Tucked away at the northern-most tip of Japan’s Honshu island, Aomori prefecture and Aomori city are quiet and under-rated gems usually skipped by travelers in favour of the more happening southern metropolises of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. But actually, there are so many reasons why one should head for Aomori. Like for example, you can’t head for Hokkaido on the shinkansen without stopping at Aomori – well, okay technically you could but then you would be missing out on some of the yummiest freshest seafood, a fun DIY donburi, the chance to see up close the gigantic lantern floats of the Nebuta festival and yes, some of the best apple products this side of Japan.
I confess: I visited Aomori for the fish, not the apples. More accurately, a chance to do my own donburi at the Furukawa fish market, not far from the Aomori train station.
Making your own donburi is easy and fun. Just purchase a sheet of coupons at the information counter. You can buy a sheet of 10 tickets with a 1300yen value or 5 tickets at 650yen value. With that, go round to the different vendors, pick your fish and tear off the tickets in exchange for fish. Generally, two tickets pay for slightly more expensive cuts of fish eg the o-toro or chutoro. But certain vendors may differ in the quantity they give out, so look around before settling for a vendor.
It was really fun to go ‘shopping’ for the fish and see the bowl fill up. I had all my favourites – the ikura (salmon roe), mentaiko, the o-toro, or negi-toro (fatty tuna with spring onions), uni (sea urchin) and the botan shrimp – juicy stuff! It is so much value for money especially when I know that back home, the same combination would have cost me easily more than double the cost. The vendors are used to tourists and are friendly – just point and smile. When you are done, there are seating areas where you can just plonk yourself down to enjoy your nokkedon.
Bellies filled, we headed for the Warasse Nebuta museum. Note that all the key attractions in Aomori city are within easy walking distance of the train station, mostly near the waterfront. In fact the Warasse Nebuta Museum sits right in front of the train station. You can’t miss the iconic box-like building with its red steel ribboned facade.
The Warasse Nebuta museum gives visitors a chance to get up close to the impressive large lanterns that are the hallmark of the Nebuta festival in August. In cool dark cavernous spaces, the lantern-floats are brightly lit and give off a festive vibe. Familiar characters in Japanese and Chinese mythology burst into life as huge painted paper effigies. Cherubs, goddesses, carps, dragons, demons, monks, you’ll find them all here in all their colourful glory. So if you can’t be in Aomori in August to see the actual festival, this will work well too to give you an idea of the scale and the excitement of seeing these large floats.
Outside the museum, the waterfront with its landmark bridge is also a nice place to catch the breeze. Also, right there on the boardwalk across from the museum is the A Factory. Aomori is Japan’s largest producer of crunchy ad rosy Fuji apples. I guess the ‘A’ in the name refers to both apples and Aomori? Chock a block with Aomori products – especially apples and everything apple-y like wine, cake, cider, jam, scents and best of all, ice-cream!
The shinkansen has made all of Tohoku very accessible. Linking up the major sights and towns of Tohoku with Tokyo at one end and Hokkaido at the other, it is now so easy to just do the hop, skip and jump to Aomori for good fish before hopping off to another part of Japan, as we did.
We spent the whole morning in Aomori before hopping back on the local train to Shin-Aomori station where we caught the shinkansen for Hokkaido – a thrill to know that this super-fast train is now shooting like a torpedo under the Tsugaru Strait connecting both islands seamlessly.
Next stop: Hakodate!