May 28, 2017

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Cold Country, Warm Hearts

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By Gabriel Phillips

Jumping off the overnight bus at 7:30am with no battery life on my phone at Aomori station, I was sharply awoken to a scene of Disney Fantasia proportions. The snow had just stopped falling and had settled into a comforting waist high level. Having miraculously found my hotel, I dumped my bags and wandered over to the tourist centre in order to grab as many of their guidebooks that they had.

Sitting down for five minutes, I was quickly shocked into awareness by a traditional Shamisen giving his daily performance, with strings screeching into a haunting melody that told me to sit up and listen. Aomori is certainly a prefecture that tries to maintain a link to its history and traditions, with museums to prove it. While the city can seem like as a desolate hinterland to the uninitiated, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A warm, cosy shuttle bus guides you around from Sannai-Maruyama, a Jomon archaeology site, to the folklore museum provides you with an opportunity to learn about a part of Japan that is often unfairly forgotten.

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In February, Aomori is unsurprisingly cold, though I managed to catch its warm weather of 5 degrees Celsius. This was naturally corrected the next day as it dropped to negative 12. When you have a unique skill of collecting street snow in your left shoe, it can provide both a blessing and a curse.

My first Japanese teacher came from Aomori, and despite leaving it, she had always talked of it fondly, speaking of the beautiful countryside. However, my inspiration was a book by the British author Alan Booth. Looking for the Lost recorded his travels through the prefecture, as he attempted to follow the routes of historical figures such as Osamu Dazai.

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Naturally, I decided that I wanted to repeat the same path as both Booth and Dazai, although unlike them, I opted to take the stove train, where they cook food for you over the aforementioned stove, instead of walking.

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Travel in Aomori is always fascinating. While in Tokyo you are constantly surrounded by high-rise buildings, Aomori is filled with nothingness that exudes a bizarre beauty. Walking through Kanagi, I was faced with a biting cold that nullified the purpose of my hat, as the tips of my ears quickly lost all feeling. This was quickly replaced with warmth, from both the hot chocolate and kind smiles of the Ekisha café by the lake. This soon gave way to wonder as I looked over the frozen lake, with the golden phoenix memorial to Dazai bringing an air of splendour and excitement to the scene that was reminiscent of a magic novel.

While Tokyo can be described as mini cities gathered around train stations, Aomori consists of small towns unevenly spread out across the countryside, each with their own character and sense of being. Although it must be said that some are easier to access than others. Aomori’s greatest attribute, the snow, ended up being one the most difficult variable to plan around. Every day I would turn up at the travel information kiosk by the main station and ask the receptionist how to get to where I wanted to go. This daily tradition became familiar with surprisingly quickly, there was always a slight tinge of embarrassment whenever a particular route was closed due to adverse weather.c87a5cc7-4e98-48ae-afc9-fe6eac05eceb-1-e1466418513241The list of possibilities in Aomori is endless and shouldn’t be discounted (despite the weather). The Wa Rasse museum in the city centre provides a truly astonishing collection of Nebuta, while the A-factory tasting bar provides a peaceful stop for your cider drinking needs. Day trips to Asamushi’s onsens will leave you breathless from relaxation, while a trip to the Seijiryu-Daibutsu will leave you short of breath from its magnificence. (side note, don’t always rely on Google Maps, when I tried walking from the temple to the nearest train station, it almost took me onto a motorway).

Aomori isn’t high on most tourists’ list of places to visit, but I’m shocked to understand why. The food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten, with some of the freshest fish providing the basis of my favourite sushi joint in the world. The people are shockingly kind, with one woman chasing after me to give me a sandwich for lunch after I asked her for directions, while a workman in a ramen shop in Asamushi insisted on paying for my lunch. In every bar and restaurant that I visited, I somehow was able to connect with the people there like nowhere else. Whether it be gossiping about the local weather or even how no one in Aomori, not even Tsugaru, can understand Tsugaru-ben.

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Considering its location, Aomori is surprisingly international. In one tempura bar, the male half of a couple admitted to living in Devon and playing for Staines FC, while a lady at a sushi counter recounted to me her days working with Vidal Sassoon and her training under him. Despite travelling by myself, I was never short of company wherever I went. Something I can only attribute to the kindness of the people of Aomori.

Hirosaki Castle

Hirosaki Castle

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