Archive for spring

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)

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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!