So you’re considering a visit to one of Japan’s northernmost cities, Aomori? Good choice. Located in the northern tip of the country’s Honshu Prefecture, Aomori draws thousands of tourists each year. From bustling nightlife to incredible architecture, the city of Aomori is the perfect destination if you want to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and history, but are also craving a break from busier cities like Tokyo.
Not only beautiful on the inside, Aomori also draws many newcomers to the abundance of nature that surrounds it. Located right on the cusp of the ocean, and in the heart of swathes of forest, Aomori doubles both as a city break, and as the ideal nature getaway.
This article is a part of our extensive series on Japanese Culture and Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.
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Where is Aomori & How to get there
We’ve already established that Aomori is located in the north, in the Honshu Prefecture, on Japan’s mainland peninsula. Aomori City (青森) is an old port town, as it sits right at the opening of the Pacific Ocean. Together with Ominato Bay and Noheji Bay, it makes up the larger Mutsu Bay, and is still an important port location to this day.
The good news is, there are several ways to get to Aomori, both from Tokyo, as well as other international points. Since Aomori is located in the northern part of Japan, it may serve as a good end-point/start-point for a longer Japan trip.
Aomori, like most cities in Japan, is accessible via JR train. By far the best way to get to Aomori, if traveling from Tokyo, is by taking the JR Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train. Although the two cities are separated by an overwhelming 720 km, the JR Tohoku Shinkansen will get you from Tokyo to Aomori in just over three hours. The bullet train ride features four other stops within the prefecture: Hachinohe, Shichinohe-Towada, Shin-Aomori, and Okutsugaru-Imabetsu.
Alternatively, you could arrive in Aomori by plane. The journey from Haneda International Airport, Tokyo, takes roughly an hour. The airport at Aomori also connects with several Eastern Asian countries.
If you wish to travel by car, Japan has numerous state-of-the-art highways which make the journey quite pleasant, though bear in mind you’ll still need to drive for 8-10 hours. A bus from Tokyo to Aomori will take roughly the same.
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When is the best time to visit Aomori?
Aomori has a humid climate that registers noticeable changes from one season to the next. So it’s important to take these seasonal shifts into account, when planning the perfect Aomori trip.
As in most of Japan, the spring months of April and May see the blooming of the cherry blossoms, offering some pretty stunning visuals. Crowds of tourists flock to Aomori every spring to witness the pink trees, and even attend the Cherry Blossom Festival in Hirosaki Park.
Summer is not only very hot, but also filled with popular festivals that line the streets of Aomori with tourists.
Unlike other towns, Aomori is also a stunning destination for the fall. Since the city is well-known for its apple production, during autumn you get to see the many apple orchards of the Aomori prefecture ripened.
Lastly, winter sees the Aomori Prefecture covered in snow, which makes it ideal for enjoying traditional winter sports, though bear in mind the temperatures will drop quite a bit.
What to consider when planning your visit:
- Decide if there is any one attraction you must see – for example, would your trip be incomplete without participating in the Nebuta Matsuri Festival, or could you give it a miss?
- Think about the weather – while it’s said there’s no such thing as bad weather, just improper clothing, visiting Aomori in the extreme heat or cold can seriously blight your trip.
- But also keep in mind the crowds – although summer and spring are arguably the best seasons to visit, keep in mind they will also be more crowded. This will mean higher hotel/restaurant prices, and more crowded tourist spots.
Bottom Line – the best times to visit Aomori are spring, to see the cherry blossoms and enjoy the temperate weather, and summer, for the many festivals, and warm temperatures. However, Aomori is one of those cities that has things to do in every season.
How long will it take to visit Aomori?
Many tourists wonder how many days of their Japan trip they should dedicate to Aomori. While this depends on how much you want to see, it’s recommended to stay at least three nights in the city, to take in all it has to offer. If time allows, you might easily plan a week-long stay in Aomori, which would also allow you to take some day trips. With the Aomori Prefecture spanning almost five times the size of Tokyo, there is plenty for you to fill your time with in Aomori.
