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Shinkansen Test Run to Brand New Shin-Aomori Station

Posted in 1, Aomori-city with tags , , , , on April 16, 2010 by Yuko
Since the Shinkansen – bullet train is coming to Aomori City in December, the new station is in the course of construction.  First 200 public applicants, press people and people in Tourism were invited to the one-day tour on the day of  first test run.    

New Shinkansen Shin-Aomori Station under Construction

 Aomori is a peaceful country, and you do not really find modern buildings.  One of my colleagues who went this place with me said “Wow, this is like the building in Tokyo”.  I thought that was cute.      

Hallway

Shining Walls and Escalators Under Inspection

   

Waiting Room

Ticketing and Travel Service Center

 It was fun to see the train station while not completely equipped…..                                                                                                                     

The Wall without Ticket Machines

We could find some materials produced in Aomori in the building.  Can you tell from the following pictures?      

Q1 What are these red bars made of ?

Red Bar Close Up(sorry- I couldn't take the pic beautifully)

A1 is Tsugaru Lacquerware.  This is called Nanako, one of  four types of lacquer patterning in Tsugaru Lacquerware.  People who found the Nanako on the pillars were saying “Oh…luxury pillars”.      

Q2 Can you guess what kind of wood was used to make the bench chairs?

 A2 is Aomori Hiba Cypress, which is aromatic, durable and has beautiful grains. It is popular to make furniture, bath tubs and wood crafts.

Q3 Who influences Aomori people on printmaking?

      

Close-up of the Work

     

 

   

A3 is Munakata Shiko – a famous printmaker who was born in Aomori-City.  Please enjoy Christy’s previous entry on A Glimse into Aomori’s artsy side-Munakata Shiko for more information about him.     The original of this huge work was made by 242 groups of Aomori citizens in 2003 to celebrate Munakata’s 100th anniversary.       

Platform Sign

The platform is on the 2nd floor. This station will be the terminal of Tohoku Shinkansen in Honshu Island.  Then it is to be connected with Hokkaido Shinkansen rail line in about 5 years.      

People Flocking in the Platform

 I heard about 600 people got together to welcome the first train coming to this station. Suddenly the Nebuta festival live music started, which was a signal of the train arrival, and all people got ready to  take pictures and filming the train.      

The inspection train appeared!

Inspection Train "East i"

 The inspection train “East i” which is equipped with all the measuring device and inspection apparatus left Hachinohe Station at 2:00am, kept running 30km/h and arrived at this station at 9:49am.  Gradually test speed will get faster and final test run will be 260km/h as the maximum speed in the end of June. Amazing!        

    

     

Welcome ceremony was held.   

   

By Shinkansen it will take only 3 hours and 10 minutes from Tokyo to  Aomori-city from December 2010.  Those who will hold Japan Rail Pass while staying in Japan, please do not fail to visit Aomori!!!   

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Spring comes to Yunoshima

Posted in 1 with tags , , , , , , , on April 7, 2010 by Zack

Lately the snow has melted, and the weather in Aomori has been warming up. It’s hard to keep from wanting to rush outdoors and soak up the sun. Looking for something to do outdoors that would give me a taste of the spring, I heard of an event going on a small uninhabited island called Yunoshima, located in Asamushi, a neighbor in Aomori City famous for its hot springs. From now until April 25, you can take a small boat over to the island and go hiking to see the spring wildflowers that grow there, in particular, a favorite called the katakuri, or the Dogtooth Violet as it is known in English.

Having not eaten a really substantial breakfast, I went to “Pizza House Sharumu”, a well known establishment just a minute walk from the Asamushi Onsen train station, approximately 20 minutes and 4 stations away from Aomori Station. Anyway, it was my first time to eat here, so I had to try their pizza- I decided to go with the scallop pizza, since it was my first time to see scallop pizza, but they had a lot of different varieties of pizza on the menu. I also tried their famous “omuraisu” (a Japanese dish consisting of tomato sauce flavored rice covered in a nice hot gooey omelette. I know it sounds a little unbelievable, but “omuraisu” is one of those Japanese dishes you just have to try to appreciate.

Shrimp Omuraisu

Savory Scallop Pizza

After this delicious lunch, it was time to head to the docks to catch a boat ride to Yunoshima, the small mountain island just about 800 meters from the shore.

Anglers enjoy the great weather with Yunoshima in the background

Boat bringing visitors to the island

After a short 5 minute boat ride we were there on the island. From a distance it looked gray and bare, so I had my doubts about being able to see any signs of spring. However, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon fresh life poking its head out of the fallen dead leaves.

Bakke flowers of the Fuki plant, a mountain vegetable relished in the spring time

It was very impressing to see the variety and beauty of all these early blooming spring wildflowers as I made my way up the steep sloping trail up to the 132 meter summit of the island. With of course, plenty of breaks to smell and take some pretty good shots of the flowers.

