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.
On New Year, people dressed as the Namahage and the chief of the village, visits the houses and practice a ritual, to repel bad spirit, but also to scare off lazy and misbehaving children. It is believed that any straw left on the ground, from the costume of the Namahage, will bring good luck to the one who keeps it.
In the evening we reach Akita town, the capital city of Akita prefecture. Inn Grantia Resort, the hotel we stay at was recommended to us because of its multitude of indoor onsen. With a population of circa 316,000, Akita is a nice little town with a lovely park, Senshu Park, a produce market and various museums.
The following day, on a rainy morning, we walk from the hotel through town to visit the park. Senshu Park was established on the site of the former Kubota Castle, built in 1603 by Satake Yoshibu, the first lord of the Akita Domain. At the end of the Edo period, the Castle Park was developed as a modern park and in 1984, a descendant of the Satake family, donated the park to the city of Akita, to become a public park.
The park hosts the Satake Historical Museum, where information about the Satake family can be found. Descendent from the Genji clan, a legendary Samurai clan, they were prosperous during the Middle Ages and became a daimyo, feudal lord, by the 16th century, giving them a lot of power. When the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) seized their land and consequently the annual income from it, the Satake family lost its power.
One of the most important artefacts in the museum is the black-lacquered armour set with deep-blue threads, which is believed to have been used by Satake Yoshishige, well known for being one of the bravest samurai in the eastern Japan.
One of the armours on display
The helmet from this armour is unusual as it represents a hairy caterpillar. Why did the owner choose a caterpillar? Although, the symbolism of the hairy caterpillar on the helmet is unclear, there are three probable hypotheses trying to explain its:
- A hairy caterpillar eats leaves (ha), which are homonymous with blades in Japanese, blades used for fighting.
- A hairy caterpillar never moves backwards, symbolising that the Satake family never retreats.
- Hairy caterpillar is pronounced kenshi, which sounds like Genji, the family name of the Satake ancestors.
The park also hosts the statue of Satake, not far from the Hachiman Akita Shrine, the Osumi Yagura Tower, which was part of the eight original watchtowers in the Kubota castle and the Main Gate of Kubota Castle called “Ichinomon”. All worth seeing.
Before leaving the park, we had the chance to see a Japanese Akita dog. These famous furry dogs, looking like teddy bears originate from the mountainous region of Akita prefecture is home. Originally these popular dogs have been bred for hunting and fighting.
These strong and very powerful dogs are now trained for police and guard work. In 1931 the Japanese government named the Akita dog a “natural monument”.
One of the major characteristics of Akita is its summer festival, called Kanto Matsuri, which is held every year, between 3 and 6 August, in hope for good harvest. The Kanto Matsuri is a big parade of skilled men balancing, in turn, a long bamboo pole (up to 12 m), displaying an array of paper lanterns.
The Akita Kanto Matsuri, the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri and the Sendai Tanabata are the three great summer events worth seeing in the Tohoku region. Unfortunately, this year (2020), the three festivals were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Day 3, KAKUNODATE
Leaving Akita behind, we drive to Kakunodate, a charming little village between Akita and Lake Tazana, famous for its cherry blossoms and samurai houses. The best time of the year to visit this former castle town is surely in spring, when all the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Walking along the Hinokinai River, under the weeping cherry trees makes it easy to imagine how if would be if we had come in spring.
It is said that the town has not changed much since 1620, apart from the loss of the castle.
We do not stay very long in Kakunodate. The first thing we do after having stopped by a street stand to buy a selection of candies made of peanuts or sesame, we go for lunch at a local udon restaurant – a restaurant selling thick noodles made of wheat. After a filling lunch, we wander around town to have a look at the traditional samurai houses all around.
I am then attracted by a shop, slightly hidden, away from the main street, displaying beautiful locally made handcraft from bowls, baskets, to scarves and jewellery. Everything inside the shop looks amazing, uncommon and unique. After a long while, I decide to buy a beautiful, soft, pink scarf, dyed from cherry petals. It will be my souvenir from this place.
Carrying on our journey inland, we stop halfway between Kakunodate and Morioka for an overnight stay close to another beautiful lake, Lake Tazawa, near Semboku. Apart from visiting the lake, I also wanted to climb Mount Iwate, before reaching Morioka, but after reading about it, I decided not to attempt the climb with children, as it is quite advanced. We planned to climb Mount Akita-Komagate the following day instead.
Lake Tazawa, located an hour west of Morioka, is one of my favourite lakes with Aoike. I am not sure which water is bluer, the one from Aoike or from Tazawa. The colour is so intense that the place looks like something from out of this world. So blue and crystal-clear at the same time. The lake is mesmerising not only because of the water colour, but also because of the atmosphere all around it: the fog, the quiet, the peacefulness, and most certainly the golden statue in the middle of it. It is the statue of Tatsuko, a young and very beautiful woman, who yearned to preserve her good looks and youth for eternity. The legend says that she prayed every night to Okura Kannon, a deity of mercy and compassion, and after many nights, her prayers were answered. The goddess told her that drinking the water from a nearby spring would make her keep her youth and beauty forever. However, Tatsuko so eager to remain young and beautiful drank until the spring ran dry. As a punishment, she was transformed into a dragon, fated to guard the lake for eternity.
Statue of Tatsuko
Day 4, MOUNT AKITA-KOMAGATAKE
The following day, we get up early to climb Mount Akita-Komagatake. Because the road up to the Mount is so windy, we cannot drive with our own car. There is only a bus that takes the climbers up to the eighth station, regularly throughout the day.
As we arrive at the 8th station, we make sure to check the departure times so that we do not miss the last bus. The weather is not great to say the least. It is rainy, cool and slightly windy. It is the rainy season after all. Because of the weather and the heavy fog surrounding us, we will take the 50 min trail to the Amida Ike, and not go all the way to the top of Mount Akita-Komagatake. I wonder if today we will see the beautiful scenery surrounding us. Similarly to Lake Tazawa, the thick fog and unbroken silence give a sense of mysteriousness or even spookiness to the place. Except that today, on top of that it is cold and humid.
Map Amida Lake
After a steady climb along a red dirt and stony path, across a thick and lush green vegetation, stopping every now and then to try to get a nice view from our surroundings – unsuccessfully, the fog is too present – we finally reach a vast stretch of grassland. A couple of wooden paths have been built to cross this flat part of the mountain. Now, while walking along the wooden path across the flat relief, we can fell the cold wind through our clothes. It is as if the wind has made this place its home and reigns here supreme, blowing at full blast. The children have decided to run through the plain until they reach the lake, Lake Amida. This is when it starts pouring down rain. In seconds, we are drenched. We accelerate to reach the shelter at the end of the lake as quickly as possible, to seek relief from the rain. To our surprise, it is a mere restroom, with a wooden door, hard to slide, and signs of caution towards bears.
View from the mountain
Instead of waiting for a more clement weather, we start our descent. With the rain pouring down on us, making the path slippery and uneven, our return is a lot tougher than our climb. Reaching the 8th station puts a smile on the children face and an even bigger one, when the bus arrives to take us back down. We are ultimately rewarded by a nice hot bath in the onsen at the bottom of the mountain. Wow, what a day! What an experience! We all learnt from this life lesson: always bring an extra coat…
Onsen at the bottom of Mount Akita-Komagatake