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What is Aomori best known for?
Aomori is a phenomenal city, as it blends stunning natural landscapes with modern architecture and all the colors of a big city. The city is best known, by far, for its summertime Nebuta Matsuri Festival (ねぶた祭). Held every year from August 2nd to August 7, the Nebuta Matsuri Festival is one of the two major Tanabata (七夕) festivals held in the area.
It features daily parades of gigantic floats, dance shows, accompanied by large taiko drums. The floats can take up to a year to be made from painted washi paper, and carefully arranged over wire frames. The floats typically depict mythological motifs, as well as characters from Japanese and Chinese culture.
What is a Tanabata festival?
Literally translated as a “star festival”, the original Tanabata Festival stems from Chinese tradition. It’s held on the 7th of the 7th month, when Altair and Vega, the two stars separated by the Milky Way, meet. Because some regions (including Aomori) are still guided by the old lunar calendar, the festival can be celebrated on August 7th (which better fits with the old calendar). However, you’ll also find places in Japan that celebrate the Tanabata Festival at the beginning of July, instead.
While the festival is Aomori’s most notorious tourist attraction, it is by no means the only one. Visitors choosing to explore the port town outside of the summer still find plenty of things to do in Aomori.
7 Things to Do in Aomori
When visiting bustling cities like Aomori, it pays to be well-organized, and know what you want to do beforehand. In order to plan your trip, and take the most advantage from it, you’ll first need to figure out what’s worth seeing in Aomori.
1. Immerse yourself in the nebuta culture at the Warasse Nebuta Museum.
If you can make it to the actual Nebuta Festival in August, then that’s great. However, when you consider that the festival draws roughly 3 million visitors each year, Aomori can become very crowded, not to mention very expensive during that one week in the summer.
This is why they have founded the Warasse Nebuta Museum (ねぶたの家 ワ・ラッセ), to allow visitors to experience the stunning parade floats year-round. While the museum can not replicate the festive atmosphere of the festival itself, it’s a great second-best. The floats from previous years are housed inside a warehouse, whose ceiling and walls have been painted to replicate the starry night sky of the actual festival.
Also at the museum, you can learn more about how the floats are made, and also about the history of the festival.
2. Walk the Bay Bridge.
The Bay Bridge (青森ベイブリッジ) spans the entire Aomori Bay area, and dominates the skyline. It’s accessible by foot, but also by one of the many tour buses that traverse the city. Our advice would be climbing up the steps, to walk the Bay Bridge on foot. It awards an unbeatable view of the entire Aomori Bay, and gives you a beautiful photo location.
On top of that, the Bay Bridge is well-situated, so that you can visit it while also visiting the bay itself, or the A-Factory (see below). The cable-stayed bridge is an absolute must, for gaining a sense of perspective over Aomori City.
3. Visit the Hakkoda Maru Ship.
In the past, Aomori served as an important port, as it connected the Honshu Prefecture with the Hokkaido region. Several passenger ferries sailed weekly from the Aomori Port. However, with the opening of the Seikan Tunnel in 1988, the ferries lost their appeal, and were, in time, discontinued. While car ferries are still functional to this day, ferrying is no longer considered the most efficient method of transportation between the two.
The Hakkoda Maru (八甲田丸) Memorial Ship commemorates that era, and can be fully visited, giving tourists a sense of what it meant to travel by ferry from Honshu to Hokkaido.
4. Take in a little art at the Aomori Prefectural Art Museum.
Located just outside of the downtown area of Aomori City, the Aomori Art Museum (青森県立美術館) is both a modern art museum indoors, as well as a fascinating construction on the outside. Designed to replicate the Sannai Maruyama Jomon Archaeological Sites next door, the museum’s displays are dug into the earth, to resemble an actual archaeological site. There are even white tents on the premises, to give the impression of archeologists at work.
