At the very top of Honshu you’ll find Aomori – the coastal city that was, for a long time, the gateway to Hokkaido. And nearby, a short trip to the West, there’s the beautiful inland town of Hirosaki – home of a surprising Apple-themed tourist industry. I visited both in late 2012.
Getting to Aomori from the south is as easy as could be – it is, at the time of writing, the end of the line for the Tohoku Shinkansen. You can get there from Tokyo or, like me, jump on halfway – I departed from Morioka, where you can connect to Tazawako and Akita. As in many cities, the shinkansen stops at a new station – Shin-Aomori, literally new-Aomori – outside the town proper.
If you want to rent a car, that’s the right place – there are rental lots just outside. Otherwise, jump on the Ou-hon-sen line (the old main line to Akita and beyond) – it’s one stop to Aomori, which is the terminus. If you’re heading straight to Hirosaki, take the same line in the other direction – it’s about 40km, eight stops.
Aomori isn’t, to be honest, the prettiest city you’ll see: the most striking bit of architecture is the ASPAM building, which looks rather like a giant alien tortilla chip. You can pay a few quid to see the city from the second-from-top floor, though, which is worth it for orientation purposes. The rest of the building feels a little run down, with souvenir stands and the like.
There are two things in Aomori that are absolutely worth seeing, though. First, and near the station in a rather splendid modern building, is the Nebuta museum, host to some of the giant illuminated floats that parade through the city during this annual festival (Hirosaki has one, too):
The floats are huge, and absolutey stunning – the festival itself is in early August, and I’d love to see it one day.
Secondly, Aomori is the major link on Honshu with Hokkaido to the north, and the traffic back and forth used to travel on huge rail-ferries such as the Hakkoda-Maru – pictured at the top, and here:
Now the ships have been replaced by a tunnel, and soon the Shinkansen will go through directly, further relegating Aomori’s importance. The Hakkoda-Maru, though, has been preserved as a museum: inside you can wander through the bridge and accommodation, and boggle at the deck that held three complete trains per journey.
It’s a huge museum, and if you’re interested in design some of the adverts, tickets and so on are fascinating. And the atmosphere on board is actually quite overwhelming, especially when you see the ship’s crew filmed before its final voyage – there’s a real sense of an important part of the community ending up out of time and passing on. If you visit Aomori – even if just passing through – please don’t miss it.
When it comes to staying in Aomori, there are loads of business hotels – I used the JAL City, which is right in front of the ASPAM building – maybe £50 per night, with nice modern rooms and a good view. Restaurants of every type abound, including a great basement sushi place near the station – look for the market in the basement of the Auga Festival City department store.