Kikuzaki Ichirinsō (Anemone pseudoaltaica) a harbinger of spring, this woodland wild flower opens graciously in sunlight

Kibana no Amana or Yellow Star-of-Bethlehem

Otome-Engo-Saku, a type of Corydalis

Slope blanketed in fresh spring greenery

Finally, our guest of honor, the elusive katakuri flower, or Dogtooth Violet

The day I visited Yunoshima was at the very beginning of the festival so there were few Dogtooth Violets in bloom on that particular day, but a great deal of buds were just a few days shy of blossoming. One of the volunteer guides on the island told me that it takes approximately 7-8 years for the Dogtooth Violet to grow before it blooms. The Dogtooth Violet is also a treasured plant in Japan since ancient times, gathered for its starch for use in cooking, similar to cornstarch. Today it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, and is also the most famous of the “spring ephemerals”, flowers which flower the earliest in spring and wither before summer. Satisfied on finally find a blooming Dogtooth Violet, I started my descent down the trail after taking in the scenery from the summit of the mountainous island.

A great view of the azure ocean from the top

Torii gate before the small shrine on the island

Sea urchins, clam, and abalone shells

By the time I had reached the shore and finished taking all my photos it was time to catch the boat back across to Asamushi. I was still pretty full from lunch but there’s always room for ice cream…

So I decided to treat myself to the “cassis” (black currant) ice cream at Yu-Sa, the Michi-no-eki (Road Station) at Asamushi. Aomori is the top producer of not only apples, but also black currants! You can find plenty of black currant jelly and even black currant wine in Aomori City, but I’m a fan of the ice cream.

Anyway, the “festival” at Yunoshima is just starting and will continue for two more weeks so if you have a chance, please check it out!

Yunoshima Dogtooth Violet Festival (Yunoshima Katakuri Matsuri)

April 3-25, 2010

Cost: 1000 Yen for a roundtrip boat ride (Board at the Asamushi Docks)

Intoxicating Sakura at Hirosaki

Posted in 1 with tags , , on March 26, 2010 by Zack

Most of the snow in Aomori has melted away, which means that spring is just around the corner. Like everywhere else in Japan, spring in Aomori means the season for sakura, the famous Japanese cherry blossoms.

Without a doubt, Hirosaki is the most famous spot for enjoying sakura in Aomori Prefecture. At the center of the city lies Hirosaki Park and Hirosaki Castle, which are home to approximately 2600 sakura trees of 50 different varieties! It just so happens that Hirosaki Park is said to be one of the premier sakura viewing areas in Japan! Each year from April 23rd to May 5th, the Hirosaki Sakura Festival attracts enormous crowds from all over Japan. In 2006 the festival attracted over 2.5 million people alone! Unlike places in southern Japan where the sakura bloom slightly earlier in late March and early April, Hirosaki’s sakura bloom at just about the same time as the “Golden Week” holiday- a week of national holidays in Japan which also helps to attract large crowds.

Crowds surrounded by the bright blossoms in the “sakura tunnel” on a warm sunny spring day. Sakura trees generally do not live too long, but Hirosaki’s Sakura Festival also has some of the oldest sakura trees in Japan due to the advanced apple tree pruning techniques of the area that were used to keep the sakura alive.

These intoxicating sakura are of the “yae-zakura” variety, and have large puffy blooms and a deep rich pink color.

The keep of Hirosaki Castle framed beautifully with sakura. The inner bailey of the castle is filled with families and groups of friends enjoying “hanami” or sakura viewing parties, complete with delicious food in boxed lunches and drink.

Boat rentals available along the castle moats are a popular and romantic way to enjoy the blossoms.

This carpet of pink is actually the edge of the outer moat filled with fallen sakura petals.

The fun doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. Lanterns illuminate the entire park until 11pm each night during the duration of the festival. If you plan to come to Hirosaki during the sakura season, I definitely recommend picking a nice sunny day to really enjoy the beauty of the sakura. Avoid going on a holiday or weekend as it tends to get very crowded, and of course, don’t forget to bring your camera!

Lake Towada Winter Festival

Posted in 1, Towada-city with tags , , on March 14, 2010 by Yuko

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It snowed like crazy AGAIN in Aomori this week! It reminded me of the festival I went the other day. Using the bus to get to Towada from Aomori-city was the first time for me, and I could find some information which can be helpful for English-speaking tourists.

First, head to JR Aomori station and find the bus stop #8.

You are getting on the bus Mizuumi(Time Schedule in English), which is running two times a day.

  

 JR bus is partly painted in blue, and has a swallow picture on it.

