Deep Experiences & Summer Fun in Aomori
Summer is one of the best times to visit Japan—especially the country’s unique and wild northern region, Tohoku! The area is chock-full of regional festivals with deep cultural roots, where the atmosphere is as hot as the weather, local areas are as cool as the coastal breezes, and the mountains and countryside are covered in picture-perfect greenery.
Aomori is the northernmost of Tohoku’s six prefectures, and an awesome place to take a deep dive into the unique experiences the region has to offer! Whether you want to get in touch with local culture, get lost in the crowds of some of the country’s most energetic and iconic festivals, or get off the beaten path, Aomori has you covered. The best part? Despite its location at the tip of Japan’s main island, it’s just a few hours from Tokyo by bullet train, which means getting there is a breeze!
Our first stop is the small city of Hachinohe. Since it’s not necessarily on the radar of many international visitors, it’s representative of the awesome destinations throughout Tohoku that are hidden in plain sight. Hachinohe is a great place to start when exploring Aomori Prefecture as a whole; not only is it a stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train network, but there’s a ton to see and do, especially in summer.
The biggest event of the summer is Hachinohe’s Sansha Taisai Festival. The festival spans a five-day period from July 31 to August 4 (during which there are a variety of public events to enjoy), and boasts a history of nearly 300 years! In fact, it was declared a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. Sansha Taisai sees the city come alive with all the trappings of Japanese festivals—residents and visitors dress in yukata and festival garb, stalls line the streets peddling local specialty foods and drinks—but what really sets it apart are the giant floats (sansha) paraded through the streets along with small, portable shrines called mikoshi.
The sansha are made by groups of residents in their spare time over several months, and have a unique flavor each year. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that they can expand and contract as the road widens or narrows—combine that with the energetic pulse of the traditional music played by people riding the floats, and you’re in for an unforgettable experience. The festivities culminate with a nighttime illumination of the floats outside of city hall, and the blazing floats are simply stunning.
Hachinohe is a port town that prides itself on the freshness, quality and quantity of the seafood it lands—particularly squid and a local variety of mackerel—so no trip is complete without checking out their local markets. It’s here that the city’s flavor really shines (literally). First, there’s the Mutsu Morning Market in the old heart of the city, where kind old ladies peddle seafood so fresh it’s practically still moving (at prices so low it seems like a mistake!).
Combine some choice morsels like tuna, mackerel and squid with rice and soup for a simple, healthy and supremely satisfying breakfast! If you’re hungry for more, the nearby Hasshoku shopping center is an amazing collection of seafood, as well as locally sourced meats and produce, prepared regional dishes like senbei jiru (a hearty soup made with veggies and wheat-based crackers), local craft goods and souvenirs to bring back with you, and more!
And that’s not even mentioning the Tatehana Wharf Morning Market! As the name would imply, this open-air market sees some 300 vendors set up shop at sunrise along the wharf and sell almost anything you could imagine.
Yes, more incredible fresh ingredients, but also coffee and pastries, antiques, artisanal goods, and sometimes even cars! Some 10,000 visitors flock to this market every Sunday—with that many people, supplies go fast, so it pays to go early! Must tries include piping hot chicken wings, grilled squid, mackerel croquettes, and (of course) senbei jiru.
If you’re looking to enjoy the local nightlife, be sure to stop by one of the city’s maze-like yokocho—these narrow alleyways are home to a variety of small, counter-only eateries that offer home-cooked dishes, local brews and sake. There’s no better way to brush up against the culture of the city than to be elbow to elbow with the residents as they eat, drink and make merry!
For even more festival fun, bid bon voyage to Hachinohe and head to the city of Aomori for the electric Nebuta Festival! The prefectural capital is only about 40 minutes by train from Hachinohe, making it a natural next step for any itinerary. The Nebuta Festival is held every year from August 2 to August 7, and is famous throughout Japan as one of the “Three Great Festivals of Tohoku.” One look at the artistry and intricacy of the giant floats that are paraded through the streets at night in celebration is all it takes to see why. Like the Sansha Taisai in Hachinohe, local teams spend a year designing and constructing elaborate designs, themed after a variety of mythical cultural or historical figures, pop culture characters, and more!
The floats are primarily pushed by hand, and accompanied by pounding taiko drums and other traditional instruments, as well as swarms of marchers and dancers. Viewing the parade is a treat, but what makes the Nebuta really special is that basically anyone can participate, as long as they wear the traditional regalia (which is often on sale during the festival). The best way to experience the true magic of this matsuri is to change your clothes and dive in!
With so much excitement in the city, be sure to make some time to get away from it all and explore the prefecture’s vast and verdant countryside. Like everything else in Aomori, there’s plenty from which to choose, but one spot visitors simply should not miss is Lake Towada, along with the nearby Oirase Gorge!
Part of the expansive Towada-Hachimantai National Park, Lake Towada is a gorgeous caldera lake that has been designated a Natural Monument, as well as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty. The area is brimming with lakeside footpaths and hiking routes, as well as camp sites for those looking to really soak up the great outdoors. One of the best ways to enjoy the incredible views offered by the lake is via sightseeing boat.
Just a hop away is the Oirase Gorge, which has the same Natural Monument and Special Place of Scenic Beauty designations as Lake Towada. It’s a popular outdoor spot for those in the know, with incredibly vibrant leaves in autumn and picture-perfect verdure in spring and summer. The gorge itself stretches about 14 kilometers, and the dense forest, rushing waterfalls and moss-covered rocks along the Oirase River provide an incredible view for a refreshingly cool summertime stroll.
For more breezy scenery, head back toward Hachinohe and pay a visit to the Tanesashi Coast. Part of the Sanriku Fukko National Park, the sweeping hills and rugged coastline include several walking trails and lookout points that provide an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean. Beyond that, the grassy areas are ideal for picnics, or if you’re feeling ambitious, a little early-morning outdoor yoga on Saturdays.
It’s also home to the Kabushima Shrine, which was established some 720 years ago, by local fishermen who would pray for safety and bountiful catches.
It overlooks the coast, which makes it beautiful in its own right, but what really sets it apart are a flock of seagulls; Kabushima is the nesting ground of literally thousands of seagulls (called umineko in Japanese), and during laying season (in mid-August) it is a cacophony of cuteness and chaos! Just be sure to bring an umbrella—while it’s considered good luck to get hit by an umineko “bomb,” it’s better to be safe than sorry (and smelly)!
And really, this is just the tip of what Aomori has to offer all year-round! The only way to truly grasp how special the Tohoku area really is, is by exploring all it has to offer—so what are you waiting for?