OUR TRIP TO TOHOKU (JAPAN) - July 2020 – PART I
Tohoku is a remote region located northeast of Honshu, the main island of Japan, and is composed of the six following prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata and Fukushima. It is renowned for its remoteness, its breath-taking sceneries, its opulent nature including volcanoes, lakes, mountains but also for its harsh and lengthy winters.
The first streth of the trip
Once the border between the Japanese prefectures opened again, we decided to take a trip around the Tohoku region, where we live. We had already visited quite a few places including amongst others, Hakkoda Mountains, Hirosaki Castle and the Tachineputa Museum of Goshogawara, but we wanted to discover more of the region. This trip had already been planned for Golden Week in May, but unfortunately had to be cancelled due to the Corona situation. Now that the country was opening again, we took the chance to visit as many places as possible within the region.
Day 1, FUROFUSHI ONSEN
We live in Rokkasho-mura, a village of on the east coast of Japan, on the Pacific Ocean, in Aomori prefecture. We commence our journey from Rokkasho, driving west. Our first stop is Furofushi Onsen, further west from Fukaura, on the west coast of the region, the Japan Sea coast. Taking our time, we drive through Aomori, Goshogawara, Tsugaru and then, along the Senjojiki Coast. As soon as we reach the coast, we stop for a little while to get a feel for the place. We see people walking on the flat rocks by the seashore. We do the same. I can sense the fresh breeze coming from the sea, smell the salty air and, because the water is crystal-clear, I can see crabs, fish, urchins and orange starfish at the bottom of the sea.
Something to know about Japan is how important onsen are for Japanese people. It holds a huge place in Japanese culture. Visiting regional onsen over the weekend is one of Japanese favourite hobbies. Onsen are to be found everywhere in Japan. In hotels, in villages, next to temples, shrines but also in nature, near mountains, rivers and lakes. They are thermal public baths, still commonly used nowadays. Not just for tourists but by locals too. Each onsen has a specialty, either the location or the water properties are unusual.
Furofushi, one of the nicest onsen in Aomori prefecture, and famous for its baths outside right by the beach, facing the ocean, has both, the location and the water properties. Its water is murky, extremely hot water, and smells strongly of iron. As I step in the water, I understand why the hotel recommends staying only for 90 seconds. Indeed, the water is so hot and “potent”, that I cannot stay much longer.
Day 2, JUNIKO
After having spent a night in Furofushi and trying all the baths, including the indoor and outdoor baths, we carry on our journey to our next sightseeing: the Tsugaru Quasi-National Park Juniko, meaning 12 lakes (十二湖). Although there are in fact 33 lakes in this park, only twelve can be seen from a nearby mount, Mount Okuzure, hence the name. After a half an hour drive inland, we reach the place. The first I notice is how green the lake water is. In fact, all the lakes have this colour, amongst a lush green vegetation all around, is it usually is in the summer in this part of the world.
One of the green lakes in Juniko
As soon as we arrive, we see a group of photographers, some standing, some sitting, patiently pointing their zooms towards the same direction. We look in the distance, to check what they are looking at and after asking, we realise they are trying to capture an unusual bird: the ruddy kingfisher, with a bright orange beak as main characteristic. We try as best as we can to get a good shot of the bird too. Not an easy task.
As we step deeper in the forest, we hear a strange noise. What is that? Hmm, strange. It seems to be the sound of an injured animal. We can’t really see where it is coming from, so we carry on our walk and look for signs to Aoike (Ao, blue; Ike, pond). After climbing some stairs, it is finally there in front of us. The mesmerising blue pond. Incredible. It contrasts heavily with the jade green of all the other lakes. Here, the water is so blue and so crystal-clear that we can see the bottom of the 9 m deep small lake. Although very natural, the blue of the water seems artificially created, as if someone had added some colouring in the lake, rendering the place somehow mystical, magical. The reason why it is so blue is still unclear. An awe-inspiring place.
As we retrace our steps, we hear the same lamenting sound under the trees. This time it is louder. We hear crows next to it too. Suddenly, I can see. It is a bird of prey, which seems to be injured. It is trying to hide under a bush, no longer able to move, waiting for its end to come. It has accepted its fate and wishes to die in peace. However, the crows have decided otherwise, there are encircling it, greedily waiting for their dinner. Even though this is part of nature, I find it hard to be a spectator to this.
Leaving Juniko behind, we drive now south following the coast towards Oga Peninsula, in Akita, the next prefecture. This peninsula is not very big but hosts various sightseeing, including Godzilla Rock and the Namahage Museum, which houses a multitude of Namahage. According to the Oga folklore, Namahage are gods or mountain souls, who are believed to chase away bad luck and evil spirits with their loud voices and noisy actions.