I didn’t know Japan Rail Pass holders can get on the all JR buses for free….very reasonable.  It cost me 3,000yen to buy a one-way bus ticket.(2-day-pass is 4600yen) .  Bus Mizuumi stopped at Mt. Hakkoda RopewayStation, and I saw some foreign tourists getting off at that station to enjoy skiing and snowboarding. 

You hear the announcement both in Japanese and English, which is kinda rare for local buses in Aomori.

Before arriving at Lake Towada, you will drive along the famous scenery spot called Oirase Gorge, the stream issues from the lake and scattered many waterfalls around the area.   Oirase Gorge draw many visitors in early summer and fall, but you can appreciate the solemn beauty of frozen waterfalls in winter.   The driver kindly stopped at some beautiful points to let the passengers enjoy the view and to be able to take pictures from the window.  

 

 It took about 3 hours to get to Lake Towada.  The sunset was also beautiful.

Right after getting off the bus, I saw the first snow statue in Towada.  But I felt a slight shock to see it.

Thomas?    You look somehow……different.

I don’t know what happened to him.   Maybe coming all the way from England made him emaciated….poor Thomas.

Anyways, the festival was from 7:00pm, and the shuttle bus of the hotel I stayed drove me to the entrance of the festival.

 Entrance

  Snow Walls

 Igloo Sake Bar

In the Igloo Sake Bar, you can enjoy drinking sake in kotatsu (a heated table with a thick blanket cover). Kotatsu represents warmth, happiness and comfortableness in winter for Japanese, and once you sit in, it gets so hard to get out.  So I thought this was kinda fun, but to be honest, I had an uneasy feeling because I had never sit in kotatsu with putting my shoes on in my life…..

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Hirosaki Snow Lantern Festival

Posted in 1 with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2010 by Zack

The Hirosaki Snow Lantern Festival is held every year in February. This is my third winter in Aomori, but the first time I’ve had a chance to visit Hirosaki for this festival which is going on this year from February 11th to February 14th-Valentine’s Day. And it’s very fitting because this festival is certainly romantic.

Approximately 150 Japanese garden style lanterns made out of snow are constructed throughout Hirosaki Park and the grounds of Hirosaki Castle in the center of the park. Each lantern is illuminated by candles with Neputa festival styled paintings, a symbol of the Tsugaru area.

Majestic Mt. Iwaki overlooking Hirosaki is called the Mt. Fuji of Tsugaru

I recommend arriving at Hirosaki Park a little bit before sundown, so you can have a chance to see all the grounds and take pictures before it gets dark. But don’t worry, everything lights up at night so you won’t miss anything if you arrive later.

A swan poses on the frozen moat of Hirosaki Castle

This is the keep, the center of Hirosaki Castle, and is beautiful all year round, the spring cherry blossoms, the summer greenery, the fall foliage, and finally the winter white. Winter might very well be my favorite for the contrast of the red bridge and monochromatic winter landscape.

Volunteers preparing lights in some of the 300 miniature igloos on display

Can't wait to see what this looks like when it gets dark out!

Besides the 150 snow lanterns, countless numbers of snow sculptures and holes in the snow hold decorations, all made carefully by the entire city of Hirosaki. Each school has its own snow sculptures and lanterns, as well as various community groups and businesses that all come together to create this splendid event. I ran into a whole line of hand designed lanterns made by the students of an elementary school I’ve taught at, as well as run into some friends I hadn’t see in months. It’s nice to know that a festival like this brings people and the community together.

Twilight gradually fades into night, bringing the lanterns to life.

In one part of the park by a shrine there is a wide open space filled with vendors of hot foods and Japanese confections. Every year this area is home to the stage area with live performances of various sorts, including the local musical tradition of Tsugaru Jamisen (or Shamisen). A three-stringed instrument similar to a banjo famous from the area. You can also find several impressively built sledding slopes for kids, and tall snow sculptures all made by various groups in Hirosaki. They also have a great building sculpture each year of a landmark building in Hirosaki. This year it was the old Aomori Bank, towering at 9 meters high!

Shimajiro, a famous tiger and toddler favorite

Another beautiful snow lantern

A wall of snow lanterns illuminate your way in the dark

The 300 miniature igloo lanterns were absolutely breathtaking

And of course… what festival wouldn’t be complete with souvenirs? There were many different vendors selling the great delicacies of Aomori, including my favorite, Kenoshiru. Unfortunately though the hearty and warm Kenoshiru was so popular that it sold out by 4pm so I didn’t get to have any. I guess you need to get there extra early! Anyway, they also had apple art! These apples are mostly given as a gift since they are so precious to eat. Various designs, including Chinese characters for words like “dream”, “congratulations”, “hope”, “thank you”, and pictures of lucky cats and even Valentine’s designs. A decal is applied to the apple preventing it from turning red in the late summer sun to create these wonderful works of art. But they can be a pit pricey, some of these sell for just under 2000 yen, about $20 US per apple! Quite the gift!

