matohu matohu




The plain stretching out from the Iwakigawa River in western Aomori Prefecture is the region called Tsugaru. Known for its deep snowfalls, Tsugaru calls to mind some distant land, but in spring Hirosaki Castle is painted pink with blooming cherry trees, in summer the region is home to the famous Neputa and Nebuta festivals, and in fall the rice fields are golden with ripe grain and the apple orchards are pregnant with fruit. This northernmost tip of Honshu along the Japan Sea offers local delights in every season. We decided to take a trip to Tsugaru in summer.

1. Sannai-Maruyama Site

The Sannai-Maruyama Site are the site of a large village from the Jomon Period (13,000–300 BCE). I had assumed that the village was somewhere in the mountains, but in fact it was very close to the sea. I imagined the villagers going about their lives in ancient Japan, enjoying their bountiful harvests from both the sea and the mountains.

2. Mount Iwaki

Anyone who travels to Tsugaru will inevitably find themselves gazing at this mountain at some point. From the city of Hirosaki, Mount Iwaki looks like the incarnation of the Chinese character for mountain, 山. Every time I look at the mountain, I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time, and it gives me an unexpected sense of reassurance. The locals call their beloved mountain “O-Iwaki Yama.” Mount Iwaki is more often sung about in Japanese enka songs (traditional sentimental ballads) than any other mountain. The mountain is also worshipped as a goddess in the Shinto religion. The women of the Tohoku region that encompasses Tsugaru have long been revered for their beauty, and Mount Iwaki is no different. It’s love at first sight.

3. Apple orchards

Aomori is closely associated with apples, but why is this? It started in 1875, when three saplings were planted in Aomori. Apple trees grew well in the cool summer climate, and by the end of the Meiji Period in 1912, Aomori was the largest producer of apples in Japan. Drive through Tsugaru and you will pass by one apple orchard after another. Many apples get harvested, and most people here have relatives with an apple orchard, so apples are not something that locals buy but rather share with each other. You can also find a lot of apple products here such as cider and apple pie. Balsamy Apple, a balsamic vinegar made from the juice of Tsugaru apples aged in whisky barrels, is a novel product with a refreshing balance of sweet and sour flavors.

4. Neputa Festival

The summer festival in Hirosaki City is called the Neputa Festival, and the one in Aomori City is called the Nebuta Festival. Farm work is at its peak in summer, and the festivals are said to have originated from a farming tradition of driving away sleep during this peak time using lanterns. The Aomori Nebuta Festival, with its high energy and colorful three-dimensional lantern floats celebrating warriors and other historical figures, is broadcast on TV, while the Hirosaki Neputa Festival features simpler, fan-shaped lantern floats. Melted wax is spread with brushes on the paper used to make the lantern floats. This makes the paper more transparent and allows the lights to shine through from inside.
The festivals start at the beginning of August and last a week. We had the good fortune of seeing the Neputa floats on the final day of the festival, when they are lined up along the riverbank in the evening and light up the night. At the end they are set on fire and burned, and their ashes dance in the night sky. When the festival is over, it’s a sign that fall is on its way.

5. Shirakami-Sanchi mountain range and beech forest

The Shirakami-Sanchi mountain range is home to a large virgin beech forest, untouched by human hand. This forest became the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Japan. It has remained in its pristine state for almost 10,000 years. Even today, people are prohibited from entering parts of the forest interior. A short walk from the Tsugaru Ridge, the so-called Mother Tree rises up, a giant beech tree some 400 years old. For Japan, 400 years ago puts us in the Keicho era at the beginning of the Edo Period and the rule of the samurai. Touching a beech tree that has been alive since then makes history feel like some kind of momentary dream.

6. Bunaco

Beech has high moisture content and is not suited for use as lumber. Bunaco was developed as a way to effectively use beech wood in another way. The beech is cut to a thickness of 1 mm and a width of 1 cm and rolled into a coil like tape, which is then used to create tableware and other items in any variety of shape. The artisan holds a teacup in one hand and presses it into the coil of beech to work it into another shape. It is certainly a unique process! You can try making a Bunaco item yourself at the workshop, which was opened in an old elementary school, located at the edge of the Shirakami-Sanchi mountain range.

7. Kogin Laboratory

The Kogin Laboratory introduces koginzashi to modern audiences. Watching Laboratory director Sadaharu Narita and his staff work together is like watching Japanese harmony in action. Built in 1932, the Laboratory building was the first building designed by distinguished Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa. He had apprenticed with Le Corbusier in France and is a key figure in modern Japanese architecture. Even after more than 80 years, the building is celebrated for its architectural appeal. The combination of kogin from the Edo Period and retro Japanese modernism is sublime!

8. Shichiri-Nagahama beach

The Iwakigawa River irrigates the Tsugaru Plain before flowing into the Japan Sea. Shichiri-Nagahama beach is located here. Shichiri means seven of the Japanese ri unit of measurement (1 ri = 4.2 km) and nagahama literally means “long beach.” The beach’s name is said to come from its actual length. This was the last stop on our trip. Being from the Pacific Ocean side of Japan, the deep blue color of the Japan Sea was breathtaking. The view of the sun setting over the sea was simply stunning and a fitting end to our Tsugaru journey.