Ever since childhood, I would spend time nearly every year vacationing in northern Michigan… There was something magical about dense forests of birch trees with dappled sunlight, sunlight glittering like jewels on Lake Michigan, the reverent hush after a snowfall. For the last 10 years, I lived in Texas, where we had none of the above. Instead, the landscape was flat, dry, and arid. There were no beloved birch trees… No forests of any type, really except for scrubby mesquite and cedar.
Despite having lived in Japan for three years, I had never ventured further north than Tochigi. Last year, when I became involved with Japanese men’s rhythmic gymnastics ;(男子新体操) and was researching for several articles I published, I made many new friends from Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Japan’s main island. Perhaps it was the similarity to my beloved Michigan: dramatic coastline, dense forests, long cold snowy winters… I wanted to know what made this place so special that it sparks so much creativity in my friends. Several of my current and former students are from Aomori (Aomori and Hachinohe), and I would eagerly ask them for suggestions on things to see and do.
Around the same time that I met my new friends from Aomori, I also became fascinated by the local festival, Nebuta, in which giant wood and paper floats are paraded through the streets.
I decided last year that I would visit Hirosaki (弘前) for my birthday in order to visit their cherry blossom festival, which is commonly considered one of the best in Japan. Because of the northern latitude and cold winters, cherry blossoms bloom about one month later in Aomori.
So I eagerly made my hotel reservation on January 1, the first day it was possible to make a reservation for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Trying to predict the exact opening and full bloom dates is an inexact science… Weather, cold snaps, rain, all have an effect on when blossoms bloom and how long they stay on the tree. About one month before my trip, I started seriously stressing out as all of the forecast predicted a later than normal bloom. I tried without success to change my hotel reservations to the following weekend, but everything was booked solid.
However, this spring has been much warmer than normal, and the same was true up north; the cherry blossoms actually bloomed about one week early, and it was full bloom on the day I arrived. At the last minute, I decided to add an extra day and night to my trip and spend the first day visiting Hachinohe 八戸 and Oirase Stream 奥入瀬渓流, taking the hotel shuttle bus to Aomori the following morning.
I set out on the very first train out of the station at 5:08 AM, with the goal of being in Hachinohe by 9:30. My shuttle bus to Oirase left at 1:30, which gave me a short window in which to sightsee. After doing some preliminary research, I decided to visit a part of the coast not commonly visited by tourists, Yodo no Matsubara.
As the train approached Tanesashikaigan station, the shockingly beautiful coastline flashed between the pine trees. I had forgotten how gorgeous it is to simply sit and watch the waves crash ashore.
I was thrilled to see that the cherry blossoms were in full bloom… Other than a few elderly Japanese hikers, I didn’t run into anyone else that morning, even though the weather was absolutely gorgeous, as was the view. I made it back to Hachinohe Station in time to grab an iced coffee and to upload the first of my photos.
At 1:30, the hotel bus picked us up for the 1.5 hour ride to Oirase. Located inside a national Park, this 14 km long river gorge features dramatic rock formations, rushing rapids, and over a dozen waterfalls. On this trip, I wouldn’t have time to hike the entire river, but did get to see some of the falls and rapids.
Upon check-in, I discovered my room had been upgraded to a beautiful Japanese style room overlooking the river, the first thing I did was to open my window to hear the thundering rapids outside. I use the hotel's free bus to start my hike fromKumoi Falls, heading back towards Ishigedo Rapids. As it was already after 4:30 PM, the light was fading fast, so I headed back for dinner.
Spring comes late to Aomori, and especially Towada; there was still evidence of recent snowfall on the ground and new leaves were just starting to unfurl. I am already making plans to spend a week in Towada / Hirosaki next summer to hike the entire Oirase Stream / Lake Towada / take Tsugaru Jamisen / Koginzashi embroidery classes!