Like I said, it was my first time to see the Hirosaki Snow Lantern Festival, and I had such a good time I wish I had made the trip earlier. I highly recommend coming here with that someone special, and warming up your heart with the soft snow light during this, one of the coldest months in Aomori.

Aomori Winter Festival

Posted in 1, Aomori-city with tags , , , , on February 6, 2010 by Christy

This weekend, Gappo Park in Aomori City is hosting its annual winter festival! The park is only about 20 minutes from Aomori Station and there are a lot of great activities to check out!

Gappo Park entrance

locals gathering around for the winter fun

The first thing that caught my eye was the bread making area! Check this out!

bread making area

For 200 yen you receive a bamboo stick that the little ladies wrap dough around.  It looks like this!

the yummy bread starts here

wrapping the dough

After the dough is prepared, you cook your bread over a coal fire. It takes a while, but it was really yummy!

warming the bread

dekiagari! the final product!

As you can see in this photo, there a lot of other activities that are going on such as a BINGO game! You can win everything from Onsen tickets to food!

If you make it early enough in the morning there is also mochi tsuki (rice pounding)! Mochi-tsuki is a traditional Japanese activity that usually occurs around the New Year. Basically it involves a large wooden hammer that pounds cooked rice into soft rice cakes. You can also enjoy watching Japanese dance, eating, horse riding, or a HUGE snow slide. Look at this!

snow slide

If you are interested, the festival is going on through tomorrow, so get on your winter suit and join the fun!

If you can’t make it for the winter festivities the park offers seasonal fun year-round from cherry blossom viewing in the spring to a marathon event in the summer. Put Gappo Park on your next list of places to go in Aomori City!

Event Details

Date:February 6 -7
Time: 9:00 – 16:00
Parking available for 500 yen
3 minute walk from Gappo Koen Mae bus stop

Donto Yaki in Utou Shrine, Aomori

Posted in 1, Aomori-city with tags , , on February 4, 2010 by Yuko

Japanese people decorate their houses with ornaments around New Year’s Day, which is to welcome the God of the Year. After using those ornaments, you can’t just throw them away as trash. People take all used ornaments to the shrines or temples on the “Donto-yaki” fire festivel day to burn them. Those ornaments belong to the God and you can’t treat them rough, and by buring them we can return to the God up above. This custom is practiced around January 15 every year in all over Japan.

This year I went to Utou Shrine in Aomori-city to clear my used ornaments and old amulets.

Utou Shrine is located in the central Aomori, about 500m from JR Aomori station. This Shrine is the most popular place local people choose to visit for the first shrine visit of the New Year.

A pair of guardian lions’ eyes were….. covered with snow.

I wondered if they could do their job without seeing anything.

Actually it was my first time to visit the “Donto-yaki ” fire festival. I thought I could find the big bonfire burning used New Year’s ornaments, but they were not making a bonfire, just collecting all stuff people brought.

After placing your ornaments or old amulets in the designated area, you pay the fee. The price was not settled. You just decide the price by how much you would like to offer. Then I received a talisman(paper) and was told to burn it to ward off evil influences. People were making a line and were praying while burning their talisman.

After burning my talisman, I found the corner treating people with Sake(Japanese rice wine) and grilled rice cakes. It is said that if you drink the Sake or the rice cake prepared at Donto-yaki festival, you will not catch a cold and can stay healthy this year.

I couldn’t drink Sake because I was driving a car, but had a piece of grilled rice cake. Dipping sauce for the rice cake was “sugar and soy sauce”, simply dissolving sugar with soy sauce. I think this sauce is the world-easiest sweet sauce for rice cake that kids like, and very familiar taste for Japanese.

When you visit temples or shrines, one thing you can’t miss is reading your fortune. First, pay the price (100yen), then pull one stick out of numbered sticks in the box. Tell the staff what number is written in the stick you drew. The staff gives you a paper which matches the number on your stick, and reveal your fortune….

Of course I drew one to see how my year 2010 be…..and it was “The Best Luck”. Yes!!

Even when you drew a negative fortune and want to try it again, it is not really a good thing. Because the fortune you received should be regarded as a message from the God. If you try to draw fortune again immediatly wishing for the better fortune, it means you are ignoring God’s message. Instead of drawing a fortune again, people attach the negative fortune papers to the trees or ropes in the ground of shrine, which is to ask support from the God, or to keep away from the bad luck.

By the time I got ready to leave the shrine, I felt somehow refreshed. Donto-yaki is not a lively kind of festival, but an important custom to terminate New Year celebration and wish for the health throughout the year. If you have a chance to stay in Aomori or Japan in the middle of January, it can be nice to visit shrines or temples for Donto-yaki.

Utou Shrine

2-7-18 Yasukata, Aomori-city

Pay Parking Lot Available