Here, you can view 19-meter high art by renowned artist Marc Chagall, paintings by Munakata Shiko, and the fascinating pop art of Nara Yoshitomo, featuring an infamous 8.5-meter-tall statue of a dog.
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5. Feast at the Furukawa Fish Market.
By now, you’ve probably worked up an appetite, so it’s time to head on to the Furukawa Fish Market (青森魚菜センター, alternatively known as the Gyosai Center). Located near Central Aomori, the Furukawa Fish Market is lined with vendors specializing in fresh local seafood, as well as various vegetables, and pickles. What makes the trip to Furukawa particularly exciting is the possibility to create your own donburi (丼, “bowl”) with the seafood purchased, and eat it right on-site.
First, you buy a bowl of plain rice, and then wander the market, selecting the food you want, and enhancing tickets for it. Once you’ve paid, the vendors will place the fish right on top of your rice, creating a unique dining experience.
6. See the cherry blossoms at Hirosaki Park (spring-only).
Every year, from late April to early May, you can attend the Hirosaki Park Cherry Blossom Festival (弘前さくらまつり). Located 15 minutes from downtown Hirosaki Station, the park houses over 2,600 sakura trees, all of which turn a neat, vibrant pink during blossom season. With some of the trees more than 300 years old, the park offers a wonderful variety of sakuras (from weeping sakuras, stooping over the sidewalk, to stunning double-layer cherry trees), and is the home of the festival every spring.
Even if you don’t make it in time to catch the cherry blossoms, a visit to the impressive Hirosaki Park is still worthwhile. Come, explore, and even stay for a picnic, if weather allows it.
7. Explore Hirosaki Castle.
Last but not least, an important reason to visit Hirosaki Park is to see the adjacent Hirosaki Castle (弘前城). It consists of three storeys, fortified moats, and massive gates, and offers an incursion into the country’s colorful past. While the original five-storey keep of the castle burned down, it was rebuilt in 1810, and constitutes one of the very few structures in the area not to be rebuilt in the modern era. Visitors are also welcome to the Hirosaki Castle Botanical Garden, located right on the premises, or to enter the Gokoku Shrine at the northern end of the park.
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6 Dishes to try while in the city
We talked about the delicious and unique experience available at the Furukawa Fish Market, but that is by no means the only treat to experience while in Aomori.
I. Fresh cider at the A-Factory
The Aomori Prefecture is well-known for its massive apple production, which also makes it an apple-heaven for visitors. Located right in front of the Bay Bridge, the A-Factory (エー・ファクトリー) houses an impressive cider brewery, where you can taste fresh, natural cider produced locally. Here, you can also purchase other foods and beverages, including your own locally-grown apples, apple chips, and other hard-to-come-by souvenirs from the region.
II. Kaiyaki Miso
A tradition in the nearby Tsugaru region, kaiyaki miso (貝焼き味噌/味噌貝焼き) is basically an omelet with scallop, served directly inside the shell. With green onions and miso mixed in, kaiyaki miso is a regional favorite. It is believed that, by cooking the dish directly in the scallop shell, this brings out the flavor of the dish. In itself, kaiyaki miso is a simple, yet flavorful dish that any foodie must try in Aomori.
Originating in Hachinohe City, also located in the Aomori region, this soup is another locally-loved dish. Senbei-jiru (せんべい汁) is made by adding Nanbu senbei, which is a local type of wheat cracker, to fish, vegetables, mushroom, and meat. Although you will definitely find variations to suit any taste, the original senbei-jiru is made from mackerel and chicken as the main components.
As you might probably tell by now, the Aomori region is well-known for its many soup dishes, among which ichigo-ni ((いちご煮). Translated as “strawberry soup”, ichigo-ni is actually made from sea urchin, typically, and abalone. While the dish contains no actual strawberries, it got its name from the uncanny resemblance between sea urchin ovaries and the tasty, red dotted fruit.
