If you have been in Aomori Prefecture but not its capital city of the same name, you may imagine it has all the rural charm of its surroundings – choc-full of old wooden houses and historical monuments. But like me, you’d be surprised.
On a recent first visit, I found this nearly 300,000-strong political, economic and cultural center of the prefecture to be an island of modern architecture and pristinely paved streets. This, despite Aomori City’s long history of rule under rich and powerful feudal lords – with all the makings of an old city full of monuments and ancient temples.
Why? It turns out that about 90 percent of the town was destroyed during an Allied Forces bombing campaign in 1945. Most of the city was rebuilt during the postwar boom. Today, the city center, especially its bay area, is a model of urbanity, ideal for half-day city strolls and romantic evening walks along the beautifully lit-up boardwalk.
That’s not to say Aomori City doesn’t have its old-world rural charms. In fact, in many ways it has the best of both worlds.
Just 40 miles west of Misawa Air Base on the northern extremity of “mainland” Japan (Honshu), the city is known as the gateway to Hokkaido Island. Surrounded by orchards, it is also famed for its production of apples (446,000 tons annually) and related products as well as heavy snowfall (up to 60 inches a year), holding the nation’s record for both.
Some of Japan’s oldest ruins dating back more than 4,000 years can be seen just southwest of Aomori City. And the nation’s last railroad ferry, the Memorial Ship Hakkoda-maru, can be toured in its present form as a museum.
All this in a city sizable enough to sport an Aomori Agua Building, which offers eight floors of shopping, entertainment and more. Here are just a few things that make Aomori City truly worth a visit.
Aomori Prefecture Tourist Center (ASPAM)
Just a short walk from Aomori Station is a 250-foot pyramid-shaped building named ASPAM, or the Aomori Prefecture Tourist Center. This is the symbol of Aomori City; it was designed to resemble the letter A, for Aomori.
If you walk up to the observatory on the 13th floor you can enjoy panoramic vistas of the city center against the backdrop of the Hakkoda Mountain Range and Shimokita Peninsula, as well as Mutsu Bay.
On the second floor, a movie theater with a panorama screen showcases scenes of Aomori Prefecture’s natural beauty and the city’s famous Nebuta Festival. If you are lucky, you may see local musicians playing Tsugaru “jamisen,” a local traditional stringed instrument, at the performance space next to the theater.
On the first floor, there are various shops selling Aomori’s signature products, such as apples, sake, embroidery, kokeshi dolls and various woodwork and lacquer-ware goods.
ASPAM is an ideal place to start off your day-trip stroll in Aomori City.
Aomori Prefecture Tourist Center (ASPAM)
Hours: April-October, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; November-March, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: 800 yen ($8); high school students, 600 yen; elementary students 400 yen.
URL (Japanese): www.aomori-kanko.or.jp/other/inq.html
Nebuta House Warasse
Warasse is a unique building that houses a museum and civic center where you can take a close look at Aomori’s traditional “nebuta” lantern floats that are crafted for the festival of the same name.
This building’s Canadian architect designed it to mimic the rays of the sun filtering through the peaks of the Shirakami Mountains, a local UNESCO World Heritage site, according to Takashi Yoshioka, Warasse curator and head of operations.
One of the nation’s biggest summer festivals, the Nebuta Festival, is held Aug. 2-7 annually, and the centerpieces of the celebration are these nebuta. During the festival, more than 20 such lantern floats depicting human figures are paraded through the streets. These images are mainly modeled after historical kabuki characters. They are made of paper-mache over wood and wire frames, painted beautifully and lit up from inside.
Five lantern floats that were used during the previous festival are on display at Warasse. On the second floor, there is a museum where you can learn how this famous traditional art came to be, along with the materials and techniques used to make nebuta. There is also information about some of the great nebuta artists.
“Nebuta are very special to us because we grew up with the festival, which I feel is indispensable in forming the identities and character of the Aomori people,” Yoshioka said. “We are proud of this art form and the Nebuta Festival. Even if we live in far off remote areas, we always come back here to see it in the summertime.”
The reddish-yellow glow of nebuta in the dimly lit museum creates a nostalgic atmosphere that enables even someone who has not yet experienced the festival to understand this sentiment.
Nebuta House Warasse
Hours: May-August, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; September-April, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Admission: 600 yen ($6); high school students, 450 yen; middle and elementary school, 250 yen.
URL (Japanese): www.nebuta.jp/warasse
Located next to Nebuta House Warasse, A-Factory houses a huge apple processing factory that produces apple juice and sparkling cider with huge stainless steel pipes, pots and tanks. You can actually watch Aomori-grown apples being processed into various beverages through windows here, and even sample some of these products.
There are shops selling apple juice and cider with nearby eating facilities were customers can try them. The terrace seats offer a great view of Mutsu Gulf and Bay Bridge. Be sure to drop by the sushi bar Kuromaguro, which offers high-quality sushi with local blue-fin tuna at reasonable prices. I highly recommend the Honmaguro Don (bluefin tuna ball) for 1,260 yen ($12.60). You’ll be glad you tried it.
Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
URL (Japanese): www.jre-abc.com/a-factory
Memorial Ship Hakkoda-maru
Seikan Renrakusen, the Aomori-Hakodate railway ferry, once played an important role in connecting Japan’s main island of Honshu with Hokkaido Island by rail via Amori and Hakodate stations.
It was the only thoroughfare between the two islands from 1908 to 1988, when service discontinued after the Seikan Tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait was completed.
Memorial Ship Hakkoda-maru is the last railroad ferry. The 24 year-old ship was remodeled and permanently berthed at Aomori Port to serve as Japan’s first railroad ferry museum.
Exhibits onboard detail the history of the ship and the time period of rail ferry service. In the ship’s hull are railroad tracks that could easily fit dozens of train cars. A mechanical drawbridge was used to access to the ship’s hull from the outside.
There are even some train cars on display. You can view the control room and the top deck of the ship, as well.
Memorial Ship Hakkoda-maru
Hours: 9 a.m.- 7 p.m.
Admission: 500 yen ($5); high and middle school students, 300 yen: elementary students 100 yen.
URL: (Japanese) www7.ocn.ne.jp/~hakkouda/hakkoudamarutop.html
Numerous prehistoric ruins dating back to Jomon Period (10000 BC – 300 BC) show that Aomori Prefecture has been settled extensively since prehistoric times. Special Historic Site Sannai-Maruyama, southwest of Aomori City, is the largest.
Many pit-dwellings, pillar-supported buildings, stone tools, wooden objects, bones and other ancient artifacts have been discovered at this site, which is currently under consideration for World Heritage inscription.
“This site existed for 1,500 years between 5500 and 4000 years ago,” said Yasuyuki Iwata, of Aomori Prefecture cultural properties protection division. “There are no other settlements that were active for such a long period of time.”
Sanmaru Museum showcases various excavated clay dolls, pottery and other artifacts. And at Jomon Jiyukan workshop, you can experience the Jomon Period lifestyle by creating clay figures, pottery and pouches in traditional ways.
The main attraction is a large pillar-supported building that was reconstructed as a three-story building with 4.2-meter-wide floors that fit the distance between the pillars. The roof has not been reconstructed since there are several possible theories as to its form.
“Some says it was used as lighthouse, some says it was an observation platform, and others say it was a kind of religious monument,” Iwata said. He added that the dwellers were ancestors of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido.
It takes about an hour to tour the site, and English-speaking volunteers are on hand to answer questions. It’s a rare opportunity to step back in time more than 5,000 years ago.
Special historic site Sannai-Maruyama Site
Hours: June-September 9 a.m.-6 p.m., October-May 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
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