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Traveling to Tohoku isn’t for everyone. English is sparsely spoken; local people and traditional life dominate; and the region is not internationally recognized. In other words, this northeast region of Honshu Island is a bit off-the-beaten-path. For some travelers, however, this is the jackpot — authentic, unspoiled Japan, full of ties to the country’s elegant culture and storied traditions, but with its own unique touches that will surprise even the most experienced Japan travel experts.
In 1689, famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho spent more than five months traveling Tohoku, resulting in his famous travelogue, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.” Basho, who was traveling on foot, never made it all the way north to Tohoku’s Aomori prefecture, but that is where I felt most inspired. Though largely run by its apple crop industry — Aomori produces more apples than any other part of Japan — the prefecture also offers world-class art, architecture, food, music and nature.
Tsugaru-jamisen, which originated in the Aomori city of Tsugaru, is a genre of music that uses a shamisen, a string instrument played throughout Japan. The shamisen used in this genre is distinctive because of its thin width, short height and the thickness of its strings and neck. The music is distinguished by its percussive quality and lilting rhythms.
While visiting the city of Hirosaki, we stopped for dinner at a local restaurant called Anzu, where guests sit on cushions and enjoy local food and music. In addition to enjoying plate after plate of beautifully prepared local foods — including some of the creamiest homemade tofu I’ve ever eaten, complemented by several versions of local apple wine — we were treated to a tsugaru-jamisen performance. Everyone stopped eating to listen to a talented group of young performers who sat on the floor and played their shamisens in the middle of the small restaurant. To me, that evening embodied the best experience a traveler can hope for — to discover something world-class and unique that still feels home-spun, authentic and surprising.
Aomori Nebuta Festival
Aomori is perhaps best-known for the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (festival), which is among Japan’s top summer festivals. The group I traveled with were bona fide Japan travel experts — Japanese government employees, long-time staff of Japan’s best tour operators, Japanese natives and travel agents specializing in Japan — and only one person had visited Tohoku before. That woman, an American Express Travel Insider specializing in Japan, had come to Aomori specifically for the Aomori Nebuta Festival, which takes place each August.
The festival features gigantic lanterns — measuring about 30 feet wide and 15 feet high — made of bamboo, wood and wire framing that is shaped and painted onto traditional Japanese washi paper to depict warriors and mythical figures. The illuminated, three-dimensional art pieces are set up on yatai floats and cars for the parade, where each float is accompanied by drums, festival music and haneto dancers.
Visiting during the festival requires advance planning and early booking. Luckily, visitors interested in learning more about the festival and its floats can do so at their own pace, year-round. Around the corner from the JR Aomori station is the Wa Rasse Nebuta House, a museum dedicated to the festival that was built in 2011.
The building itself is one of the most interesting pieces of architecture in the area, made up of thin, vertical strips of red copper that bend to form the entrance. Inside, the curators did a great job telling the story of the Nebuta in an interactive fashion. Visitors not only learn the history of the festival and how Nebuta are made, but they can draw their own faces to be projected onto a three-dimensional Nebuta face hanging overhead. Best of all, visitors can get an up-close look at the gigantic demons, warriors and figures used in past parades.
Aomori Art Museum
Another museum worth visiting is the Aomori Art Museum. Winter is the best time to visit —flat and white, the building seems to rise up out of the snowy landscape.
Even the museum’s resident Aomori ken (Aomori dog) sculpture by Aomori-born artist Yoshitomo Nara is white. Part of the experience of viewing the gigantic dog is simply getting to it, which requires traipsing through a maze of steps and artwork, including more works by Nara. Nara has become internationally celebrated, and fans of his controversial works — including his deceptively simple images of cute children engaging in dark behavior — will want to visit the museum.
Another highlight of the art collection is the Aleko Hall, which is filled with floor-to-ceiling-length works by artist Marc Chagall. Measuring some 30 by 49 feet, Chagall’s backdrops are from the ballet Aleko. Like a dance, the images are whimsical, colorful and dreamy.
Built to resemble the excavation area of the nearby Sannai Maruyama Historical Site, the Aomori Art Museum building features geometric shapes, white painted walls and exposed earthen floors and walls. The museum does not provide any English guides or translated explanations of the art, but that’s okay — the museum is a great place to explore regardless.
Though several centuries have passed since Basho quenched his wanderlust with his whirlwind discovery of Tohoku, U.S. visitors — even Japan experts — will find that there’s plenty left to discover in Aomori and its neighboring prefectures.
Aomori, Japan features unique arts and culture, including a famous summer festival called the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Guests can learn about the Nebuta festival at The Wa Rasse Nebuta House, built in 2011. // © 2013 Mindy Poder
Guests can draw their own Nebuta warrior, projected onto a three-dimensional face overhead. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Many floats and instruments from past Nebuta festivals are on display. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Another museum worth visiting in Aomori is the Aomori Art Museum. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Yoshitomo Nara's "Aomori-Ken" dog statue measures nearly 28 feet tall. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
The Aomori Art Museum blends into its wintertime surroundings. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Tsugaru-jamisen performers at Anzu, a local eatery in the Aomori city of Hirosaki. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
In addition to tsugaru-jamisen, Anzu treats guests to local delicacies and handmade food, such as this wonton soup. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
Aomori is the apple production capital of Japan. // (c) 2013 Mindy Poder
In addition to museums, art, food, music and festivals, Aomori offers beautiful and unspoiled nature. // © 2013 Mindy Poder