V. Miso curry milk ramen
While you’ve probably had ramen before, and have tasted a variety of curry dishes, it’s unlikely you’ve tried miso curry milk ramen (青森味噌カレー牛乳ラーメン) or maybe even heard of it. This is basically a miso soup, made with curry and milk, and topped with butter.
Bonus Dish: Igamenchi
Hailing from the nearby Hirosaki City, igamenchi (いがめんち) is a crunchy squid meal. The dish consists of batter-dipped and fried squid, with assorted vegetables. It’s believed the dish originated as a way to use leftover squid tentacles (with dried squid often being used in sushi dishes by locals).
Day Trips from Aomori
Depending on how long you are staying in Aomori, you may choose to stay solely in the city, or may venture further out through the region, for some day trips.
8. Soak in the Sukayu Onsen.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an onsen (温泉) is a traditional Japanese hot spring popular for relaxation and healing. Located way up in the Hakkoda Mountains, the Sukayu Onsen (酸ヶ湯) is still technically a part of Aomori City. But since traveling up the mountain takes time, we’re classing it as a day trip (and you might even choose to stay overnight up at the onsen. It is actually the snowiest inhabited place on earth, and if you want to take a dip, our recommendation would be to do so in winter, to take in the stunning view of the white forest.
9. Appreciate some Rice Field Art.
Inakadate is a tiny village in the Aomori Prefecture, home to one of the most stunning art displays in the entirety of Japan. Each spring, hundreds of volunteers flock to Inakadate to plant the rice, so that between June and October, the shoots blossom into what is known as Rice Paddy Art (田んぼアート). These are basically elaborate displays, created by planting different colored rice to create visuals depicting mythological or historical events in the country’s history. The art is achieved through a unique, highly specific designing method, that requires the artists to plan out in advance, and with great precision.
10. Breathe in the nature at Shirakami Sanchi.
Spreading over both Aomori and Akita prefectures, Shirakami Sanchi (白神山地) is a vast forest and mountain range, comprising some of the unique flora and fauna of the region. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakami Sanchi is home to the Shirakami Waterfall, the Shirakami-Dake peak, and the Juni-Ko Lakes. Whether you decide to take the three-hour hike up to the waterfall, or peer down at the bottom of the lakes, Shirakami Sanchi has something for everyone, and will give you a much needed respite in nature, after a few days visiting busy Aomori.
11. Trail the coastline at Hachinohe.
Hachinohe (八戸市) is a large city located in the northeast of Honshu, and constitutes a wonderful day trip from Aomori. Visitors can choose between visiting the bustling city, or taking in the various scenic spots. A wonderful thing to do while in Hachinohe is to explore the expansive coastlines. These can provide some wonderful photo-ops, or even just some lovely time in nature. Hachinohe people are friendly, and there is no shortage of places where visitors to the coastline can rest, and indulge in some yummy seafood.
12. Hike the Oirase Gorge Stream.
This lovely picturesque stream in the north of the Aomori Prefecture is probably the best destination for autumn travelers. The Oirase Gorge Stream (奥入瀬渓流) is an excellent place to view the autumn colors as they take over the forest. The stream requires a 2.5 hour walk (with the trail spanning roughly 9 km), but is well-worth the trip, say visitors, especially for those in search of a nature getaway. While the sight of Lake Towada cascading into the stream is gorgeous year-round, the best time to see the Oirase Gorge Stream is around October-November, when the autumn colors of the forest are at their peak.
For some, it’s more fun to visit a city on their own, while some prefer joining a larger group. A guided tour can help ensure you don’t miss out on any hot attractions, and may help you organize a short stay to fit more in.
Sites like Viator.com offer a great range of guided tours (both group and individual) inside Aomori City, as well as covering the prefecture day-trips. Alternatively, GoWithGuide can help you plan out your Aomori visit, and join a guided tour of all the must-see spots in the city.
Whether you choose a guided tour, or walk it alone, make sure to plan your trip ahead of time, to see as much of this wonderful Japanese prefecture as possible.
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