Akita, where it snows a lot, festivals and events are held to celebrate this fact. More than 100 kamakura (small snow houses) are constructed in Yokote City. This event has a 400 year history and is dedicated to the God of water. Inside the kamakura, it’s warm, and amazake (sweet sake) and rice cakes are served. Lamps are lit in numerous other small kamakura, illuminating the town.
Namahage is another winter event; it’s said that Namahage descends from the mountain once a year to get rid of evil and disease, bringing good fortune and a rich harvest. This god wears a demon mask and goes from house to house, yelling: “Are there any naughty kids? Are there any crybabies?”
Known for promoting beautiful skin, Akita has many hot spring resorts, but the most popular is Nyuutou Onsenkyou in Semboku City – a hot spring with its characteristic milky-white water. You can buy a yumeguri-chou (a card that allows you to use designated hot springs at a discounted price) and visit seven hot springs, enjoying the waters at each place. Kawarage Ooyutaki in Yuzawa City is a unique hot spring. The spring cascades down from a height of 20 meters into a pool that functions as a bathtub.
With a supply of clean water, Akita is particularly known for its delicious rice and sake. The Akitakomachi rice brand is sold across the country. Local dishes include: kiritanpo, which are pieces of pounded rice on skewers grilled over charcoal; inaniwa udon noodles; hatahata (sandfish); and shottsuru seasoning made from hatahata. Butter rice cakes and yokote yakisoba stir-fried noodles, which won a B-1 Grand Prix (local cuisine tournament), are also popular.
“Magewappa,” or bent wood, that uses the wood grain of Akita cedars to best effect, is a well-known local product. Other traditional crafts include: bouzaiku, crafted from the skin of cherry trees; and handmade Akita ginsen-zaiku accessories made from fine 0.2 millimeter thick silver threads. Kawatsura lacquer ware has an 800 year history, and there are about 200 lacquer ware stores lining the streets of Kawatsura-cho, Yuzawa City.
It takes approximately four hours to get to JR Akita Station from JR Tokyo Station on the Akita Shinkansen. From Haneda Airport in Tokyo, you can fly to Akita Airport in about one hour.